Ray Finch and Functional Matthew Partington    



This section was prompted by Finch's mention of Cardew's 'essential philosophy' (nos. 1&2). It looks at Finch's own philosophy via the transcript of the whole interview and articles written by, and about, Finch. Finch's association with the philosophy of the unknown craftsman and his insistence that pots are made to be used, sheds light on his understanding of 'function'. The experiences of Sidney Tustin, a potter working for both Cardew and Finch, bring in to question their insistence that they made pots to be used.

Philosophy: The unknown craftsman
Hale and Finch are misunderstanding each other's terminology. Within the world of contemporary crafts, the word functional, when used in conjunction with hand-made pottery, is a term meant to mean a pot that is made to be used or at least with the possibility that it could be used. This is Hale's meaning. Finch appears to have thought long and hard about the word 'functional'. He rightly points out that Cardew refers to things being 'useful'. The interesting point is not that Hale is right or wrong in the use of the word, it is rather that Finch has a clear idea of what the word means to him and it does not mean the same thing as 'useful'. It is difficult not to hear an echo of William Morris in Finch's desire to say 'useful':

Nothing can be a work of art which is not useful; that is to say, which does not minister to the body when well under the command of the mind, or which does not amuse, soothe, or elevate the mind in a healthy state.6

It is a recurring theme in quotes from Finch that he is a craftsman, not an artist or personality. He agrees with Soetsu Yanagi's Mingei concept of the 'unknown craftsman'7 , and the notion put forward by Oliver Watson, Keeper of Ceramics at the V&A, that,

A work of art spoke directly to the soul, bypassing the confused, cluttered and misleading intellect. True beauty is seen in humble and selfless objects made for use…The foundation of good work… should be the making of useful things at modest prices, objects that would bring true beauty in to everyday lives.8

These ideas originate in Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement and in pottery are exemplified in pottery by what Watson, in his book Studio Pottery, refers to as the 'ethical pot', part of a tradition which,

stresses functionality as the basis of all good work: ceramic practice should be rooted in the making of useful wares…Work which deviates from this may be viewed with suspicion as being 'non-traditional', 'non-ceramic',' and by implication, somehow 'immoral'.9

In using 'functionality' and 'useful' in the same sentence, Watson demonstrates how these words are used interchangeably. It is only in the context of Finch's quote that 'functional' is used in such restrictive terms.

It has been shown that Finch's beliefs hold much in common with the 'unknown craftsman' and the ethical tradition, and it is in this arena that he can be seen as in opposition to the Modernist agenda. He talks of feeling pressurised in to making one-off pots for exhibitions and defends his position by the fact the pots are useful. The correct terminology therefore is that the pots could be used but there is a good chance they will be purchased for display.10 In the transcript Finch defends Cardew and goes on to defend himself against the same charge of making pots for display rather than use. In this instance the pots are perhaps more suited to the word functional, as defined by me earlier: 'made to be used or at least with the possibility that it could be used.' Both Finch and Cardew are resigned to the fact their one-off, large pieces are not 'useful' within the particular terms of reference they use.

Sidney Tustin, who worked under Cardew and Finch at Winchcombe, always wanted to make large cider jars but felt unable to do so:


I used to long and long and long to get up and really make some… it was just another job to me but it'd have been satisfying for me to have done it. You could have stepped on someone's toes - I couldn't do that. I would really liked to have made some nice big cider jars, big pots.11

Sidney Tustin at the wheel, 1954.
Photograph courtesy of Ray Finch

Tustin's testimony is littered with allusions to the class system that operated within the pottery.12 Feeling unable to make large pots, he knew that the making of them was an artistic exercise and not the job for him, the uneducated country boy. Addressing himself to the interviewer Alex McErlaine, an ex-Winchcombe trainee and art school student, Tustin says, 'you haven't had the experience I've had have you?'. Tustin clearly saw his experience as different to the other workers at the pottery.13 Cardew and Finch, who both made large cider jars with high prices, were acknowledging by making a pot and pricing it differently, that these large pots were special. To pretend that they were useful pots in the same sense as the more standard wares, is to ignore the facts and dismiss the testimony of Tustin. The making of a large, special pot also erodes the ethos of 'the unknown craftsman', by drawing attention to the individual maker.

Philosophy: Chesterton & Gill
Despite the paucity of writing about Ray Finch, the influence of Eric Gill, G.K. Chesterton and the Distributist movement upon his philosophy are touched upon in the transcript and in the majority of articles written about him. In a 1990 article in Ceramic Review, Finch quotes Eric Gill in order to explain his own approach, 'The present time has divorced the notion of art from the notion of utility. It has divorced the idea of work from the idea of responsibility. It has released the artist from the necessity of making anything useful'.14 Throughout the interview and other articles about Finch it is always through the voice of others such as Cardew and Gill that he explains his own philosophy.

Finch attended the Central School in 1935, joining Winchcombe in 1936. Through friends with similar interests, he had come to agree with many of Gill's ideas:

Gill's eloquent defence of useful art and the making of beautiful utilitarian things was immediately attractive. Finch was also drawn to the Distributist movement. Taking its name and initial ideas from G.K.Chesterton's magazine, it advocated an alternative land-based society, and simple small scale types of work.15




Ray Finch in the shop at Winchcombe Pottery, 1950's.
Photograph courtesy of Ray Finch

Distributism was a 'para-political' movement, of which Finch was never a formal member. However, when asked how the idea of setting up small communities using the distributist model affected him, Finch is unequivocal,

what I was doing I felt was a dead end job [he worked in a paper mill] you see, and I just felt that he was right about the idea that the present system reduced the worker to a condition of subhuman irresponsibility and I felt that absolutely… the machine took over the responsibility for what was made… And now the machines can do almost everything, and all that's necessary is a skilled mechanic to look after the machine.16

This sense of loss and longing for dying crafts and work patterns carries strong echoes of George Sturt's The Wheelwright's Shop, an influential book in the early 1930s.17 In his final chapter on 'Prices', Sturt bemoans the dislocation of the working man from the materials of his craft:

In what was once the wheelwright's shop, where Englishmen grew friendly with the grain of timber and with sharp tool, nowadays untrained youths wait upon machines, hardly knowing oak from ash or caring for the qualities of either.18

This sense of the loss of the Englishman's 'oneness' with materials is echoed throughout the writings of Cardew. In an initial draft of his article 'The Craftsman and the Machine', Cardew defined the craftsman as 'the normal type of human being' and the 'machine minder' as 'the typical modern human being, but not a normal human being. He works to live instead of living to work.'19 (Cardew's emphasis). Finch's own views on the machine were closely allied to Cardew's. It is also worth noting that Cardew's article includes a quote from Gill that 'to supply a want that is not a need is the prostitute's business.' Cardew and Finch share in Gill's disapproval of the immoral nature of mass-production and in the primacy of the hand-made object.20

Before concluding with the neat and simple idea that Finch was influenced by Gill, it is worth outlining Cardew's ideas and the influences upon him. Throughout the interview Finch acknowledges that he used to listen to Cardew's philosophy but he talks of the importance of Gill without reference to Cardew. In her article 'Michael Cardew and the development of studio pottery in the 1930s and 1940s', Tanya Harrod argues that the dislike of industrialization was 'deeply rooted in the mandarin class to which Cardew belonged.'21 She goes on to argue that his views were reinforced by reading the works of Eric Gill and the neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain.22

It is a notable coincidence that Cardew was looking at Gill and Maritain in the late 1920s and that Finch was influenced by them quite independently of Cardew, in the mid-1930s. What is certain is that Cardew's and Finch's philosophies were broadly similar in the mid-1930s and were particularly informed by Gill's suspicion of industry and his neo-Thomist doctrine. Finch's preference for the 'English word' must be seen in the light of his knowledge of Gill and Distributism and the part these beliefs played in the shaping of Cardew's beliefs in the 1930s. The transcript is taken from a 1994 recording, but Finch's words cannot be divorced from their roots in the 1930s.

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6. G.D.H. Cole, (ed.) William Morris, Selected Writings: Stories in Prose, Stories in Verse, Shorter Poems, Lectures and Essays, London, Nonesuch Press, 1946, pp.512-513. back to article

7. NEVAC no.AC 77 (side 1), p.69 of transcript.

RF… I was impressed by the unknown craftsman, I must say.

AH. The idea of…Yanagi's idea.

RF. I think that is a very sound philosophy and I wholeheartedly support it really and I feel slightly cross that people have to be told who's made something before they'll like it or not, which seems to me quite wrong. back to article

8. Oliver Watson, Studio Pottery: Twentieth Century British Ceramics in the Victoria and Albert Museum Collection, London, Phaidon, 1990, p.15. back to article

9. Watson, Studio Pottery, p.16. back to article

10. In this context 'purchased for display' means purchased to be displayed on a mantelpiece or shelf, rather than purchased with the primary intention being to acquire an object to be used to perform a task. Display is of course one of the functions of contemporary ceramics: a vase may function as a receptacle for flowers or as an object of contemplation. The aesthetics of display is a vast research area and one that I do not address specifically in this paper, due to restrictions of space. back to article

11. NEVAC, (National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts), audio interview with Sidney Tustin, potter at Winchcombe Pottery, Gloucestershire, 27 May 1994, NEVAC no.AC 135 (side 1), 00:27:28 - 00:29:13. back to article

12. As referred to by Tanya Harrod, The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century, Yale University Press, 1999, p.167. back to article

13. Tustin was essentially policing himself in not making large pots. As an employee it may be assumed that he was there to do a job and that he was therefore told what to do. However, it appears from the testimony of the current Winchcombe production potter, Eddie Hopkins, that the potters were given the freedom to make their own work, however large, but that Tustin worked at a period when the worker was deferential to the boss. Tustin used to call Cardew 'sir'; an idea that seems ridiculous to Hopkins. (NEVAC video recording with Eddie Hopkins, 16 July2000). back to article

14. Eileen Lewenstein, 'Ray Finch and Winchcombe pottery', in Ceramic review, 125, 1990, p20. back to article

15. David Whiting, 'Sources of Inspiration', in Crafts, November/December 1996, p.46. back to article

16. NEVAC no.AC 77 (side 1), p.7 of transcript. back to article

17. See Tanya Harrod, 'The Breath of Reality: Michael Cardew and the Development of Studio Pottery in the 1930s and 1940s', Journal of Design History, vol.2, nos.2 & 3, 1989, p146. Harrod argues that in the year of his talk on 'The Craftsman and the Machine', Denys Thompson's book Culture and the Environment was published, which praised Sturt's classic description of a rural craft industry. back to article

18. George Sturt, The Wheelwright's Shop, Cambridge University Press, 1974, p.202. back to article

19. Type-written manuscript, 'The Craftsman and the Machine', dated 1933, and sent to Henry Bergen for his comments. Held in the V&A Ceramics and Glass Department's library. back to article

20. It is worth noting that in the 1930s and early 1940s Cardew was writing of the need to become involved with designing for industry. However, when he submitted an article on the subject to the publisher Harry Norris, he got a negative reply. In his reply of March 1942, Norris voices a commonly held view among the crafts 'community' that a handful of craftsmen could not change the intransigent industrial potters in Stoke. He went so far as to say, 'a pot of marmalade will not sweeten a load of dung.' (See: copy of correspondence held in the V&A Ceramics and Glass Department's library). back to article

21. Harrod, 'The Breath of Reality', p.146. back to article

22. Both Gill and Chesterton were influenced by the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and both published on the subject. For further information about Aquinas and Maritain see the excellent web-site at: http://www.nd.edu/Departments/Maritain/brochure 'Jacques Maritain is a paradigmatic Catholic philosopher, providing a model of the way in which religious belief and various cultural, intellectual and political concerns can be interwoven. Maritain responded with enthusiasm to the Church's recommendation of St. Thomas Aquinas to the faithful as their master in theology and philosophy'. back to article

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Functional and Useful




Ray Finch and Functional • Issue 1