Ray Finch and Functional Matthew Partington    



This section was prompted by Finch's description of the word 'useful' as English, (no.6). Using audio recordings of Finch and other potters, we can look at Englishness in relation to Finch's approach to pottery and his lifestyle as a country potter.

English: 'The Hard and the Soft'
In the National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts, (NEVAC), the potter William Newland is interviewed discussing what he perceives as the dichotomy between the English and Europeans:


I think it's a Germanic, Austrian hardness and I think in terms of…pottery it's the sort of Hans Coper compared say with an early Leach slip bowl. I think it's in the English tradition to be soft, I think it goes right back, even to the drover's road. If you take the drover's road from Aberystwyth, where they drove all the sheep to the London market: it softly winds up the hill. And if the Germans had had to do it under Hitler, they'd have built a bloody autobahn, jah 31

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The Newland interview includes several references to his idea that the Germans and French are structured, hard and organised whilst the English are soft and natural.32

It is perhaps no coincidence that Hale interrupts Finch when he is explaining why 'useful' is a better word than 'functional'. She suggests that useful is 'softer': the very term Newland used when she interviewed him for NEVAC three months earlier. Hale said functional and then when Finch corrected her, saying he prefers 'useful', she suggested it is a 'softer' word. The implication is that functional is a 'hard' word. Hale has introduced the analogy of English as soft and Europe as hard via an earlier interview with Newland. Finch's and Hale's words then become inextricably linked with another interview at another time, in another context

In his poem 'The Rolling English Drunkard', G.K Chesterton is alluding to the sense that England is unplanned, it has grown organically and continues to do so despite the Romans and their roads and the rational orderliness of modern Europe. Finch was influenced by Chesterton and his ally Eric Gill, and it seems throughout the interview that Finch shared their sense of Englishness and the resonance their views had in the early part of the twentieth century, as Modernism swept through Europe. In their anti-industry attitude, discussed in detail in Martin J.Weiner's book, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850-1980, they are championing a return to the land and manual labour and away from the structured world of the machine.


The Rolling English Road
by G.K.Chesterton

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.

A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenc hman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.

God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

For this and other poems by G.K. Chesterton, see:

A further interview in the archive, recorded in May 1994, reinforces the perception of England as natural and Europe as ordered. The potter Sidney Tustin, (who worked at Winchcombe Pottery for over fifty years with both Cardew and Finch), describes why he preferred Cardew's English pots to the ones he made in Africa:


I didn't like the pots he made in Africa. They were continental to me. You know, when he was here he made the old English shape - that is a belly, see that pot up there? He was making that shape, but when he went over there they come with a nice belly there and they went in a little bit and come down straight. They'd got a broken line in, which I don't like ... It hadn't got the flow somehow. It wasn't alive, it seemed to come nice and then go dead.33

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Tustin equates the flowing, curving line of the full belly of Cardew's English slipware with the angular lines of the stoneware pots he made in Africa. He calls that abruptness or angularity, 'continental': a derogatory term in Tustin's language. His final analogy is that the English pots were alive whilst the ones he saw as continental were 'dead'.

Both Finch and Tustin remained at Winchcombe throughout their working lives, making pots in the Cardew tradition whilst Cardew worked in Africa and elsewhere. Cardew himself wrote that his pots, 'are very rustic and very country, the very antithesis of city pots… it's a matter of the difference of temperament between porcelain people and earthenware people ... at heart I'm an earthenware potter.'34 Cardew, Finch and Tustin shared a common goal in making useful pots in the English tradition and the language of all three shares a common sense of England as natural - in opposition to the formality of the continent, and by association, the city and the machine.

English: The Lifestyle of the Country Potter
Finch's sense of Englishness is determinedly rural. Despite being brought up in London, he considers himself a countryman and dislikes the town and urban life in general: 'I never go to London now and I rarely go to Cheltenham.' His rural outlook, both physical and philosophical, extends to the point where he feels 'the outside world doesn't seem to penetrate too much in to the sort of thing we're doing.' Asked about how he perceives the world, he replies, 'well, I don't really take part in it very much you see.'35 This sense of detachment from the world is also evident in his work, for which he tries to retain his anonymity.

Left to right: Michael Cardew, Sidney Tustin and Ray Finch. Taken in 1977, when Cardew called at Winchcombe to mark Tustinís 50 years at the pottery.
Photograph courtesy of Sidney Tustin

Finch happily reminisces about poaching with Sid Tustin,36 and bemoans the comparative violence and widespread nature of crime today. His view of England is perfectly summed up in Alun Howkins description of England's perceived rural image:

What our rural image does is present us with a 'real England.' Here men and women still live naturally. The air is clean, personal relationships matter (especially between employer and employee), there is no crime (except 'quaint' crime like poaching) and no violence…It is an organic society, a 'real' one, as opposed to the unnatural or 'unreal' society of the town.37

Finch is aware that he is harking back to the past, not least when he proclaims, 'Cheltenham has got so big now and noisy and so on. I'm speaking like an old man aren't I?'38 Despite this, his language throughout the interview is that of a man who considers an organic, rural society as the 'real' one. Whilst having been interested in the organic, back-to-the-land movement, he admits that it was an 'impossible dream'.39 It is in his pride at the success of Winchcombe Pottery, (which continues to make, 'a wide range of hand-thrown stoneware pots for domestic use'), that one can see the fulfillment of Finch's English pottery ideal.

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31. NEVAC (National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts), audio interview with William Newland, 26 January 1994, NEVAC no.AC 783 (side 2), 00:31:22 - 00:34:58. back to article

32. NEVAC (National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts), audio interview with William Newland, 26 January 1994, NEVAC no.AC120 (side 2), 00:16:53, Newland:

I think we're back to, you know, just to recap on the drover's road as opposed to the autobahn, and I think if you take Europe: France is curious, it's sort of split, there was Napoleon who loved geometry, yes? I think for artillery reasons and gunnery. And if you go to France you get all these geometric gardens. I don't know if you've seen any of them. Little box hedges and all measured out and drawn. In England all our gardens, the chaps went on the Grand Tour to Italy, and I think most of them looked at the paintings, and the painter that they looked at in particular was Claude Lorrain, with the sort of serpentine lake and the trees growing down the house at the end of the garden as it were. And they came back and nearly all the English gardens are sort of based on that, and you don't get, very, very few, even things like the maze. If you look at a French maze it's all cubsitic and the English one is all curved. So what I think is, it's very well illustrated in gardens: even in northern Italy there's a, just round the coast a bit there was a great English settlement then, they made geometric gardens but they hide it all under an English rose that sort of softens it all off. back to article

33. NEVAC no.AC 135 (side 2), 00:03:12-00:04:15. back to article

34. Len Dutton, 'Michael Cardew at 75', Ceramic Review, no.40, July/August 1976, p.9. back to article

35. NEVAC no.AC 77, p.17 & p.65 of transcript. back to article

36. NEVAC no.AC 77, p.26 & p.78 of transcript. back to article

37. Alun Howkins, 'The Discovery of Rural England', in Robert Colls and Philip Dodd (eds.) Englishness: Politics and Culture (1880-1920), London, Croom Helm, 1986, p.63. back to article

38. NEVAC no.AC 77, p.17 of transcript. back to article

39. NEVAC no.AC 77, p.66 of transcript. back to article

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Functional and Useful




Ray Finch and Functional • Issue 1