Conference Papers & Reports

Michael Cardew in Nigeria: Can we Complete his Autobiography from his Diaries?
Liz Moloney


It takes a nerve to stand in front of an audience of people many of whom knew Michael Cardew well and are potters themselves, since I am not a potter, not a writer on ceramics and I never knew Michael Cardew – although I am beginning to suffer from the delusion that I did. I have approached him from the other side – from a strong and longstanding interest in Nigeria, and West Africa generally, and in the history which has linked this country with Nigeria, taken so many British people to Nigeria and brought so many Nigerians here. There are also of course several people here who worked with Cardew in Nigeria – Peter and Diane Stichbury, Peter Dick and above all Michael O’Brien, whose knowledge of this subject certainly exceeds mine. He does not however want to spend his time researching and editing so he has instead kindly supported me in the project (briefly described in the title of this talk). I am very much in the middle of it with research still to do, so I hope when we get to discussion time other people will answer the questions I cannot.

Before I explain further, I’d like to mention an event this spring which supported me in the feeling that it is time for a re-statement and re-evaluation of what Michael Cardew did in West Africa, especially at Abuja. This was the opening of the new African Galleries at the British Museum – probably the event which has focused more London media attention on African culture than anything since the Africa 95 season. Of course the exhibits themselves are not new to the British Museum, but they were previously on display at the old Museum of Mankind in Burlington Gardens and they have been inaccessible for some time. Now they are all under the main museum roof.

I went along to the press preview at the beginning of March, and of course pots were included in the opening display. Nigeria is prominent in this exhibition. There is a video sequence of still photographs of Gwari women potters at work, taken by Michael O’Brien. Among many other pots in glass cases, two placed side by side catch the eye (also in the book Smashing Pots by the British Museum curator Nigel Barley).

One is a magnificent Gwari water-pot from Niger State, burnished with makuba, a varnish made from locust-bean pods, and covered in elaborate incised designs. Next to it there is a smaller pot from the Pottery Training Centre at Abuja, possibly, according to the label, made by the same potter. This potter is unnamed, as the pot apparently has no identifying mark and the date at which it was made is not known, but this is unlikely to be the case: however, it’s certainly true that both were made by Gwari women potters.

Of the two, I think most people would agree that the big traditional pot is the more satisfying; for the purpose of water-carrying, it is certainly the better-adapted because of its curved bottom which sits in a ring on someone’s head or balances on an uneven ground; and it would also have been cheaper to make. The smaller pot (not, incidentally, one of the best Abuja hand-built pots) was, of course, never intended for water-carrying or storage. It has a flat bottom to enable it to stand on a flat surface more easily and is glazed and kiln-fired. The British Museum’s label explains that this was produced under the supervision of Michael Cardew, who ‘from the 1950s on sought to introduce Western technology into African pottery.’

In Nigel Barley’s talk to the assembled journalists at the preview he elaborated on this theme, explaining that African pots were among the finest in the world, not only beautiful but perfectly adapted to the purposes for which they were made, and the technology used to make them was based on local availability of clay and fuel and did not require high firing or glazes. He pointed to the African pots and explained that the British colonial authorities, confronted with this rich tradition, had responded by setting up a training centre at Abuja with an English studio potter, Michael Cardew, to train local potters on the hitherto unknown use of the wheel, glazes and high-firing kiln. All this, he pointed out, had produced the pot you could see which was not as good as its original and had cost vastly more to produce. Everyone laughed at yet another example of the silly old colonials failing to recognise the skills displayed by other peoples and replacing good traditions with worse ones.

At this point I felt indignant at the way he had misled everyone by the familiar technique of using the partial truth to pander to people’s prejudices. Just as many British people a hundred years ago assumed far too easily that African art and crafts were inferior without knowing much about the subject, so many British people today assume that colonial officers were all blinkered and unaware of local culture. They also make little distinction between Victorian colonialists and the people of the nineteen fifties who handed over power. Nigel Barley’s book and radio programmes on pots as on other subjects were brilliantly entertaining: he clearly knows a lot about African pots, but he benefits from following Michael Cardew about fifty years later.

It has been stated repeatedly that Cardew was NOT trying to change Nigerian traditional pottery, but to work alongside it – that’s already clear from the autobiography, truncated as it is, (just look at Appendix I of Pioneer Potter for his understanding of the virtues of African pots in 1946, years before he went to Nigeria), from Cardew’s articles and catalogues, from Garth Clark’s earlier biography and Alister Hallum’s film Mud and Water Man. Barley also stated on the basis of the glazed pot that the Abuja pottery used imported glazes – wholly false, as is clear from Cardew’s published and unpublished writings and from the evidence of potters here who worked with him.

I was a VSO teacher in Kano in the late 60s and like most people in Nigeria then I’d heard of Cardew though he had already left Abuja, in 1965. Ladi Kwali too was famous, and there was a big picture postcard (I still have one) of her potting - wearing her MBE. But I never went to the pottery, a great regret now – the civil war was on, and travel within the country was somewhat restricted.

Back in Nigeria in 1990 – 91, this time running the VSO programme, I met the Nigerian potter, Danlami Aliyu, who works in Minna and produces beautiful pots with a recognisable debt to Cardew as well as to his own Nigerian background. He had been a pupil of Cardew’s at Wenford after learning pottery with Michael O’Brien at Abuja. He spoke of them both with great affection and respect.

It was because of this experience that my interest in Cardew was reawakened and I bought a paperback copy of his autobiography when I was back in England in 1992. And that really kindled my interest in the man himself. I suppose that’s because my background is in stories rather than pots, and the story is unexpectedly fascinating even to a non-potter.

I was gripped by his account of his failures in the Gold Coast, now Ghana; and I was intrigued by the perceptive way in which he described some of the pitfalls of being a white person there and also the way in which Africa and a particular African, Kofi Athey, had changed him. He was already over 40 and in many ways quintessentially English, but he was dramatically shaken up and expanded by living in West Africa, with its warmth, its colour and its generosity as well as its hardships.

I hadn’t realised, because of my habit of skipping introductions and forewords, that it was an incomplete autobiography and we weren’t going to reach Nigeria. I was disappointed when I did realise it and it provided my original impetus for going to his son Seth Cardew and asking if there were diaries or letters I could consult. It was only on a visit to Wenford that I saw the film Mud and Water Man, and later that I read Garth Clark’s book with its chapters on Cardew in Africa. But I wanted to know more, especially from the Nigerian end.

What had been the view of the colonial authorities in setting up such an unusual project? You don’t normally expect to find a Pottery Officer in the ranks of colonial staff. What had the Nigerians, who went on supporting the Abuja Pottery Training Centre, Cardew and his successors after independence, expected of it? What had it been like day to day when he first started in Nigeria in 1950? How had he fitted in to the local society, both with the Nigerian and the British people there? How had he affected them? How had they affected him? And, I must admit – how had his wife put up with him? How had his sons felt about his absence in West Africa through so much of their growing up? And what had happened to his intense friendship with Kofi, after he had left him in charge of the Vumé pottery and gone back home and then to Nigeria? I knew – from the other publications I was discovering – that he had gone to Nigeria himself later, but how had all this happened?

I wanted to know these things because of my wider interest in Nigeria, but I also think much of this detail by shedding light on Cardew’s life is of interest to potters. He did after all believe very strongly that the person showed in the pot, writing in his 1956 diary:

What makes a good pot? Answer in one word, Style. And if it be objected that it is not any Thing that makes a good pot, but only a good potter, I reply True but Le style c’est l’Homme. You cannot acquire [it] by going to an Art School, nor by any other form of Taking Thought.

Like many other artists or craftspeople he repeatedly pointed out that the work did not result just from the time devoted to that one thing but from a whole life of experience.

So when Seth Cardew told me that I could consult Cardew’s diaries from Nigeria I was fascinated. Perhaps it would after all be possible to recreate the end of his autobiography from these and to capture that very distinctive tone of voice. I must admit that initially I was daunted. These were all diaries with restricted space, the sort with a week to an opening. Even in the larger foolscap size, this does not allow for much personal outpouring or descriptive freedom. And in fact, I felt the loss of the author more than ever, because – especially in the earlier years – they were so brief and businesslike. Even later when he had perhaps begun to think more about writing up his life, and the entries became fuller and more regular, they were so clearly the sort of diaries which would prompt the memory but which mean a lot less to anyone else. It’s frustrating: all those dinners and discussions recorded with comments like ‘Discussed Islam and Christianity’ – a burning subject to this day in Northern Nigeria - but only occasional indications of what he thought. ‘Ladi’s pots glorious.’ Or his shorthand comments on people or events. ‘Nice’ with up to three underlinings, or ‘Dull’, ditto. Or ‘Oh!’ or ‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’ generally seeming to indicate dismay, for example on getting up late in the morning (that means after 7 a.m.). Or ‘Bad Temper All Day’.

Many of the place-names and Hausa words were familiar, as was the use of pidgin or Nigerian English, and the structure of the administration was not wholly strange to me because I had also been in northern Nigeria in the decade following independence when so much of the old British order was little changed. It was clear that, as I had expected, just as Cardew was unfairly treated by the British Museum, his colonial colleagues have been wrongly written off as a stodgy background to a brilliant creative personality. Some were; but others were in their own way just as exceptional as he was. Cardew’s achievements in Nigeria depended on the colonial framework as well as his Nigerian colleagues and pupils, I think, and it interested me to find that his relations with so many of them were obviously close. I started pursuing some of the British names I found. After a few advertisements and by word of mouth contacts I started to meet people who had known him, though many are, of course, dead.

In Nigeria Cardew was part of the colonial structure, though very much on the fringe, like education people. It’s been clear from the people I have talked to that he was in one important sense what Margaret Thatcher would have called One of Us. His background was perfectly similar to that of a typical administrative officer in Nigeria until the point where he became a full-time potter. He came from a distinguished civil service and academic family, he had read classics at Oxford and he could quote Latin and Greek with the best of them. Colonial officers in Northern Nigeria had to pass lower standard Hausa or they could not be confirmed in their jobs, and Cardew, being linguistically gifted, had no trouble at all with that either. Moreover he was the same age as the senior officials – the Residents and Governors. He’d been an exact contemporary at Oxford of the Resident in Minna, who very much supported him and later visited him at Wenford when he was on leave there. So although they perceived him as eccentric, and several have described to me what a bizarre figure he cut in his ragged shorts and bare chest, he was well placed to keep his end up when required. I don’t think he was totally immune to the occasional twinge of pleasure when he succeeded. There’s a little note in the 1951 diary: ‘Letter from Mariel saying I must be invalided out of the Service, just when I’m getting Promotion. No No!’ and that pleasure in his promotion still comes across years later in the film Mud and Water Man.

The Nigerian pottery scheme was, I think, intended by the colonial Nigerian government as an intermediate technology project, prompted by the perceived need for a home-grown industry to supply the middle-class Nigerian demand for glazed tableware suitable for European-style meals and hot drinks, at that time already supplied by factory-produced imports. It wasn’t a stupid idea at the time, even though it’s not difficult with hindsight to see reasons why it would not succeed in those aims.

Cardew’s report of July 1950 states that ‘a wholesale transformation of the Nigerian native pottery industry is considered to be neither practicable nor desirable’ (‘The idea has been widely entertained by non-technical observers’ he said.) This native industry had ‘technical advantages peculiar to it, which the others do not possess’, was ‘distinguished by simplicity and nobility in shape and decoration’, remarkably cheap to produce, and ‘in a healthy state and not likely to suffer from the competition of locally-produced glazed wares.’ He pointed out that glazing and high-firing to make the proposed tableware non-porous ‘would largely lose one of the great virtues of the native pottery - tolerance of thermal shock.’

This doesn’t quite sound like a situation in which ignorant British colonials tried to change the pottery of Nigeria because they did not appreciate it and assumed it was inferior. If they had thought it before, they hired the right person to put them right and accepted his views, as Cardew said himself in Mud and Water Man. However, as Garth Clark pointed out in his book, Cardew wanted to stay and work in West Africa and he certainly did not want to give the impression that there was no point at all in his being there. Besides, he felt able to support the argument for a home industry to run parallel to the local potteries, producing pots for a modern middle-class westernised lifestyle. He proposed small ‘experimental stations’ rather than a central school of ceramics, with small numbers of trainees.

Eventually, in 1951, it was agreed that Cardew should start a pottery at Abuja (a small place in the then Northern Region, whose name now belongs to the new Nigerian capital), where he stayed until 1965, normally spending ten months there and two on leave at Wenford Bridge in every year. His trainees were mainly Hausa and Gwari men, but he spotted the outstanding pots of Ladi Kwali very early on and she joined the Training Centre in 1954, after which other women came. While he trained them in the use of wheel and kiln, he was himself influenced by their style. He lived simply – not as ‘bush’ a life as earlier colonial officers, but certainly in a more African style than most British people in the 1950s. As I’ve said, he learned Hausa early on, as required of northern Nigerian officers, and became fluent. Part of his role as he developed it was as a public relations person for Nigerian pots and potters overseas: he exhibited his own and trainees’ work in London in 1958, 1959 and 1962, and arranged for Ladi Kwali to demonstrate traditional Gwari potting methods in Britain and later in Europe. He was part of a small but distinguished group of British people in the 1950s who tried to make sure that Nigerian art and history were appreciated and preserved – people like Bernard Fagg, who excavated the Nok culture, started the Jos Museum and instigated the magnificent collection of pots there; Kenneth Murray at the museum in Lagos; and Sylvia Leith-Ross, who had first gone to Nigeria in the very early days of the British colonial administration as wife of a man who died within a year of blackwater fever. She collected the pots for Jos Museum when she was in her seventies and Cardew wrote the introduction to her book Nigerian Pottery.

The pottery itself never fulfilled the early aims of spreading a network of small potteries to supply new Nigerian needs. Even the Abuja Pottery Training Centre, which especially after exhibitions in London and Paris in the late 50s and early 60s became a showpiece celebrated in Nigeria and abroad, sold mainly to expatriates and members of the Nigerian elites. Potteries started by Cardew in Sokoto and Kano failed within a few years, perhaps because they were never commercial and as government employees the workers never worked hard enough to make them succeed. The later Jos Pottery did continue under Kofi Athey.

There have nevertheless been continuing results from this unusual episode in late colonial history. These include the impact of Ghana and Nigeria on Cardew’s own work, the openings he gave to potters there and the wider publicity for the quality of West African traditional pots. Michael O’Brien, Cardew’s colleague and immediate successor, continues to spend much of his time in Nigeria working with potters. Danlami Aliyu continues to work despite the impact of Nigeria’s economic difficulties. His brother Umaru runs a small pottery near Kaduna which takes a more commercial line, supplying tableware and other pots to hotels and other local buyers interested in something Nigerian and a bit different from imported glazed ware. So although the original pottery, still run by the Government, is not, it seems, producing much, the influence lives on. And Cardew’s forecast that traditional pottery would not be threatened by it has been proved correct.

These are very much preliminary remarks to what I hope will be a much more illuminating study, using Cardew’s own words as much as possible and, in however inadequate a way, enabling the African part of the story in his autobiography to be completed. I hope too that something of a much-neglected part of the history of Britain and Nigeria – the last decade of the colonial era and the years of independence before the Civil War - will come alive through a very particular and personal story which was a part of those years: the story of Michael Cardew and the Abuja pottery.

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Michael O’Brien interviewed by Jeffrey Jones

New material added January 2004

The Michael Cardew Centenary Symposium
University of Wales, Aberystwyth, UK

27 - 28 June 2001

Cardew in America
Garth Clark

Michael Cardew - His Influences in Australia
Penelope J.Collett

Leach and Cardew - The Early Years
Emmanuel Cooper

Recollections of Abuja 1961 - 1962
Peter Dick

Michael Cardew in Nigeria:
Can we Complete his Autobiography from his Diaries?

Liz Moloney

Some Reflections on Michael Cardew (1901-1983)
from the National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts (NEVAC)
Matthew Partington

Michael Cardew Remembered
Peter Stichbury

The Michael Cardew Centenary Symposium
University of Wales Aberystwyth

27 - 28 June 2001

Report by Jo Dahn



Michael Cardew in Nigeria • Issue 3