Conference Papers & Reports
  Michael O’Brien interviewed by Jeffrey Jones
Recorded by Matthew Partington at the Michael Cardew Centenary Symposium
Aberystwyth, 28 June 2001


(The whole of this transcription can also be heard in the form of twelve audio clips. Click on the links to hear the corresponding section of the interview)

audio clip 1 [1.7mb mp3 file]

JJ. I am very pleased…um…to have this opportunity to talk to Michael O’Brien today about his experiences of meeting and knowing Michael Cardew, and about Michael Cardew’s time in Africa and Michael O’Brien’s own time in Africa. Perhaps we could begin Michael, if you could just tell us when and where you first met Michael Cardew?

  1. Michael O'Brien sitting with Jeffrey Jones

1. Michael O’Brien and Jeffrey Jones

MOB. I first met Michael Cardew at the Geology for Potters…Course, which Michael ran, what was it, 1958 or so?

JJ. And what were the circumstances then that took you to Africa, was that a long time after that or was that fairly soon after that first meeting?

MOB. No…um…I had trained as a painter, not as a potter at all, and I had been teaching pottery in a secondary school up in Leicestershire. And I’d been teaching myself and I thought well it’s about time, I don’t think I can teach myself anymore, so um…I thought well I’d better go and try and see if I can find somewhere to learn. And so…in those days there was such a thing called a sabbatical year which teachers could get, I don’t suppose this happens any more. And so I thought well should I go back to Art School for a year and um…learn there or should I go to a pottery. So I thought well, very simplistic of course, I thought ‘Better to learn pottery in a pottery’. And so I thought ‘where?’ And of course there’s Bernard Leach, but Bernard Leach hates teachers, or so I’d been told. (laughs)…I had seen one of the exhibitions of Michael Cardew’s pots from Abuja, and I had liked those very much so I thought ‘right’, let me see if I can go to Abuja. So…and the next time Michael had an exhibition in London, I asked him if I could go. And I said ‘well I’m paying for myself and so (clears throat) I won’t be able to stay for more than six months’, so Michael said ‘Oh well, I don’t know that we’d be able to put up with you for more than six months anyway’, (laughs) (General laughter) Because of course, I’d heard that Bernard Leach needed people to stay for at least two years, so ‘that’s alright then’.

JJ. So what year was that?

MOB. That was ’62, and I then went to Farnham Art School, which again was something which just doesn’t happen now. I went for a little bit of time and worked in the Pottery with Gwyn Hanssen and Henry Hammond and learned a great deal from both of them. And I didn’t have to pay anything or…the Art School just simply allowed me to go in and work on my own.

JJ. Hm, So could you then just take us through the train of events which actually led you to go to replace Cardew in…

MOB. Oh I see

JJ. in Abuja

MOB. Well I went out of course to study

JJ. Yes

MOB. …to study with Cardew in Abuja, and I did that for six months, but while I was studying um…having been teaching at secondary school in England, and there was a shortage of teachers in the secondary school in Abuja…ah…the only non Government secondary school in the north of Nigeria, set up by the Emir of Abuja, which, you know, does say something very special about the Emir, the Emir was a very special man. And so…um…I…I applied…they asked me to go over there and teach them, so I thought that’s fine, I’ll be able to stay here and study a bit longer because my money is finished. And so I was appointed there…and then two years later the Ministry transferred me to the Pottery. There was a sort of Government thing, you know, one Ministry and another, and I was transferred from the school to the Pottery.

audio clip 2 [1.3mb mp3 file]

JJ. Uhuh, and then when Cardew left the pottery?

MOB. yes

JJ. were you seen as his natural successor?

MOB.…(pause)…not by the potters, no, no not at all. Because they had seen me come as a student and so of course all of them knew more about pottery than I did so I think they were rather dismayed to find that I was then made…you know…the pottery officer instead of one of them. (pause) But um…in fact of course, I knew less about each of their work…I mean they all knew about their own particular job more than I did...but I knew the sort of (laughs) broad thing more than they did, so that was the probable reason. Anyway, what actually happened, what actually happened, typical Government thing was you see somebody came along…and they said ‘Oh they well….um…ah…you know O’Brien should at least be able to look after the Books…’ you know the Accounts, and that was really what counted.

JJ. It sounds like an unenviable task?

MOB. (Laughs)

JJ. to have taken over from Cardew

MOB. It was yes, yes it was. I felt that I had had the mantle of greatness thrown upon me and I just about felt suffocated by it but…

JJ. Yes, yes, so you had been effectively one of his students’ peers, as you say you’d been a student with them and then you had this role of um...

MOB. Yes

JJ. Was it the same role as Cardew or…were you a direct replacement for him?

MOB. Yes

JJ. You were?

MOB. Yes,

JJ. Talking to you yesterday you were saying that the…the pottery training centre itself at Abuja changed its nature and its role. Was that somewhat later on or was that at about the time…?

MOB. No…that was actually, that was actually at that time. Um…what had happened w..a..s that the pottery training centre, you know, was intended to start…ah…branches and they started in Kano and Sokoto. But through no fault of Cardew’s, those two places didn’t work and the reason why they didn’t work was because they were put under the administrative authority of the local authorities. And they didn’t pay the potters and so the potters couldn’t make enough work to sell. Because I mean if you’re, if you’re a potter and you then have to go to the local authority office and sit and wait for your wages, and then they say ‘oh, well come back tomorrow’, and then when tomorrow comes, ‘well come back tomorrow’ again. And you know, it goes on for a week, you can’t really make very many pots. And so…you know that was a basic mistake and it was the fault really of the…of the Colonial Government. I mean I think they did their best, they thought well…it should be under local control and therefore it should have been…ah…it should be put into the hands of the local authority…Michael actually said that what they should have done is simply give them the pottery, but of course for government to give anything to anybody you know is out of the question.

audio clip 3 [2.1mb mp3 file]

JJ. Yes, and how long were you there, at Abuja?

MOB. Till '72, that was from '65 to '72.

JJ. And did you then have experience of other potteries in Africa? Or was that something that came later on?

MOB. No, but what I, what I failed to tell you about the other thing was that when I was…when I was um…when I took over…um I was…first thing I was told was you know…how to keep the books straight. You see that was really what they were concerned about. And then I was told ‘Well you have to make the place pay…we’re changing the policy, it’s no longer going to be a pottery training centre, it’s going to be a pottery, and you’ve got to make the place pay’. And I was also told, quite unofficially, that there had been some American economists and they had written a report about the pottery and recommended that it should be closed down. So…ah…I wrote a great long report on you know…how…how production should increase and I drew graphs with red lines and black lines and green lines and it was accepted. (Laughter)

  2. Michael O’Brien

2. Michael O’Brien

JJ. So it survived?

MOB. Yes…and you know…well…you know I was sort of confronted with this really quite difficult task because, you know, there were about 25, 27 people working there and um…I think that the annual subsidy was something like 80 per cent. So I thought well how do you make that pay? Well, as Peter Bruce Dick mentioned you know there was a slight ‘over staffing’ shall we say in certain parts, and people were very lazy. And I thought well should I sack people or not?, and I thought well that would be a mistake. It would be better to try to increase production. And so…and so that’s what I did.

Um…now when Michael…there were about sort of three months gap…three months overlap between the time that I knew that I had to take over and the time that Michael left and I went up to Michael and had dinner with him every week, for that time, and one of the things that he said was ‘Well, I’ve been…I consider that my job to have been to set standards, not to be a task master’. And I think that’s why people were very relaxed about their work, because he was very exacting about standards, but um…I then had to set about, you know, changing things. And I did so with conviction, I might say, because I was paid at that time something like one thousand two hundred pounds a year which was the amount of tax which seven hundred and fifty farmers would have to pay. And the potters were also paid from Government of course, and so I thought well…and I knew that the farmers had the greatest difficulty in paying their taxes, and I thought why should these farmers have to work hard to support the potters who are just simply parasitic, they have to pay their way as well. Why shouldn’t they? Because this was before the days of oil when, you know, that was money for nothing of course and this was before that time. So I felt well people have to work.

And so gradually, gradually, gradually I…sort of made people work a little bit harder. I sat down, ah, as Peter Bruce Dick was mentioning about the wood-cutters…you know…they told me well it took, takes three weeks to saw up the wood for a firing. So I thought well…and every time I walked passed them they all seemed to be working very hard of course. And I thought well let me just see how long it actually takes. So I chose the laziest labourer and I plonked him down and I sent the other ones off to do the…to get on with glazing and so on…and he…we had you know a two handled saw, you see, like that. And he sat on one side and I sat on the other. And you know he pretended to work, he didn’t…I pushed and pulled that saw (background laughter) and…in one day, we sawed up enough wood, just the two of us, for half the firing. Instead of taking six men three weeks (background laughter).

audio clip 4 [1mb mp3 file]

JJ. So you had to introduce a lot of new methods in order for the pottery to become more efficient?

MOB. Yes, but of course one can’t do things quickly, it just went very slowly you know. Instead of having a firing once a month I said, well okay, we’ll have a firing once every three weeks…um…and then every two weeks...and then every ten days, you see and that’s how it worked.

JJ. And you redesigned the kiln as well, was that about that time?

MOB. Well, of course um there was the six foot Cardew kiln which is the same one as at Wenford. Um, but that would not have been enough to make the pottery pay. So I said well we need to make a new kiln. So I designed an eight foot kiln based on Cardew’s six foot kiln…but you know…I had, I had read in Bourry about recuperators and regenerators, and I had talked to Michael about it and he said ‘waste of time really’ because they don’t work until, they don’t really start to heat up the air until you get to top temperature and by that time you know the firing’s finished anyway. But in point of fact I found that um…that it made a lot of difference and the eight foot kiln fired…well the first firing actually was over in in about nineteen hours. I came down as Michael used to you know…expecting to see maybe cone 06’s bending, maybe not…at about seven o’clock in the evening and I thought well the kiln looks rather bright inside doesn’t it. So looked in, put the poker in to see how hot the cones were doing, and all but the last cone were down…So I said well that’s fine, the firing is finished, and everybody was very surprised. And when we unpacked it, it was all very good. And the amount of fuel used was less than that of the six foot kiln, and the amount produced twice, so that was one of the few success stories. There were plenty of disasters, don’t worry!

audio clip 5 [1.6mb mp3 file]

JJ. Did you also have to go out to find new markets for the work?

MOB. No, no, I’m glad to say that people used to come, even during the civil war. I was afraid that with this sort of increasing production that, you know, when I …when Michael was there you know, and I was a teacher in the secondary school, all the teachers from the secondary school used to flock over to the pottery on the day that the kiln was being opened and the ones who were lucky enough to have a free period…you know…a bit earlier in front of the others, we used to get the best pots you see. And by the end of the day everything was sold and I thought well, the market…of….half a dozen Peace Corps and…and English teachers is very soon going to be flooded. But gradually other people came and we never really had very much trouble…as I say, even in spite of the civil war. And road blocks and things.

  3. Michael O’Brien

3. Michael O’Brien

JJ. Was any of that, um, of your output sold locally?

MOB. Everything was sold locally.

JJ. But mainly to expatriates and to

MOB. Mainly to expatriates…but again I tried to, you know...get…sale…to increase sales to the local people and…um…and it worked. I mean we increased…I mean when Michael was there, although the prices were very very low then, um, the number of Nigerians buying was very small. But by the time I left, the production was four times as great and at least half of it was being sold to Nigerians.

JJ. And that would have been an emerging Nigerian middle class who would have bought the work?

MOB. Yes, yes…

JJ. When we were talking a little bit yesterday, we were talking about different patterns in other potteries in other places, in Africa. Do you have much experience of other potteries in Africa and where they might have sold their work to?

MOB. …well…not really. I mean I was taken down to Ikigwe pottery and Ikulu pottery in 1966, which was just after I’d been appointed. And there in Ikulu there was, there was a sort of small…it really was quite amazing…it was just like a little tiny piece of Stoke on Trent, plonked down in a Nigerian village. It had a sort of brick wall all the way round, about ten feet high or so, capped with cement and glass…and inside were you know, concrete buildings, and the thing that amazed me most, was that all the drains were covered with, with um…you know perforated metal…you know…and…as I say, it was just like a little piece of Stoke on Trent. Um…and I was taken down there you know to see ‘how things should be done’! And whether it would be possible to do this at Abuja and preferably, bigger and better. And I said ‘well, as a matter of fact, no, there are all sorts of reasons against it, first of all there’s coal at Ikulu and not at Abuja, and secondly rail connections’… and so on and so forth. And I said ‘Ah, it’s really better to keep the sort of hand-made type of pottery at Abuja’. Throwing is a better way of doing things than jigger and jolley, you know, in the circumstances.

audio clip 6 [1.3mb mp3 file]

JJ. Good. Um, I certainly want to leave some time to talk about the two pots that you have brought there. First of all I wonder if I might ask you a question that I’ve been given…

MOB. yes yes yes

JJ. I wanted to make sure that I got this one in. It’s a question from um Alex McErlain who is the Ceramics course leader at Manchester Metropolitan University and he says “Michael Cardew’s attitude to the ceramic educational establishment, so called ‘Art Schools’ was scathing. Arguably Cardew was a significant educator; throughout his life taking on pupils from Ray Finch to Sven Bayer, developing a training centre in Abuja and influencing generations of potters including himself [McErlain] through his writings” and Alex McErlain says “In my world he would be regarded as a first rate academic and given the title ‘Professor Cardew’, could you give us your view on Cardew the Teacher?”

MOB. …pause…well he was a brilliant teacher. But um…ah…he taught by not teaching. You see, for example, I can remember…ah…when he was teaching the trainees at Abuja he would…he would teach by showing them, you know. And…handles of course. I mean, people learnt throwing from each other, he taught them in the first place, but they would tend to learn throwing from each other you know. But handles…were something that he…er...he taught, and he liked making handles and he liked putting handles on other peoples’ pots. And they liked, when he put his handle on their pot because it improved the pot and then they very very rapidly put their seal on it…you know…(laughter) And what he would do you see, his way of teaching was to say, if you said, well would you like to you know…please teach me, please show me how to make handles…you see. He would say alright bring your board of pots or board of mugs or beakers or whatever, and he would say well um, you work at one end and I’ll work at the other and the first thing is that he would pull the handles, and so you would pull handles and put them on the board, you know ready to put them on the pot. And he would start at one end and put the handles on, and you would start and put the handles on and he’d come and practically and finish the whole board, you know, while you were struggling. And gradually you would ………(tape distorted)…he didn’t mind how many tim………(tape distorted)….he didn’t teach Ladi Kwali how to make handles. And so Ladi Kwali came to me and she said ‘well, will you show me how to make handles?’ so I said, ‘Yes, yes of course, bring your board of pots and you’ll start at one end and I’ll start at the other…’(laughter) and that’s how she did it.

audio clip 7 [1.5mb mp3 file]

JJ. Could you elaborate a little bit more on the relationship between Cardew and Ladi Kwali. Was it…I seem to be getting the impression it was little bit more than a teacher student relationship?

MOB. Michael respected Ladi as an artist, of the first order. You know he didn’t…he never criticised her work. Um he left that to her sister, and her sister was a very …acid…faced woman, actually looking very much like Ladi Kwali, but you’d occasionally see her come to the pottery and you would see her sort of going like that (suggests MOB’s distorting his face…screwing up eyes…) at the pot and Ladi Kwali would turn and see her and generally be bullied by her elder sister. And you know, but Michael never said anything to her. You know, if it was something good that she was really excited about he would say, ‘Yeowah…’ and ‘Look at that’ and he would show his great pleasure, but he would not criticise.

And he, I mean I never remember him ever criticising anybody…whether in Abuja or at Wenford. If he didn’t like something…you know…he would… reluctantly break it and I remember (laughter from audience) one time that he was, when he was on leave, there were some soup plates made, deep soup plates like that you know and the rims were all curved up like this you know and he came in…and ‘Oh these plates’ you see and he would break about two and then he would go on, and then he would…and the next day, you know, and they were in the slow drying room and he would come back and ‘really these plates’…he just couldn’t stand them, so he’d break few more…but he never, he couldn’t just say ‘well break the whole lot’ you know.

I one time I…I um told him about um, I think it was George Rainer told me a little story about how he’d gone down to St Ives as a student when he was young and he had made pots every day, and at the end of the day, either Bernard, or David perhaps, had sort of looked at these pots and said well ‘that’s what’s wrong with that one you see, and that one, I’m sorry that one isn’t very good either so you have to break that one up’ And the whole of that holiday, several months I suppose from Art School, summer holiday, you know, every single pot that he made was broken. And I’d told this story to Michael, thinking that, you know, he would approve of this, being the maintenance of very good standards. But Michael…I should have sort of recognised the signs…because when Michael disapproved of things, you know, you’d see his brow knitting or something like that, you know, and his only comment at the end of it was ‘Sounds like murdering babies to me’. (laughter) And he was very sensitive about that you know, he didn’t like breaking other people’s pots but…if the pots were just too bad and he couldn’t stand them well…

audio clip 8 [2mb mp3 file]

JJ. I’ll just ask you one more question if I might before we talk about the pottery. I was reading in an article that you wrote that was published in Ceramic Review quite a long time ago in 1975, the article is called ‘Abuja - After Michael Cardew’.

MOB. Not my title, but go on

JJ. Right. Um and you very much give the impression in that article that the local people were very proud of their pottery. And you say ‘nobody thinks of the pottery as the white man’s thing’. Would you still…

MOB. Yes, that’s right. That’s right. I think that Michael mentioned, you know, that he didn’t feel possessive about the pottery. And that is…that is…that was true. That was absolutely true. The people…all the people…all the potters…you know…they saw people coming, you know, first of all the expatriate students, like Peter Stichbury, Peter Bruce Dick and myself and of course all the expatriates coming to buy and then of course there were the London exhibitions you see. So that, for example, when we unpacked the kiln and a particularly good piece of work came out, everybody would say ‘Yeowaah…Save London’. In other words it should go to London you see. So that was then put the secret store, so that nobody, nobody, no passing visitors saw it you see.

Of course the potters, if they wanted to, could go into the secret store and have a look at it, or if, for example…sometimes for example Peter Boku, who was a marvellous potter, he was the best thrower there, Peter, definitely the best thrower. Um…it was sort of quite interesting, I went back to Nigeria one time um…and saw Danlami Aliyu who had…who had started off his career when I started at Abuja and he’d then gone to Jos and he’d then gone to England, come back again. And um…he had a teapot made by Peter and I thought, bit clumsy looking, you know, the spout did…really is a bit heavy. And then Danlami said how much he liked that teapot, and so I thought to myself ‘Oh’ and then I looked at it, and I thought, ‘By jove, he’s right, that is an African teapot’. But it takes time for the forms to be…to become really ‘African’. But Peter was a natural potter. He was not one of the lazy ones. You know he would just go on working and working all the time. You never ever had to say to him you know…I used to go round you see…because I knew that by about…I mean I never made people work very hard… I…after all we went home at three thirty, I expected people to work until about twelve or one you see. And so when I thought it was about time for everybody to start flagging, you know, I would go round, and of course everybody would get on with their work you see. And then when I was, when I left the workshop they said ‘thank God for that, now we can pack up’ sort of thing. But with Peter, never like that. He, you know, he just made pots because he liked making pots. And it was…there was a great variety of people in the pottery, you know. There were some who were real natural workers and some who were not…But you were asking about the actual pottery and how people felt about it.

JJ. Yes, yes

MOB. Well anyway, you see they knew about these London exhibitions and they knew that they were good. They had this confidence in themselves that they were good…and they felt that it was theirs. And I felt that it was theirs. And I always kept myself very much in the background. I just felt myself as being a sort of ‘grey’ figure that did the technical work you know. Ah…and all the sort of thankless jobs of dealing with the administration and so on.

audio clip 9 [2.5mb mp3 file]

JJ. Ah ha Could we have a brief look at those two pots?

  4. Teapot held by Michael O’Brien at this point in the interview

4. Teapot held by Michael O’Brien at this point in the interview

MOB. Well, the two pots, actually

JJ. Would we be able to hold them?

MOB. No, what I’ll do, is I’ll pass them round. The thing is that I thought that people would be interested to know what happened after Cardew left. Well after Cardew left I was there, but after I left, well, after 1972, what happened then? Well, you know, any thing, any Government project in Nigeria, you know, was pretty difficult to run and by 1972 the civil war had been won, they were getting oil money so there was no pressure to get money from the pottery so…it didn’t matter whether they made a profit or not…and ah…gradually…you know…things, people became lazy…until by about '79 or so, there was only a very desultory activity in the pottery.

Um…in ‘79 I retuned to Nigeria to teach in the University and um, I certainly have every sympathy with Cardew if he, you know, didn’t approve of what was going on at the University. Um…because they had been running their courses for…by the time I got there…twenty years, and not a single student was continuing to do anything remotely connected with the pottery. They were just collecting paper qualifications. And I thought this was an absolute disgrace. They didn’t…you know the prospectus for the department said that they prepared their own materials. They didn’t. They got their own clay, but all the other glaze materials were imported from England.

And I thought well you know ‘I just have to do something about this’. So I set about it. And I took the students out and we went into the hills and we found feldspar, we found quartz, we ground them in the ball mill in the University, which up to then, as far as I knew, hadn’t been used. And then I felt well um ‘there just isn’t time in two years of specialisation to teach people enough to start their own pottery’. And so I recommended to the University that what they do, they give an MA in ceramics, BA okay after three years, but it doesn’t count for anything, they have to stay on for a taught extra two years of lectures and they get their MA and then they would be in a position to actually do something. But nobody paid any attention to me, so I thought ‘well what am I staying here for? I’m not achieving anything’. So I resigned and I went out and set up a pottery with Danlami Aliyu, who had returned from England five years before, who had been employed as a photographer, although he’d had an exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute which was very successful.

And…it was him and I and his brother…and of course in Nigeria you have to have somebody who is going to protect you. So we had a Nigerian colonel, you see, who was the sort of ‘patron’. But he wasn’t interested in the pottery, not then, anyway. And so ah…we had practically no money. The colonel gave us a little and ah…I contributed some and Danlami and his brother contributed, and I, contributed work. So we had practically nothing and so, um, what we did was…we took it in turns, Danlami and I took it in turns…to throw and then to glaze, because we had to…you know, we were selling stuff as soon as we could make it you see…so he would do a month’s throwing and I would do a month’s decorating and vice versa. And this one here…and of course materials…we had no imported materials and no imported machinery either…which was different from Abuja because at least they had ball mills and jaw crushers and so on. We had nothing, except a sieve, that’s all. So I brought this along just to show what we were doing. And the glaze for this was made with no feldspar, no quartz but the dust from one of the local road stone works…if you look carefully on the ground, you know there’s an awful amount of dust created in crushing road stone and if you’re careful, you can see where the dust is fine. So you scoop it all up put it in a bag and sieve it through a 200 mesh sieve. And that’s what this glaze is, fifty per cent road stone dust, and twenty five percent clay and twelve and half per cent ash about three per cent of iron and little bit of talc, that’s what it is. Anyway, I thought I’d just give it to you to have a look at. The beautiful body, made by Danlami and decorated by me. But this is the reason why, you know, we just didn’t ever have a chance to build up enough stock of biscuit to decorate our own pots.

audio clip 10 [2.1mb mp3 file]

Well anyway that little pottery very soon became profitable and within two years we were employing twenty five people and I’m glad to say that it is still being run to this day with the same amount of people by Danlami’s brother. Um, I was actually thrown out by the colonel, because I argued with him and Nigerian colonels actually aren’t used to that kind of treatment and I think Danlami felt that he could see the writing on the wall of what had happened to me would happen to him and so you know he also left and then he set up his own pottery in Minna and that was very very…(tape distorted)…interesting and that was successful and because it was obvious that there was no expatriate anywhere near, had anything to do with it. There was a VSO who helped to get him some money and worked with him for a little time. But actually he knew far more than the VSO did you see. And the VSO soon left. But the Nigerian government soon realised, the Federal Government mind you, realised that here was somebody who was making good, making a profit and the Head of State actually came from Minna, which is the same town and so um…um…Danlami’s pottery then formed the basis for a thing called, a scheme called ‘Better Life for Rural Women’ you see. And so he was asked to make wheels and kilns and so on. And these were spread around the whole Federation, it was extraordinary…practically none of them worked mind you, because there was nobody trained. But at any rate you know there’s something happening.

And then a little bit later, you know all these things work very very slowly and in very oblique and indirect ways. Very slowly later, um when I set up another pottery…or helped somebody else who had been working at Maraba pottery with me, the one with that….um….we set up this place and one of the boys who had been trained by somebody who had learnt at Abuja pottery came and applied for a job, because he said the man who was employing him wasn’t paying him regularly and so he preferred to work for us. So it was rather interesting that we should get somebody who was already trained as a thrower and this was what he made, and this I might say…Ah, yes, that…that um (sighs)…was the first pot, was…came from the bottom of the firing, the first firing of a kiln which was designed for firing bricks.

  5. Pot discussed at this point of the interview

5. Pot discussed at this point of the interview

And it came after we’d had five disastrous firings with gas. I mean, you know those five firings were as bad as the appalling experience that Michael you know had when he returned to England or even in Ghana, you know with that awful shattering. And we had…and we had a quite extraordinary disease of the glaze. The glaze would come out perfectly on one side of the pot and on the other it would come out looking like one of Lucie Rie’s crater glazes. And I thought well what on earth is the matter with this? Is there some terrible gas coming out of this extraordinary clay, or what is it? Anyway I finally solved the problem but that’s too long to go into. But this was from the first firing from which we had recovered from that, and have a look at it if you like.

Um but I mean I’m just….they’re very humble pots, I’m not really sort of showing them to you as exhibition pots at all, but um you know just to show you the sort of thing that we’re going on…that we’re doing and the brush work, that was actually made by this boy, Hamsi his name, and decorated by me and the brush that I used was one made by Danlami from the hair from the back of a ram that had been slaughtered for Salah, and it was a very long brush about like that…came...very fat at the top you see and rapidly came to a point but it was a beautiful brush because you could make a nice long line and the, you know, the paint kept on coming, because there was a nice big fat reservoir at the top, or if you wanted to you could sort of start if off light and then go (blows….wwwwww) like that you see, so you just sort of thickening. I found very stimulating to work with.

audio clip 11 [1.4mb mp3 file]

JJ. I’m a little bit conscious of the time and I’m sure there’s so much more that we could talk about but should we perhaps wind up here? There is so much more to ask you Michael O’Brien but thank you very much anyway, thank you for talking to us.

MOB. Well, that’s a pleasure. If there’s anything that anybody, I don’t know if there’s time, is there time for me to answer any questions if anybody would like to ask?

Questioner. When you increased production at Abuja were there particular styles or shapes that were more popular than others? What was you best selling line I suppose?

MOB. Anything that we made.

Questioner. Absolutely anything

MOB. It was quite remarkable, it was quite remarkable. Anything that we made you know we might make a whole lot of teapots, and they’d all sell, or we might make a whole lot of casseroles and they’d all sell.

Questioner. So people didn’t get more excited about any one shape, they were just taking it all?

MOB. The people who bought yes. Eventually we started to send stuff away to Kaduna and Ibadan and there were…you know we had… we had occasional exhibitions, in both Kaduna and Ibadan and they had actually a remarkable effect. Well not…on both occasions they were televised and this had a remarkable effect on the Nigerian public.

Um, because I can remember the Ministry used to treat Abuja Pottery as an object of extreme embarrassment and you know, sometimes, somebody once complained that the pottery hadn’t been, you know, whitewashed and so on and so forth you see. And I didn’t know about it, and I didn’t realise that I was expected to write a great long letter and say oh yes and this and this and this and this. I just sort of…I just left it you see. And so they always felt that the pottery was something that they really didn’t want to know about. But after those two exhibitions, you know, people were really interested. You know…I mean it had a very unfortunate result…because it was that that caused all those beautiful buildings of Michael’s to be destroyed and they said ‘We must have’ um…because they suddenly realised… the Ministry suddenly realised that they’d got an asset you see, ‘We must have appropriate buildings’.

So I was told to design buildings, so that extraordinary round building with its arches and its fountain in the middle and whatever, that was actually my brain child and I designed all the pottery buildings to be built with brick, but that was too much for the Ministry and finally they built it out of cement blocks, which they then painted pink to make it look like brick, with yellow lines on it, nine inches apart of course, to represent the cement. And it looked absolutely hideous. But I’m glad to say that it hadn’t reached that stage by the time that Michael got there.

Questioner. How managed and sustainable (indistinct).

audio clip 12 [1mb mp3 file]

JJ. Could I just repeat the question so that people on the video hear it? The question from the floor was “ How managed or sustainable was the wood supply for the firings?”

MOB. The population of Abuja at that time was quite small and I just used to ask a firewood contractor to bring the firewood and I don’t think that there was really any problem. There were problems further north and east in Madukuri for example. I was asked to write a report on the brickworks there and I found to my horror that the amount of wood being used for firing bricks in Madukuri was um…using up the natural wood supply of thirty square miles per year. You know…and I told the chief forestry officer, do you realise that this is what’s happening and he said ‘well no’. He said ‘I have seen lorries trundling in but I didn’t realise that it was anything like that’. But at Abuja you know, it’s um…much wetter…and there are quite a lot of trees. The situation now is actually quite, is rather different. And um…the population…Abuja is now called Suleja incidentally, and the name of Abuja has been taken for the capital city which has been based where a village was thirty miles away between Abuja and Keffi. So thirty miles to the east. And that is now Abuja, whereas what was Abuja is now Suleja. Named after the Emir Sulieman Barro.

JJ. I think reluctantly we must stop. Thank you very much Michael O’Brien.

MOB. It’s a pleasure


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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 O’Brien interviewed by Jeffrey Jones • Issue 3