Conference Papers & Reports
  The Michael Cardew Centenary Symposium
University of Wales Aberystwyth 27 - 28 June 2001
Report by Jo Dahn


One hundred years after his birth, an invited (for the most part) audience of forty or so interested parties meet together at Aberystwyth Arts Centre to celebrate the memory of Michael Cardew. Papers are given by some prominent figures in the ceramics world, as well as by several people who have known the great man personally. Not much chance of controversy there you might think, and on the surface it was a quiet enough affair. But scratch the surface and things were a lot more interesting.

Most people in ceramics will know that Michael Cardew was Bernard Leach’s ‘first and best student’.1 It was he who resuscitated the Winchcombe Pottery in Gloucestershire, and in so doing revitalised traditional English slipware. It was he who carried Leach’s message to West Africa and in so doing ‘discovered’ traditional African pottery. Like Leach, Cardew wrote: mostly essays, diaries and letters, but also the hugely influential Pioneer Pottery. This was the Michael Cardew we knew. Yet as the symposium progressed, the question, ‘Who was Michael Cardew?’ became more and more difficult to answer. It was not so much that conflicting views emerged, rather that one realised that the words ‘Michael Cardew’ denote more than the man himself. They signify a complex cultural construction. Some sessions were really personal memories of time spent working and/or training with Cardew. Others were carefully considered papers on Cardew, the man and the myth. The result was a series of accounts that seemed contradictory at times. Yet all of them were well supported by evidence, and all of them rang true.

Some of these issues were highlighted very early on, by the first speaker, Matthew Partington. He is a Research Fellow at the University of the West of England who works with NEVAC, the National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts. In a fascinating video clip, we saw and heard Sidney Tustin talking about his time working under Cardew at Winchcombe. And he was ‘under’ Cardew. Partington asserted that material of this sort, made accessible via new electronic media, allows access to ‘real’ voices, and can yield more nuances than the written word. It is more immediate and thus, arguably, comes closer to the truth. We can note tone of voice and facial expression alongside the words themselves, and gain a better understanding of what is actually being said. It was poignant to hear Tustin talk about his desire to produce ‘big pots’ - an ambition that went unfulfilled because he saw it as ‘stepping on someone’s toes.’ His was the voice of the unknown worker, and even if his frustration was self-imposed (as it may well have been), suddenly the spectre of class was a factor in the way we saw Cardew.

For me, once introduced that spectre never quite went away, and it was certainly hovering close by during the next paper: ‘Michael Cardew and Bernard Leach’, given by Emmanuel Cooper. In a densely packed account that painted Cardew’s years at St Ives in the 1920s in great detail, Cooper argued that this was his formative period as a potter. Although he had studied Classics at Oxford, and was seen as a capable scholar, he was not a committed academic. He left with a third class degree and no intention of continuing his studies. His vocation lay elsewhere, and he had already learnt potting skills by the time he arrived at St Ives. There was a ‘meeting of minds’ between Leach and Cardew, who both came from upper middle class backgrounds, and displayed similar ambivalence to the financial side of their activities. Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, who joined them in 1924, referred to their state of ‘holy poverty’.

Despite this, Michael Cardew used his own money to set up a pottery at Vumé-Dugame in 1945, in what is now Ghana. He had first gone to West Africa in 1942 to take over from Harry Davis as teacher at a pottery school that was part of Achimota College, but it closed suddenly due to the death of the principal. It was Cardew in Nigeria that interested the next speaker, Liz Moloney, who is writing a book based on Cardew’s African diaries. She lived in West Africa from 1968-1975, but she only ‘came under Michael Cardew’s spell’ after seeing pots by Ladi Kwali in an exhibition at the British Museum. The label stated that they had been ‘produced under the supervision of Michael Cardew who from the 1950s on sought to introduce western methods into African pottery.’ Already an accomplished Gwari potter, Ladi Kwali worked with Cardew at the Abuja pottery training centre in Northern Nigeria (1951-1965). All this is part of the established historical account. What Moloney did was delve beneath the surface of that account. Thus we learned much about Cardew the man, his impact on those he encountered and vice versa. He was linguistically gifted and learnt to speak Hausa fluently, but he was also given to acute mood swings, and to swingeing critiques of his co-workers from which notions of ‘political correctness’ were conspicuously absent. Moloney’s interpretation of his cryptic shorthand comments was fascinating.

Tanya Harrod drew on Michael Cardew’s correspondence with his wife Mariel, as well as his diaries. In an energetic and enlightening academic paper, she turned to theoretical texts in order to unpack the ‘colonial dimension’ that has often been overlooked in considerations of Cardew’s career. Clifford’s notion of ‘ethnographic self-fashioning’ was used to particularly good effect.2 Pointing out that Cardew read Forster’s A Passage to India and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and compared himself to Gauguin, Harrod proposed that amongst other things, his activities can usefully be considered as a critique of his own social and cultural background. We saw him in the context of Western colonialism, and also, intriguingly, as a man for whom friendships with other men - especially Kofi Athey who started working at Achimota in 1942 - were paramount:

I felt myself becoming bound to this place and these people, and particularly to one man, Kofi, in a way that was going to cut me off altogether from the wife and children I had left in Britain, make nonsense of my whole life for the past twenty years, and contradict all the most firmly held principles on which I had built that life. 3

Peter Stichbury and Peter Dick worked with Cardew in Africa: Stichbury from 1958-1959, and Dick from 1961-1962. Both gave slide presentations entitled ‘Remembering Michael Cardew’ and, as might have been anticipated, both had intensely personal reminiscences to offer. What could not have been anticipated was the rich visual element provided by an assortment of marvellous images made more marvellous by the insight gained from listening to previous speakers. After Stichbury returned to his native New Zealand, Cardew visited him before going on to Darwin, where in 1968 he was centrally involved in a scheme to teach pottery to Australian Aborigines. ‘Michael Cardew and Australia’ was the theme of Penny Collet’s paper. She argued that one of the most important aspects of his presence there was his avocation of the use of local materials. Sadly, the pottery he helped to set up was destroyed by a cyclone in 1975. His influence ‘down under’ is far less appreciated than his African exploits. Collet has been carrying out a series of interviews in the Bendigo area to establish whether Cardew’s impact is still felt by Australian potters today. Many of them trace their ‘ancestry in clay’ back to the British Studio Pottery tradition, and espouse the ethos that he promulgated.

In his account of ‘Michael Cardew in America’, Garth Clark opened up another less known aspect of the man. Cardew first visited the United States from June to October 1967, when he taught at the University of Wisconsin. He returned in 1971, and then again in 1972, accompanied by Kofi Athey and Ladi Kwali. In America he was seen as a successor to Bernard Leach, and in his own right as ‘the grand old man of functional pottery’; indeed, Clark suggested that Cardew’s work was preferred to Leach’s. His essay ‘Potters and Amateur Potters’4 was extremely influential, and in 1972 his two and a half month ‘roadshow’, during which he and Ladi Kwali gave forty five workshops in America and Canada, was a sell out. But a picture of a somewhat disturbed individual also emerged. In relating an altercation that had occurred between them (due to a misunderstanding, but also in part to Cardew’s quick temper and his willingness to jump to conclusions), Clark referred to ‘the double edged sword of his friendship.’ So far as Cardew’s American legacy is concerned, Clark pointed out that he did not become institutionalised like Bernard Leach, and was thus less of a ‘formal presence’ than Leach. Even so, there were many in America for whom he was an important influence. As in Australia, this was particularly clear in relation to his belief in making ‘pottery that lives and grows out of its own environment.’5

As the symposium progressed we gained considerable insight into Cardew’s life and work. One way or another, a succession of speakers expanded the ‘received wisdom’. We began to see the man and his achievements as far more complex than the stock historical account, and consequently a lot more exciting. The finale, as it were, was an onstage interview with Michael O’Brien, who took over from Cardew at the Abuja pottery in Nigeria. The interviewer was Dr Jeffrey Jones. This was an opportunity to get the truth ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’. But while he did supply the audience with privileged insight into the day to day running of Abuja, O’Brien’s self-depreciating manner meant that his answers were not always as revealing as they might have been. Perhaps it was the occasion, and the fact that the interview was being filmed. Perhaps too, the foregoing sessions - Tanya Harrod’s paper in particular - had primed the audience to expect a more incisive account. When asked whether he was Cardew’s natural successor at Abuja, O’Brien replied that he was not seen as such by the potters there, and he fielded questions that might have led to critiques of Cardew and/or his methods. Overall, he presented himself as a ‘glorified book-keeper’ who ‘had the mantle of greatness thrown upon me, but was suffocated by it.’ One felt vaguely dissatisfied. The symposium ended with a plenary session ably chaired by Emmanuel Cooper. Clearly the event had generated much food for thought, and the ensuing discussion was lively. Let’s hope it continues.

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1. Bernard Leach, introduction to Michael Cardew, a collection of essays, London, Crafts Advisory Committee, 1976. back to article
2. See James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture, Harvard University, 1988, pp.92-111. back to article
3. Michael Cardew, A Pioneer Potter, an autobiography, London, Collins, 1988, p.145. back to article
4. National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, U.S.A. back to article
5. Review of Pioneer Pottery quoted in Garth Clark, Michael Cardew, London, Faber and Faber, 1978, p.83.back to article

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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



The Michael Cardew Centenary Symposium • Issue 3