|Conference Papers & Reports|
and Cardew - The Early Years
In this talk I will look at the differences and similarities between two of the leading potters of the twentieth century , Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew, discussing not only their very contrasting attitudes to potting, but their personalities and opinions which, though often different, were united by a passionate commitment to pots. I will focus on the early years, though their friendship endured until the end of their lives.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given the privileges of their class, their backgrounds were very similar. Like Leach, Cardew was born of a highly respectable, middle class family involved in public service. One of six, he was born in Wimbledon, his father was a high ranking civil servant. Leach, an only child was brought up in Hong Kong and China. Their routes to potting were very different. After studying at the Slade and the London School of Art under Brangwyn, Leach had gone to Japan at the age of twenty-two to teach etching. Introduced to pottery at a raku party in 1911, he was seized by a desire to learn the craft and studied for two years with a traditional teacher, Urano Shigekichi, who held the title the sixth Kenzan. The court tradition in which Kenzan worked involved more decoration than making, and though Leach learnt to throw, he never claimed to be highly proficient. Cardew was later to say that Leach was one of the few studio potters less able to throw than himself.
In 1920 Leach returned to England, where sponsored by Frances Horne, a local philanthropist who had established the St Ives Guild of Handicraft, he set up a studio pottery in the town.
By contrast, as a child Cardew had become totally enamoured of the deep earth colours and shiny lead glazed earthenware pots made in north Devon, quantities of which filled the family holiday home at Saunton. As a child the family visited the old potteries, where his father purchased pots for everyday use. Later as a young man he visited the Fishley pottery and here he paid a £1 a week for throwing lessons and had a wheel built. While still a reluctant student, his attention was caught by an article An Art Pottery in Cornwall3 in Pottery Gazette and Glass Trade Review. This described the work of the Leach Pottery, which somewhat confusingly was illustrated by photographs of Leach and his pottery assistants in Japan, and an image of a jug with a painted armourial design that had also been made in Japan. During a visit to relatives in Cornwall, Cardew decided to pay a visit to see Leach, arriving in the town in the evening. At the edge of the town he found a sign board with a curly inscription just legible in the dusk The Leach Pottery.4 He was greeted by the short, stocky figure of George Dunn, the ex builder, fisherman and smuggler who prepared the clay, helped fire the kiln and carried out any other odd jobs. He introduced him to Hamada , who was living in a room in the pottery. Knowing that he soon intended to return to Japan, Hamada thought Leach could do with some help from an energetic and enthusiastic young man and walked with him to Carbis Bay to meet Leach, both enthusing en route about Ethel Mairets weaving.
The previous year Leach had moved into the Count House, a large property, where Leach, his wife Muriel and five children plus au pair, were still settling in. No doubt intimidated by meeting the great man, Cardew found the house vast, cold and empty. There seemed to be only a few pots around, and as far as he could see these were from the orient and very different to the warm, generous, lead-glazed shapes he admired. They looked very strange to me5, was Cardews verdict.
Fifteen years his senior, Leach appeared to Cardew as a perfectly preserved example of an English Edwardian6, formal in manner, favouring collar and tie, plus fours, tweed jackets and brogues rather than casual dress, to all intents and purposes a gentleman potter. A meal was served on grey stoneware, with decoration in a reserved blue7. Wasting little time in testing the enthusiastic young students sensibility to pots, Leach soon started to quiz his guest, asking his opinion on an eleventh or twelfth century Chinese bowl. Completely at a loss, wisely Cardew said little. The testing ceremony also included discussion about other wares and when Cardew spoke enthusiastically about English slipware and revealed that he had learnt to throw reasonable sized pots, his place was secured. Writing to offer the position Leach was alarmingly frank. I want someone like yourself, young, strong and enthusiastic, he said, adding I cannot afford to pay a salary we are pretty well at the end of our capital invested and must from now on depend on sales8. Undeterred Cardew accepted.
After hearing Cardew enthuse so much about the north Devon wares, he and Leach visited his family house in Saunton to admire their collection of Edward Beer Fishleys pots. They travelled in Leachs recently acquired Martinside motorcycle and sidecar12, on which, in George Dunn's phrase, Leach used to roar up the Stennack like a ball of fire.13 The journey took two days. While quietly appreciative of the green-glazed pitchers and vases, in the kitchen Leach discovered plain water pitchers and a couple of old oven dishes decorated with slip-trailing, which he preferred, cheerfully pointing out that they were part of the true English heritage.
Aware of Cardews growing ambivalence to the qualities of oriental pots and what he saw as his lack of understanding, Leach lent him his copy of Kakuzo Okakuras The Book of Tea. Although Cardew responded to the quietness and contemplative nature of the rituals, the actual objects left him cold. To him they remained alien, and though twenty years later he eventually saw the advantages of the tougher, more hard wearing stonewares, he was drawn far more to the softer, earthier qualities of earthenware and its association with function rather than ornament.
During a visit to the Paterson Gallery, where Leachs pots were on show, Cardew was introduced to another would-be student, Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie, whom he found very beautiful and also very big, with a large frame like a French peasants; and yet at the same time somehow petite, because her features were so curiously fine.14 She had been highly impressed by their dignity of shape, depth of colour, and quality of surface.15
When Pleydell-Bouverie met Leach at the gallery, whom she described as a long spidery man, giving a curious impression of shagginess in a Norfolk jacket and an extensive moustache,16 she immediately asked to become a private pupil. Although at first reluctant, in the face of her enthusiasm and tempted also by her readiness to pay a £26 fee for six months,17 Leach relented. Just as he had written to Cardew, in his letter offering to take her Leach was brutally honest about the life of a potter, giving some idea of both the physically tough work involved and the idealism of the venture.
Undeterred, Beano, as she came to be known joined the Pottery in January 1924.
Following Hamadas return to Japan, Cardew gladly moved into his old room, slept in the curious bed Hamada had built and relished the spartan surroundings, even making a cult of them by taking a daily bath in the cold water of the Stennack. Living without pay, Cardew was more than happy with what he called holy poverty, with its blend of idealism, austerity and minimal creature comforts. All went well until in the middle of winter he was stricken with pneumonia and spent six weeks in the St Ives cottage hospital. During his convalescence Leach brought him books of early Chinese paintings of landscapes inscribed with Chinese characters that Cardew thought were as wonderful as the images themselves.
The Leach Pottery
Financially the pottery was in poor shape. Reflecting on its finances in 1924 Leach noted We have but little cash in hand & this year there is my income to meet as well as the usual running expenses.19 In the first four years of operation the Pottery lost £2,534.20 Much of his inheritance had been swallowed up and Muriel continued to invest her capital with little hope of return. In an effort to raise funds, in 1925 some sort of shares were sold in the Pottery, which among other benefits gave purchasers discounts on pots. Bankruptcy seemed a real possibility again two years later and Leach was forced to mortgage the property. As a business the Pottery reeled shakily from one financial crisis to the next with Leach often writing to Yanagi in Japan about his multitudinous pottery problems.21
Industry or Studio?
The erratic progress of the Pottery was greatly improved by the arrival in 1923 of Matsubayashi Tsurunoske from Japan. He was described as a a precise little man,22 who was an engineer, chemist and craftsman potter of a well known Nara pottery family. Known to all as Matsu he was generally credited as thoroughly practical, knowing as much about the theoretical basis of high fired ceramics as any Western ceramist at that time.
Horrified by the state of the kiln Matsu insisted it should be pulled down and be replaced with a professionally designed and built wood firing structure that had three chambers. Cardew was roped in to help make firebricks for the new kiln, a tough process that involved ramming crude kaolin into wooden moulds, and throwing saggars from coarse clay whilst trying to avoid loosing too much skin. Recognising Cardews more practical understanding, before returning to Japan, Matsubayashi led him aside saying I hope you will stay here with Mr Leach, and always help him with his work, because - ah - I think - ah - Mr Leach - ah - rather poetical.23
As far as organisation and business management was concerned little had really changed to make the pottery more financially viable. Cardew thought it highly disorganised, particularly the clay making arrangements which he found chaotic and always inadequate for our needs.24 The treadle wheel he had had built at Braunton Pottery was installed, which he found easier and more efficient than the Japanese wheel used by Leach that could only be turned clock wise and was propelled by a stick.
Nevertheless, the team were bound by shared goals and a passionate commitment to pots. A strong sense of community, jovial and club-like pervaded the Pottery. Practical jokes involved buckets balanced over doorways, and endless ribbing. Nick-names were freely given, Leach gaining the name Rik, Riketty or Rickety because of the shaky state of his Martinside motor-bike. Norah Braden, a student from the RCA, was known as Lise, Ada Mason, another student, as Peter.
Break and meal times at the pottery were not only functional but instructive. Leach talked about pots, waved his arms about, drew on the blackboard, described shapes in the air in a great miming act, sometimes made pieces on his Japanese wheel and smoked endless cigarettes. Cooking was a collective activity and food was prepared with enthusiasm, good appetites making up for limited culinary skills. Cardew confessed to having no culinary skills and had to learn fast. Leach and Matsubayashi insisted on using chopsticks but Cardew claimed he was too hungry to learn the technique.
Although Cardew had mastered basic throwing techniques, these were far from the professional skills required, and he quickly realised there was still much to learn. This involved the oriental method of spiral wedging, a process of working the clay by hand to remove air bubbles and strengthen the clay prior to throwing. He also had to learn to throw small pots off a clay hump so speeding up production. Watching Cardew throwing pots one day, Leach said that while he saw that he still had problems controlling the material, he liked his forms - a huge compliment in Cardews eyes.
Cardews principle making tasks involved throwing earthenware and pieces for raku. Slipware included souvenir mugs, jugs and tankards in earthenware that were sold in the pottery showroom and locally. While Leach was sceptical of the rightness of such objects, he also realised they tempted buyers who were unlikely to purchase his much more expensive individual pieces. These were often embellished with traditional rhymes or quotations from William Blake scratched through a layer of white slip. Later Cardew made teapots and recalled Leach rejecting the shape he made, explaining again what he required. With not very good grace Cardew tried again, and showed Leach the result, asking Will this do?, Well it will do, Leach replied, in a tone that was quite kind, but distinctly rebuking. That was all he said, but it made a great impression on the young student, concluding that in pottery, as in art, it is a case of All or Nothing.25
By far the most significant earthenware pieces produced were the large, individually decorated slipware dishes and chargers based on seventeenth and eighteenth century pots produced by Toft and others. The powerful, simplified designs gave scope for Leach1s graphic skills, and employed a limited range of earth colours such as yellow ochre, black, brown and white under a clear glaze. Some dishes were produced in a mould, others thrown on the wheel. More modest sized dishes were made by shaping a slab of clay over a hump mould, and for these Leach devised simple decorative motifs. Cardew made many of these dishes for Leach to decorate.
Recognising the unique qualities of raku, which I think I am correct in saying that Leach introduced to the West, and its possible use in schools, he made notes in preparation for a potters notebook on the making of the simplest kind of oriental pottery,26 which described the processes as well as its history. Support for this came from Henry Bergen,27 an American-born classical and oriental scholar, collector, Marxist, amateur potter and enthusiastic supporter of artist potters with whom Leach had became friendly in the early 1920s. Cardew described Bergen as a tall, powerful man with a rather square head and an athletic build.28 Offering sound advice Bergen urged Leach to write just as simply as you can and where there are many choices of expression ... choose the clearest and leave nothing open to doubt,29 advice that both Leach and Cardew took to heart, though Leach found such directness far more difficult than the more pragmatic Cardew.
Idealism versus Industry
Both Leach and Cardew felt that there was no substitute for handwork, no matter how tedious and labour intensive. Their unwillingness to consider the benefits of mechanical help, and remain poetical, was tellingly brought home when Leach and Cardew travelled by motor bike to Gordon Russells31 furniture workshop at Broadway in the Cotswolds in the Spring of 1926. They were to take part in an Easter exhibition of rural crafts and industries, where Cardew was to demonstrate throwing. The journey took three days and two nights, with the motor-bike and sidecar, packed full of luggage, constantly breaking down.
It was a tense occasion as the two potters found themselves out of sympathy with Russells move towards greater mechanisation. Talking specifically of furniture and architecture Russell argued that the intelligent use of machines, together with sensitive design could provide a satisfactory means of removing much of the donkey work, increasing production and reducing costs without loss of quality. Such impersonal mechanical processes had little appeal for purists such as Leach and Cardew who saw the machine as no substitute for individual skill and the fine judgement of hand work.
Traditionalists or Modernists
Leachs attitude to the past was more ambiguous, for while he was fond of quoting William Blakes aphorism to ride your coach and horses over the bones of the dead, the forms and decoration of the past were a constant presence in his work, though rarely a subject of reproduction. Equally important is the fact that his model lay not in English or European culture, but in the Chinese Sung Dynasty. This was eloquently sketched out in Towards a Standard, his seminal essay published in A Potter's Book in 1940. Here he wrote about the importance of adopting the Sung standard, though this, he was at pains to point out, was not about aping historical styles, but the practice that informed the work, whether it be through the use of local materials, appropriate making methods, and design that exemplified fitness for purpose - all crucial aspects of the modernist canon.
For Cardew tradition was a living force. When, for instance, he was on one occasion asked if he was going to make new shapes he reacted in horror, arguing that he wanted sound, living shapes. To critics of traditionalism he replied that the artist who is an innovator is also the only true traditionalist artist', adding that practitioners who call themselves traditionalists, are really traitors to tradition.32
On one fundamental point their differences seemed insurmountable. For Leach, pottery was an art, and he saw his individual pots as belonging in the gallery alongside painting and sculpture. Price was determined by what the market would stand. For Cardew, pots were about use, and he declined to make individual pots, though his rose bowls come dangerously close. A pot for Cardew was a functional object, and he tried to price them accordingly, often at great cost to himself. Both, in their own way, were romantic idealists in the William Morris, Arts and Crafts tradition, rooted in, but not quite of, the world in which they lived. They carved out new and little understood paths, pioneered new ways of working that often overlapped, ran side by side, but rarely ever merged.
Emmanuel Coopers biography of Bernard Leach is due to be published next year by Yale University Press, London.
(LA refers to the Leach
Archive held at the Craft Study Centre, West Surrey,University College
of Art and Design, Farnham; DA refers to the Dartington Archive held at
High Cross House, Dartington.)
|Leach and Cardew Issue 3|