Conference Papers & Reports
  Leach and Cardew  - The Early Years
Emmanuel Cooper


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.

In January 1923 the Leach Pottery at St Ives was visited by Michael Cardew1, then aged 22, an eager would-be potter in search of a training. Flashingly good looking, he was described by Leach as a ‘young Apollo’, a ‘young man... as handsome as a Greek god, with forehead and nose all in a straight line, vivid eyes, golden curly hair, and a strong good jaw’2. Cardew was then reading Humanities at Exeter College, Oxford but having been introduced to traditional country pottery by W Fishley Holland at Braunton Pottery he was determined to become a potter. Despite having won a scholarship, an academic career held no interest, and having been bitten by the pottery bug, in particular by English country pottery, he visited St Ives in quest of a training.

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 Cornwall’3 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 Mairet’s 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 me’5, was Cardew’s verdict.

Fifteen years his senior, Leach appeared to Cardew as ‘a perfectly preserved example of an English Edwardian’6, 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 blue’7. Wasting little time in testing the enthusiastic young student’s 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 sales’8. Undeterred Cardew accepted.

Early days
After scraping a third at Oxford, Cardew arrived at the Pottery in the summer to begin work, finding the pottery full of visitors.9 In addition to Leach, Hamada, George Dunn and the general bookkeeper/manager Edgar Skinner (who arranged his lodgings at two shillings [10p] a night), there was Old Basset, a retired fisherman, and the potter William Staite Murray. Another visitor was the architect and collector Sidney Greenslade, who had a close relationship with Aberystwyth10, who took Cardew to one side and told him
how delighted he was that he was starting with a group ‘so full of enthusiasm’.11 As Cardew soon discovered, enthusiasm was not in short supply, though any professional or workmanlike approach to business was in his view severely absent.

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 Fishley’s pots. They travelled in Leach’s 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 Cardew’s growing ambivalence to the qualities of oriental pots and what he saw as his lack of understanding, Leach lent him his copy of Kakuzo Okakura’s 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 Leach’s 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 peasant’s; 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.

It is hard work of any women not to say man and she would have to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth. We do every thing with our hands from the wood splitting and mixing of clays to throwing and packing. That is to say the techniques of the East where no machinery is employed; we get dirty and tired, hot and cold, and unusual enthusiasm is the sole panacea .18

Undeterred, Beano, as she came to be known joined the Pottery in January 1924.

Following Hamada’s 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
Here it might be useful here to look briefly at the background to the Leach pottery. With no model on which to base their work, Leach and Hamada had opted to set up a smallish building that was more studio than workshop. On a patch of pasture on the main Lands End road out of St Ives, which had a busy stream running down its side, they constructed granite buildings and designed the wood-fired kiln. This was built largely by Hamada using home-made refractories from material that could be obtained locally. Neither potters had much experience in building or firing kilns, and by 1923 when Cardew arrived, it was literally on its last legs having developed giant splits and cracks. Only about 10% of the ware was thought to be up to  exhibition standards, the remainder was sold as seconds or thrown into the Stennack. A small round updraught, wood-fired kiln was used for earthenware. This had a domed top in which raku could be fired, and is illustrated in A Potter’s Book. With no set pattern of work, nor what today would be called a business plan, the two potters produced individual pots in stoneware, decorated dishes in earthenware, and a quantity of small raku that, because it was more colourful, was easier to market.

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?
With two young potters to supervise, plus others sent on from the Central School in London or the Royal College of Art, after the relatively relaxed disorder of the early days when Leach had to do his own throwing, Cardew was seen as a godsend, able to make shapes for Leach to decorate and Leach was keen to develop tableware with slip decoration to go alongside the individual pots. The casual studio atmosphere gave way a more established routine and a more organised air of industry imbued the workshop.

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 Cardew’s 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 Cardew’s eyes.

Cardew’s 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.

The other main group of pots that Cardew had to throw were for raku firings. These were made from a white firing, heavily grogged body that would withstand the thermal shock. As a way of increasing sales and alerting public interest, on Thursday afternoons Leach instituted raku sessions at the Pottery based on the model of the Japanese raku party when visitors were invited to have a go. Standing by the kiln Leach first explained the history and technique before encouraging visitors to buy biscuit fired pots at prices from half-crown (2/6d, or 12p) to a shilling (1/- or 5p) and decorate them with ready prepared pigments.

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 potter’s 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
At St Ives both potters firmly adhered to the view that handwork ruled supreme, believing that technique should follow idea. This was graphically illustrated when Matsubayashi gave technical talks on ceramic materials, kiln construction, plasticity of clay and chemical formulae. Diligently Pleydell-Bouverie took copious notes but Cardew, unsure of the value of Matsubayashi's knowledge or more particularly its relevance to his work, took virtually none. Leach was even more dismissive, attending ‘rather as a critic posing questions’, always ‘interrupting with philosophical questionings such as whether all this theoretical stuff was really relevant to the quality of what you produced’,30 was how Pleydell-Bouverie recalled it.

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 Russell’s31 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 Russell’s 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
As I have said, Cardew as a westerner thought it inappropriate to base his work on oriental forms, and was drawn almost instinctively to the softness of English earthenwares. The question of tradition was one with which he was acutely concerned. It was a topic very much in the air, and was written about with great insight by notable writers such as T S Eliot who debated the value and importance of tradition to contemporary artists. In his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, written in 1919, Eliot argues that tradition cannot be inherited but can only be obtained by great labour. Tradition, he believed, ‘involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence’. He went on to argue that almost inevitably our understanding of the past is altered by the present as much as the present is shaped by the past. For Eliot, acquiring a meaningful understanding of ‘the pastness of the past’ is hard won that few achieve. It was something Cardew sought and many would argue did achieve.

Leach’s attitude to the past was more ambiguous, for while he was fond of quoting William Blake’s 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

To conclude, despite the lack of business acumen, the endless technical problems of bloating bodies and over-fired or over-stoked kilns, Cardew was adamant that his three years at St Ives with Leach were ‘the most important part of my education as a potter’.33 There were many issues over which these two highly opinionated, strong, powerful, personalities did not agree, such as the merits of oriental versus English country pottery, the importance of technical understanding, and the value and role of industrial production. They were also of vastly different temperaments. Leach, by nature, was a socialite who loved nothing more than an admiring audience, and when crossed tended to be quiet, withdrawing into hurt silence. Cardew, by contrast, had a rapid and flamboyant temper that was easily aroused, and could be terrifying to witness. However, it soon subsided, and he quickly  returned to his usual equitable but excitable self. Leach’s art lay at the centre of his life to the exclusion of other activities; like Pirandello, he could claim that he had no life outside his art, whilst Cardew had many interests, including playing music, country dancing, and practising Latin.

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 Cooper’s biography of Bernard Leach is due to be published next year by Yale University Press, London.

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(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.)

1 1901-83 back to article
2 Bernard Leach  Hamada: Potter, Thames and Hudson, London, 1976 p.62.
back to article
3 The Pottery Gazette and Glass Trade Review, no date, LA1629. back to article
4 Michael Cardew, A Pioneer Potter: Autobiography, London, Collins, 1988. p.24. back to article
5 Cardew, A Pioneer Potter, p.25. back to article
6 Michael Cardew, ‘Bernard Leach, Essays in Appreciation’, ed. Terry Barlow, New Zealand Potter, Wellington, New Zealand, 1961.. back to article
7 Bernard Leach, Beyond East and West, London, Faber and Faber, 1979, p.147. back to article
8 Bernard Leach letter to Michael Cardew, 24 January 1923, LA 6540. back to article
9 The Pottery had a series of distinguished visitors in the early years, including the artists John Piper, Edward Bawden and Eric Ravillious, and the writer Angela Brazil, all of whom signed the visitors book. LA2047 back to article
10 1866-1955. Sidney Kyffin Greenslade, architect and designer of the National Library of Wales; an enthusiastic and knowledgeable collector, he had met the Martin brothers in 1898. In the 1920s and 1930s he selected contemporary art, including studio ceramics, for the University of Wales at Aberystwyth University, now in the Arts Centre. The collection includes early pots by Bernard Leach. back to article
11 Leach, Hamada, p. 31. back to article
12 Acquired July 1922, a 1921 6hp machine registration number N7C 4498. back to article
13 Quoted in Michael Cardew,  ‘Bernard Leach - Recollections’, in Bernard Leach Essays in Appreciation,  Edited and Collected by T Barron, Wellington, New Zealand, 1960, p.23. back to article
14 Cardew, A Pioneer Potter, p.34. back to article
15 Unidentified cutting. LA1385. back to article
16 Leach, Beyond East and West, p.150. back to article
17 The actual terms were a short trial period, a £26 premium to cover six months at £1 a week, followed by six months without pay, and one year at a salary of £1 a week. If the agreement was for a shorter period than two years, the premium would have to be higher or the pay less. Letter to Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie, 20 January 1923, LA6540. back to article
18 LA6540. back to article
19 Quoted in Oliver Watson, Bernard Leach: Potter and Artist, London, Crafts Council, 1997, p.19. back to article
20 ‘Summary of Leach Pottery Balance Sheets 1921-1931’.  DA back to article
21 Quoted in a letter to Bernard Leach from Margarita C Lucas, 8 August 1926, LA2421. back to article
22 Leach, Beyond East and West, p.151. back to article
23 Cardew, A Pioneer Potter, p.43. back to article
24 Cardew, A Pioneer Potter, p.35. back to article
25 Michael Cardew , ‘Pioneer Pottery at Abuja’, LA1762. back to article
26 Bernard Leach, manuscript, a notebook ‘on the making of simplest oriental pottery’, 1923, LA514. back to article
27 Bergen was a great admirer and loyal friend of potters, working with Leach at St Ives, Cardew at Winchcombe (opened in 1926) and Murray in London. At St Ives Bergen laboriously carved lettering through slip-covered surfaces and helped fire the kiln, including the first firing of the new kiln. back to article
28 Cardew, A Pioneer Potter, p.94. back to article
29 Bergen letter to Bernard Leach, 7 March 1924, LA2386. back to article
30 Cardew, A Pioneer Potter, p.36. back to article
31 Russell was later made Director of the Council of Industrial Design. back to article
32 Garth Clark, Michael Cardew A Portrait, London, Faber and Faber, 1978, p.96. back to article
33 Cardew, A Pioneer Potter, p.29. 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



Leach and Cardew • Issue 3