paper will use audio and video recordings of interviews with people who
knew Michael Cardew well: in particular Sidney Tustin, Ray Finch and Seth
Cardew. The recordings are all held by the National Electronic and Video
Archive of the Crafts, (NEVAC), at the University of the West of England
in Bristol 1. The clips of audio and video that I will
show you are just that: clips. They are taken out of context from the
several hours of interview material. I have therefore tried to show clips
which give the thrust of what the interviewer said.
It would be easy to edit out
short clips of Seth Cardew talking about his father which made Michael
appear in a very negative light. However, this would give a very incomplete
story as the interview with Seth as a whole tells the story of a man who
had a distant and often difficult relationship with his father, but who
respected him enormously and still holds him in great regard. The aim
of this paper is to enthuse you about the sort of recordings NEVAC collects
and to encourage you to use the archive.
Michael Cardew was the first
student to work at St Ives with Bernard Leach, (from 1923-26). Here he
worked with Leach to revive English slipware, which had disappeared from
the Staffordshire Potteries and which was only just surviving in North
Devon. His childhood exposure to Fishley's pottery at Fremington seems
to have been at the root of his fascination with slipware. My fist clip
is from an interview with Seth Cardew, filmed in April 2001. Seth is discussing
with me some of his fathers pots, beginning with the earliest pot
that he has that was made by Michael.
MPG 24.4Mb file
Well Seth, this is a very early pot by your Father I think.
Yes, one of the first pots he ever made and Mr Fishley agreed
to fire for him and its made in Braunton in 1921 and
I think it was actually Mr Fishley Holland, and as you can
see it was put in to a rather cool corner of the kiln. Its
supposed to be bright green and yellow but its come
out blue because its under-fired and its written
on in Greek with some observation of my fathers from
university, which means, life is short but art is long
and then underneath there was a little bit of prophecy about
his own life about experiment being fallacious and the judgement
or decision difficult. I think it was a difficult decision
for him to take up pottery from leaving university with all
because he was on a bursary at university and the
bursary was the last one of a long line of bursaries provided
by one of his forbears and it was quite difficult for him
to go in the face of that and take up pottery. So that was
the problem with that. So this was a pot that somehow came
down to me: it hasnt been here for some years. It was
from my uncle, my uncle gave it to me. Its dated 1921
so that made him about twenty when he made it.
So would he still have been at university then?
Yes. He would have been. It would have been during one of
his university holidays. And its got the elements of
form that he probably liked, but none of the accomplishment,
none of the ability that he had later.
In a desire to set up on his
own to produce slipware, Michael left St Ives and rented the disused pottery
at Winchcombe in Gloucestershire in 1926. The pottery had last been in
use in 1915 and had mainly made flower pots and other simple earthenwares.
Cardew re-employed Elijah Comfort, (one of the throwers from the old pottery),
and set about bringing it back to life. He produced slipware in quantity,
on the scale of a small country workshop, making, jugs, vases, bowls,
plates, casseroles, baking dishes and cider jars. One of his major aims
was to produce hand-made pottery of high-quality that was sufficiently
cheap for people to use, break and replace. It was an aim that he was
never to truly realise.
When he took over the pottery
he employed a local boy, Sidney Tustin, aged just fourteen, to help turn
the potters wheel, dig clay, mix glazes and so on. Tustin quickly
became one of the throwing team and eventually foreman, and during his
fifty-plus years at the pottery he made well over a million pots. Tustin
was recorded in 1994 talking about his life and time at Winchcombe. The
following are a few clips form the several hours of recording and are
an example of the vital place given in oral history to the voice of the
unknown worker. Tustin is being interviewed by Alex McErlain and Walter
[Listen to audio]
hauled on through where I had patted it down, because
then, we hadnt, you could just tell how much Michael
knew, he was an indoor man, not an outdoor man, we didnt
line it or anything. Now, really speaking, he was a real,
educated man, but when you got him outdoors doing anything,
he was a real dunce, a real dunce he was.
When I look back at it, Michael was learning everything there
was to learn indoors and I was learning everything there was
outdoors. So it got to the stage that, really, although, you
know, Michael and myself never saw eye-to-eye, we used to
have hell of arguments, but he knew whatever I was arguing
about was for the interests of the business, right, and I
realised what he was arguing about was interest for the business,
see, and therefore it got to the stage, I think, where he
couldnt do without me and I couldnt do without
him, because if I finished who was going to see to all the
clay washing and mixing the slips and glazes and pugging and
going up onto the hill, do this, do that, you know, helping
with the kiln and firing and all that, see? It was just one
of those things.
Other things I had to teach him, see, you know, outside jobs,
pugging and all like that. I was pugging there one day with
Elijah and, I dont know, some water got in there and
it was slipping round and he [Michael] came out and he said
push it down with your hand. I said dont
you get trying that, I said, youll have
your fingers in there. Mind your own b-business
he said, and I thought, well, I cant stop him, hes
the gaffer. He pushed his hand in and next thing, ooh, his
finger was a-bleeding and he had a big cut right the way across
his finger with a blade, there was a blade underneath, see.
Outdoor, I should always push him in. If he came out, wanting
to help, Id say oh no, you go on back in, youve
got plenty to do inside.
At this stage
it would be easy to use Sids testimony to shed a negative
light on Cardew. However, for all Sids criticisms he
had a great deal of respect for Cardew:
When I was doing a job I used to like, I used to always like
him as far away as possible, because hed come, you know,
and advise me what to do and, you know, hed never done
the job and Id be doing it, say, two or three years,
you know, and it wasnt in his line that, because he
was the kind of man who, if you gave him a hammer and nail
and asked him to knock it in the wood, hed hit the wrong
nail more times than hed hid the right one. But potting
was in his blood, you know, because even when he couldnt
make pots, when I say he couldnt make pots I dont
mean, you know, he couldnt do anything on the wheel,
he could make sort of certain shapes but not how they should
be. When he made a pot you could look at it and think, well,
it was like a rosebud, a nice little rosebud, just waiting
to burst out and be a real, lovely pot. You could see it in
there, even his handles, when he put his handles on you could
see, you know, it wasnt right but its there and
its going to grow.
Were there any pots that you liked to make in particular?
Yes, I always regret not doing it, but I never done it, I
never made the pots I was capable of making.
We are both eager to know what would they have been like?
I never made the pots I was capable of making. I couldnt.
What sort of things would you have liked to have made?
Well, nice big pots, nice big cider jars.
Why didnt you make them? Ray and Michael made those.
You havent had the experience Ive had, have you?
No, no, I just couldnt somehow. I couldnt go over
his head. I used to long and long and long to get up and,
you know, really make it. It was nothing to do, it would have
been just another job to me, but it would have been satisfying
for me to have done it.
It wasnt your territory.
It wasnt your territory.
No, no, well, what can I say? You could have stepped on someones
toes, I couldnt do that. I would have really loved to
make some nice big cider jars and big pots.
Tustins desire to make
big pots and inability to do so resulted as much from self-policing as
from any restrictions put upon him. He was an employee who, when asked
by his boss whether a young apprentice was likely to stay for long, replied,
I wouldnt have done, no fear, not if Id had his education.
Throughout his career Leach had experienced potters to assist him and
throw pots for him and he referred to the situation Tustin found himself
in as, the right relationship between artist and artisan.
Ray Finch first came to Winchcombe
with no experience or real knowledge of pottery at all. Politely rebuffed
by Cardew when he asked if he would take him on as an assistant, Finch
went to the Central School in London in order to gain some understanding
of pottery before returning to Winchcombe as a pupil: a very important
distinction from a worker like Tustin. Ray was interviewed for NEVAC by
Anna Hale in April 1994.
[Listen to audio]
Michael was very much the boss you know.
Because I was going to ask you, yes, what was his place in
the scheme of things? He was the boss.
He was the boss, yes.
Right. How did that convey itself?
Uh, well, everybody was very respectful to him. Sid and Charlie
and Elijah Comfort used to say 'Good morning, sir' or 'Goodnight,
sir' when they went, you see, I didn't call him sir, I used
to call him Michael. There was a certain relaxation in our
Now why do you think that was? Why was that?
I don't know, I don't know really.
were closer, somehow there was more of a
There was a slight difference in the relationship between
me as a pupil and the rest as the sort of, um, work team.
Had they come for similar reasons to you, the other assistants?
Had they wanted to be potters passionately?
No, I don't think so.
There's a difference?
story is that he came past one day and saw on the gate 'Boy
wanted', so he came in and asked for the job.
Ray was a pupil and Sid and
his brother Charlie were part of the work team. As Tanya Harrod pointed
out in her book, The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century, Finch
was, like Cardew, an educated indoor man.
It is worth showing here Seths
response to the question, What do you think was your fathers
greatest achievement and what do you think your father would have thought
was his greatest achievement?
4.99Mb mp3 file
Oh, I think some of those very large pots that he made, for
instance that one at the top of the stairs or that oil jar
from Abuja. The ones that went up to the top and were rounded
off with a lid or a stopper of some sort. He liked those,
those were his babies, they were his top achievement.
Michaels large pots
achieved the highest prices and were clearly different from his production
wares. As Tanya Harrod wrote, throwing large pots was a special
activity, at the art end of the spectrum from which an artisan such as
Tustin was excluded 2.
The different perspectives
on Cardews situation are highlighted by Finchs discussion
of Cardews poverty.
[Listen to audio]
Well, let me say to start with that Michael was desperately
poor, and he was married and he had two children, well he
had perhaps one when I first came, so I mean he wasn't a bloated
capitalist by any means. And I forget really what Sidney had,
perhaps about four pounds a week, or something. I don't know
what Elijah had, but he only worked four days.
But four pounds a week was quite a lot?
it wasn't bad, no. And I had, when I first came, I had ten
shillings a week.
How could one live on ten shillings a week?
So, well, you know, but then I came from choice. It wasn't
as though I was employed exactly, I'd come to learn, you see,
and that seemed fair enough to me, and I was certainly subsidised
by my mother to some extent, but I, I certainly managed.
Like Cardew, Rays decision
to become a potter was taken from a position of relative financial security.
Sid Tustin recalled that Cardew started at Winchcombe with £200.
He said, Well if he only had £200 it was on a hell of a long
bit of elastic, cos it went a hell of a long way! Whilst Finch
perceived Cardew as desperately poor, Tustin saw a man who
always seemed to find money when he needed it.
A common thread of testimony
about Cardew is that he was a difficult man to get to know but an exceptional
man of considerable intellect.
[Listen to audio]
He was very, his personal appearance, he was a very handsome
man, very impressive figure, I mean even in his old age he
was, wasnt he? You always felt with him that there was
an element of greatness about him. Some people have that dont
they and here was someone who was quite an exceptional person.
All audio and video extracts are copyright NEVAC, UWE, Bristol
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for details of the recordings and how to access the archive.
Tanya Harrod, The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century, Yale
University Press, 1999, p.167.
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