Conference Papers & Reports
  Some Reflections on Michael Cardew (1901-1983)
from the National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts (NEVAC)
Matthew Partington


This 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 father’s pots, beginning with the earliest pot that he has that was made by Michael.


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MP. Well Seth, this is a very early pot by your Father I think.

SC. Yes, one of the first pots he ever made and Mr Fishley agreed to fire for him and it’s 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. It’s supposed to be bright green and yellow but it’s come out blue because it’s under-fired and it’s written on in Greek with some observation of my father’s 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 his… 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 hasn’t been here for some years. It was from my uncle, my uncle gave it to me. It’s dated 1921 so that made him about twenty when he made it.

MP. So would he still have been at university then?

SC. Yes. He would have been. It would have been during one of his university holidays. And it’s 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 potter’s 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 Keeler.


[Listen to audio] 4.8Mb mp3 file

ST. … hauled on through where I had patted it down, because then, we hadn’t, you could just tell how much Michael knew, he was an indoor man, not an outdoor man, we didn’t 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.

ST. 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 couldn’t do without me and I couldn’t 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.

ST. 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 don’t 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 ‘don’t you get trying that’, I said, ‘you’ll have your fingers in there’. ‘Mind your own b-business’ he said, and I thought, well, I can’t stop him, he’s 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, I’d say ‘oh no, you go on back in, you’ve got plenty to do inside’.

At this stage it would be easy to use Sid’s testimony to shed a negative light on Cardew. However, for all Sid’s criticisms he had a great deal of respect for Cardew:

ST. When I was doing a job I used to like, I used to always like him as far away as possible, because he’d come, you know, and advise me what to do and, you know, he’d never done the job and I’d be doing it, say, two or three years, you know, and it wasn’t 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, he’d hit the wrong nail more times than he’d hid the right one. But potting was in his blood, you know, because even when he couldn’t make pots, when I say he couldn’t make pots I don’t mean, you know, he couldn’t 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 wasn’t right but it’s there and it’s going to grow.

AM. Were there any pots that you liked to make in particular?

ST. Yes, I always regret not doing it, but I never done it, I never made the pots I was capable of making.

WK. We are both eager to know what would they have been like?

ST. I never made the pots I was capable of making. I couldn’t.

WK. What sort of things would you have liked to have made?

ST. Well, nice big pots, nice big cider jars.

AM. Why didn’t you make them? Ray and Michael made those.

ST. You haven’t had the experience I’ve had, have you?

AM. No.

ST. No, no, I just couldn’t somehow. I couldn’t 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.

WK. It wasn’t your territory.

ST. Pardon?

WK. It wasn’t your territory.

ST. No, no, well, what can I say? You could have stepped on someone’s toes, I couldn’t do that. I would have really loved to make some nice big cider jars and big pots.

Tustin’s 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 wouldn’t have done, no fear, not if I’d 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] 1.6Mb mp3 file

RF. Michael was very much the boss you know.

AH. He was.

RF. Oh yes.

AH. The boss.

RF. Oh yes.

AH. Because I was going to ask you, yes, what was his place in the scheme of things? He was the boss.

RF. He was the boss, yes.

AH. Right. How did that convey itself?

RF. 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 relationship.

AH. Now why do you think that was? Why was that?

RF. I don't know, I don't know really.

AH.You were closer, somehow there was more of a…

RF. There was a slight difference in the relationship between me as a pupil and the rest as the sort of, um, work team.

AH. Had they come for similar reasons to you, the other assistants? Had they wanted to be potters passionately?

RF. No, I don't think so.

AH. There's a difference?

RF.Sid's 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 Seth’s response to the question, ‘What do you think was your father’s greatest achievement and what do you think your father would have thought was his greatest achievement?’


  [Play/Download] 4.99Mb mp3 file

SC. 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.

Michael’s 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 Cardew’s situation are highlighted by Finch’s discussion of Cardew’s poverty.


[Listen to audio] 1.3Mb mp3 file

RF. 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.

AH. But four pounds a week was quite a lot?

RF.Well, it wasn't bad, no. And I had, when I first came, I had ten shillings a week.

AH. How could one live on ten shillings a week?

RF. 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, Ray’s 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] 529kb mp3 file

RF. He was very, his personal appearance, he was a very handsome man, very impressive figure, I mean even in his old age he was, wasn’t he? You always felt with him that there was an element of greatness about him. Some people have that don’t 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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1 See for details of the recordings and how to access the archive. back to article
2 Tanya Harrod, The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century, Yale University Press, 1999, p.167. 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



Some Reflections on Michael Cardew • Issue 3