issue 6

Articles & Reviews


Modern English Potters
Michael Cardew: An introductory note on the text

Jeffrey Jones


On 24 March 1938 Michael Cardew wrote to William Staite Murray saying that he was due to give a lecture on 'Modern Potters' at the Art School in Edinburgh during the coming autumn. Cardew asked Staite Murray whether he would be willing to send a few prints of his work so that he could get some slides made to illustrate the lecture.1 We do not know whether Staite Murray obliged but the lecture was duly delivered on 25 November 1938 and the text, including a 'List of slides used, in proper order' has survived.2 Slide no. 31 is listed as 'Pot with Fish decoration. W. S. Murray'.

There are few surprises on the list of slides and if the list had not survived something quite lik

e it might have been reconstructed from what we know of Cardew and of the general scope of studio pottery interests in the late 1930s. English medieval pitchers make their appearance, as do Chinese ginger jars and a nineteenth century Bideford harvest jug. Cardew also chose a Sumerian grain jar and some Cretan cups from the middle Minoan period and mixed these in with examples of work by Hamada, Tomimoto, Norah Braden, Katharine Pleydell Bouverie, Leach, Staite Murray, Sam Haile and C

ardew himself. These potters are referred to in the text as 'studio potters', but 'Modern English Potters' was the title chosen for the lecture and it is the modernity of their practice that Cardew was at pains to stress.

The term 'modern' was one that Cardew had used before. On 30 January 1936 Cardew gave a talk entitled 'Six Modern Potters' to Gloucester Society of Artists. The six consisted of those potters listed above minus Tomimoto and Haile. In this Gloucester lecture Cardew claimed that these makers had 'something to say, which is of the essence of the modern consciousness'.3 His claim that pottery ranks as a fine art, his willingness to engage with the idea of the social role of the potter, his emphasis on truths to materials, his desire for a consensus, and especially his identification of 'Pure Pottery' as a governing principle, all suggest that an understanding of Cardew's standpoint at this time as essentially 'modernist' is not as heretical a thought as it might first seem.

In the Edinburgh lecture Cardew reiterates 'the modern potter's ideal of Pure Pottery'4 (original emphasis) and he struggles to reconcile his ambition for pottery to be regarded as a fine art alongside painting and sculpture, with an insistence on the difference of pottery from those art forms and the necessity for pottery to be used rather than merely appreciated. He was neither the first nor the last to ponder the utility/beauty equation; William Morris had initiated the debate around this issue some sixty years previously and it would rumble on for at least as much time again after Cardew's contribution at Edinburgh in 1938. This date, however, is significant in that it was a moment when the argument took on a particular resonance through the jostling of studio potters against their industrial counterparts in Stoke-on-Trent, with Cardew emerging as a perhaps unexpected protagonist.

In both the talks at Gloucester and Edinburgh, Cardew shows an acute awareness of the challenge that the pottery industry (or 'Staffordshire'as he sometimes refers to it) and studio pottery posed to one another. Indeed he finishes his Edinburgh talk with an appeal for some kind of reconciliation. Further, the Edinburgh manuscript is accompanied by an additional attached page with the heading 'Notes for Staffs. Dec.1938'. These notes are tantalising and lead us to speculate that Cardew may have given a talk to representatives of the pottery industry and we can only wonder about the response that he might have received and the content of any ensuing debate.

We do know that Cardew visited Stoke-on-Trent at this time. In his autobiography he tells us that he spent a few weeks in 1938 working at the Copelands factory in Stoke and it was during this period due, to a great extent to the influence of Henry Bergen, that Cardew became aware of wider political and social issues as they related to studio pottery. From the evidence of the autobiography it appears that it was Bergen's influence that made up Cardew's mind to go to Stoke and find out for himself the conditions under which industrial pottery was manufactured. This was a period of rapid change in the industry but at the time of Cardew's visit, craft skills were still very much in evidence and he was impressed by this, saying that:

The main difference between the way of working at Copelands and that of our little group in Winchcombe was not, essentially, the difference between mechanization and handwork; it was rather the difference between a very large, sophisticated organization and a very small and primitive one.5

Cardew displays a considerable degree of sympathy towards the workers at Copeland and is respectful of what they were doing; he even describes the atmosphere of the workshop as 'beautiful'.6 But he knew that he was witnessing the end of an era and the gap between the studio and the factory, although it seemed almost bridgeable at the time of his visit in 1938, would afterwards inexorably widen. Confirmation of this can be found in the text of a third surviving talk by Cardew. This is entitled 'Industry and the Studio Potter' and it was delivered at Lincoln in March 1942. The edited text was published the same year in Crafts (the quarterly magazine of the Red Rose Guild) and was reprinted in Garth Clark's 1978 anthology Ceramic Art, Comment and Review 1882-1977 .   

There are three surviving manuscripts which relate to the Lincoln talk and they show that Cardew's remarks were toned down for publication (a remark about the industrialists disliking and despising studio potters was edited out of the published text). The first manuscript is in the form of a synopsis, the second looks like a heavily modified, provisional text and the third is something like a final draft, although still much altered.7 The themes that Cardew was exploring a few years earlier are taken up anew. He talks again of the 'modern school of studio potters' and worries about them being misunderstood and under-appreciated in Staffordshire. He explores again the possibility of co-operation between the studio and the factory but he is despondent about the prospect. The look, the tone, the vocabulary and the content of the 'Industry and the Studio Potter' texts are best described as fretful, hardly surprising perhaps in view of the circumstances. It was the dark days of the second world war and, on a more personal level, the precarious financial situation of Cardew at Wenford Bridge weighed heavily on his mind. Within a matter of weeks Cardew would leave this troubling set of circumstances behind him although, as he embarked for Africa, he could hardly have imagined what new difficulties lay ahead.

The text of 'Modern English Potters', which is published here for the first time, offers a window into a pivotal period of the history of the studio pottery movement in Britain. By the time of Cardew's talk in Edinburgh in 1938 the first phase of that history, dominated by the figure of William Staite Murray was coming quickly to an end. The outbreak of war in 1939 would radically alter the conditions under which studio pottery, like all areas of human activity, would be pursued and, on a more localised level, the publication of Bernard Leach's A Potter's Book in 1940 would drive a new studio pottery agenda forward.

Taking the three lectures at Gloucester (1936), Edinburgh (1938) and Lincoln (1942) as a whole it is clear that they chart a move away from a confident appraisal of studio pottery as a practice with the potential somehow to reconcile the old and the new, the fine and the applied arts, the studio and the factory, to a bleaker assessment of such possibilities within a worsening personal and political/cultural context. These are valuable texts which give an insight both into Cardew's world and into a general studio pottery consciousness. Cardew himself, however, seems not to have valued them so, at least in later life, and there is a suggestion from Garth Clark that Cardew wished to forget about his writings from this period, to disown them even.8 Perhaps Cardew was afterwards uncomfortable with the idea of potters being 'modern' or he felt that the idea of modernity itself was something from which he became geographically and intellectually estranged.

In transcribing the manuscript of 'Modern English Potters' I have tried, as far as possible, to retain the format of the text and have only made those corrections necessary for publication. The editorial committee of Interpreting Ceramics is grateful to Seth Cardew for permission to publish the text of 'Modern English Potters'.



1 Letter from Michael Cardew to William Staite Murray, 24 March 1938, William Staite Murray archive, Folder 4, 'General Correspondence 1924-57', Crafts Study Centre, The Surrey Institute of Art and Design, University College.

2 Michael Cardew, 'Modern English Potters', manuscript of talk given at Edinburgh College of Art, 25 November 1938, collection of Seth Cardew.

3 Michael Cardew, 'Six Modern Potters', manuscript of talk given to Gloucester Society of Artists, 30 January 1936, collection of Seth Cardew.  

4 Cardew, 'Modern English Potters', p.12.

5 Michael Cardew, A Pioneer Potter, An Autobiography , London, Collins, 1988, p. 98.

6 Cardew, A Pioneer Potter , p.98.

7 'Industry and the Studio Potter', Lincoln, 5 March 1942, three texts, collection of Seth Cardew. No indication is given of the audience.

8 Comment by Garth Clark at The Michael Cardew Centenary Symposium, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 27-28 June 2001.

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