Michael Casson – Special Suppliment
Michael Casson - An Appreciation
Although the world of studio pottery in Britain in the post-war period was dominated by the ideas and towering presence of Bernard Leach based in far away St Ives, he was a revered if remote figure. Other potters, inspired by his ideals, while not wanting to reproduce his sort of pots, were much more in the centre of the flourishing studio pottery movement, which began to take concrete form in the 1950s with the establishment of the Craftsmen Potters Association (now Craft Potters Association or more commonly CPA). This, together with a more liberal approach to art education and the introduction of vocational courses, saw a renaissance of the art of the potter, much of which was based around the idea of functional work. Michael (Mick) Casson, a celebrated potter, was a key figure within the studio pottery movement, continuing to support and advise until his death in 2003. Not only was he a highly talented and creative potter in his own right, but also a greatly respected and charismatic teacher and educator, influencing several generations of potters.
By the late 1940s Bernard Leach and his son David at the Leach Pottery had firmly established a sound working model for many studio potters. At St Ives a small team of skilled potters produced a range of tableware that was fired in a reduction atmosphere to stoneware temperatures alongside individual or one-off pots. Well-designed and making effective use of glaze and body, Leach Standard Ware was practical, attractive to look at and reasonably priced. It was an inspiration for many potters. Repetition, domestic or production wares, often known - rather dismissively - as bread and butter lines, became the bedrock of their production, celebrating the qualities of the handmade object with work that was often placed at the heart of the home. It was a model that still offers the attractions of a unified and whole way of life in which work and leisure are satisfactorily combined. Echoing the artisan workshops of pre-industrial Britain, the studio potter was likely to settle for a modest standard of living, the pleasure of self-employment and creative if often demanding work a great compensation. It was against this background that Casson developed as a studio potter.
In many ways Casson was an unlikely potter. Of medium build and born with several vertebrae welded together in his neck, his diminutive figure, rounded shoulders, full beard and twinkling eyes looked as much like a benign monk as a leading potter. Yet his appearance belied tough strength, a sharp intelligence and a humanitarian concern for people and politics. After reading Bernard Leach's A Potter's Book , he responded positively to its concept and its advocacy of functional and individual wares. Together with his wife Sheila, he sought to put Leach's ideas into practice, but responding to them with great individuality. Michael Casson was born in London in 1925, one of four children, to a family of restaurateurs in the City. Deemed unsuitable for the armed services in the war because of his back, he served in the fire service, spending much of his time fire watching in Oxo Tower on the South Bank.
With the war over he first studied art and woodwork at Shoreditch College, before moving as a full-time student to Hornsey College of Art in north London, intending to be a painter. With many students who had seen war service, art schools were rapidly broadening their approach, though a radical change in their structure was to take more time.1 At Hornsey Casson discovered ceramics, and, although the teaching and facilities were minimal, he specialised in throwing on the wheel. With an emphasis at the college on industrial techniques, the clay tended to be non-plastic and difficult to throw - a tough training ground for the would-be potter and one demanding considerable commitment. At Hornsey he met fellow student Sheila Wilmot and they were married in 1955. Other students included Eileen Nisbet, an artist who went on to become a distinguished potter working in hand-built porcelain, and who was to become a life-long friend, and Victor Margrie, a gifted potter and educator. Despite their different temperaments, Casson and Margrie shared an abiding interest in ceramics and were later to see the need for proper educational training.
Regardless of the relatively low level of teaching at Hornsey Casson had found his metier, and with his brother, from 1952, he helped to run a hardware shop, 55 Marchmont Street in London. Here he not only helped to serve in the shop but set up a studio in the basement with an electric kiln. Rejecting the orientalism of Leach's aesthetics, he turned instead to more European models, looking for example at early Mediterranean wares. In this he had more in common with the broader approach of the Central School of Art, where, under the catholic teaching of Dora Billington, students were encouraged to hand-build as well as use colour on their pots. Working in red earthenware and despite the limited facilities, Casson produced lively, progressive-looking forms with a white tin glaze, the iron speckling adding an extra sparkle to the surface. Shapes included bookends, bowls, salad serving dishes and lidded containers, many of which had a knob freely but simply modelled in the form of a bird. In the atmosphere of post-war austerity, these were successfully sold to department stores such as Liberty and Heals, eager for individual pots to fill their shelves.
Reassured about the possibilities of working as a potter - then made up of a relatively small group of individuals - but feeling the studio was too cramped, in 1959 the family moved to Prestwood, Buckinghamshire. Not only did Casson feel the need for more space but also the possibility of doing high temperature reduction firing. Recent advances in kiln technology, the availability of refractories, and plans for building and firing small-scale kilns made this much more possible without vast expense. At Prestwood the Cassons bought property and set up a workshop in what had been a greengrocers shop, also making use of an old chicken shed in the grounds. With the use of a gas-fired kiln and ample space, Casson was able to expand, developing a range of reduction-fired tableware that was sold in the many craft shops then opening across the country. The forms, made on the wheel, explored the interaction between body and clay, and the rich, but quiet, contemplative colours of pale green celadons, deep black brown temmokus as well as matt browns. Memorably, Casson produced a range of well-designed functional ware, including lively rounded teapots, mugs, and casseroles, many with restrained brushwork decoration for which he had a natural feel. Despite the pottery being destroyed by fire in 1963, with Sheila's help they rebuilt the kiln and re-established the pottery.
Positioned within easy reach of London, the years at Prestwood was a time of expansion and consolidation, not only in developing his work as a potter but also in playing a key role in diligently nurturing the burgeoning studio pottery movement. He was a central figure in establishing the CPA as a cooperative potters' society and a national body for studio potters, literally helping to construct its shop and gallery in the West End of London which made use of natural stone and wood. Working with the honorary secretary, David Canter, Casson helped put the CPA on a sound, democratic footing, serving on its Council as both member and later chair. He was also a keen supporter and advocate of the Crafts Centre of Great Britain (later British Crafts Centre, now Contemporary Applied Arts) seeing it through many of its economic, political and aesthetic struggles since its inception in 1948.
In 1976, feeling that what had been a rural area in Buckinghamshire was becoming increasingly urban, the Cassons moved to Wobage Farm set in the beautiful rolling countryside of Herefordshire on the Welsh border. The view of the distant hills was to inspire Casson in some of his sumptuous, abstract decoration. The unassuming farmhouse - part Elizabethan, part eighteenth century structure - was surrounded by plenty of out buildings that were converted to studios, including a vast barn that was dubbed the Cathedral. At Wobage Casson took time to experiment, not only devising new bodies and building different kinds of kilns but also in the forms he made, moving away from tableware to concentrate on more individual pieces. By carefully calculating the chemical make up of clay bodies, Casson formulated a stoneware body that fired a rich red brown, a mixture that on the face of it would cause problems at high temperature, but which proved a great success.
At Wobage a small community of potters developed, which included Sheila Casson and his son-in-law Andrew McGarva, but was later to include other potters. With McGarva's help, Casson tried out different types of kilns. These included building an efficient 60 cu foot oil kiln for most of the production, while at the same time, aware of waste and the need for renewable resources, he experimented with smaller ones fired with waste wood from the nearby Forest of Dean. Despite the physically demanding task of firing with wood, this proved to be Casson's favourite fuel; he enjoyed the intimacy and closeness of the flame and the effects of this on the clay. A new interest in salt-glaze kiln allowed Casson to investigate the unity of glaze and form in a fresh way, an effect he explored with great sensitivity on porcelain shapes.
At Wobage, Casson felt free to spend time on developing his more individual pieces, taking particular shapes such as jugs or teapots and exploring the subtlety of forms. His jugs, in particular, quickly became his signature pieces. Derived from the tall flowing shapes of medieval jugs and pitchers, these could be rounded and full at the base set with a strong, flaring neck bringing the shape to a happy conclusion. Others were slender, more architectural in feeling, with a subtle, gently swelling belly, the handles totally in keeping with the overall concept, sturdy enough to be held but also elegant and graceful.
A natural decorator, Casson developed a range of incised, wax and paper resist decorations used in conjunction with different clay slips and used on bowls and jugs. Some designs were based on the abstracted form of a swimmer, the colours suggesting a watery effect, others on more geometrical patterns, some recalling the rhythm of waves and the undulating patterns of the local landscape. Colours, derived from a range of slips, were invariably those of the earth, such as deep ochres, saturated dark browns and creamy whites. On other pieces Casson experimented with inky blues and greys that worked well in salt-glaze. In Casson's hands shape and decoration formed one harmonious whole, and with a sharp eye on assessing the success of his own pots, divided them into Racers, for the best pieces, followed by Gems, Firsts and Subs. Exhibitions in London at the Craft Potters Association and the British Crafts Centre consolidated his reputation, as did shows abroad.
With an interest in the wider role of craft, and of studio pottery in particular, and having been deeply critical of the limited education he received at Hornsey, Casson was keen to support reform. To eke out his income, he taught drawing at was then Harrow School of Art, where Victor Margrie taught pottery. Notable students at this time included Walter Keeler, a gifted potter, who later taught there. With the possibilities for change in the early 1960s, along with Victor Margrie, Casson was one of the initiators of the Harrow Studio Pottery Course (now part of Westminster University), then a two year programme that aimed to offer a vocational rather than an academic education to help meet the growing needs of students wanting a sound, practical training before setting up their own workshop. The choice between naming your pottery as studio or workshop was part of an ideological debate on the identity of the studio potter, between the potter as artist or artisan.
With an intention to teach practical, professional skills rather than take the traditional art school approach of exploring idea before technique, Colin Pearson, a professional potter who had trained in workshops rather than art school, was recruited to teach repetition throwing. Pearson, having worked at Winchcombe Pottery with Ray Finch and at Aylesford Pottery with David Leach before setting up his own pottery, was a highly accomplished thrower as well as a sensitive maker. After a hesitant start, the course proved a huge success, graduating students including such leading potters as Janice Tchalenko and Jane Hamlyn, who successfully competed with the male students in their throwing skills. With his art school background, Casson confessed to learning as much as the students from the other members of staff, revolutionising his approach to throwing, which became more fluid and easy. Harrow also inaugurated an experimental kiln site where students could build and experiment with a range of firings, work that also fostered Casson's own ideas about the possibilities of clay and firing.
With the setting up of the Crafts Advisory Committee (now Crafts Council) in the early 1970s, under the directorship of Victor Margrie, Casson's sound, practical advice was soon sought. He became involved in running committees and helping to steer the new body with insight and understanding. As vice-chairman he was a fine advocate for the crafts, speaking in support of greater understanding and appreciation of craft skills and their role in the modern world. Casson's generously illustrated book Pottery in Britain Today, 1967, was one of the first to illuminate the range and diversity of contemporary studio pottery.
Calling on his skills as a potter, teacher and communicator, in 1976, Casson devised and presented the BBC series The Craft of the Potter , writing its accompanying book. The groundbreaking series was aimed at demystifying the art of the potter by looking not only at historical ceramics, but more significantly featuring practical demonstration of potters at work, whether making pots, decorating shapes or firing kilns. Shot mostly on location in potter's studios, the series carried a vital element of authenticity, supported by intelligent discussion of what made a successful pot. To the BBC's amazement not only were the programmes a great success, and the series was repeated many times, but the book continued to be reprinted. With his disarming, unassuming air, Casson proved a gifted presenter. He was articulate, knowledgeable, non-patronising and interested, his bearded face looking every inch a potter.
With increasing age Casson suffered bouts of illness, and one of the struggles of his latter years was to decline growing public demands on his time to allow him to concentrate on his own pots. These continued to be innovative, with new shapes devised and older forms revisited with a fresh eye. Like many potters Casson was a paradox; he was, for instance, interested in and fascinated by Leach's ideas while wanting to develop them along his own lines. Equally, he was aware of some of the dilemmas facing studio potters, such as should they break with the artisan tradition, as fine artists had done, or should they seek to continue it, accepting traditional aesthetic values on the basis of established technical procedures to meet modern needs and satisfy contemporary requirements? Like many other potters, Casson chose the middle way combining the conventional attitudes of the studio potter with an innovative approach that continued to find creative roots in both the ceramics of the past and in contemporary ideas.
In his own work Casson sought what Leach described as 'vitality', an elusive quality that is evident when seen but hard to capture in words. For Casson this included a search for grace and harmony in which the making fell away to become lost in the whole; shape, decoration and glaze should, he thought, form a coherent and pleasing unity. This involved weight and balance, in which the pot appeared as if it was on the point of movement. Glazes were soft and light absorbing, surfaces to bring out the sculptural qualities of the form. Intended to be enjoyed within the domestic environment, Michael Casson celebrated the art of the potter with deceptive easy, his pots carrying a powerful sense of the personality and generosity of their maker.
Frederick Michael Casson, born London 2 April 1925, died Bishop Upton, Ross-on-Wye 12 December 2003. Survived by his wife Sheila and three children Clare, Lucy and Ben. Casson was awarded the OBE in 1984.
1 The three-year course leading to a Diploma in Art and Design was instituted in 1963, and was regarded as the equivalent to a degree. Hitherto art schools, many small and set up at the end of the nineteenth century, ran courses under the direction of the Department of Education and Science, awarding a number of art certificate and diplomas.
|Michael Casson – Special Suppliment Issue 6|