Michael Casson – Special Suppliment
Pan Casson Henry interviewed by Moira Vincentelli
29 November 1994 and revised in April 2005
The interview is illustrated by photographs from the CPA (Craftsmen Potters Association, now the Craft Potters Association) Archive on deposit in the Ceramic Archive at University of Wales, Aberystwyth. They are available through the National Library of Wales.
In this interview with Moira Vincentelli Pan Casson Henry recalls the early years of the Craft Potters Association and the CPA shop, which she ran for thirteen years from 1960. She discusses how the shop was set up, the arrangements for running it, the style of the decor and the debates around selecting work. In 1974 Pan Casson set up her own gallery, the Casson Gallery, in Marleybone High Street where she sold ceramics, prints, jewellery and glass till 1988. The interview dates from 1994 but the transcript has been revised with some additional information added in 2005. These parts have been left as a different colour.
The Beginnings of the Craft Potters Association
Well known potters and the CPA – Michael Cardew, the Leach Family, Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie, Denise and Rosemary Wren, Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, Harry and May Davis
MV . Can you tell me a little about how you first got interested in art and ceramics?
PCH Well really the ceramics part was through my brother, Mick Casson.
MV What about your family?
PCH Well I suppose there was an artistic streak – not that I am claiming I have one. My mother was an amateur painter when she was young and my sister Joan also was an amateur painter but she was much better than I was. Of course when Mick went to art school he too started out deciding he wanted to be a painter but the moment he got his hands into clay of course he decided he wanted to be a potter. So, he finally had a small pottery in a business near Russell Square with my other brother and I became fascinated with this and I used to go down a couple of times a week in the evening and he showed me how to make pottery. Now I am a bit of an all or nothing person, if I take on anything I do tend to give it my all if I am really interested. I was doing something else entirely different and I didn't have the time to give it, so I walked away from it. Now to my mind I am not a potter but at least I had the understanding of ceramics. I had the understanding of the use of the clay, the wheel, certain glazes, things like that. So when several years later Mick phoned me one day and said I would be hearing from a man called David Canter, and I said 'My goodness what's all this about'. And he said 'Well you know, there is an association of potters we've been forming and David Canter has really got the bit between his teeth. He is determined to find a shop for us so we can all belong and sell our ceramics through the shop. So I said, 'Where do I come in?'. 'Well' David said 'we'll need someone to run the shop'. Now, first of all a lot of people said that because we had no money – which was perfectly true – we could get volunteers. David said 'The last thing we want is volunteers, because somehow the whole of that system breaks down, someone doesn't turn up – it's a minefield. I personally want someone... What sort of person? Well let me say the sort of person I am looking for, although we may not get'. He said 'It could be a man or woman – they don't need paying or hardly anything at all – it would be nice if they did have some sort of business sense and of course it would be even better if they knew something about ceramics. Now does anybody here know anybody?' And Mick said, 'Pan, I found myself saying – I have a sister – who might be interested'. So, he took my number and he did phone me. That day changed my life.
MV Can I go back to your brothers and sisters.
PCH I have four brothers and two sisters. The only – the most artistic one is Mick. And the other artistic one is my sister Joan who was and still is an amateur painter.
MV Mick was potting with someone?
PCH No. He began to work in the basement of a hardware business that he and our other brother Tony owned near Russell Square. I became fascinated and would go there once or twice a week in the evenings and he showed me the delights and frustrations of making pottery.
MV And when they first turned to you were living in London? Were you a London family?
PCH Oh yes, I was born just near here, Highgate village. I have lived near here most of my life.
MV So what were you doing in London at that time? Were you a housewife?
PCH No I haven't been a housewife all that many times because I have enjoyed being in business. In fact most of my life from very early on I was put into the family business because one of us was expected to go into the business
MV Which was?
PCH . Restaurants. I was the fourth generation of the family in that business. It was so fortuitous, as I had literally only a given up what I was doing for a matter of weeks. So Mick knew I was not doing anything, which wasn't like me, and guessed I would soon get bored and he was right.
MV You were married at this point with children ... ?
PCH I have been married twice and I have one son by my first marriage. He was seventeen at the time.
PCH So that was the situation ... we were living just near here in Highgate so as I said when Mick said David Canter will phone you and he'll tell you all about it so I thought – I don't know – trust old Mick to put my name forward. Anyway next day I had this phone call and he invited me ... so I thought I might as well go and see what it was all about which I did. At that time David ran and owned the pen shop. He had a pen shop in Upper Regent St. So I went up there and met him and from the moment I met him, we absolutely got on enormously. He told me what he wanted or expected to run CPA. I seldom drink and he decided he would like to offer me some wine, which foolishly I accepted and so I ended up a bit tipsy and said 'yes' to everything. And when I got back home Paul, my husband, said to me 'How did you get on?' and when I told him he said 'Pan, no one person can do that'. (laughing) 'Well actually I got a bit tipsy and said yes to everything'. But I was intrigued and so David invited me along to the shop – this was in 1959 – and he arranged to meet me, so he, Mick and I met in Lowndes Court just off Carnaby St to look at this shell of a place David had just discovered. It was very broken down, run down and it needed loads of repainting. It was such a bad state that when we went to sign everything, they actually gave it to us rent free for several months and that does not happen very often, particularly in the West End.
MV So this was just before it was, it became popular.
PCH It was quite a long time before Carnaby Street became the mecca of sixties London. This was 1959 and it took us a year to build it into the shop.
MV At that time it would have been in the back streets in the West End?
PCH Well no, but except it always was such a lovely street. When I look back now... there were some lovely little shops there and it was always very busy because you see it was near the Palladium and many days you could be walking along there and you would see some of the stars coming from rehearsing and they would be in and out of some of the pubs. It was such a lively little street.
MV It had good potential and they recognised that?
PCH Oh yes absolutely. It was really another three years before the Carnaby Street bubble burst and it burst in a nice way. It was so exciting when I look back, to be there at that time. You could feel the change all around you. Although it was sad, well I thought it was sad, to see some of these lovely little shops go because I knew nearly all of them and they used to say – 'we're not going to sell to these people, we'll hold out', but of course they made them offers they couldn't refuse and one by one they went.
MV But the CPA stayed on there?
PCH Oh yes I must tell you one little anecdote which will just show you how 'poor' we were. It is that the day we opened, which was May 1960 – it had taken just about a year to build and we did everything ourselves. Weeks before I had asked all the associate members if they would kindly save their plain brown paper bags and let me have them and I ironed them all out and kept a whole pile of them behind my counter and the day we opened we had forgotten about the tissue paper and I went out to the other shops in Carnaby Street and bought two reams of tissue paper. So, it is all these wonderful stories that are coming back to me now.
MV So when you started getting involved, which was a year before it actually opened, you were agreeing to help set this business up really and you didn't need to be paid at that point or not very much?
PCH It sounds if I put it this way. No, I did not need the money if you like to say that. Of course David insisted on paying me something because he was a business man that thought we just can't have anybody here for nothing and so, yes it was a very small amount.
MV It was a kind of symbolic amount?
PCH For me it was a challenge and an interest and above all that, it was my whole way of life. It turned out to be my whole way of life for thirteen years, and it wasn't a job to me. I spent hours and hours and I sometimes didn't leave there till nine o'clock at night, much to my husband's annoyance, but I just loved it and all the people I met.
MV Can you tell me about the day you opened?
PCH Well we opened with a wonderful exhibition of a potter called Ray Finch of Winchcombe Pottery in Gloucestershire and Ray had always only been an earthenware potter and Winchcombe had only done earthenware. It had a great history as Michael Cardew and Colin Pearson and other potters had worked there. Ray had decided that now was the time to turn to stoneware and his stoneware had never been seen, only if you went out there to buy. So David got him to agree to put on the exhibition which took up the whole of the ground floor. It was really beautiful.
MV And there was other work as well?
PCH Oh yes, you came in on the ground floor obviously and you went downstairs and came into this beautiful basement. It wasn't when I first saw it – I thought 'Oh my God, yuck', and we had to try to do it as cheaply as possible and so we had lots of volunteers and some of them claimed to be very good at certain things which fortunately for us they were, but the main people, men, who made my desk, all the shelving and everything, that was David Canter, my brother, Mick, and Lawrence Keen. David got out a proper rota system, other wise you would turn up and not know what to do. David was there quite a lot, but he certainly couldn't be there every day of the week. He had The Pen Shop in Regent Street but he also had a partner and he was lucky because he could take quite a bit of time off because his partner was happy to carry on. The rest of us all had different jobs. I volunteered to do the painting – or the paintwork. I thought I was quite competent once because Paul had shown me once how to paint properly and I had to prove it to David because he really was a stickler for having everything just right and he saw what I did and said "Yes you can paint Pan" and I started off. I remember wearing a brand new pair of emerald green jeans and I decided that every time I went there I was always going to wear those jeans and a year later I was still wearing those jeans but by the time I took them off for the last time they were tattered and torn and covered in paint. And finally one of my last jobs was painting the outside of it and I was up an enormous ladder and the final touch was outside on the windows and I can see myself doing that now. So we had great fun because we met a lot of people and got to know each other by meeting to do actual work there. It was all so exciting.
MV So the actual process of setting up the shop as a community experience was very important?
PCH Oh yes, it was thanks to David, there was no doubt about that. He got us all together and we did work hard but, oh gosh we had fun.
The big question so many asked then and later, was how was the building of the shop financed? David approached several of us to give, not lend, a certain amount of money. He had estimated the cost of the materials needed such as wood, glass, flooring (and being a trained architect he was experienced in this) so those of us who could give, did. There was no guarantee of being paid back because no one had any idea how successful this venture would be. But in return as a gesture of thanks for the financial help given, we later offered those potters a special solo exhibition of their work for two weeks at a time. No charges were made for expenses incurred so quite a few were delighted to take up this offer. It was of great interest to me to put on exhibitions because I got to know the potter more as we encouraged him or her to be in attendance as much as possible so they could meet the customers and discuss their work if necessary.
The same request for financial help came when we moved the shop from Lowndes Court to the much larger premises in Marshall Street in 1968, but this time David guaranteed that all the money loaned would be paid back within two years – I think it was. As it happened sales 'took off' quicker than we anticipated and it was paid back very much sooner.
MV How had he got interested in pottery?
PCH . Ah, the interest in his pottery. At the time he lived in Surrey and he had got friendly with Rosemary and Denise Wren who in turn... through Walter Lipton . Better come back to Walter Lipton, because really the CPA was founded because of Walter Lipton. He headed up the Rural Industries Bureau in those days and because of the nature of his job he went around visiting very small business and to help them and give them advice and of course he met an number of potters who were very isolated... didn't know other potters. He thought it would be a good idea to get them all together and the only way to get them together was to have an exhibition. He in turn knew Lady Pamela Glenconner and approached her, to ask her... because she had a large house, if she was prepared hold an exhibition in her house. Pamela was the most marvellous – I shall use 'character' – in the most wonderful sense that I can use that word because she was. And she was such a support to us all and we loved her dearly and she became our Chairlady. Of course that took a long time to get together and I wasn't on the scene at that time, so because they then all got together and saw what a wonderful idea it was they decided to form an Association. Now David of course because of the Wrens, he used to go and pot a bit at the Wren's pottery and they used to fire his work and then, of course, he bought his own very small kiln in his own house and really he sort of came through it in that way. He was so clever he was one of those men who could put his hand to anything and so he loved potting and that's how he came into it. (What I have just said about the beginnings of the CPA is only the outline as you can imagine. I just want to give the 'feel' of it at the time and not to record the details of the many meetings and discussions that were held before it all came together.)
MV Was he always running a business as well?
PCH Well the same pen shop but because he had a partner it was good that he had the time to give to the Association. So really that's how it was formed.
|Michael Casson – Special Suppliment Issue 6|