Michael Casson – Special Suppliment
Pan Casson Henry interviewed by Moira Vincentelli
29 November 1994 and revised in April 2005
MV Well lets go on to the actual running of the shop? Selling was going to be a very important part of this?
PCH Oh it wasn't only very important, it was the only bit really. We had to sell well to pay the expenses obviously. The idea was that the potters could bring work. They had to belong as a member and we got forms out and they joined properly and paid so much a year, a very small amount.
MV Was there right from the beginning selection?
PCH No. When we first opened it was very idealistic I suppose, looking back on it now. We assumed - when I say we I mean David, myself and the committee - we assumed the best potters would bring their best work and everything would be lovely but of course it didn't work that way because the longer we stayed open anyone could come along, join as a member and they could put whatever work they liked in. As I was explaining, we had a ground floor and a basement. Downstairs in the basement, the three men put up all the shelving and everyone was entitled to a space on a shelf where their name was and where they could put their work on show, all priced, and people could go down there - the public could go down there. To keep the cost down, the floor was lined with the most beautiful Delabole slate which we had sent up from Cornwall and it looked absolutely wonderful. That was one of the nicest bits about it.
MV So it was slate with wood?
PCH Very ordinary wood, very simple shelving, and all the walls were white washed and all the wall had been rendered - I didn't know what rendering was but I found out and did it. You couldn't hurt that floor, it was everlasting.
PCH So as I said, in theory anyone could join, they could become a Full Member then they had this space on the shelf.
MV Did you ever think you might run out of space or did you feel there would be room for everyone that wanted?
PCH I suppose we thought there would be room but we really didn't know.
We hoped to encourage the best work but we didn't always get it. The fact is that some of the work coming in was certainly not up to the standard we expected and I became very worried about this. Being there every day and having to put it on display put me in the position of thinking - I can't stay here and deal with this inferior work. I certainly wasn't alone in this worry and as we were anxious to attract certain top potters to join the association we knew they wouldn't unless we did something about it. So Mick and David called a special meeting to be held at the shop. The meeting was packed. David explained the situation and that we must change from non-selection to selection and that the vote would be taken there and then. David and I felt so confident that we would get the support so imagine our amazement when the Yes votes only scraped through! Not for a moment did it cross our minds that we might be thwarted on this; we believed utterly that this was the right course to take - and it was - because everything would have been so different otherwise. The most difficult part of the change over for me was having to confront the potters whose work was considered to be sub-standard. The newly-formed Selection Committee, which included David and myself, had to go through every member's work and vote on almost every pot in view! Time consuming but vital to be completely fair to everyone. The potters were asked to remove certain pieces or in some cases, all of their work and this was very traumatic for me because no committee member faced them like I had to do. Some were angry, some upset and I too was upset at times because I had become close to quite a few - but there you are, it was awful but had to be done to try to raise the standards all round. A very emotional time. However, once selection was in place things were different naturally.
MV Was it the kind of people you might not have wanted in who voted against selection?
PCH I think it was a mixture, I'm trying to remember. I know I wasn't surprised when some people's hand shot up, I was surprised at some of the others, I did ask one or two of them afterwards, and one particular member, who I can't name, but a person very dear to me - I was amazed when I saw the hand go up. The answer was that she was such an idealist person she just thought it was terribly sad that these people who perhaps weren't terribly good potters weren't getting a chance, but I am afraid we had to be much more commercially minded. We had to be commercially minded, otherwise we couldn't pay the rent - we couldn't do anything.
MV Was it true that what you saw as being the good pottery was selling better in the shop than the poor stuff?
PCH I have to say 'No', I can t claim that I noticed it at the time. No I am constantly amazed even after all these years at what people will buy. I sound a bit rude when I say that because what is so very difficult to define is of course the word 'taste'. We knew what we wanted in the shop.
MV Can you say what kind of things you wanted?
PCH Oh dear.
MV Or maybe what kind of things you were very worried about? There are two possibilities one of them might be...
PCH Well may I interrupt you ... one of the glaring examples of course if you got... lets take the very simple things - a mug or a plate - because we sold sculpture... teapots or the whole range of ceramics although I won't call a teapot a basic thing, it is one of the most difficult things to make, that's why some potters don't make them.. But talking about mugs and saucers and plates - if there was obviously a terrible handle that you couldn't get your finger through or was very difficult to hold or the lids didn't fit. I particularly got to be known - 'well, don't take anything to show to Pan if the lid doesn't fit because she won't accept it!' That gave pottery a bad name in so many places.
MV So function was very important?
PCH Function was terribly important.
MV So you could look at things when they first came in and decide?
PCH Not in the first six months, I couldn't. But once selection was in place I personally could remove anything from the potter's 'space' and put it aside until the next Selection Committee meeting. If the rejection was agreed I would inform the potter and ask for it to be removed. Also, any member of the Committee could do the same - this seemed to work very well.
MV What about commercial things? Not things that are necessarily badly made, or for example slip cast things or was there anyone who was going over to too much to mass production or imagery that you felt was not nice?
PCH You're absolutely right, so many of the things were absolutely ghastly - it was terrible, terrible, unbelievable - some of things that came along and people were buying them.
MV So it wasn't just financial turnover, it really was a kind of value - a standard of pottery you wanted?
PCH Oh yes, definitely. This was always going to be difficult to define 'standards' , but a decision was taken to print a two-page leaflet setting out a statement of policy on the subject of standards of work and method of selection of new member's work. This was going to be available to any new applicant requesting to see it. Later, during the time Mick was Chairman of the CPA the Council decided to review its whole policy of selection. Mick called a meeting, but after lengthy discussion we just couldn't agree so the whole thing was scrapped. We simply went back to the basic way of viewing the work of an applicant together with their background information which they had written on the application form, answering such question as 'Had they been to art school or evening classes, etc, etc' and then by a majority vote they were accepted or rejected. We gave a great deal of time to each applicant's work - discussing and arguing - it certainly was not a quick Yes or No. Because, once again, I faced all the applicants I had an idea that I put to the committee. I proposed to take notes during out meetings as to why we rejected the work. I said 'Why don't we suggest certain things and give more help where necessary, because the first thing anyone says to me is why is my work not accepted?' I also said the notes would be strictly confidential and that I personally would type them - not another member of staff - and the potter would be told this.
The idea was enthusiastically received. I am sure - well in fact I know - that quite a few potters were helped by this because no one else was giving advice. I did get some abuse from one or two however, but that was to be expected I guess - all in a day's work!!
MV Did that count for much? Would you say that people who had art school training were more consistently getting through the selection system than people who hadn't.
PCH I think on balance, yes, true. And apart from being very strict on who we were going to accept we also felt that the public at large didn't know anything about hand-made pottery and what little they did know... I used to say to them 'See how well this teapot lid fits' and so I used to show them and talk to them about it and they used to say 'Oh well it doesn't matter if it doesn't fit - its hand-made pottery'... Gasp... and that is the sort of thing... we were trying to 'educate', if I can use that word - the public. Yes it does matter, lids must fit and handles have got to be right. So many people used to say to me, 'These teapots can't be used, can they? Or - you can't put these casseroles in the oven, you can't put hot food on those plates, can you?' They genuinely thought that any handmade pot was just for show, certainly not for use. I delighted in telling them the reality. Mick and I were really strict on handles and knobs. We used to look at the handle or the lid or the spout. We put that before the actual look of it even if it was a beautiful form and the glaze was lovely or anything like that. If it was supposed to be a functional thing then it had to be functional - it had to work.
MV . What about the actual look of things? How would you describe the sort of range of things you were getting through the system? Looking back on it were things being rejected that you might look at differently now?For example - decoration or particular technique... stoneware as opposed to earthenware? You know how people talk about 'brown pots'...was it mostly that kind of thing or were there brightly coloured things?
PCH Well I think about that time, about 1960 and the next two or three years there were quite a few earthenware potters including my brother.. and some of them said 'I will always make earthenware I will never change to stoneware'- I am afraid the difference in making the stoneware from earthenware was too much of a pull because the glazing's different, the body's different, the firing's different or can be different - if you use an electric kiln you use an electric kiln... there was this change in the air if you like that people were changing to stoneware.
MV Was stoneware seen as somehow nearer an art form?
PCH No I don't think an art form, I am talking about those days, thirty years ago. I think it was the challenge. Some people used to come in and say everything looks brown and grey which of course was absolute nonsense, but stoneware offers a much wider range of glazes for a start and one can use ash and salt and soda glazing because stoneware is fired in a reduction kiln. Therefore stoneware has a different look to earthenware just as porcelain looks different to the other two. We used to have evening meetings at the shop, which were wonderful for all the information and ideas exchanged.
MV Were you talking there about people who came from around London?
PCH Oh no they would come for miles to a meeting. Apart from the Full Members and there was also Associate members - anyone could be an Associate, these could be full-time potters but maybe they sold from their workshop so they didn't need CPA but it was a minority because they all aimed to have their work shown in London of course - and also people who were interested, not only students but evening class people.
All the meetings, about two or three a year, were well attended by associate members and we all learned so much from them. Originally the meetings were held in the shop and it was packed with all of us sitting on the floor. Later on we held many meetings at Friends House in Euston Road.
MV So how many people would you get?
PCH A lot depended on who was talking because obviously there were some smashing talkers and of course the subject - 50 or more sometimes.
MV You kept going in Lowndes Court until 1967. Weren't you worried that the place was going to burst at the seams.
PCH And this obviously did happen and we got a bit more money and we got a bit more ambitious.
MV How big was the first shop?
PCH I am awfully bad at talking about feet and yards and inches. You came in on the ground floor and it had a lovely sized window. The only thing we spent out on, David insisted, had been lovely thick glass shelves which really looked important. There were brackets so the shelves were fairly simple to move, they built up the window and we covered it with rush matting, The shop was probably about 15 feet by 18 in depth - something like that and there were shelves all round it and there was a solid piece of slate which was low and you could put big pieces of pottery on it. It was very dramatic.
MV it was very much designed in a modern style?
PCH It had to be because the wood was so simple, it was just the cheapest wood you could get, stained and polyurethaned and the wood round the walls was just the simplest shelving you could think of and then there was my desk at the back where we took the money and the till, and we had very good lighting. David had nice spots everywhere. You went downstairs, down a nice curved stairway and then you came to the basement which had very simple shelving indeed and then because of all, the little warrens that were around in Carnaby St, we turned one of the little rooms there, and the entrance was terribly low, and we made that as a members' room and the toilet was down there as well. And the members' room consisted of begged and borrowed chairs and armchairs and there was a facility there to make coffee and tea. The whole thing started off because we wanted to be friendly and it was a lovely idea.
MV When you had customers in the shop did you go down with them or did you just trust them or was there not a problem?
PCH There was not the problem then, there is now, but of course at first we had to because we could not afford to pay anyone else. I was there five days a week and David on a Saturday and David's wife came in and helped him. I had a rota of volunteers who I could phone. I was not terribly happy about that and could not agree with David about having volunteers to help was a good idea simply because sometimes a person could not come or they could only give a couple of hours, so when we got busier David decided that I should have a paid assistant. I can't remember now just who that was, but obviously having an assistant made a great difference.
MV How were you paid - were you paid on commission as well?
PCH No (laughing) no, no.
MV So You were paid an agreed amount ?
PCH That's right. Yes I don't think he consulted anyone else - that was rather typical of David. He was Honorary Secretary and I was head cook and bottle washer. I washed that Delabole slate floor many times -anyway I was named Executive Secretary.
|Michael Casson – Special Suppliment Issue 6|