issue 6

Michael Casson – Special Suppliment


Michael Casson at Aberystwyth 1999

One of the highlights of the International Potter's Festival, Aberystwyth, 1999 was a slide lecture by Michael Casson, which he repeated by popular request. What follows is an edited transcription. Looking back over the century he articulated a continuing commitment to the values of the Leach tradition. The enthusiasm with which it was received suggests how it still has its place in the culture of contemporary ceramics in Britain in spite of many competing philosophies. This transcript was first published on the web site of the Ceramic Collection and Archive, University of Wales, Aberystwyth


I've got a sort of subtitle – 'one potter's point of view of the twentieth century'. So, it is my own point of view. I am going to try and make no value judgements but I know I am going to fail. But, as far as I can I am going to be as factual as possible but that's relative isn't it. I know that at times I am not going to be up to the task and I am going to have to say what I really feel, especially as we get nearer to today.

Another sub-title to this talk would be 'Diversification and Polarisation' and as I go along I'll mention those two words again. It is quite evident being here today that diversification is here to stay. The biggest change in twentieth century ceramics has been the inclusion into the canon of pottery of aspects of using clay, which until the 1950s were the concern of sculpture. There has always been modelling with the human figure, modelling of animals etc. etc., but it was called sculpture. And now, as you look around the arena today at the various people throwing and building, it's obvious this all comes under one umbrella. It is an interesting question to say why that happened. I believe that as Fine Arts have gone more and more esoteric, more and more conceptual, they have become less acceptable to ordinary people – whatever they are. But at least people can appreciate more of what people are doing in clay than some of the conceptual work being done today. I hope conceptual work will go on – I am sure it will – but it is limiting and I think the response to a more broad use of clay, in part, came about because of that.

I want to look back over this century and I see this century as a sort of landscape with hills, dips and hollows, and for me two mountain ranges. One of the hills which is I think particularly interesting and important but not vital to the understanding of twentieth century ceramics is labelled Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. You can leave now if you want to. I am not saying they didn't do the most interesting and unique work this century – they did. But in terms of the influences, direction, and the condition of ceramics, I don't think that they are as important as the two mountain ranges I see when I look back over the century – the hundred years, or seventy-five – that is my age. So I see two mountain ranges: one mountain range is concerned with everything to do with that name Bernard Leach. The other mountain range, looking back, is a mountain range of education. And I think these two aspects of using clay – the Leach phenomenon and education, especially what's happened in education since the fifties, post – the Second World War, have changed the condition of our work today. And I think both of them point to the future.

Now – Bernard Leach and all his name implies. So much has been written about Bernard and so much has been written by Bernard that I would like to clarify what his message means to me and probably to some of you too. I list four aspects of the Bernard Leach scenario.

Number one, he said it on the first page of A Potter's Book , 'We are all some kind of Artist Potter now'. I can't remember whether it was capital A or small A. It is an interesting point. He called his book A Potter's Book not The Potter's Book . Written in 1939, read by most people after 1945. Implicit in his writing and his work and his talks and everything else is the use and understanding of materials: in many cases natural materials and processes. You can tell a Staite Murray pot before he met Hamada and after it; turn it up and look at the clay. Before Staite Murray met Hamada through Leach he was using what most potters at that time were using: industrial clay. They used to call it paste – there's a word for you. Leach introduced clay dug from the earth or at least, if not that, clay that had iron and other impurities in it. So, one: we are all some kind of Artist Potter. Two: know about materials and about processes. Go out on the kiln site today. All those firings out there are about process.

I remember twenty years ago the Crafts Council people came to me 'now we're not going to talk about how we're going to talk about why'. I remember in America once hearing Richard De Stabler, a conceptual clay worker – he said to ENSECA, 'I only want to know about why' and he got a fantastic round of applause and then Daniel Rhodes stood up and said a little bit later 'I only want to know how I do things – and how I do things changes my life'. He got a round of applause too.

Right, number three of the Leach philosophy. He looked to the anonymous, the humble, and the vernacular peasant tradition of the East and the West. He looked at English slipware. Before that, he looked at English and European medieval jugs and pots. So he – and all the people connected with him, at the time and since, made us look at those sort of traditions.

So that's three things. And the fourth one, probably the most difficult is the moral issue, the moral pot. The idea that Leach said that if you make a thing in a certain way you are altered and if you use the pot that's being made in that way the user is affected. I often say to students I don't care if you go into Woolworths and buy a Mickey Mouse mug – good luck. All I ask is that if you are using a Mickey Mouse mug and you're using one which has been made with – what did Bernard say, 'head, heart and hand' – that you know the difference! If you can't tell the difference you've got a problem.

So, four things: we are all some kind of Artist Potter; understanding the use of materials and processes; the humble, the vernacular, the anonymous, the peasant tradition; the way of life and the moral issue. These can get bogged down in dogma. They can foster intolerance and end up in pots without life or they can produce work which is significant, timeless – for all time. So that's the Bernard Leach one. I see that as a mountain range which has affected us all ever since. Whether we accept it or reject it – we can't ignore it. Although at times ambiguous even contradictory, the message is flexible – capable of endless interpretation.

Now the other thing is education. Just briefly about education, it can embrace and include the Leach ideology and I give you two schools – that's the Harrow course in '63, and the Farnham course about the same time with Henry Hammond and John Reeve.

Education is open ended – a quest for the original. Put the original in brackets.... because I know some of you have heard me say before 'I don't believe in the original unless you come from Mars'. I believe in innovation and incidentally, I believe in change and development. But anyway education suits the 'original' through a search for ideas. Is this a common goal for all art education, whether you're working in clay or paint or metal or whatever? It's to bring out the best of the person – the uniqueness that we all have in us. This can result in tortuous materials and fashionable trivia but it can also result in what I said about the other thing. I'd better say them again – timeless work, open up new vistas. So there's not one good way and one bad way. What is certain is that from now on most potters will come from Education.

Right, we start the century. The century begins with Art ware – pottery for the clients that were eager to buy Arts and Craft Movement pottery. But they were using industrial techniques and industrial materials. They used pastes. They were set up as individual studios by people like Lord Elgin, Ruskin Pottery, and Moorcroft especially. Or they were set up as independent departments inside the factories like at Pilkington's and Doulton's. That ended more or less with the end of the First World War. But there were a few potters beginning to look at different aspects of using clay: Reginald Wells, Bernard Moore, some other's names escape me, but in 1911 somebody called William Staite Murray. William Staite Murray only really worked for a short space of time – 1925 to 1939 – in a significant way. His philosophy was very simple, very interesting and significantly picked up again in the early seventies. It was, to sum it up, 'Today I make a painting, tomorrow I make a pot. There is no difference'.

Murray in his own way was an inspired teacher. He would appear in a cloak with a walking stick. He would walk past your pots and if he noticed them he would slash them to pieces with his walking stick. I said to Henry Hammond. 'Weren't you offended by this?' and he said, 'We were delighted. He might have ignored us'. What Staite Murray did produce was a series of excellent teachers imbued with the same ideology. There was a time after the Second World War, shall we say the early fifties, where you could start in Scotland and go right from Katy Horseman in Scotland, right the way down the country to places like Falmouth and there would be a Staite Murray pupil, ex-pupil in charge of a ceramic course, if not the whole art college. That meant that from post war onwards that idea that pottery would equal to painting was there as something to gradually go into the art school system.

He had some wonderful pupils – the one we've lost, he would have changed the course of history, I'm sure. Sam Haile. He went to America, came back to this country and was killed tragically in 1948 just when things were starting to happen.

Bernard Leach – Let's have a look at Bernard – earthenware, stoneware, porcelain, pots, function? I should have entered that word function when it came to looking back on the vernacular, the peasant tradition. Of course, it brought in function and of course many people who have read, and looked, and met Bernard took up the ideal of function as being something that could alter their lives – I, for one, certainly. Also, remember that 'we are all some kind of Artist Potter now'. Bernard was not a good technician. He was an artist, whatever that word implies, but he worked around people like David, his son, who is a precision merchant. This is why I quote this whole syndrome of Leach, not just Bernard himself but all the people who were around him. People often said – oh yes, Bernard, great writer, great ideologist. I think some of them should look at the pots. They're wonderful pots, OK they're heavy – so what. It's a pot that has life.

He brought back Hamada didn't he? And Hamada is on that mountain – no doubt about it. Looking at today, and I mean 1999, whether they know it or not people owe a great debt to Hamada. I remember somebody asking him about the crawling on the neck and he said, 'I chose the pot because of the crawling'. Everyone went – 'Aaah'. I need a year to think about that! But he made us see that faults are acts of God, acts of kiln. You judge a pot not by its technical perfection but by something else. And Hamada did that as well as many other things.

Another man who came on the scene in 1923 – of course, Michael Cardew. Leach seemed to gather round him these people who had giant personalities and there was one if ever there was – Michael Cardew. And he looked in particular, at that aspect of Bernard Leach's ideology, the philosophy of the vernacular, of the peasant and, just for a moment in time, he recreated that slipware tradition – which is no mean feat.

Right, another aspect of Leach – function. Repetition throwing. Use them for everyday life. Back to the kitchen, back to the stove, to cooking. This aspect of his work was not particularly taken up by Bernard. Bernard was not a repetition man but he could judge and he could evaluate and David and the team there in the post-war period developed a range of pots. I remember when we started at Harrow in '63 we looked at that particular range and that particular clay and those particular firing and making methods. You just could not equal, if not beat it.

Potter or craftperson, a designer-maker, a ceramicist or a clay artist – the words change and those words mean something. In particular they mean diversification and I am all for that. But it is significant if those words have changed. I remember a very well known designer first seeing a Walter Keeler pot. And he fell hook line and sinker. 'What wonderful pots', he said, 'can I see your drawing?' Pinned up around the workshop were various notes and back-of-envelope drawings and Wally said, 'I don't really do that'. The visitor said, 'But you obviously designed these first'. To this day I cannot get across to some people that the design is vital to making anything, but it needn't be the first thing you do. Perhaps you go on to the wheel first of all. Perhaps you play with coiling first of all and the whole thing is – what's the word – 'holistic'. It grows in a flash till you make and you think of the firing and all of it at once. So you're designing and making, making and designing. It's not a stepping stone 1,2,3. So I think that when they started to change the name from Arts and Craft to Art and Design, I think it was a significant turn of events.

From the early sixties when the Coldstream Report came out it said that all artists should be literate and numerate. Well, I knew that with literate we would be in with a chance – but numerate I thought... Anyway, DipAD gave way to BA, a bachelor of arts (honours) in a particular craft subject. Great, wonderful, and in the fullness of time the MA, and just recently the MA has burgeoned and is a growth area. One of the few growth areas and I am not worried by it so much but I want to bring your attention to the fact that an MA is usually two years long. So if you're coming from another discipline – you can now come from Textiles or Glass and do an MA in Ceramics – you won't throw. But learning to throw in two years is possible but you will need very specialist teachers and a very specialist environment. Some will hand build or many of you will go in for some form of sculpture. Now I think there is a danger of too many people going into ceramics and going into the sculptural side and making an imbalance over the whole course of pottery.

The managerial revolution in the eighties, I suppose. It took place in business, took place in the National Health Service and it took place in Education. I said that I wouldn't make value judgements well I damn well will make one now. I believe that was the wrong move and I believed it has resulted in the education in this country becoming top heavy. So when Alan Barrett Danes with all that knowledge stuffed in that brain of his about glaze technology – when he leaves he is not replaced. When Walter Keeler leaves, as he is, he will not be replaced. There may be another sub-Dean but you will not get anybody else eyeballing the student and saying, 'what about this, what about that?' You won't get people sharing things. What's wrong with sharing things? I remember being told in the eighties – sharing – you might contaminate their souls.

Well I do think that is a worry and I only wish that when some of us went to the Houses of Parliament just before the Labour government got in and we were asked to say our piece and I said exactly what I say to you now – restructure your education and you will have a better system. They wrote it down, some of them wrote it down, I saw him writing. He might have been writing 'not on your life', I don't know. But it hasn't happened.

Right, the last thing I want to write and end on a happy note is about revival. Talking to Peter Dworok about the Anagama kiln they have built at Rufford – I really do think that those people like those sort of middle 40s to early 50s are very important people now. They hold a lot in their hands. They can go forwards with techniques and with understanding of materials and processes and make sure that all that Leach way does not die out, and there will be a balanced spectrum for ceramics.

Ending on a happy note – 1979 and I was pretty pessimistic – 1999 I am full of hope. Thank you very much.

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Michael Casson - An Appreciation

by Emmanuel Cooper

Pan Casson Henry interviewed
Moira Vincentelli

29 November 1994 and revised in
April 2005

Michael Casson at Aberystwyth, 1999

Michael Casson and Walter Keeler discussing a collection of jugs

5 September 1995

Michael Casson and Walter Keeler discussing a selection of French country pottery

5 September 1995

Michael Casson in conversation with Jack Doherty about the Craftsmen Potters Association (CPA)

26 February 2000

A summary of an interview with Michael Casson by Anna Hale (No.1, The Craft Potters' Association)

24 February 2000

A summary of an interview with Michael Casson by Anna Hale (No.2, Biography)

25 February 2000

A summary of an interview with Michael Casson by Anna Hale (No.3, The Studio Pottery Course at Harrow)

probably February 2000

Michael Casson – Special Suppliment • Issue 6