issue 6

Michael Casson – Special Suppliment


Mick Casson and Walter Keeler discussing a collection of jugs

Transcript of video recording made at Wobage Farm, Upton Bishop, Herefordshire
5 September 1995


Recording made by Michael Hughes, producer; Michael Croucher, Director; Robert Prince and Keith Jacques, camera and sound

(Audio available indicated in bold text in script)

MC Well here you've got a collection of jugs. Now a jug is essentially a Western vessel. It's about holding liquid, pouring liquid. It's about picking it up and a jug's got quite a few human attributes. You talk about the belly of the pot, the shoulder, the foot, the lip. So the jug embodies all these human characteristics, I think it's one of the most, for me, one of the most endearing forms that the potter has to make. And you've got lots of different solutions here, some solutions only of detail, some quite radical solutions like the bigness of the form and the smallness of this little pot here. So within the idea of the jug, a vessel for holding the liquid and pouring you have a lot of different answers which potters of the 20 th century especially have tuned in to. But all these pots, different as they may seem are all made within a few years of each other and looking round at them they are all made between 10 and 15 years at the outside. So if I start with this one of mine which is a very simple salt glaze pot based upon the medieval shape called 'the ballaster', has a simple handle that you are meant to hold sideways like that to pour like that. One of the simplest ones here, well I suppose that wider based one too is a fairly fundamental shape. I respond to jugs in particular because of handles, I love pulling handles and pulling clay and attaching the ends to it of it to the pot and I don't know about you, Wally, but there are many different ways of attaching this end and I know you've been down that road as they say, of joining pieces and adding them in certain ways.

WK Yes I have. I mean I've done quite radical things like making it look as though the handle isn't joined but I think one of the main characteristics of your jugs is this strongly rooted handle that sort of surges out of the pot and then comes down to this major sort of termination down here which is quite dynamic and I think if you look at any of the other jugs, I mean this little fellow looks almost effeminate next to this kind of event happening on the back of here.

MC Sort of jolly, a jolly jug and that one is not.

WK Not it's not. It's a kind of high-powered number. It also struck me that some are more traditional that others in my mind. I mean that one speaks to me of things like Devon pitchers in form although it speaks to me of Italian Majolica in decoration. So there's immense richness in a pot like that.

MC Can I just go on and butt in about the end of that handle. You see there used to be, well there still is, a Leach tradition which used to be very strong in the '50s and '60s in particular that you always ended a jug in a certain way, you always ended it like that. Chinese whiskers that's what Lucy Rie called them, Chinese whiskers and that one is a beautiful example of the Chinese whisker, and I know when she taught at Camberwell she forbade her students to use Chinese whiskers because that was a Leach solution, and I for many years did Chinese whiskers and I thought there must be other ways, the more you look round, the more you look at handles you do see other solutions. And with this big handle of mine I always wanted to put a big handle on a jug, a Chinese whisker became not the obvious way to do it, was to butt it on to the end and get your thumb and wag your thumb around to push it into the pot, so it's a very different ending and Andrew McGarva with his sort of rolled handle just dropped it on there and whipped off the end, a very no fuss attitude to it, just pinch it up and even if it is a little bit sharp it doesn't really matter.

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WK Yes, I mean in a sense that is a drawn handle you know, you can imagine a pencil describing that and saying oh yes that's how I'll do it. Whereas this is very much an action handle, it describes how it was done and you want to grab hold of it in the same way that you grabbed hold of the clay when you made the handle, so there's that sort of sense of communication between the maker and the user.

MC Isn't that interesting that you use the word drawn and for a moment I thought you meant drawn out of the clay, because that was one of the ways that they made them to take a wire shape and pull it through the clay and then lift the little worm of clay and put it on. Was it 18 th century, that kind of thing?

WK Yes, probably it originated then.

MC So all the details are very expressive I think. You know I can never understand people who say making something as functional as a jug limits your expressiveness, how can you express yourself making a mere jug? Well each one of these handles and endings and lips are the expressions of someone's personality and there's five or six different people here and they've solved those things in a different way.

WK I mean that one (Sheila's) is fundamentally different from any of the others in that it's been cut away rather than adding on or simply distorting, it's had a piece removed to exaggerate the quality of the lip.

MC And both those go very much back to history. They are both are looking at Crete and Cretan pots, that's an added spout thrown, cut and added and that as you say is cut away, we go back to the beginnings of European history. All of these have historical antecedents don't they, all of them. These are medieval and that one and these you have already mentioned are Majolica, European, tin glaze so they all look back to something in the past, but again different solutions.

WK That's quite intriguing, I think that little tiny lip there, you know as soon as you pick that up you know that you are going to aim something rather carefully and ...

MC It pours beautifully, a very tiny jet comes out.

WK As opposed to ...

MC That comes out like Niagara falls, that's right. And if you home in on lips for the moment, I always thought that you made a lip rather like that by pulling it down, or like this or like that until in the '60s two or three potters - Brian Newman, Colin Pearson and myself and a bunch of students - well you weren't a student then - but just after that - got together and we liked medieval form, we liked that rim, that robust rim, but to pull a lip out of it is almost impossible. So the idea grew that you thinned out a piece of the lip - there's one, there's another one, there's another one and you isolated a thinner piece of lip which you then pulled down like that to make a pouring lip or spout or whatever you want to call it. There's no doubt about it, it pours better if you've got a sharper edge. But it became a distinct characteristic which has gone round the world, I've seen it in America and other places, the pinched lip.

WK The Harrow lip.

MC The Harrow pinched lip. Came out of '65 onwards. Two or three people and a bunch of students trying to do different things with something simple like the rim of a pot.

WK I suppose the other thing that is obvious here is that in most cases, in at least half the cases, the jug's been an opportunity to decorate. Clearly if you go back to the Majolica tradition decoration was the name of the game, it wasn't a question of having an excuse to decorate, you made sure you had a vehicle to decorate a variety of things. I mean these things of Andrew's are painted. Yours tend to be much more direct again, like the handle, they're sort of action handles, action decoration, they actually describe what you did.

MC A kind of gesture really, yes, where these are deliberately planned and this one of course actually has an owl on it, so again it's a sort of European tradition of narrative which goes back to Ancient Greece.

WK Yes, those images of owls.

MC I remember Paul Greenhouse saying the narrative tradition of figurative work is something that distinguishes European pottery from Far Eastern, and these home into it. That one. Yes, well I think you've got this wonderful plane here, this belly, that most of us can't resist doing something to, I can't anyway, most of the time.

WK This is a very typical Mick Casson jug, isn't it? I mean it's got everything hasn't it, it's got the full belly, the incredibly robust rim and then this powerful handle, which is - I think of it as a sort of tactile handle, a sort of action handle that speaks of the way it was done, that it comes thrusting out of the top of the pot and then is sort of squelched in at the bottom with a thumb, it has that sort of terrific sort of vigour about it. And the sense in which the person is holding the jug is communicating with you; the person who made it, you know there is that direct link. I think it's a very powerful thing. And there's also the history of this rim, this fat lip, which has to be thinned down in order to create a reasonable pouring thinness. I think it contrasts quite obviously with a jug like that which is an Andrew MacGarva, which I think the handle on that you would draw, you can imagine describing that with a pencil and then making that and attaching it to the pot in complete contrast with something as direct and integral as that. And I think that that sense of connection between the way something's done and the way it looks is also brought out in the decoration, not just on this particular jug where you actually sort of rake the clay and driven up little edges and beaten them in, but also on some of the slip decorated ones where the actions are just as obvious, I think you used the word 'gestural' which I think is one of the prime features of these pots. That's a little traditional jug. That sort of form was made in Devon up until the First World War I suppose and after, still is being made in some places I suppose. But it has that Italian Majolica decoration which is a striking contrast. Very robust jug in itself, fat handle, strong form, pert little chap.

MC That's a Cretan job isn't it?

WK I would have said so.

MC A little added foot, thrown in one, added foot, and then that nice little lip added on

WK How do you do it?

MC Throw it in one then cut it in half and then peel one half away, pop it on, you know all about that.

WK Well, I could try it.

MC That's a smiling noddy. The handle, a trick that you taught her, to put it on, leave the squidge there, yes, but don't clear the squidge away, let it set up.

WK Got you.

MC That's right isn't it, and then later on...

WK Blend it in.

MC That's a Wally Keeler trick, yes?

WK Yes, it is. I've got a better one than that, but I'll tell you about that later.

[Short break]

MC Now with this one you see I thrust the handle on there and I pulled it down like that and I butted my thumb in there and in there, waggled it about down there, put a little bit of clay in there and just filled it in, but it's essentially that pressure there that gives you the finish and I've just got a finger and gone in like that to make it terminate at the end there, well both ends really. And you see these two jugs come from a totally different tradition. Both European but they go back to Crete, added lip, cut lip, they both pour well, both balance well. One finger in there just like lifting up a teacup.

MC They come from Crete, ancient Crete 2,000 BC, something like that. They both move in a different way, but they are both essentially held with one finger in there and a thumb on top. They pour nicely. One's a cut lip and one's an added lip and they are both Sheila's.

MC There used to be this tradition, well there still is amongst some potters, of doing these of the hand where you went one, two and you created Chinese whiskers that Lucy Rie used to say to her students 'you don't do it that way, no Chinese whiskers'. One, two. And that's what led many of us to look at different ends to things.

WK It's a job to know what to tell you really. I've got a chance here to fill you in on a lot of things you wouldn't want me to tell you.

MC No, that's right but I will rehearse, I rehearsed my Chinese whiskers.

WK What about that jug over there.

MC You want to look over there at that one. Well it's alright on a good day, pity about the cracks.

WK But then on the other hand...

MC It means I don't sell it.

WK Over to me or over there?


MC I find it really difficult to think about something really boring but ...

WK Those carborundum shelves.

MC Carborundum shelves are really quite difficult really.

WK Now I was just thinking of the way that they are going to revolutionise my life when I get them because ...

MC Yes, but they're going to hurt your pocket.

WK True.

MC Very, very expensive.

WK But at the same time I think that if you say they are going to last twenty years.

MC Fifteen to twenty years

WK Fifteen years and you are not going to have to worry about the shelves going down in the next firing, how much are they costing you.

MC I would say a hundred plus, by the time you get them.

WK A hundred each.

MC Yes.

WK That is frightening but still.

MC Well the owl's been painted in iron with a bit of cobalt there for the blue, but the owl is essentially swishes of strokes going across the pot - fills the space beautifully and it's just got dabs of iron to give the marks of the owl out. Andrew did a lot of drawings of owls, it's one of his main motifs. It's been down to the bare minimum, the dots for the eyes and the big space for the head, it's obviously a barn owl painted on there. There's a light iron glaze just so that comes through the ash that falls on it from the wood firing.


MC Now this essentially a simple jug, it's thrown from one piece of clay, three pounds, three and a half pounds, thrown up into that form. This ones more complex but this one for me gives away character, the character of the potter. It's been thrown in one up to there and there you've got a chance, either to run the form together or to articulate it. The sort of potter I am is the one who can't miss a chance to stop it there and actually add another wet coil of clay and throw on again to give this big rim and I can pinch the lip and to score it there to emphasise the join, to say I joined it there, that's where the second bit went on. I think that's an important jug because it tells about the character of the potter.

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WK Well this is a very different collection, totally different. And it's very hard to see any relationship with the stuff we have already looked at and perhaps it's foolish to even attempt to look for one. I mean this is a Sunderland jug, early 19 th century, very gaudy and coarse and made for popular consumption. That in a way stands on it's own. The other two are much, much more recent. A Mo Jupp teapot and a Tony Theakston jug and the way in which those two differ from this perhaps is the personality of the maker is so predominant in these, it's the man who made it who's standing up to be counted rather than the tradition or even the technique maybe, although in Mo's piece the fact that it was very thin clay rolled out and used like cloth is significant and in Tony's case the fact that he was working with the casting process.

MC Yes, they speak of very different things, don't they. I'm surprised you used the word coarse there, but I know what you mean - almost vulgar maybe?

WK Vulgar, yes, probably better.

MC I still think that's a wonderful pot. Pick it up and feel the weight of it and the great handle. These to me speak of education, post war education in Britain. Fifty years of development towards individual approaches to ceramics, and I agree this is Mo Jupp essentially, a one off pot, one off person. This one I don't know, I don't know the person at all but it's interesting for me because it come across as an art deco thing which is before the war but I take your point when you say it's been made from moulds and put together as a kind of exercise. But they come across as something that's come out of British education in the last forty, fifty years. I really don't see any connection between the two at all but does that matter.

WK No it doesn't, it can't can it? I do see a connection in an obscure way between this Sunderland jug and a piece we were looking at earlier on, the French milk jug, because they could have been made at about the same time but I think the fundamental difference between the two results from a fundamental difference in culture and that this is a product of the Industrial Revolution in two senses. First of all it's made by a so called industrial process, it was thrown and turned on the lathe, it had moulded and extruded components added and it had a fairly technical piece of decoration put on it, so in that sense it's an industrial piece and a product of the Industrial Revolution. The French piece was a peasant pot from a rural tradition where industrialisation hadn't occurred. People had a certain sort of lifestyle that whole, that sustained them fully as whole human beings. The Industrial Revolution has the opposite effect on most people of that class in Britain. They ended up feeding the industrial process with their labour, they were slaves to the Industrial Revolution. Their cultural aspirations were very different as a result of that and perhaps they needed cheering up. Perhaps that's why the Sunderland pottery thrived by making these gaudy jugs.

MC Yes that's good, I take that in. What still amazes me about is that they can come from that background and still make something that to me is very lively, I think that is essentially a very lively jug and I like picking it up and all these local rhymes and the picture of this sailing ship there. I almost prefer it, I do prefer it from what I see as a product of education in post war Britain, in this country.

WK It's honest in a strange way because if you take just the form, it's a very, very beautiful form made exquisitely well, I mean it's extraordinarily well potted and extremely elegant and yet they've shoved all this old stuff on and it's that stuff that serves the clientele in a way. I mean the fact that the jug is a vehicle is neither here nor there to the person that buys the jug because what they want is the rhymes and the association with the sea and a girl in every port, because Sunderland was a sea port.

MC And the colour.

WK And the colour cheers you up. Some people say because of the houses in the early nineteenth century were rather dim, relatively small windows in the average back to back terraced house, if you had candles or lamps they would glitter and be reflected in the lustre which would give you a double value.

MC That's a lovely story, a lovely one, I haven't heard that, yes I bet that worked. And yet you see you've got a jug like that which has a fullness here, birdlike, beak like, it's a very cheeky pot, and yet I personally don't respond to it except as I know it's a part of education, I can see it's educational value. You told me it's been concocted by a device of various moulds put together and I can see it's been very cleverly done and of it's kind beautifully done, the way all those facets fit together.

WK I mean one interesting thing about it is that it's a very technical pot, it's using the industrial technique, OK it's a 200 year old industrial technique of slip casting, but it's indulging in the technicality of the technique and yet it still has associations with puffins and cute little birds and it's a strange juxtaposition of those two forces of the natural and the cute if you like and the technical and the harsh and perhaps that's where you pick up the art deco references.

MC Yes, I think so, and the lines and the hardnesses as well as the softnesses, reminds me of art deco, as well as the fact that it's slip cast and the colour inside, everything. Yes the more I look at it the more I begin to like that one, so I wonder whether these things need time. I know those jugs, I know those French pots therefore my mind's had time to adjust to them and like them or not like them. This one - you sprung this on me - and it's a bit of a shock and maybe with time - I think all pots need time, don't they - some live better than others - maybe this one will start to gel, I don't know.

WK There's one other thing that occurs to me just sitting here looking at these three pots. This one is an old pot and it relates to the other old pots that we looked at and in a sense you've got permission to rob pots like this. You can got away and say there was something about that lustre jug that appealed to me, something about the quality of the decoration, I could do something with that and I could take that away and make it my own. Whereas if you were to pick up on Mo's pot or Tony's pot and say that's interesting, I could do that, and take it away, it would be criminal, whereas it's not criminal to do it to an old one.

MC It would be revealed immediately and people would know that ..

WK But is it just that? Is it just that you'd get caught at something that was too close to home.

MC There's nothing worse than being found out, is there?

WK Or is it something more sustaining, something more enriching in the old pots, perhaps because they are old or perhaps because they came from a richer culture.

MC I would believe that and surely that's one of the essences of tradition and it's come through. Stuff has been sieved out, stuff has been rejected and you end up with the essence of something and I've always said I think it's safer, and I use that word, to go back and look at that rather than to look at contemporary because this stuff hasn't had enough time. I've given it minutes, five or ten minutes, this is two or three hundred years and maybe that's it as well as you know that someone's going to find you out. You know I think it's both those things. The good thing about tradition is that it's stood the test of time.

WK Let's have another look at that French one.

MC What a difference.

WK Because that in a sense is the epitome of tradition isn't it as far as your average studio potters concerned, that's tradition, whereas that wouldn't be.

MC True. One's standardised industrial, this is an individual thing, although it isn't individual in the same way these two are coming from one person. My goodness, lining them up like that, the difference is amazing. And which one do you warm to, which one do you personally go for. That's all you can say isn't it. I tune into that one and somebody else tunes into this, well...

WK I paid good money for that one. But equally if I saw that in a shop I'd probably go and pay good money for that too.

MC You would, you would.

WK Perhaps one of the things that's come out of education as well as the ability to do these rather obscure and questionable things is that we all have a broader view of the world than we would have had without our education, so...

MC I hope that's true because I mean my feelings go immediately to that one but during the last few years, ten, twenty years, I see more in these than I would ever have done if I had not mixed with people like you, other people who've said have a look at that, give it time and I think that's very important. I think if education does that it's on the right track. The trouble is a lot of education tends to reject certain things, either that or that, and I don't think you should do that, you've got to look at it all and give it time.

WK And perhaps you can't reconcile these things anyway.

MC No.

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Michael Casson – Special Suppliment • Issue 6