issue 6

Michael Casson – Special Suppliment


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

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 Now all these pots come from central France, Pousay, Laborne, places like that, Burgundy and are made over two or three hundred years, don't know when they're made, they're made by potters who are initiate, the man who made that might have made that in a different place. The people moved around, they dug the clay, fired in these enormous kilns for three or four days at a time, firing with wood. The functions are different the feel is the same and I think that the thing that intrigues me the most is the quality of surface that comes from the clay and the firing.

WK So, yes a pot like that owes most of it's quality to the kiln, doesn't it, I suppose.

MC An old kiln that one, all the stuff that fell off the roof and sides. It's a milk jug. They made those pots up until the early 1960's, that's certainly when I first knew of them in Laborne.

WK But it's very easy for us to respond to these qualities because we've been introduced to them by people like Leach, the whole Japanese way of looking at a pot and actually enjoying the disasters that happened in the kiln, but what about the French peasant, I mean would a French peasant have gone out shopping and pick that one because it had more dribbles on it rather than a nice smooth, unadulterated one?

MC It's one of those things that it's so easy to romanticise about and we'll never know because there are no peasants left. I remember speaking to Isaac Button about this very thing and he was the first one to admit that he'd rather fire with electricity to save himself all that hassle, shovelling coal, at the same time he liked certain of his pots better than others because they fired, they burnt well, marks came on them that he liked. I remember being on top of those brick kilns at Prestwood where you used to go and hearing about the old boys who used to chuck their old beer bottles in to give themselves flashing and colours that they liked and they must have had a sense of liberty to say I like that one better than that, but it's one of those unanswerable questions.

WK The other thing of course about all this is the story it tells about the pot and how it came about and looking at that one, you have that bare patch on top where something like that was fired on top of it, it matches up.

MC And probably another one on top of that.

WK And also even more profoundly in a way really is stuff like that where two pots were close together, they were actually touching, not only have you got a change in colour but you've got a change in form because these pots softened in the firing and actually sort of squeezed each other. So it's a very sensual quality to these pots.

MC Yes, this physical quality to things which frankly I look at when I look at any pot, I try to take in everything, the whole form, but I must pick it up, I must feel what the surface is doing, and look at the colours. This is why I respond to pots that have a varied surface now that goes right against the western industrialised pot which is standard and the same all over. But I think it sorts us out, doesn't it, those potters who are going to respond to this sort of aspect of pottery.

WK And perhaps there are some pots that can stand this kind of damage, if you like, better than others, because I know that if I sold one of my pots with a kiss like that where it had touched another pot and a piece had been plucked out, people would complain or they'd want some money knocked off or wouldn't buy it because only perfect pots are worth having.

MK It's a fault. I remember asking Hamada, the Japanese potter, about a pot with obvious trail marks on the top which were technically in Western eyes a fault, and he said yes he chose that because of the fault, because of the mistake. Now that's the Zen way and I think what those people who taught some of us at least can appreciate that sort of quality in the pots that were made in Europe and it happens all over the world. You either like it or you don't, if you don't you run away from this sort of work.

WK And there's a sense in which progress moves you on from this and that once you have an industrial plant turning out perfect pots that do exactly the same job, possibly in another material even, plastic or metal or whatever, you look back at these old imperfect things and think God how did we manage with this old stuff , it's so bad, and it takes somebody from another culture perhaps to come back and say but these things are wonderful, they have these qualities, and to wake you up again.

MC In actual fact some of these pots are undoubtedly made St. Amon in Pousane and they're still being made today, but they're being made in oil kilns with sophisticated technology, high tech computerised things and although they can say 'look the form is the same' the spirit is totally different. You either like them because they are standard or you hate them because this sort of life is now missing.

WK When you say life, you mean the life the pot has, but in a sense what strikes me is that it's the life that the potter had and the life that the whole community had that this pot was a part of , that was significant.

MC It's so easy isn't it to talk about words like spirit which if we are not careful can be very indeterminate, woolly words and we know that without words that a pot like that has spirit that we can respond to, although others might not, but to talk about the spirit of the pot... it invites too many questions to someone who is sceptical about it. But nevertheless I think what you say about the pot and the potter's way of life tying up is very important. I think it's important to people today to look at these and want to be inspired by them. I mean it's so easy to make pastiche, isn't it. Give this to a student and say 'copy that' and it's got to be - they'll learn something - but it's got to be pretty dead I think if they are just going to copy it.

WK But then how do you respond to that as a potter, how do you enjoy a pot like that and then go away and use that experience with the pot and make something of now which is significant, that has meaning for someone in the late 20 th century and yet in someway draws from a pot like that.

MC Well I wouldn't want to go back and try to get the right clay, the right firing. I think it has been done. I think people like Andrew MacGarva who now works in France very near to this have actually done this sort of thing, worked with a different form but come up with something of the same spirit and I think that's a word I will use again and again though it's a nebulous word, it is a spiritual quality that Leach talks about that does come across. Unfortunately it's not easy to talk about in words. I think this pot which has these peculiar markings which show, like these do, the way it was made and fired had the same spiritual content as these which is exceptionally difficult to do and very dangerous because it leads on as I say to aping the tricks of the trade rather than the essence.

WK There's a way also that it can lead you into a rather artificial lifestyle where your whole life is bound up by a set of values that don't mesh with the current values of the society you live in.

MC Nostalgia and nothing else. I agree and as I say it's dangerous. I know it goes on today you know trying to live the life and that's false, you can't go back but I think you can take the vibrations that come off these pots and try and build them into your own way of working. I've tried it over 50 years now, I haven't succeeded but I'm looking forward to the time maybe in another couple of years with a bit of luck, I'll go on.

WK You'll grow into it eventually.

MC It's this sort of spirit I'm still seeking, and looking at these pots again has been a wonderful sort of slap for me, to say look go back and look at these, they have it.

WK But I find that, say, look at that big one again, that great thump it makes as it goes down, that has special significance for me because of it's refinement. Now I'm a potter whose pots some would say are a million miles away from these because they don't seem to pick up on any of the qualities that these have apart from maybe superficially in terms of salt glaze, but there's a refinement about that pot which I can respond to and which I think in some ways can feed what I do. The sense of proportion, the sense of detail, the way in which they've had the audacity to put that knife edged top against this great robust form with these huge generous handles and get away with it.

MC I agree, and it's not a heavy pot, it's robust and all the rest of it, I agree with you. Yes.

WK An extraordinary pot. And again that ring where something was fired on top has left that looking bland and rather cold and emphasising its harshness, you could almost read an aesthetic judgement into that, can't you, and say well they actually thought that out, but I'm sure they didn't.

MC I suppose in a way what I'm trying to say but failed that these things can be an inspiration but you don't have to copy them.

WK No.

MC You don't have to say 'oh I must have that sort of form' but you can still be inspired by something which goes into your work, your work looks very different but I can see the points of reference.

WK There's one other thing about this pot which is intriguing me, are these marks, because in the context of a pot like that you say well that's not decoration, but if it isn't decoration what significance does it have.

MC I've heard it said that it's a sign of the Trinity, I've heard it said it simply marks the capacity of the pot, I don't know which it is, but there were certainly some pots smaller than this that also have marks on.

WK Three marks.

MC Three marks.

WK Because on some old English pots you find that there's one thumb mark for one gallon, and two for two gallons and so on.

MC I don't know which it is, it was for alcohol, whereas that one's for oil.

WK It's a very, very different quality, entirely different.

MC This has a different lift to it. Look at them side by side.

WK This is a much less dynamic pot, isn't it? Quieter, softer.

MC But look at these handles, God I've been inspired by things like that and tried to do them.

WK But if that does represent the Trinity then it means that the religious life...

MC Well it came out of a Catholic community originally.

WK But their religion was totally integrated in their lives to the extent that in a situation where you are dealing with absolute fundamental functional considerations you still represent the Trinity on your pot.

MC Well we are back to pots that tell the whole story of a community, aren't we? And this is what is so different today, we don't have this. Someone said (I think it was Angus Suttie) these pots have a significance when he looked back at old pots they had a significance that he bitterly regretted that he couldn't capture in his own work and he was a hand builder doing totally different work but that I think was a very good remark to make, the significance meaning that they mean something to life.

low quality 1.54MB / high quality 5.51 MB • 33 seconds MPG files

WK Yes, yes.

[Director discusses next shot and action]

MC You see with this one the more you look at it and the longer you look at it, the more you'll see in it. I also feel that light changes it at different parts of the day. Look at it in the morning and this will give a certain colour. You go around there, another part of the day or you're in a different mood even, you'll see different things in it. It's so wonderfully deep in the way you can respond to it in different moments of your life. These little specs that come out of the iron, these little chips that have come because something's stood up against it in the kiln, that strong handle. Look at the glaze under there, the way it dripped off the kiln. It's been fired for days in that atmosphere and things have happened to it. Wonderful pot.

WK It's a beauty isn't it. I speculate about those chips on the rim and wonder if they didn't happen in the firing, because these things as you say were stacked up.

MC Something else on top?

WK Yes, something else on top of it and a bit was left behind and you tend to think that's something that's happened in use, but not necessarily. And the general wear on the pot too, the fact that the ridges have been worn off that handle and then when you turn it over underneath, this leading edge has worn away where the pot's been put down onto a heavy stone slab maybe everyday for 50 years or however long. And again evidence of standing on another pot there. And all the classic things that you can talk to a student about like carbon trap where the smoke in the flame has been carbon trapped under the glaze as it's developed under the surface.

MC Yes, it's one of those pots that as I say repairs more and more careful feeling and looking at. Inside there are some wonderful bits of glazing too, just happenings. A run down there where something's fallen and run into the pot. They've actually put a glaze inside but they've missed, they don't care very much, just slopped it out. Strong handle which tucks under there, takes your grip.

WK This is quite interesting that that fits on there so that the flames and the vapours could impinge on this part of the pot, and this one on top acted as a mask so that you have this bare, unadulterated surface on the top. It's almost like an aesthetic decision, isn't it, but obviously it was a purely practical one. Yes, this kind of tightness around here, you've encapsulated this little rim in and ring of bare stuff, having run out of words. I also find this interesting, the fact that two pots have touched during the firing and that not only has the other pot masked this one from the effect of the flame but it's also actually indented the pots, actually compressed it at that point and when you run your hand over it you can feel a change in form at that point which is fascinating. There all sorts of things going on in this pot, you know, the fact that the flame has been channelled in between the pots in the kiln and that the wood ash has built up at that point, missed this bit totally and then some of it has filtered up to here and then more has cascaded down from another direction. It's quite amazing just what's been going on. And you can't separate the marks that have been made by the potter's hand when he picked the pot up, a dent here and a dent there which have definitely been caused by the hand lifting the pot up from the wheel and yet in other places you sense that the dents were caused by events in the firing.

MC It's telling the story of it's own life, isn't it, all the way through when it first goes on the wheel.

[Short break]

WK This is a real beauty.

MC Yes, this is another one that's had another pot stacked on top of it, it's a real beauty, very different pot.

WK What would this one have been used for?

MC That's for alcohol, yes Eau de Vie. Some sort of alcohol base they could work from, the other ones are for oil. It's got the sign for the Trinity there, it's indented isn't it where it's been beaten in?

WK That's got a little dent there, yes, and there's this wonderful ribbing or...I don't know I think it was a rib, you think maybe it was knuckles, how can we tell.

MC I really don't know, you're probably right, it's so refined actually this pot isn't it.

WK And then there's this little hole in the bottom which seems to be too small for a spiggett.

MC Yes.

WK I wonder if with such a narrow opening at the top when you came to tip the contents out it to decant it something smaller.

MC To help it to pour.

WK If you pulled a little plug there it would let the air in so you could pour from that more efficiently.

MC Just like a teapot lid.

WK Yes.

MC Yes, that's good thinking.

WK But also the refinement of this little bit at the top, it's very sharp edges, you know how they threw them, you can sense how they placed their fingers when they threw that and that contrasts totally with this enormous soft, generous form and these great fat handles and it's emphasised even more by the fact that they planted a pot on top there in the firing to mask that bit and to keep it raw and sharp and edgy compared with the softening of the pot by the ash and the salt in the firing.

[Break for filming the pot]

WK Yes, this one is so different.

MC Yes, it's a different use isn't it. That little cup there at the top is for pouring oil.

WK Yes, it's so soft compared with this other one you know and different handles entirely. It's full of dents as well around the neck here it's hard to know quite what's happened, I suspect it dented a bit when they put the handles on and that there are also prints of another pot here so it's been distorted at all stages. But it softens the whole thing doesn't it and gives a warmth to the pot.

MC And a little lip pulled either way on the roundness. There's one near me, there's one on the opposite side.

WK Yes, they're terrific and that's a classic little Cardew handle that, that's slightly narrower at the top than it is at the base; it broadens and flattens as it comes down.

[Short break]

MC This one has been inspired by those pots. You can see the way it's been stacked, you have the different colouration, three bands there and the top left bare but the runny glaze inside. It's got the same spirit as the French pots, and that little one too I think.

WK Yes obviously this one was stacked in the same way, you have the print on the outside of the rim of the pot that it stood in and the flashing from the glaze, the vapour from the glaze coming up and flashing the bottom there in contrast to the salt glazing on the rim. And then on the inside you can actually see the plucks where a little bit of the pot that was inside it took part of this one away. So again like the French pots it tells a story of it's life. To us as potters we can appreciate an event like that on the edge of the pot because we know what it means, it tells us of how the thing was fired that has a significance to us but to the average customer it's just going to be a fault - you know that's got a chip and what do we want with a pot that's got a chip, maybe we'll chip it anyway. So it's very hard to reconcile the specialist intuitions and insights of a potter with the average customer's expectations of a perfect object.

MC Yes, yes.

[Break for filming pots, to end of film]

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Michael Casson – Special Suppliment • Issue 6