Ethel Sets the Table

Edwin Beer Fishley bowl

The third and last of the books I ordered from Cotswolds Living in the UK is Michael Cardew, Ethel Mairet and the New Handworkers Gallery: The Hill Collection, again by John Edgeler. In this monograph, Edgeler looks at the collection of pots, originally amassed by Ethel Mairet but passed into the hands of her heirs the Hill family, residents of New Zealand.

Mairet was a weaver. She married Ananda Coomaraswamy, an art historian and philosopher but the union was short lived. She then married Philip Mairet, a draughtsman, and together the couple built a comfortable Arts and Crafts style house called Gospels. She was an excellent weaver, studied the weaving of many other cultures, and wrote articles and books.

What makes her interesting to us is she was deeply appreciative of not only her own craft, weaving and spinning, but in everything handmade. She had an eye for excellence. She set up a gallery in her home and sought out talented craftspeople. She was particularly interested in pottery, and ended up deeply influencing three of the most influential potters of the twentieth century; Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada and Michael Cardew. She did this by serving dinner.

The country potter Edwin Beer Fishley, whose shop was nearby, was one of Mairet’s friends. She collected and used his pottery and, when she later became friends with Leach and Hamada and Cardew she introduced them to his work. She invited Hamada and Leach to dinner at her house. She set her large oak table with pitchers of various sizes, oval dishes, and green plates, all made by her friend, the slipware potter E.B.Fishley. It was a table setting the men never forgot and which Hamada still exclaimed over years later. When Hamada was about to return to Japan, she gave him a woolen suit she’d sewn from cloth she’d woven, seen in many subsequent photos of him. And he brought English slipware to Japan so he could continue look at it.

Leach declared Fishely the “last peasant potter” and praised him in his books. Cardew wanted to make pots that were as strong, and asked Fishley’s grandson, William Fishely Holland to teach him to throw.

The book is actually a catalog. Many of the photos are of early Cardew pots, which dominate the collection. The Cotswolds Living books are small, nicely produced affairs with good quality photos. Reading the book, I liked being reminded what an impact a table set with beautiful handmade dishes can have on the dinner guests.

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