The Slipware of Michael Cardew

I have continued with the three books I ordered from the UK by the collector, writer, dealer and publisher John Edgeler. After reading about the Fishleys, I turned to Michael Cardew, Edgeler’s passion, and read Michael Cardew and the West Country Slipware Tradition. Much has been written about Cardew, including his own books, but Edgeler is still worth a look, especially because his focus is on the country slipware potters that influenced Cardew and Cardew’s interpretations of their work.

“In his slipware pots at Winchcombe, arguably his best work,” Edgeler writes,  “Cardew has instinctively put truth to materials as his first priority in throwing wares of great beauty, but his lack of technical knowledge led to unpredictable results. The pots that were born in his firings had an accidental aesthetic, a quality of the kiln that was not controlled or controllable but was accepted by Cardew. Yanagi in the same way saw quality in misfired pots made by Kawai Kanjiro that were regarded as ‘imperfect’ by their maker; as did the Japanese Tea Masters in their admiration of particular misshapen and cracked water jars and tea bowls.”

By the end of the thirties, Cardew, wanting more durability than he could achieve with earthenware, and having vastly increased his technical skills and knowledge, turned to stoneware. After flirting briefly with factory design for the masses at the instigation of communist Henry Bergen, he introduced stoneware in his Wenford Bridge pot shop and produced stoneware for the rest of his life, including his years in West Africa.

I think Cardew’s stoneware is beautiful. I like the well-balanced forms, the dark glazes, and the simple decorations. Yet I understand the sentiment that the slipwares he made at Winchcombe were his best works. Perhaps they were. They are deeply human pots, emotional. They speak of white washed kitchens, rustic tables, rural gardens and farms. In the beginning he was imitative of the traditional potters around him, of course, as that is how one learns, but he soon made the pots his own while managing to keep them traditional.

Cardew made jugs, mixing and washing bowls, lidded jars, plates, platters and chargers, tankards, cider jars, teapots, coffee pots, cups and saucers, handled casseroles, thrown and ovalled dishes, moulded dishes, vases and other domestic wares. He was more interested in form than decoration and is best known for his meander, a wavy line across the base of a bowl or belly of a jar. He used finger and stick wipes, sliptraililng, brushwork (from Chinese wares rather than West Country pots), sgraffito, chevrons and incised lettering.

Edgeler pays close attention to the styles of the West Country potters and what Cardew took from them. He includes photos of both Cardew’s pots and those he admired. Most interestingly, he provides two “interpretive charts of the early studio pioneers.” These are reminiscent of family trees, but they are influence lines and lines of “cultural osmosis” rather than bloodlines, beginning with English Medieval forms. He also offers a short bibliography which was a reminder to me of how many books are published in the UK that do not get published in the US. Many do, but many do not. Of course I want all the books I do not already have on my shelves. Some old time slipware pots would be nice too. I am dreaming of a jug but a small bowl would do.

The Slipware Potters of the Fishley Family

Bernard Leach called Edwin Beer Fishley (1832-1912) “the last peasant potter.” It’s true that old time country potters who dug their own clay and threw it by the ton in rural workshops were dwindling in number but Edwin Beer Fishley was not the only one left. Indeed, Edwin Beer passed on the tradition to his grandson, William Fishley Holland (1863-1944) whose son, George Tonkin Holland (1950-1959) also became a potter. Still, one can see what Leach meant. Edwin Beer was a talented thrower and decorator descended from the fabled family of slipware potters, the Fishley brothers, fathers, sons, and occasional daughter. He produced big-bellied harvest jugs inscribed with poems and images; baking dishes that he made oval by cutting out a leaf shaped hole in the base and squeezing the hole closed; and an astonishing variety of pots to suit the changing tastes. Leach was impressed with his work and later, Michael Cardew learned from his grandson William Fishley Holland.

The collector John Edgeler tells the stories of the many generations of Fishley potters in The Fishleys of Fremington: A Devon Slipware Tradition. Retired from a career in finance and a collector since his early teens, Edgeler has devoted himself to the pots of Michael Cardew, Ray Finch, and the work of the early slipware potters who preceded them. He founded a small press, Cotswolds Living, in honor of his bookseller dad, Bill Edgeler and has published a carefully researched and interesting list on English slipware. I will look at a few more of his books in upcoming weeks.

Before writing of the Fishley potters, Edgeler describes the countryside and the glacially deposited beds of red and white clays that enriched the area and enabled a thriving pottery industry. He gives an overview of North Devon slipware, the manner of making, and the typical shapes and methods of decorating thus placing the Fishleys in the context of their time and surroundings.

Edwin Beer Fishley

There are maps, old drawings of the pot shop and kilns, and lots of color photos of the lively old pots. I love the black and white photos of the potters dressed in tweed jackets or vests, caps on their heads, their torsos wrapped in generous aprons that almost reached the floor. How could they work in such attire? But work they did. Harry Juniper, the traditional slipware potter whom Edgeler interviewed in the summer of 2007 when he was in his sixtieth year of potting said, “I knew Fishley Holland very well. I rather liked him, a cocky little bugger…he was great, he turned up at Yelland and started criticizing Michael [Leach] as being too slow and laid back. The Fishleys worked – they bragged of a thousand plant pots a day. This was what they were like, they boasted about the work, they loved it, it was damned hard work.”

Well yes, “damned hard work.” And we might add they made, “damned nice pots.”

The Clark and Del Vecchio Collection

I have never understood calling a book a doorstop. Who would use a book to stop a door? Stack your books on the floor, yes. Let a door bang into a treasured tome? Never. But it is customary to call a big book a doorstop and Shifting Paradigms in Contemporary Ceramics: The Garth Clark & Mark Del Vecchio Collection is big. In fact, it weighs close to seven – SEVEN – pounds and is four hundred eighty three pages. Before reading it, you must wash your hands, leave your teacup in the kitchen and for goodness sakes, make sure there is no clay on your jeans. Now, sit up straight with the book before you on a sturdy (and clean) table and begin.

Such trouble is worth it. The book opens with a joint essay in which Clark and Del Vecchio explain that a collection is as much about its omissions as its inclusions and then poignantly tell us, “Some years, instead of making acquisitions, we did the reverse, de-accessing personal art to keep afloat the gallery and a multitude of nonprofit activities.

“This is why there is no major George E. Ohr, Lucie Rie, or Hans Coper in the collection…we have owned masterpieces by all of them at times…but when a crisis hit … their works became rent money.”

The essay is followed by Clark’s brief but intensely fascinating memoir. He describes his nascent interest in pottery as a young man in South Africa, his marriage to the potter Lynne Wagner and his initiation into writing ceramic criticism with his first book on Michael Cardew. “Bernard Leach’s name elicited respect, but that of Cardew caused excitement… One got the impression that Leach was the theorist whereas Cardew was the real thing.” He goes on to describe how his aesthetic turned away from functional pottery, the influence the catalog for John Coplan’s Abstract Expressionist Ceramics had on his sense of works made of clay, his partnership with Del Vecchio and their galleries, and finally the collection itself. Clark and Del Vecchio seem to have known everyone, even potters whose work they did not admire.

There are essays from other critics in addition to Clark’s, which gives added perspective. The largest part of the book focuses on what Clark calls “featured” works in the collection (now at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) with full-page photos and page length essays (remember, these pages are oversized). He talks about the potters’ lives (he still calls them potters), often including bits of gossip, and discusses and describes each piece.

Doing something similar for one’s personal use would be a good exercise for anyone with even a modest collection of pots. What do we know of the potter who made the pot on our shelf? What do we see in the pot? Why do we like it? Such an exercise is clarifying, though I suspect Clark knew what he thought of each before writing.

Far more than observers, Clark and Del Vecchio influenced the direction of American Ceramics through their galleries and Clark’s books. Shifting Paradigms in Contemporary Ceramics will surely further their influence and  become an indispensable reference book for collectors and ceramic historians. The exquisite and expensive production is such that I doubt the book will be reprinted, so if you are inclined to want it on your shelves, you might do well to acquire it now before the complete print run is sold. It will likely be more costly on the secondary market as happens with many art books today.

The Amazing Career of Beatrice Wood

Famously, while in the Netherlands to attend a meeting hosted by Jiddu Krishnamurti, Beatrice Wood stopped in an antique shop and fell in love with some French rococo lusterware plates. Three years later, at the age of forty, she enrolled in a pottery class at Hollywood High School so she could maker herself a teapot and a few cups to match the plates. In this way, she began a remarkable career in ceramics that would last the next six, yes six, decades until her death at the age of 105.

Of course, you don’t just take a class and go home and make a teapot, let alone one with a lustre glaze, but like so many of us in clay, she was hooked. She studied with Glen Lukens and then with Otto and Gertrude Natzler before setting out to make her own pots. In the era when studio pottery was influenced by Chinese and Japanese ceramics, she went her own way, and mastered the challenging and notoriously difficult lustre glazes she originally admired.

Beatrice Wood: Career Woman – Drawings, Paintings, Vessels, and Objects from the Santa Monica Museum of Art brings together three essays on Wood: Beatrice Wood: Ready Made by Jenni Sorkin; Shimmer: Beatrice Wood and Ceramics in Southern California, 1993-1998 by Garth Clark; and Wood In Paradise: Theosophy and Art at Ojai by Katherine Pyne. Small black and white photos from Wood’s life, grace the tops of the pages.

The soul of the book is the section of color images of her shimmering chalices, bottles, bowls, and plates in iridescent golds and silvers and colors that change with the light. There are also photos of the small clay figures she made throughout her clay life, and her paintings. Though the pots of many epochs and cultures are readily identifiable, and many individual potters have their own unique style also easily recognized, few pots are as singularly a potter’s own as Beatrice Wood’s. Leafing through the photographs I was reminded of just how much her own her pieces were.

All this is followed by entries from her diaries, which she annotated herself during the sixties and nineties and which have additionally been carefully annotated by Marie T. Keller and Francis N. Naumann. These are more notations than prose, with tantalizing tidbits and lots of name-dropping: “April 19, 1953: Discouraged. Wonder sometimes if I should give up pottery? July 9, 1953. Find new luster effects from kiln…November 18, 1953: Dr. Moses chooses pottery for Exhibition, over a hundred pieces…” There we have a potter’s life in three short one-sentence entries.

Wood was as much a writer as a potter, penning several highly readable books, most notably her memoir I Shock Myself. The persona she created for herself in her books and in the press (oh so long before the Internet) was as much a work of art as her goblets. Her pottery is not the sort that I look at and say, “Oh how I wish I could do that,” but I sure would like to have spent an evening in her company. Reading about her and her art is as close as one can get to that.