The Last Sane Man

These past weeks of silence on the blog, I have been immersed in Tanya Harrod’s monumental biography, The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture. It is not a book to be read quickly or lightly. Harrod, an art historian and the author of The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century, spent a decade researching and writing it. Cardew was a lifelong diarist, a prolific letter writer and the author of two books, Pioneer Pottery his elegantly written and highly technical opus, and Pioneer Potter, his autobiography, plus essays and lectures. He was written about, filmed and covered in the press. Many of the potters whom he influenced are still living and working. Harrod had an abundance of sources to consult and indeed her acknowledgements read like a who’s who of twentieth century ceramics.

Michael Cardew was by all accounts charismatic. He was photogenic even in old age. And he made beautiful pots, perhaps some of the most beautiful pots the world has seen, that, even more important than their beauty, connect emotionally with the beholder. He has mythic status amongst potters.

The outlines of his life are widely known. Born into a musical family (he played the recorder throughout his life), the middle of five tow-headed brothers, he received a classical education. Arthur, his father, collected pots made by Edwin Beer Fishley and would take the whole family on summer expeditions to Fremington to purchase his pots. However, the senior Cardew was not pleased when his son chose to become a maker of pots himself. The young Cardew sought out William Fishley Holland, Edwin Beer’s grandson now at Braunton, to teach him to throw. While there, he learned of Bernard Leach’s pottery at St. Ives and asked to come work with him. They formed a life-long friendship and appreciation for one another.

After leaving St. Ives, Cardew purchased an abandoned pottery and opened Winchcombe, where he produced exquisite earthenware, though not without many tribulations. Here, Elijah Comfort came to throw for him, and Ray Finch came and eventually took over for him. He then purchased an old inn and built Wenford Bridge, but left for the first of two lengthy stays in West Africa, in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and later in Nigeria. There, he turned to stoneware, and of necessity, became deeply knowledgeable about geology, glaze chemistry, clay and all the technical aspects of ceramics. He returned to Wenford Bridge periodically throughout his stay in Nigeria, and, upon leaving Africa for good, remained at Wenford Bridge. By then, he was a legend, much sought and admired. He took in his first students since his return to England, Svend Bayer and then Todd Piker, and made several lecture tours in the US.

“Michael Cardew’s life and work,” Harrod writes, “represented a creative response to an increasingly mechanized society and took the form of a desire for authentic, lived experience.” She focuses as much on Cardew’s personal life as on his art, writing extensively about his boyhood tryst with a fellow Exeter student, David Owen, and heartbreak at being abandoned; his unusual marriage (that lasted until his own death) to Mariel Russell with whom he had three sons; his role as an often absent father; and his overwhelming love for Clement Kofi Athey. At times, Harrod seems determined not to let us put or keep Cardew on a pedestal, and points out how difficult it must have been for Mariel to be married to him, though she quotes frequently from Cardew’s many letters to her. She questions some of his actions in the Gold Coast and Nigeria and his complex relationship with imperialism. She tells us that he burst into rages and shed tears easily. He liked to share red wine with friends, often quoted Blake, and was moved by Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Cardew made pots up until his death by stroke at the age of eighty-two. After the slipware of his early years, he produced tall stoneware cider jars, African inspired stools, casseroles, bottles and jars with working screw tops, great platters and rose bowls, all with his unmistakable seemingly simple designs. He lived aesthetically but always surrounded by beauty, part of his attraction to generations of admirers. Who has not been moved by the now famous photos of his long, wooden eating room table at Wenford Bridge, his pots on the windowsill, the whitewashed walls?

An informed society should have a richly detailed, carefully researched biography of an artist of Cardew’s stature and now we have it. Bravo. But Harrod admits that it is a book he did not want written. The title comes from a 1978 review the novelist Angela Carter wrote of Garth Clark’s monograph on Cardew in which she called him, “The Last Sane Man in a crazy world.” Harrod points out that there are many who would agree with Carter, “in particular the students who worked with Cardew at Wenford Bridge in Cornwall after his return from West Africa in 1965.” She continues, “I interviewed many of them and when they recalled the 1970s and early 1980s spent in Cardew’s company, learning about quality in pottery and in everyday life – thinking back to that period of no compromise, of life lived at its purest – all were visibly moved, several of them to tears.”

There are ample black and white photos throughout the text and a section of color plates. The notes are thorough but I would also have liked a bibliography, though the absence of one was likely not the author’s choice. The index is superb.

We must thank Harrod for her good work. I highly recommend taking the time to read her book. And you know what – I never had the opportunity to meet him except on paper and seeing his pots, but Michael Cardew is still on a pedestal for me.

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