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.

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