on 2 November 2012
"The Last Sane Man", Tanya Harrod's excellent biography of pioneer potter, Michael Cardew, is a must not only for potters, artists, and ceramic collectors, but also for those who just fancy the gripping story of an extraordinary life.
Anyone, but especially a potter, who was touched by the Cardew flame, could be inspired, maddened, or even burnt out by his presence. He called himself a "mud and water man", but his personality was firey, at times eccentric, opinionated and contradictory. I was fortunate to have spent just enough time at Wenford Bridge in the summer of 1973 to be infected by his enthusiasm for honest, well-made functional pots.
However, Tanya Harrod's book is not written from a potter's point of view. The potmaking is always there, at Winchcombe, Vume, Abuja and Wenford, but it is Cardew's complex personality that takes centre stage. Her access to a massive trove of private letters has allowed her to spell out the difficulties he had in his relationships with other men, particularly Kofi, his great Ghanaian love, with his very tolerant wife Mariel, and with his children.
The contradictory elements of Cardew's life were resolved in his work. An uncompromising vision coupled with an instinctive sense of rightness resulted in majestic, heartfelt pots. They will survive when our virtual, conceptual culture is not even a memory. Which brings me to my one criticism of Tanya Harrod's book. There are not enough colour photographs, particularly of the later stoneware, while the black and white photos of the people, places and African pots that so inspired him are plentiful, but too small.
That said, this is a brilliant account of one of the great characters of the twentieth century. I read the book from cover to cover almost in one sitting. Un-put-downable.
on 25 November 2012
Michael Cardew, (1901-1983), was, and still is, one of the most highly regarded potters of the 20th century.
Tanya Harrod's detailed journey through his life and work is an epic sweep across the social, political, and art history of the 20th century. Cardew is particularly well know for his work in West Africa, in Ghana and Nigeria, both British colonies at that time. He set up three pottery workshops, over a period of twenty years and produced some of his most memorable work there. Harrod navigates this vast and complicated historical terrain with formidable political agility. She applies forensic critical scrutiny to the colonial context of working, personal and romantic relationships as well as to the wider social contexts.
We get to know Cardew as a scholar, a potter, a husband, a father, a lover, a friend, and as a teacher and mentor. We learn of his character through his own writings and those of many others, including interviews with people in West Africa who remember him. Harrod brings an admirably cool head combined with considerable compassion to the complicated tangle of both homosexual and heterosexual relationships, enabling a fully rounded picture of all concerned to emerge.
Cardew eschewed industrial processes, insisting on developing a pottery `from the ground up,' starting with making and firing the kiln bricks, digging up local clay and grinding rocks for glaze materials. Undaunted, Harrod deftly picks her way through the details of craft pottery - the firing temperatures, the nature and feel of the clay, the machinery and general grub and grit as well as the science and aesthetics of the business.
This is painstaking historical research combined with fluent, inspired storytelling. It's a glorious book, one that will live near you and will be read and reread, argued over and discussed. Buy it new - second hand copies will be rarer than hen's teeth!
on 5 October 2012
Tanya Harrod spent 11 years researching and writing this hefty biography of a man who seemed, to summarise his life and work in a dangerously concise manner, to be restless. Endlessly and relentlessly restless, driven by his urges, dreams, frustrations, beliefs and his craft. You are swept along with the turmoil and turbulence of Cardew's life and work, his family and his travels in Harrod's excellent book and in turn, you also sense the enormity of her project in accurately and sensitively presenting to us the results of her research and labours. She must have been totally immersed in the minutiae of the accounts and one cannot help but feel that it was likely to have been nearly overwhelming at times given the nature and breadth of Cardew's life and circumstances. Documenting the life of a celebrity is a challenge but make that the colourful life of a legend and you understand the substantial task that was before her. But Harrod is a heavyweight in the world of writing about artists and craftspeople and this book is a testament to her well-deserved reputation.
Much of her task was facilitated by Cardew's prolific letter writing, especially to his wife Mariel and as their relationship was characterised by his honesty and her incredible patience and understanding, he did not hold back in his account of most aspects of his life. The result is a very intimate view of the man and at times, it is almost voyeuristic as we read of his troubled sexuality, his unstable and unequal relationships with his children and of the various men that featured in his life, the last also being the catalyst for his feelings of guilt and self-loathing that dogged him all his life.
Cardew the maker is also covered in great detail, from his early discovery of English tableware and its manufacture through the failed firings in Africa and then to his return to England, a hero of the craft and a man to whom many current leaders of pottery were drawn for their training, not least of all Svend Bayer. Cardew enjoyed the company of Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Gwyn Hanssen Piggott, Bernard Leach, Ladi Kwali, Shoji Hamada, the list of luminaries was enviable to say the least. Cardew the designer is also tracked, the evolution of his aesthetic, his pronouncements on what constituted good design and good technical aspects of pieces and his praise and condemnation of the pieces made by his colleagues, students and peers. Cardew's successes and failures at glazing and firing are also captured in detail, again courtesy of his copious note taking, sketches and letters to Mariel. For the potter, there are many examples of insights and technical detail that appeal and for the collector, there are many opportunities to place their pieces in a socio/geographical/personal context that add to the perceived value of his work.
It is however, Cardew the person that comes across this biography most strongly. Harrod remains true to the spirit of investigation and objectivity that while she records the adulation from most circles, she also mentions the more dubious responses from some. Cardew's family, that term itself requiring the broadest of definitions, is profiled as a group of family members forced to develop and acquire independence from the very start of their contact with Cardew, either as spouse or child. Cardew's drive to meet his own objectives in life resulted in broken lives, unfinished or unresolved projects, frustrated administrative powers and also intense admiration, the loyalty of staff and ultimately commercial success and recognition.
The book is well illustrated with photos of Cardew's work, of his drawings and of photos of his various enterprises. The photos of the people that figured in his life were particularly poignant. Cardew's family bear the evidence of the rigours of rationing and while they look well enough, there is a perceptible ragged quality to their clothing and demeanour, as opposed to the heroic poses of Cardew's African partner Clement Kofi Athey. The photos of his west African pottery team also feature smiling faces and a sense of purpose which only serve to highlight the despondence of post war England. Only a few of the plates are in colour and these feature his better known pots and platters while all the other plates are in black and white, even the more modern photos from the `70s and `80s. The effect of this editorial choice is to create an atmosphere of history and of a past era, certainly pertinent to Cardew and how he relates to contemporary pottery manufacture.
Harrod achieves the biographer's craft of presenting his life with an invisible touch of the writer while maintaining the interest of the reader with consummate skill. The balance of personal and professional aspects of his life is handled with deftness and while you occasionally feel the discomfort of an intense scrutiny into the darker struggles of the man, the spirit of the artist and pioneer also shines through. You close the book with a deeper understanding of the man and his work and the struggles and cost of achieving the success he sought.
Reproduced with kind permission of London Potters Association.
on 27 September 2013
This is a well researched and detailed book about a subject that is 'interesting'. Michael Cardew lived a life that radiated difference - a family that functioned differently to most and was more privileged than most. MC went on to become, partly by chance,a potter who is held in high regard and he clearly demonstrated a charisma that brought others to his same passion. He is also sometimes incompetent as a ceramicist, a difficult husband and largely absent father, a lover of good looking young men, a poor selector of subordinates and trainees, sometimes racist, intolerant of others in his field and the other arts and an indifferent civil servant in West Africa.
The author sketches a life rich in texture not all of which the reader may identify with. The first three quarters of the book are well written while the last part of the book becomes a list of MC met and liked/disliked A B or C and gave a lecture which was/was not reviewed or visited X Y or Z. This last part of MC's life needed greater intuition and incisiveness.
But my greatest difficulty with the book is that while I recognize this is a biography and not art history,I would have liked greater appreciation as to why his 'pots' are great. The context of his life is full of interest but I really only need to read about his life if I understand his ceramic greatness.
on 19 May 2013
The level of research that must have been required to write a book like this is huge, the detail is fantastic - indeed almost too much in places - but the story of a man that is so well known, in the world of pottery, is well worth the effort of the reading that is required. The production values of the book are very high and it is a valued addition to my library of books on pottery.
on 7 February 2013
Bought this for my husband and he loved it. He said it is well written and informative, and in addition very revealing to the character of Michael Cardew. Quite an eye opener in fact. Now I have to read it.
on 8 November 2014
Totally fascinating - I had no real knowledge about Michael Cardew before buying this book so it was a lovely surprise to read something so absorbing
on 1 March 2014
I have no idea what this book is about but it's one my brother asked for and he's happy with it!
on 2 February 2016
on 29 January 2013
This is a very well researched book but I am not sure that I quite understood some of conclusions that Harrod came to. Wonderful pictures.