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.