The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew and the Counterculture

The British studio potter Michael Cardew (1901-1983) was a man of paradox, a modernist who disliked modernity, a colonial servant who despised Empire, a husband and father who was also homosexual, and an intellectual who worked with his hands. Graduating from Oxford in 1923, training with the legendary Bernard Leach, he went on to lead a life of pastoral poverty in Gloucestershire, making majestic slipware and participating in the polarised design and political debates of the 1930s. A wartime project in Ghana turned him into a fierce critic of British overseas policies; he remained in West Africa intermittently until 1965, founding a local tradition of stoneware inspired by the ambient material culture, independent of European imports, made by Africans for Africans. He ended his days a ceramic magus, his pottery at Wenford Bridge, Cornwall, an outpost of the counterculture and a haven for disaffected youth.

In this article, Tanya Harrod, author of prizewinning Cardew biography The Last Sane Man, explains why the influential potter and his life of dissent were the subject of her writing, and why Cardew’s story still resonates with our ‘increasingly unfree society’. 

Cardew Cover“Virginia Woolf believed biography to be ‘A bastard impure art’. She argued that it was impossible to get to the heart of another person’s life explaining that because we ‘cannot extract the atom’ the reader merely gets the husk. The answer, Woolf decided, was ‘to separate two kinds of truth. Let the biographer print fully, completely, accurately, the known facts without comment. Then let him write the life as fiction’. I quoted this passage (which in turn appears in Hermione Lee’s fine life of Virginia Woolf) in a talk to mark the publication of Robin Kinross’s study of the typographer Anthony Froshaug. Kinross avoided the pitfalls of biography – assumed empathy, dubious psychological insights, the stripping away of privacy and dignity – by offering a brief memoir followed by Froshaug’s own writings, both personal and professional, together with examples of his typography. Kinross, in effect, invites us to construct Froshaug’s story for ourselves.

So why have I written a conventional cradle-to-grave account of the potter Michael Cardew with some psychological insights thrown in for good measure? Partly because Cardew’s life seems to me exemplary – even if I don’t set it out quite in the spirit of Greek and Roman biographers who offered life stories as guides to self-improvement and models for imitation. I don’t expect readers to emulate Michael Cardew but his story tells us more than most about what it meant to be modern in the last century. His life may also help us confront the present. An exaggerated claim perhaps, but recent books like Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman and Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working with Your Hands suggest deep anxieties about the disembodied nature of most work. Michael understood that sense of alienation better than most and sought to confront it.

He took up a cultural position characteristic of the first decades of the twentieth century. His was a reaction against modernity (though not modernism) and he, therefore, belongs with an international cohort who felt an extreme anxiety about industrial change and the disappearance of the vernacular. Le Corbusier’s youthful Voyage d’Orient of 1910-11, when he collected quantities of peasant pots in Eastern Europe, suggests that modernism in architecture, art and design was Janus-faced, looking forward but also backward, to folk art and the pre-industrial. To be truly modern was to be, in part, anti-modern. It also involved an urgent search for authentic, lived experience.

Cardew offered a creative response to what he recognised as an increasingly unfree society. An industrialised environment, which dictates mechanical ways of thought and action, can only be challenged, as Raymond Williams pointed out, ‘by conscious resistance and great labour’.  And that resistance needs to be multiplied in spades in our post-industrial world. The things Cardew questioned all through his life – linear, standardised time, excessive wealth, the Western alphabet (too functionalist!), anything made of plastic, art schools with their marks and grades – were all of a piece and were all part of his dissent. The things he loved – the poetry of William Blake, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the Analects of Confucius, the writings of James Baldwin, the arts and crafts of West Africa, early music and the playing of music – hang together also.

Cardew was a potter and making pots was central to this life of dissent. Yet most people, understandably, struggle for a vocabulary when discussing ceramics. I got a keen sense of this in late August when sitting in a tent at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Professor Jonathan Wild was talking fluently about the short-listed books for the James Tait Black Prize for biography. He had no problem with Michael Gorra’s book on Henry James’s life reflected through Portrait of a Lady, nor with Thomas Wright’s study of William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood nor with Salman Rushdie’s autobiographical Joseph Anton.

But when he came to discuss to The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture he suddenly sounded a lot less articulate. I don’t think that this was because Professor Wild lacked an interest in the modern, or colonialism or, indeed, the counterculture. I think it was the messy materiality of ceramics and its arcane associated jargon that unnerved him. That I turned out to have won the prize was, I felt, a tribute to the James Tait Black judges. Their decision seemed remarkable and, of course, welcome, not least because it appeared to endorse my ambition to write a more expansive history of modern art.

To enlarge the field of art history was also the goal of my previous book for Yale, The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century. It ended with a photograph of Michael in old age, a choice that turned out to be prescient. If The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century was a large-scale synoptic ethnography, with The Last Sane Man I wanted to go in close. Virginia Woolf’s ‘bastard, impure art’ was put to the service of my second attempt to reconfigure art history, this time through the prism of an extraordinary life. In the end it seemed that the strength of biography lies in its bastard, impure form – which necessarily disrupts familiar hierarchies, neat categories and a stable theoretical framework. In short, Cardew’s life took me to unexpected places. And I hope that in writing about him I was able to extract the atom and not merely offer the reader the husk.”

– Article by Tanya Harrod

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'Michael Cardew: The Last Sane Man' by Tanya Harrod

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