The Last Sane Man
Tanya Harrod

The Last Sane Man

Tanya Harrod
Thinking back on his life, Michael Cardew liked to quote Confucius’s disciple Mencius: ‘When Heaven has some great task in store for a man, it at first exercises his mind with suffering and his sinews and bones with toil. It exposes his body to hunger and subjects him to extreme poverty. It confounds his undertakings. By all these methods it stimulates his mind, hardens his nature.1
Cardew was born in 1901 – his life walks in step with the last century. He was of a generation who, if male, had been just too young to fight in the Great War and who, if intelligent, responded negatively to the lack-lustre government policies and politics of the late 1920s and 1930s. He belonged to the diligent upper middle classes. His grandfather on his mother’s side was G.W. Kitchin, Dean of Winchester and later Durham. His paternal great grandfather was Richard Bethell, 1st Lord Westbury, from 1861-65 Lord Chancellor. His paternal uncle was Lewis Farnell, classical scholar and Rector of Exeter College, Oxford. He was related to both the spy Kim Philby and the soldier Field Marshall Montgomery.
All this suggests the daring of his decision to become a potter after reading Classics at Oxford. He had been educated like many members of his family to become a lawyer, an academic, a diplomat or a soldier or a cleric. But his disaffection with his background was not unique and exact contemporaries like Alun Griffiths (later Dom Bede Griffiths) and Rolf Gardiner (the organic farmer and forester) were just two examples of lives that were guided by extreme principles between the wars, one becoming a monk at Prinknash Abbey and, later, a swami in India, and the other embracing far right anti-democratic ideologies.
Cardew’s life developed differently. He took up a not uncommon artistic position, characteristic of the first decades of the twentieth century. His was a reaction against the over-civilised existence associated with modernity. He 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, progressive but also backward, enthralled by folk art and the pre-industrial. To be truly modern was to be, in part, anti-modern. 2
Michael Cardew’s life and work was a creative response to an increasingly mechanised society that took the form of a desire for authentic, lived experience. Maybe that is the definition of a twentieth century artist across all genres. The industrial environment, which dictates mechanical ways of thought and feeling, can only be challenged, as Raymond Williams pointed out, ‘by conscious resistance and great labour’.3 The things Cardew questioned – linear standardised time, industrial ceramics, the Western alphabet, anything made of plastic, art schools with their marks and grades – were all of a piece. 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 making music – hang together also.
As a potter he was there at the beginning, in the 1920s, when studio or modern pottery seemed like an arcane new art form, standing alongside abstract sculpture. That was never quite enough for him although his work was singled out for its exceptional majesty. But from 1942 he worked in West Africa, making everything, starting with the bricks to build a kiln. Technology soon became as much a part of his story as art. He found beauty in geology and in ceramic science and in the machines he used to prepare his materials.
In particular what potters call the ‘clay body’, the mixture of clay and other materials out of which pots are made, became a vital concern. He was, he said, a ‘Mud and Water Man’. He wanted a clay body that felt sensual and responsive and he often rejected safe, well-behaved ceramic combinations that fired to high temperatures and took glazes well, simply because they felt wrong to the touch. He also made high claims for the act of throwing a pot on the wheel, seeing it as summing up ‘the business of being human’. The potter’s wheel was, he believed, like a musical instrument. It was not just a tool. Throwing was a test of art and character, making it necessary to be ‘precise & generous, careful & carefree, severe and kind, ascetic & sensual, austere & indulgent, intellectual & emotional, cool and warm, hard & soft – open to all the influences of the universe & yet at the same moment focussed on a single aim; namely to do the job properly’.4
Few potters felt so passionately about these matters. And this obsessive blend of sensuality and technics sets him apart from most other visual artists. It is impossible to write about him without talking about felspars and ball mills; about saggars, pug mills and brick clamps. I’ve tried to honour him by conveying the poetry of all this.
Because he made things for use – plates, teapots and casseroles – his art must be viewed as a continuum, as one large multiple, endlessly and subtly developing from 1923 onwards. Even so it is possible to pick out individual works – the great rose bowls and massive jars of the late 1930s, the new surprising forms inspired by West Africa, and the last work made at Wenford Bridge in Cornwall in the 1970s and the early 1980s, monumental pieces made slowly by a man with arthritic hands.
Despite his body becoming ‘an unruly servant’ as he grew older, he did not slow down intellectually or creatively. His charisma made it possible for him to surround himself with youth. He believed in what he called “Beneficient Vampirism”. He explained that ‘in the society and company of those who are young, if they are enthusiastic & responsive, one acquires some of their vitality & enthusiasms; & grafting it onto one’s accumulated knowledge or experience or (if one dares to call it by such a term) ‘wisdom’, one regains for a short time the vitality & enthusiasm of one’s own youth’.5
It is a touching précis of his strategy; and in return the young men and women who worked alongside him in his last years found themselves attending an informal university. He had had an elevated education. He did not read a contemporary novel in English until his early twenties. After a boyhood studying Greek, Latin and French texts he was surprised at the modern novel’s accessible charms. And he came to view popular culture, especially as the 1960s got underway, with amused, sympathetic enthusiasm. He loved the movies, underground magazines, gay novels and the counterculture, particularly in its West Coast of America manifestations.
Yet his was also a life that interrogated Englishness and the class structures of England. He made objects by hand when the purpose of such work was hard to define. His activities may be seen as both art and craft and as a form of social and political rebellion. Thus he engaged in an idiosyncratic fashion with colonialism. He became a colonial servant initially because he was poor. He soon realised that in West Africa he could make good work. British exploits there were self-interested at the highest levels and that self-interest has been well mapped and condemned. But the ways in which disaffected artists engaged with the culture of West Africa deserves a more sympathetic eye, even if Cardew’s time there makes for strange reading. And he went on to engage with racism and its fallout in North America and in the Northern Territories of Australia. His recipe for integration and fairness – making pots together from the ground up – may seem limited, even naïve. But by putting craft and craft knowledge at the heart of a civilised society he anticipated the current resurgence of interest in making, in the value of tacit knowledge and of engagement with materials. Whatever his limitations in both Ghana and Nigeria he lived within communities – worlds away from the employees of today’s Non-Governmental Organisations traversing Africa in their air conditioned jeeps.
Michael Cardew wrote his own remarkable autobiography that he worked on until his death in 1983 and which was published, sensitively edited by his eldest son Seth Cardew, in 1988. While he was working on it he made a little note to himself: ‘I am assuredly not writing confessions (Andre Gide’s Si le grain me meurt).’ Gide’s masterpiece was one of Michael’s favourite books but on the question of confession he took note of the American humourist Jos Billing’s aphorism: ‘Confess your sins to the Lord and you will be forgiven. Confess them to men & you will be laughed at’.6 He was thinking about his sexuality and the fact that he was a married man with three sons who never got over a schoolboy homosexual love affair and who was to love a succession of young men from his forties onwards: ‘never believe your past is buried & done with. It will revive to confuse & confound you..but also to sustain you’.7 He hoped that a biography would never be written.
This is that unwanted biography. We meet a fair-haired Edwardian boy in shorts and a gansey sweater watching an old man making a harvest jug in Devon. Then, a young man, sitting at night by a lighted kiln in Gloucestershire in the late 1920s, arguing about sex and Spengler with his friends. He learns calligraphy near the Docks in London’s original China Town. He reads Das Kapital and feels his whole life has changed. He writes secret things in his diary in Greek. Later, middle-aged, he disembarks at Takoradi, Gold Coast in 1942, his wife and children receding in his mind. In 1950s Nigeria he makes his own idiosyncratic, creative kingdom in the very centre of that huge country. Later still, he weeps on the West Coast of Canada because his young male companion decides not to travel with him. In his seventies in California he sits at a potter’s wheel, telling stories, watched by adoring youthful crowds. His audience feel their lives have been changed forever.
I have attended to what Michael Cardew called his ’sins’. But I have avoided speculation – something the reader may find frustrating. Michael had a great capacity for love, as well as for cruel selfishness but many of these loves – aside from two – were fleeting or transmuted into loyal regard. He liked Oscar Wilde’s aphorism: ‘It is always painful to part with people whom one had known for a very brief space of time. The absence of old friends one can endure with equanimity’.
Angela Carter, reviewing Garth Clark’s monograph on Cardew in 1977 saw him as ‘The Last Sane Man in a crazy world’.8 There are many who would agree with her, in particular the students who worked with Cardew at Wenford Bridge in Cornwall after his return from West Africa in 1965. 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.
This life ends with Michael Cardew’s death and does not follow the fortunes of his pupils and followers. They inhabited a different aesthetic world, more crowded and less extraordinary. Cardew, by contrast, stayed a grand amateur. He argued that making pots should be a part-time activity. Better work would be the result. He also believed in making things from the ground up, digging out his raw material and beginning with all those bricks for his kiln. This self-imposed ruling, unnecessary for the most part, taught him the value of things. His approach reminds us some of the more memorable ‘from scratch’ art and design projects of recent times, for instance the young designer Thomas Twaithes’ attempts to make a cheap mass produced toaster from raw materials in an wayward but revealing project of reverse engineering. Michael died before Britain lost most of her industrial base but his own Robinson Crusoe-like activities anticipated our anxiety about a world where the products we buy appear on the shelves of shops as if by magic, or ‘from China’.9
This, then, is the story of one man’s attempt to live a creative life in the last century, a century that Eric Hobsbawm called ‘an age of extremes’. The twenty-first century looks set fair to match that extremism and as a biography this book poses a question we all need to answer: ‘how can we can be modern and be true to ourselves?’
From The Last Sane Man – Michael Cardew – Modern Pots Colonialism and Culture (2012), Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, New Haven and London.


(1) Michael Cardew, manuscript autobiography, pp.589-90.
(2) This much quoted but useful observation comes from Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Ai: the Experience of Modernity,(1982) London: Verso, 1983, p.14
(3) Dai Smith, Raymond Williams: A Warrior’s Tale, Cardigan: Parthian, 2008, p.349
(4) Notes for autobiography, Summit students pad, p. 63, AAD/2006/2/2/18; on the piano as an instrument see notes for Kent Benson film, AAD/2006/2/2/15
(5) Michael Cardew to Kent Benson, 11 July, 1967, Kent Benson papers
(6) Notes for autobiography, vol 1, p.138, AAD/20006/2/2/19, vol 1, p.53. Josh Billings is the pen name of the American humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw (1818-1885)
(7) Notes for autobiobigraphy, vol 4, p.990, AAD/2006/2/2/19
(8) Angela Carter, Cardew’s Pots, The Guardian, November 30, 1978
(9) Thomas Twaithes, The Toaster Project or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011.
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