Edmund de Waal

Feat of Clay

The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew – Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture

By

Yale University Press 457pp £30 order from our bookshop

There is an image of the potter Michael Cardew in old age, almost as wrinkled as Auden, gaunt and with sunken cheeks, dressed in a medieval-looking shirt with cut-off arms, wearing shorts, throwing a pot on a kick-wheel. He has wet clay plastered up his arms, his hands are in mid-flight and are as wild as any conductor’s. He is surrounded by young students and he looks completely and utterly enthused, in the grip of the compulsion to make and talk and inspire. The photograph seems to suggest that making a pot is simply not enough – discipleship is called for. In Tanya Harrod’s magnificent biography of Cardew she traces his complicated trajectory from the romantic attempt to revive a folk-tradition of country pottery in the Cotswolds through his 25 years of experiment in West Africa to his later life as counter-cultural seer in Cornwall. The people who fell into his orbit were rarely unchanged by his charisma, the fierceness of his arguments, or, indeed, by his pots. One of the great strengths of this book is that these pots are taken seriously and described with care. His epiphany, during the West Country holidays of his Edwardian childhood, was an encounter with slip-decorated pottery, a vernacular tradition of jugs and dishes that seemed to encapsulate warmth, kindness, generosity – and liberation from school and convention. This openness, the volume of the big-bellied pitchers or the calligraphic pull of fingers through a glaze, was the driver in his life. How could you make things that you could use which emanated freedom?

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