Everybody has a story to tell and potters are no exception. Before the days of tweets and blogs, telling that story to a wider audience meant going into print. In most cases this meant writing an article for a ceramics magazine, but some potters managed to go one better than this and have a book published. These books mostly concentrated on aspects of materials or technique, but occasionally a potter would write about ceramics in a wider context and in the process they would tell a story.
This essay is about a few of these books. Most of them are relatively unknown, little gems in what must be considered one of the more obscure branches of publishing. I haven’t chosen them for their inherent literary merit or even for the wealth of information they convey. More than anything else I like the sense of honesty these books have – they are very true to themselves, which is not a bad thing.
So, without further ado, and in no particular order, here is my selection.
The Story of Palissy the Potter
T. Nelson & Sons, Paternoster Row, Edinburgh and New York 1876
This is one of the oldest books I own. Originally given as a ‘Prize for Reading’ to an Alice Lade in 1877, it was bought by my father in the early sixties, and his name is inscribed on the first facing page under the original dedication. It is a beautiful little book and includes two colour-plates. The first is titled Palissy’s Final Experiment and shows the potter sitting at a table mixing ingredients while his wife stands behind him holding their baby, while all around them on the floor are smashed pots. Reading the book it is apparent that it shows Palissy using fragments of pots to conduct glaze-tests, which just goes to show that some things never change.
The second picture shows Palissy placing a pot in a kiln, which really looks more like a fancy bread oven with its neat cast iron door and polite little fire burning in the hearth underneath. This is Palissy hard at work trying to fire the aforementioned glaze-tests so he can discover the secret of what is referred to as ‘a white enamel’, which we would call a white glaze. This part of the story is perhaps the only thing that is now remembered about the whole tale, where Palissy is forced to burn the palings from his fences and then even the household furniture, all the time trying to gain sufficient heat to melt the glazes.
The story is set against the fierce religious persecutions of the Protestant Huguenots by Catholics in 16th century France, and, unfortunately, Palissy’s life ends badly, locked in the Bastille by evil Papists.
It is meant to be a tale of triumph over adversity, but – at least from a contemporary standpoint – the messages are very mixed. Starving one’s kiddies and burning the furniture in order to get a good glaze?
This book might appear to be an eccentric period-piece, but one of the curious facets of the text is the way it has parallels in some far more contemporary tales concerning the triumph of the will in a world of ceramic adversity.
Potbank by Mervyn Jones
Secker & Warburg, London 1961
Potbank: A social enquiry into Life in the Potteries was the first in a series of texts published as part of the ‘Britain Alive’ series in 1961. It’s author, Mervyn Jones, was not a potter, but the picture he paints of life in the once-great ceramic centre of Stoke-on-Trent rings very true.
The six towns that make up the city of Stoke-on-Trent (Longton, Hanley, Fenton, Burslem, Tunstall and Stoke) known collectively as ‘the Potteries’, are represented here in all their sooty splendour. In fact, if this book were a film it would be in black and white, with factory girls riding home from work on old Raleigh bicycles down cobbled streets lined with identical terrace houses. The language is chock full of colloquialisms, hence the term ‘potbank’ for a factory that makes pottery, or ‘paste’ for the clay slip for casting porcelain.
It is a world as far away as can be imagined from contemporary ceramics with its art schools, grants and galleries, while still working with the same basic materials, except that they did it so much better, or at least much more skilfully.
And the writing is charming and very English – here is an example:
Tower Square, in Tunstall, is to my mind the prettiest ... This is a peaceful, open square, with a sniff of fresh air and a lingering memory of a country market town. It is ridged in the middle, so that the houses seem to lean outwards. Mostly they are small, unassertive shops, selling things like jigsaw puzzles, goldfish food, and the libraries of defunct clergymen.
For all the faddishness of Jin de Zen, we shouldn’t forget that the vast bulk of Australian ceramic history lies in England, or that the wealth, skill, scale and success of the manufactories of Stoke-on-Trent are a singular moment in manufacturing history.
This book certainly doesn’t paint a romantic picture of life in the factories, and I doubt if many of the Mashiko-bound potters in 1961 would have altered their destinations to the English Midlands after reading it. Nonetheless, it gives one a taste of an industry that, in its heyday, supported thousands of workers and, together with the mills, steel and shipbuilding, made Britain great. Now, just let me check if that souvenir cup from Kate and Wills’ wedding was ‘Made in China’ ...
May by May Davis
Self published May Davis, New Zealand 1990 ISBN 0-473-01000-3
After reading this autobiography by May Davis, one wonders that she had the energy to write anything down at all, given the almost ridiculous extremes of discomfort she endured at various times and places to, together with her husband Harry Davis, make pots that people might sometimes have wanted but, in reality, nobody actually needed.
Bright, artistic and beautiful, born into a privileged household (her grandfather was the founder of the Manchester Guardian, later to become The Guardian newspaper), one is left with the overriding impression that May Davis might have had a far easier life if she had just ... well, if she had just not met Harry Davis.
Then again, one wouldn’t want to convey the impression that May Davis was a shrinking violet, blindly following ‘her man’ as he travelled around the world on yet more arduous ceramic adventures. Indeed, as is obvious from the text, May was a little bit ‘out there’ herself, wholeheartedly identifying with various causes, sometimes to the detriment of both her personal life and health. This, combined with her husband’s proclivity for taking on large challenges of a ceramic kind, make Harry and May Davis an interesting case-study in both how to conquer difficulties and yet at the same time make
the easy difficult and to render success, if not a failure, then at least hard to savour by virtue of sheer bloody-mindedness.
Of all the biographies included in this essay, May is probably the most ‘tell all’, in that it eschews almost all detail about the making of pots while including a great deal of detail about the life of the author. To be honest, there is a bit ‘too much information’ for me; the details of May’s first orgasm, clutching Harry’s knee as she sat beside him, fully-clothed and still decidedly in possession of her virginity, is interesting as far as it goes, but there is also surely something a little vain about recounting such an episode; as one reads further, it becomes apparent that the text is characterised by such observations.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a very gutsy woman we are talking about and she did not let herself
be constrained by either societal expectations, or indeed by any regards for her own comfort. One also realises that it was all too easy for the male partner, in what was undoubtedly an equal working partnership, to become widely recognised while the woman was considered a kind of willing helper. In fact, reading this text it is clear that May Davis was deeply involved in all aspects of both making and selling the work. What she didn’t do was embark on the numerous lecture and workshop tours that Harry Davis undertook, tours which served to raise his profile in the international ceramic arena while May Davis attended to business and family at home.
Both the Davis’s were up for a challenge, but going to live in extremely adverse conditions in Peru
in the early nineteen-seventies seems to have been one adventure too many, at least for Harry Davis, who returned from this adventure with his health seriously compromised. This was the last in a series of South American adventures that must have sorely tested their endurance even when young and fit, let alone when they were approaching late middle-age.
As May Davis herself asks, the question remains as to whether this kind of interventionist project (one could add Ivan McMeekin in the Northern Territory, Michael Cardew in Africa) actually achieves very much, or merely perpetuates a kind of benign cultural condescension. At least in the case of Western potters visiting Japan the shoe was, for once, on the other foot, but that is a discussion for another day.
And, having mentioned Michael Cardew, perhaps it is appropriate that the next text to be discussed is by the original pioneer potter himself.
A Pioneer Potter – An Autobiography Oxford University Press, 1989
The greatest disappointment to be had from reading Michael Cardew’s A Pioneer Potter – An Autobiography comes when one realises that it is indeed only half an autobiography, as it ends in 1948 with Cardew returning to England from the pottery he established at Vumë in West Africa. According to the book’s postscript, written by his son Seth Cardew, notes written by Michael Cardew before he died in 1983 indicated his intention to write about his later career: the return to Africa, then back to England in 1965 at the age of sixty-four, and lastly his prominence as an international ceramics celebrity, touring and giving workshops throughout the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Alas, it was not to be, so we only have this attenuated account of his own life, by his own hand.
Cardew’s most famous book, of course, is his 1960 Pioneer Pottery, a compendium of materials and techniques for making pottery – or, more precisely, stoneware pottery – in places where neither
the tradition nor maybe even the need for such wares existed. As such, his entire production in Africa involved the augmenting of an effective indigenous tradition of low-fired wares with a curious amalgam of Anglo Oriental stoneware that itself was influenced by English slipwares and local African patterns, if not forms. It was a curious enterprise, and one which kept Cardew occupied for much of his life.
However, the pottery that Cardew made at the beginning of his career came from a tradition much closer to home. As a young man he had fallen in love with English slipwares, and this fascination even intruded into his study while a Classics student at Oxford. And in a curious way this says it all – on one hand we have a well-educated young man, studying ‘the Greats’ at a prestigious university and playing classical music in his spare time. On the other, we have a driven individual who has fallen in love with a remnant, almost extinct, tradition of rural ceramics and who is intent on reviving that tradition, despite the fact that it has been utterly supplanted
by industrial wares and can in fact probably only really survive as a token or facsimile within the fragile and precious world of the gallery and collector.
In fact, Cardew’s chapter in A Pioneer Potter titled ‘Who Makes These Wonderful Things?’ describes in some detail the moment when he found that he could, as a relatively young man, enter into the world already inhabited by Leach and Staite-Murray, when his pots, included in a group showing of the newly formed
National Society of Painters, Sculptors,Engravers and Potters, met with great financial and critical success. Of course Cardew ran a mile, and the wonderful thing about this book is that he is so transparent in recounting the details of these and other moments of success and failure, indecision and passion in a voice which is neither too distant, or too self-involved.
Other aspects of his life and career, including his prolonged absences from wife and family, are explained in a way which throws further light on his attraction to Africa. The personal conflicts thus hinted at might also account for his famously difficult nature, but instead of May Davis’ rather confronting admissions, Cardew just gives us enough information to figure it out for ourselves.
A Pioneer Potter is not a charming read, but it is clear-headed, erudite and one just wishes the old devil had lived long enough to finish it.