Michael Cardew The Last Sane Man book review

It is hard to know how to do justice to this book in just a few words. The book is the product of 11 years meticulous research by Tanya Harrod, possibly the best writer commentating on the craft field today. Michael Cardew is a seminal figure in 20th century craft and a torch bearer for a particular focus within the craft world that I care passionately about. He was passionate about working from raw materials, what he called the pioneer approach. When he started a pottery he first dug clay and made bricks to build the kiln then prospected the local area for firewood, various clays and the minerals needed to make glazes.

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He was a complex man living a life full of contrasts and the book deals with this so well. He disliked the studio pottery world but sold his work for high prices in London gallery shows. He worked for 30 years in West Africa and disliked the colonial system but was part of it and dependent on it. He had a complex and difficult love life. He made some fantastic pots yet many of his potteries were dogged by failure. The book chronicles the ups and downs from a very personal point of view drawing heavily on Michael’s diaries and his intimate letters to his wife but many other diverse sources and archives were mined to bring other viewpoints and create a rounded objective picture of an incredibly complex human being.

Craft is central to the book and I guess it just feels so normal and right that I just accept Michael’s way of thinking and doing things. The real surprising eye openers that grabbed me and captivated me were the insights into a world that I knew incredibly little about. England’s colonial past is very little understood now by most. It is easy to view colonialism in simple black and white (literally and figuratively) terms yet the reality was very much more complex. The book gives a wonderfully objective non judgemental view from the inside, warts and all. Tanya tells me that many readers have decided after reading the book that Michael was not a nice person, something which surprised her. He was tremendously flawed but aren’t we all, his actions caused enormous difficulty to those that he cared about most yet he inspired almost disciple like devotion amongst his ¬†followers, many of whom say he changed their lives. Tanya’s book does justice to a complete human life in all it’s complexity in a way that I have never experienced before. I would heartily recommend it.

If you wonder if the life of a mid 20th century potter has relevance today let’s finish with the final words from the epilog.

“I began this book in 2001, and as I complete it in 2012, a perceived loss of craft skill in Britain is being mourned and debated. The marked disconnect between productive labour and material reward is also being pondered. Michael’s prejudices and passions appear like a map in this new territory. Behold, the hour cometh.

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2 Responses to Michael Cardew The Last Sane Man book review

  1. Hannah McAndrew January 26, 2014 at 11:19 am #

    Really good review Robin. The book is quite a thing. For me it really helped putting the social history parts into context. It joined up alot of pieces that I hadn’t gotten into their proper places. The insight into the complex man is fascinating. From a potters perspective it is fascinating in the pottery details but also fascinating with regard to the need to be continually striving and with every set back being able to still find the strength and doggedness to try again.
    I have a huge admiration for the man and his pots and he is one of my main inspirations.

  2. Steve Schuler February 14, 2014 at 5:02 pm #

    I’m going to go looking for this book now. Hopefully it will be available here in the US. Thanks for the tip!

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