Mike's Pots

The International Conference of Craftsmen in Pottery and Textiles
Dartington Hall 1952

Dartington Conference 1952


By Marguerite Wildenhain

Mr. Cox has told you that I was supposed to talk about the Potter in the New World. The fact that this theme was chosen for today's talk seems to indicate that there must be some relation between the potters and what we like to call "the New World". What has happened? Has the world really changed so much that a craft which has been a human occupation ever since man has been man should have become obsolete in our time? Has life by-passed the potter as the spreading highways by-pass picturesque and quaint little villages to which one looks back with envious sympathy but in which one would not like to live any more? Has pottery still some essential meaning for the human race or is it only a relic from former times like the hoop skirt and the bustle?

Let us examine our problem closely. Man has always needed and still needs pottery vessels to eat and drink from, to put liquids and solids in, to wash in, for insulators, bricks, tiles. These we take for granted are made today in industrial centres. We never question the necessity of these mass-production centres. But we do question the value of the wark of those single men and women who make their pots by hand, without taking advantage of the machine to go in for a larger production. They seem to be old-fashioned, out-dated, full of aphorisms in their ultimate standards of quality. For them work seems to be more than a question of earning a living. In one word, those people do not seem to fit into our pattern of living any more.

In order to find out whether these few hand-potters and other craftsmen still have a right to live, I would like to examine the process of making pottery by hand and see what human activities are involved in the process. But I must start at the very beginning, at the relationship between form and thought, matter and idea, between man and God.

Hand-work, I would say, is made of two different and separated activities: one all spiritual I would say, the idea; one all concrete - the making. Our problem will be to trace these two parts up to the point of their total fusion in the object, and see whether the activities involved or the artistic developments of the craftsman are of importance for the human race or not.

At the beginning of all man-created things is the idea. "Idos" in Greek was something that you reached with your eyes, through your sight, your activity of seeing. It was that which is visual and seeing. The form which you saw with your eyes was the idea. Those inner eyes are the truths of the soul that everyone learns with. Plato says they are more important to keep than 10,000 real eyes for only through those can truth be seen. The soul has eyes to see and they are directed to the eternal forms. But most of us have eyes for the soul that are weak and they are incapable of seeing that which is godlike. The artist is the one who sees. With an idea in front of his whole being; with a whole idea in his mind, the artist starts to work with his hands. For him it is every time like the first day of creation. There is nothing but the blind chaos and the darkness of desire and urge, and he must plunge into that point that is most true in him, into that source where pure imagination comes from, where he is at the source of all things and totally alone. For art is not cumulative and progressive as a science and no artist can begin where his predecessors have left off. He has to start like a native, so to say, at the origin of things.

So there is the artist - the potter - working; with the first movement of his hands he touches the clay: thousands of problems creep out like so many temptations to lure him away from his pure and original idea. He is trying to force into shape his very concrete material, that clay, into the form or idea that he has before him in his eyes, This strange interplay in the artist between the pure existing idea and the work itself causes the craftsman to constantly split himself so as to create that idea. That form which he had in mind dominates every move that he makes and the very object is stamped with the pressure and the sceptical vigilance of his inner vision. But matter has laws of its own so the potter trics to learn these. He finds out or he is lucky to be taught those methods that are apt to favour better results. He will learn those movements, rules and restrictions that will bring his work to most certain success and he will find out that it is to his most definite advantage to learn and to respect them.

Thus, after much labouring effort and many disappointments he will acquire, what we call, the technique. But that should not mean exacting a formula, nor too narrow and restricting conditions; for the field is unlimited for the craftsman with an open eye. He will invent and develop new methods and new materials to suit his new needs and these again will require new tools. The se again will allow him functions which he could not solve with his human organism only, and a whole new set of possibilities and techniques will evolve because the craftsman not only chooses his tools but becomes himself the tool of his idea. He brings together what he wants and plans with what he can know and see and touch. He chooses and organises styles, methods, materials, techniques suitable for the circumstances. He orders diversity into one aim and out of chaos grows form.

For this complex procedure certain human qualities are imperative, for perfection even to the most talented does not come easily. To realise the perfect fusion between the vision from the inner source and the excellence of execution we will need the complete concentration of all available forces and abilities of the total man. His daily struggle with his work, his closing himself up with his innermost labouring toil of concentration and co-ordination, the challenge of the difficulty of the materials and methods. All this cannot help but develop his qualities of endurance, self-discipline, patience, healthy self-criticism, and ability for focussing his total capacity towards one large aim. The artist-potter is like the priest. He has dedicated his life to something that is greater than he, to beauty, expression, art. And strangely, the potter has achieved the spiritual peace physically with his hands and with a tough and unsophisticated material. Clearly somewhere there must be a more than usual synthesis of heart, mind and hand. And this is the fact that for me will always give value to hand- pottery if it is creatively alive in every age - be it as mechanically minded as ours or any other.

But today as I see it we have lost that intimate correlation of the mind and the hands as a philosophy of life, as it was in the centuries when crafts were all-important. We do not feel any more the real possibility of those wonderful tools our hands that can give and receive, hear and heal, bless and beg, curse, tie or smite, be hammer, nipper or spade according to what our minds want them to be. We do not use our hands creatively any more - that is in more than a technical sense, in a way that conveys an ethical, poetical and I would even like to say a religious point of view. So if we look at the pots of the last century as a whole we cannot help but find them wanting, because they do not convey what makes a pot really good some technique, an imaginative and functional form and a personal idea. They often do not even show what can be made by the intelligent use of the technique only.

How do we come to that state of affairs? Don't we have all the technical knowledge, all the machinery and expensive external equipment, all the materials, costly or common, finely-ground or coarse as we choose? Don't we have a background of several thousand years of good pottery in our ancestral blood and the knowledge of all excellent work of all cultures of the world, China, Indian, Inca and others to look at and to learn from? And still, compared to theirs, is our pottery not the most non-expressive, non-skillful, non-beautiful, non-imaginative ever made? And why? T.S. Eliot says "Good prose cannot be written by people without conviction", and I would like to add "nor good pots made either".

As we are today, we have no convictions, no real faith in ourselves, nor our work, nor our values. We have no ethical philosophy of life and no freedom of our own. We have no longer the conviction to choose our way of living, our words, thoughts or our standards of art, religion and beauty. We trust blindly in the propaganda value of this or that way of life as advertised. We are afraid of our own personal feelings, of poverty, of unpopularity, of lack of success, of either being old-fashioned or highbrow in our points of view. We believe in half-truths and we do not see that they are also half-lies. We have lost a deep relation with nature, and with that, it seems, our natural instinct. We have both corrupted our instinctive feelings and neglected them so we cannot trust them any longer; and so we have lost that powerful simplicity of purpose, of life and work, of mind and hand united in one creation of man.

Our difficulties thus lie apparently in the field of ethics and human expression and not in the technique. To make hand-pottery valid again so that it becomes a virile and creative activity of man, it is urgent to raise anew the standards of the crafts, both away from a sentimentality towards their traditional standards in former centuries, but also out of untraditional intellectualism and tightrope-walking, fearlessly giving the craftsman a new more complete deeper relation of his work to his life. For to know a definite profession really and deeply, as I mean it, brings to man more than a salary and some success. It enlarges and edifies his whole being. It builds up his ethics and his aesthetics without him even being aware of it. It brings him in touch with everything that is essential in life, so that he may rise at the end to the power and understanding of a philosopher and as he matures his pottery will have something to show that is his own, something that has a life quality and that we do not find often nowadays a new character and a new expression.

This is what I mean by "expression". All of us learn as children the twenty-four letters of the alphabet, but after twenty years or so of living, working, thinking, suffering, our hand-writing will have changed considerably from what was the first basic pattern to what is now our personal signature. Also we all learn the same words, the same language; but each of us, especially the poet, expresses with those common words that which only he can express. He forms those common words to fit his own vision. We all have hands with five fingers and a face with eyes, mouth and a nose, but look at the difference of expression, of hands, faces, eyes and mouths according to what is behind and beyond that average pattern of man in the depth of that one single being. So we must work with constant devotion, lose ourselves in what is greater than we are to find ourselves, so we will mature and some element will become visible in our work that comes from our innermost experience of life something that no training nor any tradition nor courses in design could ever foster - something that is our own and unique. So if there is some thing conceived in the depth of our being I do not doubt that we will be honest and intelligible.

This will also explain why it seems to me that it is not possible for us to go back to the forms and techniques of times that have passed, be they ever so excellent, nor to the standards of beauty in other countries, such as Greece or China. We are not those people any more. We live, we think, and love differently, believe in other values, move in other planes and have a much accelerated pace. So other forms, not theirs, will be necessary to become our forms - just as we wear other clothes, live in other houses and travel in other vehicles than they did. There is nothing scaring, it seems to me, nor unhealthy about this. On the contrary, the opposite is unhealthy and unimaginative. Creative man has always made things according to his own idea without looking too much to the predecessors. Our old cathedrals show it many times when each generation has added to the whole in its own specific way. So must we. We are living in the most arid and desolate time for art. To survive, we will have to rediscover those basic forms that are alone the essential cells of creative work and life. Only then will hand work survive, and we must not fool ourselves, only then has it the right to survive in our time. For hand-work today must not compete with the machine, but must make what mass production cannot make - things that are an individual expression of man's vision of form or beauty of life unrestrained through economic reasons.

As a potter I visualise coming closer to that ideal in the following way. It is mainly a matter of the education of those young people who want to become craftsmen. "To none is talent given freehold, to all on lease", says Montaigne somewhere. So put them all through a thorough training at the wheel and on hand-work. Those who are not able or willing to go whole- heartedly into it will drop out soon. The others who remain should not be spared any instruction and should be taught all processes, materials, techniques. But above all one must whet their desire to learn, their initiative, their urge to understand the things that one sees as well as those that are closed up in our hearts and minds. The training will be arduous and somewhat rough and toilsome but not without deep compensation and of a severe sweetness. Out of blind impulse, vigour and work discipline will grow. Teach them to use the materials according to their innate possibilities with understanding, restraint and feeling; open their eyes for form, line, colour, proportions, tools and functional problems. But above all teach them to discern honest expression from fake glamour, original feeling from borrowed emotion, genuine form for accepted tradition. Let them abhor to imitate whatever is in fashion, and rather be awkward and humble than technically smart. For it is not just technique that we are teaching, nor a job and success that we are promising. We are trying to develop creative and honest craftsmen in our time. First and foremost let us give to the younger generation all that we still have in living tradition. Then let us tare from the machine and from the new tools and materials all the ideas, subjects, methods, training, that these make possible. We cannot ignore them and remain really alive.

Let us also admire the pottery of former ages and countries, not blindly but seeingly. And let us learn to discern what qualities make the beautiful serenity of some great pots and the fierce untamed beauty of those from Peru or Africa. Let us study the lives of those men and women who lived for an idea, be he artist, saint or scientist, accepted by society or not. Let us have time to learn, to watch, to see, to read, to understand, to develop, to think. Let us look into Nature and the supernatural. Let us look at, admire and be awed by the unending genius and diversity of all forms of nature - barks, seed-pods, leaves, flowers, shells and feathers. Let us develop our eyes, our fingers, our sense of touch, and feel and respond to a smooth silky bark or the sharp hardness of a leaf of holly. From sponge to coral, a whole natural scale of textures, surface and form expression, of ingenious devices to solve functional problems. Let us watch with open mind and eyes the birds build their nests, the bees their hives and see in the forms of the ants how natural function has decided form. Let us travel to other lands and see other people, other art, other customs, other forms of living and thinking. It will make us more conscious, and also more critical, of our own, and we will have to decide whither we are going. Let us learn from the, so-called, Primitives the magic relation of art and religion; and from our own past of Cathedrals for instance.

Let us take the education of the talented young people who want to become craftsmen out of the classroom atmosphere of schools into the invigorating wind of life. It will be easier to develop them into honest and excellent artisans who know their crafts, like an engineer and a mechanic, unemotionally, thoroughly and efficiently, and who have above all a deep, personal and artistic integrity. For the new craftsman of tomorrow will have to learn to see straight again as a whole, as something that requires his total personality, his ingenuity, his skill, his reflection and his faith; like a scientific researcher always working and looking beyond that which has been. Only then will there be a basic quality of creative life. No single craftsman, though, be he ever so excellent, can possibly turn the tide of standard, I realise, but in a group with other groups I could see their attitude towards work effecting a considerable change in a few generations.

So let us unite internationally all those men and women of goodwill, of imagination and talent who are or want to become craftsmen and form productive workshops in groups of creative teams where each one works to the best of his ability as a creative artisan. In a group the craftsman will be more free from individual vanity, for the workshop group will be more important than the single person, and it will grow to be more than the sum of all its members. Such a group, with many other groups in all kindred fields of the crafts, could in time not only influence directly the industrial production, but what I feel to be much more important, develop a sounder way of life both for itself and for the public at large. The new craftsmen must be trained to use with dexterity and understanding all hand-methods and those of mass-production too. He cannot evade those and he must be able to use them with discernment, efficiency, expediency and without emotional conflict, just as we can walk or drive a car without making an emotional problem out of it. He will be come an ideal designer for the industry as well as be an excellent individual creative artisan. He will be able to use the machine then to his advantage but he will not adore it nor will he blindly copy or adore that which has been made by hand or handed down by tradition. So he will bring to industry and to his own personal work standards of workmanship and designs that are genuine and honest, for they will have found root in a creative activity that has a cultural basis. If he has to repeat his work he will do it not like the machine blindly but always better and in an unending variety of changes and modulations, and 30 will develop himself and that is a point that I want to stress - with his work and in his work.

To sum up, I would like to say that I do not doubt the necessity of keeping the live potters and the other craftsmen of course too in the future picture of our new world. Not only must the crafts as such remain an occupation of man in the future, they are, as I see it, one of the main roots out of which a more hopeful civilisation could start growing. When more men and women will be willing to live with the one basic idea in mind of the unity of work and life based on an ethical belief, then we will have a chance to achieve a valid human civilisation. In a time when the universal declaration of human rights is proclaimed for the first time in our world as the highest aspiration, not of one nation only but for all the people of the world, it seems to me that the artist and the artisan are today perhaps those who stand the nearest to that ideal, for throughout his whole life the artist will have chosen as the measure of all things, not money, or success, or power, or machine, but man the very genuine essence of man.

A long discussion followed.
In answer to a question on the evolution of new shapes in pottery, Mrs. Wildenhain said

"No, you are quite right. The thing is one cannot force oneself or anybody else to make new shapes. New shapes don't exist if you take them from another source. I'm sure every shape has been made once before. There is not a shape in the world - the new forms, the free forms all included that has not been made before. The thing is that one has to be able to permeate them again with a sort of live quality. And sometimes one in a thous and has it and most of the free forms and the modern forms don't have it. I quite agree with you. You cannot say "I am now going to make a new shape". That shape is surely going to be bad. But if you say "I'm going to make a shape as well as I can", then you have a chance that that shape is going to be good, and modern too if you're twentieth century man. You don't have to think about it. We all live in a certain way, we move in a certain way, we think in a certain way, and that clay's going to show it. You see, as to clay, I find there are all varieties of clay from the smoothest to the coarsest. It's up to you to choose the one that you find will express what you have in mind. Suppose you have never seen a pot before. That's how I set my students to work. I say "Now build up with your hand the pitcher that you would make if you had never seen a pitcher before". And most of them would start saying "Oh, my grandmother had one it goes like this....." or "I saw one once like this...." I once had an experience with a Negro girl. She said right away "I know exactly how that pot should look", and she made a pot that was really good because she had a vision of what she wanted the pot to look like. I feel that is where handwork has to start. We all ought to be able to close our eyes and see a pot before we start. Then you choose your material, you choose your firing process, you choose your way of decorating, the way of making - hand or machine does not matter as long as you get to where you wanted to be. Now I happened to use a certain clay, but I always say "For God's sake don't use my same clay. Now you pick out the one that fits your purpose". I feel one takes one's materials too much for granted. They are not set. Someone has once used that clay, and because it was appropriate and because they had it there they used it. If the Chinese had had another clay they would have used another clay. And if we don't have the Chinese clay or the Greek or the French we can do whatever we feel like doing. It's up to us to choose.

After some argument on the function of her work, Mrs. Wildenhain said:

"I make coffee sets, I make tea sets, all those things that have very definite functions; and I do it with my materials. But that is not the end in itself. The really important end is what happens to the man.

You see society, for me, does not exist at large. We have to fit into the pattern of society, but society is you and I and all others. And if we all were different men and women we would not have that society. And if you don't agree with that society, then it's up to us to change that society. We cannot say society wants that of us. No, it's our own fault if society is like that. Thus, let us do something about it. And that's why I would like to see it come back to something that is very much more basic than using a material or a matter of technique. It is really a way of living, a way of thinking, a philosophy. That technique that we are all cursing now - who made it? We made it. It's up to us if we don't like it or if we don't like the way it goes to change that. And I feel, yes, there are many things that are wonderful in the technique but let's get it so that the human life is not frustrated.

I've been making pottery for 32 years and I think it's only during the last three or four years that I can sort of see it in a retrospective. I am sure that for the first twenty-five years I never thought of having an idea. But now I see it like this. I see that somehow I can translate any idea that I have into pottery. It might interest you in the show in the Dance Hall there is a pot of mine with a lid and it has all sorts of figures. I read T.S. Eliot's book "Murder in the Cathedral" last Winter, and I was fascinated by it by the visual conception of that whole book. That was a literary book - I mean that was a book there was nothing visual at all. But I saw it like the old French cathedrals in the middle of France, and I said, "I'm going to make the whole pot". Now of course I had at my disposition the technique and since I knew what I wanted what I knew was there it wasn't even my idea, it was T.S. Eliot's. You see that idea that I had, that form, I tried to put it into clay.

I made that pot three times. The first time I used a very dark clay and I got the figures into it and by the time it came out the figures didn't stand out enough, I thought, to make the whole thing characteristic. The shape I liked, but I didn't like parts of the design. So I re-made it. I changed my clay, I changed my glaze a little - my glaze was a little thinner and I made another pot and I fired it again. I worked about two days on one pot and it came out and the figures were fine but I didn't like the form. So I made a third one and that's the one that's there. I still don't like the form quite, but it was the best I could make.

Now this vision was not quite clear and I had to go through those three stages, and perhaps I should have made it a fourth time. But this is what I mean when I say it has to be a human expression. That picture that I have in mind I have to try with my experience of clay and my experience of the techniques to convey in a way that conveys what I felt when I read that and 30 that the other one can read it

The discussion contined for some time on the value of the work of the Hobby-potter ard the use of pottery in therapy.

On teaching students, Mrs. Wilderhain said

Let me tell you how fast I teach my students. I first say "This is the first problem. Get your lump of clay in the centre. Open it. Get your lump of clay in the centre. Open it". After a day of doing that they can get the lump in the centre and open it in three second's time. Then we go to the next step. "Get the lump of clay in the centre, open it and pull that little wall up about that much". That takes another day. Don't tell me that's expression. No, I know it isn't. (LAUGHTER). After about six months, let us say, they have about ten basic shapes that they can do any time in a couple of minutes. Then I say "All right. Let us take this standard milk pitcher that has been made all over the world. Now make that one according to what idea you have of it. You can make it broad or you can make it high or you can make it narrow; vary the proportion". But the students will make perhaps twenty five different ones. Out of those twenty five I choose perhaps this one and that one. "You see this one is high, this one is broad. Let us accentuate it. Let us make this belly a little thinner or make the neck a little higher - make a big foot on it that will get broader yet". They will take those two main prototypes. And then I say "Now take this one and make a whole shape and vary that again until you have it so that it is alive". And out of those twenty or thirty pots that come out one or two are very good and they are their own pots. That's what I mean by "expression". (LAUGHTER)

At Alfred University in the State of New York just lately I was asked to pick out of hundreds of pots a few I liked. And I picked out six. And out of the six I said "I bet five are from the same person" and they said. "yes". And the funny thing was - they were personal and so you could see that. Those five or six pots had a face. And I feel that is the point - that pots have to have a face. (LAUGHTER)

The discussion turned to the self-consciousness of the potter. Mr Bernard Leach said:

"In making pottery into a medium as a fine art we have changed the nature of the thing altogether. Personally, I entirely agree when you say the old traditional potiers who worked more or less unconsciously produced better pots than we do without trying to make a conscious form of expression of it. I don't think we've achieved anything near the same standard with our pots.

MRS. WILDENHAIN : But I don't think it is because we're trying to be conscious about it. It's because our whole life has no relation to that any more. All the year round we live mechanically, think mechanically. And we cannot make the things by hand any more. Not in the same way as a Chinese or a Japanese or even our people two hundred years ago could. We use a fountain pen, we use a car, we don't cut up .... any more, we don't sew our own clothes, or make them or weave them, I mean as a whole. So the craft has come to be sort of a luxury. It's terrible that it is that way. You are quite right. It was a much, much healthier time, but we cannot bring it back at least not now, not like that. And I feel to give it an essence again you have to come back to where it is a human expression.

MR. LEACH : Might I throw the thought back to Dr. Yanagi's lecture? Possibly he may join in again here. If we are conscious, we can't pretend that we are unconscious. We have had many examples of painters painting in a naive manner.

DR. YANAGI : May I say a word? (LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE). If my English is not good, please excuse me. I think that nearly all of us think that Picassob pottery is not poltery. It is only an extension of the painter, but it seems to me that the majority of the works of contemporary potters are the extension of intellectual ideas. There is not quite a good harmony between their ideas and the things that they make. That is the impression. So I think all that you said is very deep and sound, but we should not be the slaves of such intellectual ideas. We must be free from such ideas otherwise we cannot make good potters.

MRS. WILDENHAIN : I think you're right, but I still think, and I have stressed in my paper there, that it is only when our minds and our hands can work together as a unit that the pottery will be good. But if we work only with our hands it will not be good. And if we work only with our minds it also isn't good. I realise that and I feel that what we have to try is just exactly this, to bring those two things together. It's a way of life. The whole problem is not whether one makes the pottery this way or that way but whether we are able to make a fusion between two sorts of ways of living, thinking, making things by hand, or whether we can put that together again. I have thought a lot in my life too, I think, and I have done a lot of things with my hands I've even built my own house and planted a vineyard, so it isn't that. But surely, as Mr. Leach said, we cannot be unconscious if we are conscious and we cannot be primitive if we are not primitive. We are not primitive.

MR. CARDEW : May I chip in again? You have just said 'the mind and the hand'. And I'd like to say rapidly that I agree with nearly everything you've said, but I think there's something missing. And the thing that is missing is the feelings. The mind and the hand but emotion, I feel, is as great a part as the other two. Perhaps again that's my personal feeling, but I feel that pottery and perhaps textiles too are essentially a very sensuous art. There is the satisfaction of the senses as well as the mind to be catered for. It's in the making that that sensuous satisfaction is felt by the artist and is conveyed also to whoever sees the object. But I can't help feeling all the time that that side of it is being left out of the argument and I think it's so important.

MRS. WILDENHAIN : I think we probably would agree on the main things. I have tried to say also that we have to develop our sense of touch, of hands, of seeing that's not mind. I don't work with my mind in that way. But I don't make it too sentimental. I mean I try to see where I'm going, just like a man who's a research man. He has a problem to solve. How does he solve that? It doesn't mean that his whole soul isn't in it. But he has to see it also clearly, detachedly, as a technical, human, sociological or biological problem.

MR. FOSTER summed up the discussion: "I think Mrs. Wildenhain has given us something pretty important something that's come out of her own life and thought. And I think that eventually we'll probably all, I hope, arrive at a point where we feel that we have gained sufficient knowledge of our materials, understanding of our materials, skill with the use of our tools, a certain amount of skill and technique, to the point where we can be entirely unconscious of those things. They should become second nature to us. So if we have anything to say we can speak freely and clearly and with understanding. I think that's been our whole theme. We have to learn the alphabet before we can put words together. We have to have the thought before we can express with those words our feelings. I don't think there's any conflict or any disagreement among any of us".

Reproduced from the conference report with the permission of the Dartington Hall Trust Archive.

Dartington Conference 1952