It’s been quiet on the blog front in recent weeks. Preoccupied with the summer holidays and a whole bunch of other highly pleasurable activities, I just haven’t had time or inclination to settle down to serious writing – or even to frivolous and facetious jotting. If I sound intolerably smug to any reader who has spent the summer overworking, juggling child care and trying to scrape enough cash together for a family trip to somewhere warm – well, please bear in mind that I did all of that too, for nearly 40 years until my retirement.
While there’s been a conspicuous absence of posting on my blog, my tendency to accumulate random treasure has continued unabated. For example, while I was on holiday in Rhode Island, USA, I checked the catalogue of my local auctioneer in Edinburgh and found that he was selling in seven lots a large collection of Abuja pottery from Nigeria. In spite of having no opportunity to inspect the goods, I took a chance and emailed bids to him, and was lucky enough to win five of the lots, comprising some 16 pieces. And lucky enough to discover, when I collected them after my return, that they were delightful pieces and an excellent buy.
Since returning to Scotland, I’ve resumed my rounds of the charity shops with some small success: a nice quality late Qing dynasty prunus pattern lidded baluster vase with only a little damage; an exquisite English porcelain miniature cup and saucer from around 1840; and, just last week, an English slipware jug.
It’s this jug, and one of the jugs from my Abuja hoard, that I’m writing about in this piece. Here they are:
They are both big, sturdy pieces: the smaller holds two pints (that is UK Imperial pints of 20 fluid ounces, not US pints of 16 fluid ounces) and the bigger one holds rather more – but not all that much more because it has much thicker walls. The smaller jug is earthenware, and the larger is stoneware. Both are slip-glazed.
You can see similarities between the two jugs. Both are wheel-thrown, with fat bellies, narrowed shoulders, pinched spouts and simple strap handles. They appear to be straightforward English country pottery jugs. But one was made in Winchcombe, England, and the other was made in Abuja, Nigeria, which according to Google maps is 4,120 miles away from Winchcombe by the shortest land/ferry route.
If you’re a collector of British studio pottery, you already know the history of these two objects and what connects them. If not, I’ll provide a summary here, and then, if you’re interested, you can read the whole fascinating story in a long and excellent book.
The two jugs are connected by one man: Michael Cardew (1901-1983). Cardew came from an upper-middle-class family and did what was expected of him by going to Oxford University where he graduated in 1923 with a third-class degree. Then he did something that wasn’t expected of him – he joined the fledgling pottery at St Ives in Cornwall where he became Bernard Leach’s first apprentice. After learning his trade as a potter, he left in 1926 and took over a disused country pottery at Winchcombe in Gloucestershire. In 1939 he sold out to his assistant Raymond Finch, and set up a new pottery for himself at Wenford Bridge in Cornwall.
In 1942, Cardew’s life took another unexpected turn when he joined the Colonial service and moved to West Africa as a pottery teacher. For the next 20 years, he was mostly in Africa, latterly as an employee of the Nigerian government setting up and running the pottery and training centre at Abuja. When he left to return to England in the 1960s, the Abuja pottery was taken over by Michael OBrien. That’s it in a nutshell, but if you want lots more detail, please read The Last Sane Man, a fascinating biography of Cardew by Tanya Harrod (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Last-Sane-Man-Colonialism-Counterculture/dp/0300100167), to whom I am indebted for much of the background information included in this piece.
So my two jugs are both from potteries founded and operated by Michael Cardew. Both were made after he had moved on, but both show very clear signs of his influence. The Winchcombe jug, on the right in the photo above, is the earlier of the two. It was made by Patrick Groom, a young worker who Ray Finch employed in 1947 aged just fifteen, and who was laid off when the pottery was suffering hard times in 1954. How do I know that Pat Groom made the jug? Because he stamped it with his initials PG above the pottery’s WP monogram.
The Abuja jug on the left in the photo was made by Tanko Mohammud, who was taken on by Cardew in 1953 as a small boy to run errands. Later, he showed promise with the wheel and transferred to the pottery, and much later still, after the departure of the last of the European colonial bosses, he became the government-appointed Pottery Officer in charge. How do I know that Tanko Mohammed made the jug? Because he stamped it with his initials ATM beside the pottery’s أبوجا monogram (Abuja in Arabic).
These simple tales of two youngsters being employed to make simple country pots more than 4,000 miles apart are not in fact nearly as simple as they seem. They are stories with implications: about colonialism and imperialism, art and artisanship, success, power, fame, social class, even about sexuality. It’s complicated stuff, and I’ll try to unpick some of it.
Let’s start with the Winchcombe jug. When Cardew came to the pottery in 1926 fresh from his three years at St Ives with Bernard Leach, he appropriated in his public-school patrician way a centuries-old south-west English folk pottery slipware tradition and modified it to his own ideas and tastes. His inspiration came from the nineteenth century ideals of the arts-and-crafts movement as embodied in the writings and works of John Ruskin and William Morris. It was a protest against industrialisation and mass-production, advocating a return to simplicity and hand-making and localism. Quite how these methods were meant to solve the problems of a highly-populated, industrialised, citified world was never explained by its theorists. In the event both at Winchcombe and later at Abuja, the output was resolutely elitist and expensive both to produce and purchase, as was the case with most Arts and Crafts productions.
On Cardew’s arrival at Winchcombe, he sought help with re-establishing the defunct pottery from one of its former workers, Elijah Comfort, a local man in his sixties. Then he employed Sidney Tustin, a thirteen year old local lad as another worker. Sid’s brother Charlie Tustin and Pat Groom (recruited by Ray Finch) arrived later. Alongside the locally-employed workers, Cardew took on a series of apprentices, who could all be considered to be more-or-less gentleman-artist/craftspeople, thus forming a sort of Officer Class while the pottery men remained strictly Other Ranks.
The workers were generally restricted by the Winchcombe regime to making the cheaper and repetitive standard-ware pots, while the apprentices and Cardew himself made bigger scale and more ambitious pieces for exhibition and for special orders. But that didn’t prevent the workers from attaining a very high level of skill as potters. Sid Tustin is estimated to have personally thrown a million pots in his 51-year working life at Winchcombe. I have a few in my collection and they are uniformly beautiful. Pat Groom only worked there for seven years, but, as my jug attests, he also became a highly skilled thrower and decorator.
At Abuja, Cardew’s motivation was different but had parallel Victorian roots. Here, the debt wasn’t to Ruskin but perhaps more to Kipling. It was a colonialist and imperialist world-view, which Cardew combined with a newly-found enthusiasm for a village-scale version of industrial production.
If you think about Nigerian pottery on display in the ethnographic collections in museums, you might picture attractive dark globular clay pots with traditional designs and decorations of the Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba or Nupe ethnic groups. You won’t picture an English country jug. But when Cardew went to Africa, his idea was to pick up the “White Man’s Burden” by modernising and creating local employment and wealth through a limited industrialisation of the process of pottery making. Wheel-throwing was to become the standard means of production instead of the traditional much less efficient coil-building. High-temperature stoneware firing was to replace baking terra cotta on an open fire. Shapes and forms were to be Anglicised, both for local and international markets.
Some might think this a perfect example of cultural imperialism in its most blatant form. Perhaps predictably, despite the long-term efforts of the colonial administration and indeed of the Nigerian government after independence, the Abuja experiment never seeded a successful Europeanised ceramic industry. Yet in practice the synthesis of Nigerian and English tastes, sensibilities and techniques resulted in the production of some beautiful and unique pots. The Abuja pottery became a celebrated showpiece but never a commercial success.
Cardew initially took on European apprentices to train up as future bosses, while the local workers, however talented, were just that – workers. It was only after independence from British rule that Nigerian-born workers at the pottery could get the opportunity to rise through the ranks, and, much later, Tanko was one of the successful ones.
Part of Cardew’s rationale for choosing to live mostly in Africa for two decades, away from his long-suffering wife and three sons, was his enduring love for his protégé Clement Kofi Athey, whom he met in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) in 1942. Kofi was a bright and handsome lad who was encouraged and trained and supported and adored by Cardew for many years. It seems however that the relationship ultimately brought little happiness or fulfilment to either of them.
Whether because of sexual preference or because it was the British public school way of organizing your business, Cardew set out initially to have an all-male workforce at Abuja. However, his belief that pottery was man’s work was inconsistent with the fact that in most of Nigeria the making of pots had historically been the woman’s role, and women soon started working at the pottery. In the event, by far the most talented and famous Abuja potter (other than Cardew himself) was its first female employee – the remarkable Ladi Kwali, whose characteristic hand built pots owed more to her African Gwari heritage than to Cardew’s imported techniques.
As for the male potters, their output was mixed. I’m not certain where the quality of Tanko’s work stands in the firmament of Abuja potters, but it’s clear from my jug that he was highly competent to produce fine work.
See the pattern? See the links? My two jugs were both made by local lads who presumably entered the pottery trade just as they would have joined any other trade. They didn’t come as apprentices inspired by an expensive education to enter a fulfilling career of artistic artisanship, but as young job-seekers whose expectations might perhaps have been to remain as pottery workers for the rest of their working lives. Had he not been laid off when times were difficult, Pat Groom might have been expected to work at Winchcombe until retirement age as did his older colleague Sid. A similar career path might have been the destiny of Tanko Mohammud had not the British colonial system been replaced after Nigeria’s independence by a movement towards employing indigenous people in more senior positions.
You might think of them both as victims of the same paternalistic and archaic class system. Or you might think them lucky to get decent jobs in times and places when opportunities were limited. Or you might think that my assessment of their aspirations and career prospects is every bit as patronising and condescending as was Michael Cardew’s. Whichever, it’s unarguable that both boys made fine jugs which stand as monuments to their talents.
I haven’t been able to find out much about the subsequent lives of either Pat or Tanko. After leaving the Winchcombe pottery, Pat Groom presumably continued his career in a different direction. There isn’t much about him online, but if you look him up on Facebook, you’ll find a photo from 2016 of an elderly resident of Winchcombe who seems to be him. But there are no more recent postings, so I don’t know his current status. As for Tanko Mohammud, we’ve seen that he became the Pottery Officer at Abuja, and according to Tanya Harrod, he continued in this role until his death in 2011.
Today, Winchcombe Pottery is still going strong, making superb stoneware pots in the Cardew tradition, and currently managed by Matt Grimmitt, who (satisfyingly) is the great-great-grandson of Elijah Comfort. The Abuja Pottery also survives, re-named the Ladi Kwali Pottery Training Centre, Suleja (the name of Abuja having been taken over by the nearby new city which is now Nigeria’s capital), but I can’t find out much about its current activities and suspect that it’s a shadow of its former self, making traditional pots for local use.
So there you have it, a tale of two jugs. Which is more interesting: the jugs as objects in themselves, or the stories behind them? Whatever your answer, this question might just hold the key to what makes the search for random treasure such an addictive pastime.