The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew

Modern Pots, Colonialism, and the Counterculture

Tanya Harrod

View Inside Price: $55.00

January 8, 2013
380 pages, 6 1/4 x 9 1/4
30 color + 90 b/w illus.
ISBN: 9780300100167

Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

The British studio potter Michael Cardew (1901-1983) was a man of paradox, a modernist who disliked modernity, a colonial servant who despised Empire, a husband and father who was also homosexual, and an intellectual who worked with his hands. Graduating from Oxford in 1923, training with the legendary Bernard Leach, he went on to lead a life of pastoral poverty in Gloucestershire, making majestic slipware and participating in the polarised design and political debates of the 1930s. A wartime project in Ghana turned him into a fierce critic of British overseas policies; he remained in West Africa intermittently until 1965, founding a local tradition of stoneware inspired by the ambient material culture, independent of European imports, made by Africans for Africans. He ended his days a ceramic magus, his pottery at Wenford Bridge, Cornwall, an outpost of the counterculture and a haven for disaffected youth. In North America, the Antipodes and sub-Saharan Africa he offered the egalitarianism of craft as an antidote to racism and inequality. As the novelist Angela Carter observed in 1977, he came to seem 'the Last Sane Man in a crazy world.'

Along with historians of Empire and civil rights, and art and design historians, readers with a general interest in British cultural history will want to read this book.

Tanya Harrod is an independent design historian, the author of the prize-winning The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century and the co-editor of the Journal of Modern Craft.

"What a lovely book this is… Harrod is the most scrupulous of scholars… She has the eye of a journalist for glinting, piquant detail."—Bevis Hillier, The Spectator

"A fine tribute to one of Britain’s greatest potters… Harrod, with her long experience of the crafts and easy familiarity with materials such as petalite, potash and mica, has woven a vivid, compelling life which deserves to reach a wide audience. The Last Sane Man is one of the outstanding biographies of 2012."—Peyton Skipwith, Apollo Magazine

"A magnificent book about one of the twentieth century’s most important craftsmen."—Keith Richmond, Tribune

"Harrod skewers the counter-cultural moment with a welcome acerbity as well as affection, concluding that ‘Michael’s prejudices and passions appear like a map in this new territory.' Her biography is as passionate as its subject. It is wonderful."—Edmund de Waal, Literary Review

"Richly readable yet restrained… [In] this perceptive biography, Tanya Harrod places Cardew’s choice of his life’s work as a potter within the context of love, loss and consolation."—Ruth Pavey, The Independent

"You are swept along with the turmoil and turbulence of Cardew’s life and work, his family and his travels in Harrod’s excellent book and in turn, you also sense the enormity of her project in accurately and sensitively presenting to us the results of her research and labours… But Harrod is a heavyweight in the world of writing about artists and craftspeople and this book is a testament to her well-deserved reputation… Harrod achieves the biographer’s craft of presenting [Cardew's] life with the invisible touch of the writer while maintaining the interest of the reader with consummate skill. The balance of the personal and professional aspects of his life is handled with deftness and while you occasionally feel the discomfort of an intense scrutiny into the darker struggles of the man, the spirit of the artist and pioneer also shines through. You close the book with a deeper understanding of the man and his work and the struggles and cost of achieving the success he sought."— Norman Yap, London Potters News
"Perceptive [and] impeccably researched . . . .The intensity of Harrod’s lens reveals this ‘grand amateur’ – who never wanted his biography written – as a fascinating and wilful figure, whose life encompassed an incongruous mix of modernism, Empire, craft and self-sufficiency."—Julian Stair, Crafts Magazine

“Tanya Harrod has written the first great biography of a potter . . . a fearless and lucid account of a perplexing potter whose pots are among the most iconic of the 20th century.” —Mark Hewitt, Ceramics Monthly
“A remarkably full, eloquent , and even-keeled account.”—Christopher Benfey, New Republic
Winner of the 2013 James Tait Black Prizes for Biography, sponsored by the University of Edinburgh.
Shortlisted for the 2013 Art Book Prize given by the Authors' Club to the best book on art or architecture.
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