In 1951, as a lecturer in art at an Auckland, New Zealand Teacher Training College, I won a two-year scholarship from the Association of New Zealand Art Societies to study pottery with Bernard Leach at St. Ives, Cornwall and with Michael Cardew at Abuja Potter Training Centre, Northern Nigeria. My wife and I spent just over eight months there in 1958/59.
I remembered discussions we were having with Michael when we were in Abuja about being a potter, the energy and determination involved, the type of pots we should make and how to make a living. Michael summed up his feelings about pottery and being a potter by slapping his knee and saying emphatically, ‘I would hate to be a lawyer, I would hate to be a doctor, I would hate to be a banker! All I want to be is a potter’.
What more could you say to that?
And that’s why we honour a man who indeed became a potter, one of the highest order. Besides which he was very human, much loved and respected for his intellect, wit, devotion and sense of humour, which we found ever present. I was his first overseas student, though he never made me feel one. The study with him at Abuja and the benefits to me have been without measure. Diane my wife joins me in acknowledging the pleasure of his friendship and the gratitude we feel towards him. It gives me pleasure to share with you a small insight into the Michael we knew and very much respected.
Cardew picked us up from the railhead at Minna at the beginning of October 1959 arriving at 2.00 a.m. in pitch darkness and took us to Abuja and home. Immediately as I stepped out of his car, I had ants biting me around the middle, so that was a wonderful introduction to Abuja! In the morning we were taken down to see our house. It was a Government, non- catering rest house, which we had all the time that we were there. We were charged twenty-one shillings a week, which Michael thought was very dear, but we had wood and water delivered, and sanitary services, all brought by the Sarakan Barracki (the keeper of the barracks).
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This is Abuja from our back veranda, in 1959.
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Here is the wonderful house of Michael - the ‘Mud and Water Man’. All those trees have since been chopped down and it’s rather barren, but it was a beautiful site, an area they called the Barracks, where there was an old fort.
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Our large rest home.
On that same day that we arrived in Abuja we were taken down to the pottery by Michael and there was much excitement, Michael tooting madly, everybody gathering around and we were introduced. From then on I was Mr Peeta and Diane was Warrgida, mistress of the house. We did a tour of the pottery; we hadn’t expected such a beautiful site, all these wonderful buildings, it was like a fairy tale really, when you think about it.
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This is a scene from the road, in the dry season.
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This photograph was of particular significance to Michael. He came to New Zealand in 1968 for three months to give workshops and to exhibit at the Pan Pacific Arts Festival at Christchurch. He stayed with us for six weeks, potting in my workshop. A friend and I fired all his pots in two different kilns - at home and at College, in one weekend! He came again in 1981 for just a weekend and saw a big enlargement of this slide on our wall. He just said ‘Oh! Oh!’. Fortunately we’d obtained another similar copy for him to take home and he wrote about it from Wenford saying ‘Your beautiful picture of those beautiful pottery training centre Abuja buildings is hanging in the toy room and is very much admired by all. It is of course the treasure and an historical document of the first importance in my private life. All those buildings having been swept away in 1973’.
In the film ‘Mud and Water Man’, it shows him being very philosophical about the changes, but in his heart, his original and very beautiful pottery centre was always the dearest to him.
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The same day that we arrived we saw our first kiln opening. Very exciting. One of many that we were to see. In the middle of this kiln opening, a big snake appeared and everybody went berserk, all showing off and throwing rocks and carrying on, really just showing off, until it was finally killed. Ladi came up and patted Diane’s arm as if to say, ‘There, there, we’ll look after you’.
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The same kiln opening. Cardew very happy with the results.
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The back of the kiln shed with the woodpile ready to be chopped up for firing. Michael used to send some of the boys up into the hills about three miles away to dig clay and then he would get …
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… Gwari women (local tribe) to carry the clay back in calabashes, paying them either ten pence or a shilling, depending on the size of the calabash. Here he is, dispensing the money.
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The clay mixing process went very smoothly. The clay was ball milled in its right proportions and then the slip was poured into the big, locally made pots at the back of the pottery, left to stiffen, dug out and treaded, then kneaded and stored to increase plasticity. Michael sourced Kaolin from tin mines on the Jos Plateau to the north of Abuja.
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Here is Cardew with Seth and Diane at this big deposit of kaolin.
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It was brought down to Abuja by truck, where it was washed and sieved and settled and dried.
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Here’s Ladi, that brilliant person, that magical woman who Cardew bought into the limelight, making one of her glorious pots. What a wonderful idea. She made this pot outside especially for me to photograph the process and was quite sulky afterwards for some reason, until I found out that I hadn’t given her a ‘dash’ but then she was quite happy when I remedied that!
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Ladi Starting the pot.
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Base completed, adding coils.
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Welding in a coil, moving around the pot as in a wassa or dance, singing.
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Smoothing the rim with a strip of wet leather.
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The finished pot, partly decorated.
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Her simple tools - pieces of calabash, bamboo decorating tools, leather and roulettes for decoration.
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One of two Ladi pots, which Michael generously let us buy.
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The second one was decorated with fish. At the pottery for three months was a youngish woman from Argungu, near Sokoto. Here a fishing festival was held each year. Ladi was inspired by the story of the festival.
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Ibrahim making a planter for roses for a friend of Michael. Stretching a disc of clay over and upturned pot dusted with ash.
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Adding a foot ring
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Adding a rim to the leather hard pot.
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Dan Juma stacking oval dishes in the kiln - a dry season activity.
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Loading the big kiln.
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The ‘Bourry’ firebox.
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My pots from the first kiln in which mine were glost fired.
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When this raw glazed teapot of mine came out of this kiln, Michael grabbed it, turning it around in his hands and saying, ‘This is a pot! This is a pot!’ Later he asked Diane if he could buy it. This was out of the question and we were delighted to give it to him. He wrote about it from Abuja two or three times, saying it had produced many progeny!
Michael was very generous in the number of pots I was able to have fired.
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Michael had established two small two-man potteries at Kano and Sokoto in the far north. Both were not doing too well, to his disappointment. He would visit and find no maintenance on wheels for instance- that being left to his next visit. All materials were supplied from Abuja.
Diane and Seth at Kano Pottery.
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This was a little market place, with pots, on the way to Minna, the railhead. Michael bought the big pot, and I bought one of the small ones. He later took that to England and exhibited it at the end of 1959 at the Berkeley Galleries.
I’m trying to say here that Michael was influenced all the time by his environment and he saw this sort of thing all the while he was in Nigeria.
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A pottery ‘clamp’ at the riverside at Jebba island. Raw pots stacked ready for firing.
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Gwari women and pots at Abuja Market.
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Store pots at a village near the road.
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A Hausa kiln firing at Sokoto in an old market place and near to the small Cardew pottery. Firing time for approximately 400 to 500 cubic feet of pots was 1 hour 40 minutes.
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Kiln opening next morning.
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Pots off to market. A potter carrying a load of water pots by way of sticks pushed into the necks and the sticks tied where they crossed at a central point.
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The huge pottery market at Sokoto.
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This is one of my favourite shots, right out in the desert with the Hamatan wind blowing this excessively fine dust from the desert, which reached right down to Abuja in the very dry season.
Here, pots are being used by women to collect water from a well.
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Independence was in the air for the Northern Region and the Governor General, Sir James Robertson with Lady Robertson, were visiting all the Emirates to introduce the idea of independence to the Northern region. The people of the North were reluctant about the idea as they thought that problems would arise.
Here are the official parties at a ceremony in the Emir’s compound. The Governor General and District Officers, the Emir and councillors and invited guests.
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The Emir’s musicians next to the official stand. Note the extended cheeks of the trumpet player!
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There was huge activity at the pottery in preparation for the Governor General and his entourage to visit the Pottery. Michael had all the boys whitewashing the walls, cutting the grass, sweeping the paths and during the visit, everyone was working hard so that the Governor General would see a hive of activity. Michael spent two hours in the showroom with him, and actually took pots from his secret store, which was usually jealously guarded by him.
Here is Michael dressed for the occasion in the showroom with the Emir and Lady Robertson. Michael was very pleased, as sales were good.
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The next celebration was the end of Ramadan. Here is a big progression, police in front, Emir under the umbrella on horseback.
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The Emir on horseback. He distributed krola nuts to signify that the fast was over.
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Spectators. Diane in blue next to Michael.
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There was a big fair at Kwali, an agricultural show, at Ladi’s village and both Cardew and I were invited to be judges at a pottery show.
These poor women had bought these huge pots in to be judged and a prize given. Needless to say Michael did all the judging, and I don’t think the women knew what it was all about, but one received a monetary prize. Wonderful pots.
Michael judging the pots.
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There were musicians and dancers at the fair. They also performed later at the Emir’s compound. Michael was very excited about this. He came rushing up to us and said, ‘Have you given them some money? Have you given them some money? These people are artists, they need to live!’. We hadn’t had any money left actually – we’d given all we had on us. Wonderful performance!
Now we come to the celebration of independence for the Northern Region, held at Kaduna in March 1959. The celebration in the form of a Durbar, where the tribes paid homage to their leader who at the time was Sir Ahmaou Bello K.B.E. Saudona of Sokotu and premier of the Northern Region. Britain was represented by the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. A site of 250 acres, 3,000 horsemen went to it, 10,000 men, they trekked for months across the deserts and the areas of the northern region. Michael was determined to display the Pottery at this celebration.
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Here are Michael and the boys making a small kiln to fire pots for the celebration.
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We all made these little water bottles, suitably stamped with ‘Mulkin Kai 1959’ (Independence 1959) that are standing on the firebox of the kiln. Here Michael is lifting a bottle from the kiln. Some boys were taken up to the area to build a kiln and fire the pots on site. Michael sold the lot and was very happy because the money came to the pottery. He and Seth enjoyed this big Durbar but I was bitten by a mosquito, so we could not go as I spent four days in hospital, so that was fun wasn’t it? Very disappointing!
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At the end of the year, Michael would give a feast to the boys and the crew. It was a most hilarious occasion because there was heaps of food. They killed two sheep and had Fulani yoghurt, fruit and these huge bowls of rice. It’s just about the end of the feast here. Mariel and Seth were there. All the families came around and food was passed out the windows and hidden under the table, as if Michael didn’t know. But of course he knew and he thought it was a huge joke.
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Mariel was a lovely, charming person. She and Seth came to Abuja in November 1958. It was Mariel and Michael’s’ twenty-fifth wedding anniversary on 24 December. We received this had written invitation from Michael:
Mariel and Michael Cardew invite you on Wednesday 24th December at 7.15p.m. to watch the moon rising and to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their marriage. Drinks, small chop, siri, yam cakes, mince pies, I hope, etc. etc. etc.
Later, unfortunately, Mariel was ill. She told Diane that whenever she came to Nigeria she felt about 20% of her normal self. So she went home to the UK early.
Here she is, about to leave Abuja.
The man on the right is Mr Alpha; he was a clerk in the office, with his beautiful lace gown. He was Christian, and I was talking to Okoro Aiki the foreman, who was also a Christian, about Mr Alpha one day and Okoro said ‘He’s got two or three wives of course’. I said ‘How is it that a Christian has got more than one wife?’ Okoro said, looking at me intently, ‘What do you do with your surplus women?’ I didn’t answer that!
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Some of Michael’s pots fired during our stay at Abuja.
A ‘chun’ carnation vase. This optical blue glaze depended on placement in the kiln. Sometimes it was a soft pale grey green. One of the boys had made some slab flower troughs for a Mrs Henderson, which came out a brilliant chun. So whenever a chun pot appeared, ‘Ah, Mrs Henderson’, Michael would say!
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A very typical three handled vase.
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A group of screw teapots. I would have given anything for one of these teapots, I did get one later on; a friend bought me one from a Cardew exhibition in London in 1962.
We went to Pendley Manor in Tring in December 1957 to a pottery conference. We first met Michael there. Michael gave a demonstration how to make a little screw top soy pot. When he had finished the first one and put it down it finally collapsed because it was still full of water. When he was making the second one he said, ‘We even make screw top teapots’. Bernard and Janet Leach were sitting right in front of us and Bernard said ‘My God!’, Michael then determined to give him a teapot, with a screw top.
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Two large coffee pots.
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Large oil jar. Michael really loved this pot. He called it ‘Heart of Darkness’ which was unusual for him, as he did not like the idea of naming pots. Shades of Staite Murray! This jar is in the York Museum.
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A ‘Gwari’ casserole.
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A large teapot.
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A few months after our first our first daughter, Philippa was born in 1960, we received these pieces, which were quite unexpected, from Michael. We were totally thrilled of course.
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When he was with us in 1968 he made one for Rebecca, our second daughter. He actually made one for Catherine too, but it was damaged, so when he went back to Wenford he made another …
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… and sent it to us.
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Here is Michael at a kiln opening of mine in 1968. He arrived choked with ‘flu, so we had to get the doctor to him. He had quite a busy schedule, with programmed visits for a week, but he recovered quickly with good food - great cook - and care.
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Here he is at West Coast beach with our family. He enjoyed the children very much.
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Here is Michael making a big oil jar in my workshop, the last one he made at our place.
He said later in a letter that he had had a wonderful year.
I’m honoured to have known and worked with Michael. Diane and I have enjoyed a lasting friendship, which began in Abuja and continued and grew through correspondence and visits over the next twenty years. Thank you very much.