When Michael Cardew’s Wenford Pottery closed in 2004, some twenty years after his death, Doug Fitch went to visit the dilapidated premises. Looking round the dust-filled attic he stumbled upon a pile of moulds, ‘abandoned and covered in guano’. Purchased from the new owner and relocated to Fitch’s studio, these moulds have been recommissioned – and with magnificent results.
Fitch’s fascination with the famously temperamental potter traces back to a foundation course lesson in 1983 when he was handed a copy of Cardew’s recent obituary. Unlike his mentor Bernard Leach, Cardew’s coal-fired slipware had drawn not from Oriental pottery, but from the traditional earthenware of 19th century North Devon. For Fitch, whose childhood roots lay in the furrows of Northamptonshire unearthing broken sherds, Cardew’s approach struck a chord: now, by a simple twist of fate, the work of these two potters has been serendipitously bridged.
Production of the platters is deceptively simple. Thick sheets of clay are laid flat on a table and liquid slip poured over. Mistakes must be wiped clean and begun again, though as Fitch points out, it is often the ‘slipups’ – a broken line, or an errant drip – that lend a piece its peculiar character.
Far less forgiving is the moulding process. A mushroom-shaped block is placed on top of the slab and the pair are flipped. The clay sheet is then draped round the mould and the excess edges cut away. Cardew’s moulds present particular difficulties: their size makes the transfer considerably more risky. Moreover, they are made not of plaster but fireclay, a highly refractory material used to make kiln bricks. If the surface of the slab fails to dry uniformly, areas are liable to stick to the mould. A little peeling is tolerable; too much, and the dish must be scrapped.
Fitch’s palette is severely restricted – red earthenware clay, with white or black slip – but therein lies the decorative challenge. Performed with an eccentric assemblage of repurposed milk carton and goose’s quill (a gift from Cardew’s first apprentice Sidney Tustin), all held together with strips of sellotape, his slip-trailing treads a delicate line between slapdash and self-restraint. The resulting compositions are delightfully personal, invoking memories of cut silage and ploughed contours crawling across a rural backdrop.
Far more than simply resurrecting the spirit of Cardew, in these dishes Fitch distills his own intimate bond with the local landscape with a touch that is fresh and modern. This is not simply reproduction; it is sumptuous reinvention.