Please note that the most recent posts on this page are at the bottom of the blog so as to follow the order of the clips from the Mick Casson VHS tape.
Four years ago I came into possession of an amateur 180 minute VHS video with the title ‘M Casson Pottery Class 1980’. Having no VHS playback facilities at home the video has languished in my studio until recently when I decided to have the video converted into digital form as an .mpg.
The conversion revealed very rare footage of Mick Casson, one of the pioneers of studio pottery in the UK, giving what must have been a pottery masterclass to a group of art college students. I have no idea at where this film was shot although the person who gave me the tape taught at Cardiff School of Art and at Bretton Hall (Leeds) and Bath Spa University. It could be any one of these university schools.
The video is so compelling that I have decided to publish it in short edited movies. At present my iMovie skills are poor but hopefully they will improve over time!
Centering a Ball of Clay on the Wheel
In this first short clip Mick shows how to centre a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel.
Developing the Shape of a Pot
After centering the lump of clay Mick Casson goes on, in this next excerpt, to discuss how he develops the clay into a cylinder, part of the action he calls ‘collaring‘. What I find interesting is that he starts the base quite wide and as he raises the cylinder the base is ‘pulled in‘ to make the diameter smaller as it gets taller. (When I throw I tend to try to make the diameter of the centred clay about the size of the base of the pot I want to make). I normally push my thumb down into the centre of the clay first and then expand the hole outwards, while Mick Casson seems to use both hands, places his fingers in the centre and pulls the clay out towards his body all in one action, leaving a flat base.
I love the way he verbalises what is a difficult action to describe. Listen to the sequence where he describes the pressure he is applying to the clay. Every potter must do this action instinctively and Casson gets right to he heart of it.
Using a Rib to Assist Throwing
In this short clip Mick Casson demonstrates the use of a rib for throwing, suggesting that the majority of ‘peasant‘ potters use the technique. It’s not a technique that I use on small pots but when it comes to larger vessels it is essential to use a rib of some kind. I do use a piece of bamboo on some pots to give a smooth finish when throwing rather than the ‘Michelin man‘ effect that Casson refers to.
In the final part of the clip Mick Casson cuts through the pot to show the section of the clay – it’s very impressive – but as he says probably a little on the thin side and the clay overworked.
The Quality of Throwing
Mick Casson was clearly opinionated about the approaches to throwing! In this next clip it is interesting to note his reference to ‘real‘ potters throwing without the need to turn off excess clay. He is critical of his preparation of the clay he is using and raises an interesting point about making sure that clay is the same consistency throughout.
The suggestion that potters ‘must be‘ clear about the size of pot that they are capable of making from a particular weight of clay, is useful, as is the careful measuring of height and volume. If a potter is making a ‘batch‘ of work then these become even more important to maintain a consistent size and volume.
Once again at the end of the clip he reinforces the need to check the thickness of the pot by cutting it in half. He seems happier with the section of this pot than that in the previous clip and makes reference to ‘understanding‘ the clay body better as you work with a clay.
Other uses for the Rib
In this next short clip Mick Casson shows some of the uses of a rib to assist in throwing. He is ‘not sure’ about the clay and suggests more preparation would have resolved the problem of uneven layers of stiffer clay. The rib allows him to work from the very bottom of the pot, remove slurry, create a shoulder and to provide articulation, ultimately throwing the pot as a finished piece.
The clip (remember this is 1980) reveals the extent to which he is uncomfortable with using the metric system for measurement! The UK adopted the metric system in the late 1960s and I still use pounds and ounces (2015) to weigh clay for no reason other than that it is the system I first used! It would have been fairly new to Mick Casson at the time.
All potters should consider measuring the size of pot they produce from a fixed amount of clay – Mick Casson is no exception.
Preparing Clay for the Wheel
After finding air bubbles in the clay for the previous pots Mick decides that he needs to show how he normally prepares clay for the wheel. While the clay has been pugged a de-airing pug-mill has not been used, hence air bubbles in the clay. I find it intriguing that he spends so much more time on the preparation of each ball of clay than the throwing. Personally, I usually work with larger quantities and tend to spiral wedge 6 – 12kg at a time. Taking each piece of clay through 100 spiral wedging actions making thousands of layers in the clay.
In 1980 Mick Casson pots must have been selling well as he says that he doesn’t like repetition throwing and concentrates on larger two piece forms.
Throwing a Jug Body
The jug body that he throws in this next clip takes on a medieval form and is one he has not made for some time. He uses the shape here because its easy to get off the wheel with a broad base going into a neck. We learn that late Medieval French jugs are an influence on the way he makes them.
He compacts the clay at the base – working from the middle to the outside – to prevent ‘s’ cracks and the form dictates where the handle is going to fit. he uses a rib to give the pot ‘strength’ through articulations, shoulders and lines.
He mentions both David Leach and Richard Batterham in discussing the different approaches to throwing that each have.
The Pouring Lip
Having made the jug body, with plenty of clay brought to the rim, Mick Casson moves on to adding a pouring lip to the jug. He discusses technical issues and the reasoning behind his preferred technique. He refers to two of his contemporaries, David Leach and Ray Finch, suggesting that the former never used this technique and the later thought he took it from ‘us’ (Casson?). He focusses on the importance of making the edge of the lip parallel to the ground.
Mick then goes on to discuss other options like adding a ‘throat’ to the jug, and there is an interesting moment that reveals an attitude to craftsmanship that clearly he had discussed with David Leach, that concerns ‘anonymity’ (might make and interesting subject for an essay). It begs the question how many so-called craftsmen potters today might be considered by David Leach as being on a ‘ego trip’.
The final discussion is about how the use of a twisted wire to remove the pot from the wheel gives an indication as to the identity of the maker.
Taking Pots off the Wheel
Mick Casson answers a question about taking pots off the wheel. It’s clear that he prefers the action of cutting through the clay between the wheel head and the base of the pot before ‘lifting’ the pot off the wheel. The questioner rightly points out that many potters might find such an action difficult because they can’t ‘feel’ the clay. This opens up a good analysis of the attitudes to removing pots from the wheel with a description of various means of doing so. The bottom line however is what works for you is whats right.
Throwing the Base of a Teapot
I find it fascinating that there are so many ways of throwing! I have tended not to consider other ways of throwing unless the pot demands it. In this next video clip Mick Casson points out that you must know what you are aiming to achieve as the pot develops on the wheel. His technique of always starting with a wide base and ‘pulling’ it back to narrow it down seems sensible but I fear it might be difficult to achieve consistently.
The shape he produces is difficult to emulate (maybe he was just showing off) and a shoulder and overhang to the extent of the one in this clip would be testing for all but the most experience potters.
I love the discussion about deciding how to treat the foot of the teapot and the statement of preference about having some sort of insulation between the base of the pot and the surface it will stand on. His clear enjoyment and wry smile when he admits he hasn’t made a teapot for at least eight years is a treat to see.
Rims and Galleries
So now we’re getting more technical and into the detail of throwing. Having mastered the skills of centering, collaring and using rib the clips now move on to consider methods of developing pots on the wheel in an individual fashion. Early on in this ten minute video Mick Casson quotes Harry Davies who says ‘we have to equal industry at its function and technology and beat industry at its aesthetics’. An interesting concept and one that truly reflects the studio pottery movement.
Casson is able to refer to the work of the Leach family, Michael Cardew, Harry Davis and himself when discussing the different methods each takes to form rims and galleries on a thrown pot. He describes the Leach family as ‘excellent throwers‘; Cardew as having a ‘unique, eccentric way of doing galleries – not easy’ and himself as having a ‘robust’ approach.
He thinks of the end user throughout the discussion e.g. ‘What would a person working in a kitchen expect the functionality of a pot to be?’
In this clip Mick has used a different wheel – it looks like it might be a ‘cone’ wheel by the way the wheel head raises and falls at the start and stop moments of the throwing! When he first sits at the wheel he says ‘this brings back memories’ and a wry smile comes across his face as if he is reflecting on the fact that technology has moved on a great deal.
Aesthetics, Functionality and Engineering
Not the words you might normally associate with pottery but Mick Casson makes a good argument that all potters should consider all three at the start of the throwing process. He proposes that to make sense of pots you must always consider the aesthetics, if it doesn’t look right then it probably isn’t! He propose that precision and fit in making functional studio ware is all important and uncovers some of the basic mistakes he thinks potters make.
He argues that it if looks ‘robust‘ (a word that he likes) then the pot will be easier to glaze as there are indicators to show where the slip or glaze line should be. The suggestion that pots must look functional and engineered is a view that reflects on the industrial manufacturing processes that have been adopted to mass produce pottery.
‘Take care of the rim and the foot of a pot and everything else will take care of itself’. This is a sweeping statement and somewhat true at the time (1989). these days there may be an argument that pottery isn’t about norms and the shock of the new might be something to consider as a contemporary approach.
Just what it says – throwing a bowl
Throwing a Waisted Cylinder
Although this begins in a fairly conventional manner the clip ends with an attack on what was then a modern approach to representing pots in catalogues.
He starts by throwing a cylinder and when the waist is created it becomes more of a flowing form that can weaken and split easily. Its a shape that he has seen Bernard Leach create very successfully and he considers it to offer a fourth dimension where its possible to add a decoration (maybe) that suggests ‘time’.
Its about two thirds of the way through the clip that Mick states that he is ‘fed up’ with ‘very good’ photographs of pots that cost more than the pots themselves to produce. He refers to The Goon Show and a line spoken by Bluebottle, I believe, ‘I haven’t got a battleship but I have a picture of one.‘ suggesting that this is a ridiculous dilemma for the potter. He goes on to deride the fact that the ‘graphics boys and girls‘ have moved in and given us such good service that they are in danger of taking over!
He gives the example of work by Alison Britten and describes how graphics has distorted the object in presenting it in a catalogue.
His final statement is ‘Beware potters, when it comes to to it you have to pick it up, fit it in your hand and look at it with your eye.‘ (to see and understand the true object)