Cardew was born in Wimbledon, London, the fourth child of Arthur Cardew, a civil servant, and Alexandra Kitchin, the eldest daughter of G.W.Kitchin, the first Chancellor of Durham University. His family had a holiday home in North Devon, where Arthur Cardew collected Devon country pottery. Cardew first saw this pottery being made in the workshop of Edwin Beer Fishley at Braunton and learned to make pottery on the wheel from Fishley's grandson, William Fishley Holland.
Cardew was the first apprentice at the Leach Pottery, St.Ives, Cornwall, in 1923. He shared an interest in slipware with Bernard Leach and was influenced by the pottery of Shoji Hamada. In 1926 he left St Ives to restart the Greet Potteries at Winchcombe in Gloucestershire. With the help of former chief thrower Elijah Comfort and fourteen year-old Sydney Tustin, he set about rebuilding the derelict pottery. Cardew aimed to make pottery in the seventeenth century English slipware tradition, functional and affordable by people with moderate incomes. After some experimentation, pottery was made with local clay and fired in a traditional bottle kiln. Charlie Tustin joined the team in 1935 followed in 1936 by Ray Finch, who bought the pottery from Cardew and worked there until he died in 2012. The pottery is now known as Winchcombe Pottery.
In 1939, an inheritance enabled Cardew to fulfill his dream of living and working in Cornwall. He bought an inn at Wenford Bridge, St Breward, and converted it to a pottery, where he produced earthenware and stoneware. He built the first kiln at Wenford Bridge with the help of Michael Leach, Bernard Leach's son. It was fired only a few times before the outbreak of war, when blackout restrictions brought work to an end. In 1950 an Australian potter, Ivan McMeekin, became a partner and ran the pottery while Cardew was in Africa. McMeekin built a downdraught kiln and produced stoneware there until 1954.
Wenford Bridge did not make enough money to support Cardew and his family, and in 1942 he accepted a salaried post in the Colonial Service as a ceramist at Achimota School, an élite school for Africans in the Gold Coast (Ghana). Although Cardew's main motivation for taking the post was financial, he had become convinced (partly though his reading of Marx) that there should be a closer relationship between the studio potter and industry. Following the outbreak of war, the school's supervisor of arts and crafts, H.V.Meyerowitz, recommended that the pottery department should expand into a handcraft-based industry that might provide all the pottery needs of British West Africa. African colonies had hitherto depended on the export of commodities, but enemy shipping made this almost impossible. The Colonial Office adopted instead a policy developing indigenous industries and eventually accepted Meyerowitz's idea. They agreed to fund the Achimota pottery, which they intended should become profitable, and hired Cardew to build and manage it in nearby Alajo. This gave him the opportunity to apply his ideas on an industrial scale, and he went to the task with enthusiasm. The pottery employed about sixty people and had large orders from the rubber industry and the army. However, it did not meet its production targets and was unprofitable. There was an apprentice rebellion and a huge kiln failure. Cardew admits that his enthusiasm developed into fanaticism. In 1945 Meyerowitz committed suicide. All these disasters led to the closure of Alajo.
In 1945 Cardew moved to Vumë on the River Volta where he set up a pottery with his own resources. He chose to remain in Africa partly to erase the failure of Alajo and partly to vindicate the ideas of Meyerowitz, to whom he felt he owed a debt. He records in his autobiography his obsession to prove to the colonial administrators "that they were wrong to close down Alajo, and that a small pottery in a village would be successful in every way, provided it was allowed to develop naturally." He struggled with difficult clay and kiln failures for three years and later judged the Vumë pottery to have been unsuccessful, but its products are among his most highly regarded pots.
He returned to England in 1948 and made stoneware pottery at Wenford Bridge.
In 1951 he was appointed by the Nigerian government to the post of Pottery Officer in the Department of Commerce and Industry, during which time he built and developed a successful pottery training centre at Abuja in Northern Nigeria. His trainees were mainly Hausa and Gwari men, but he spotted the pots of Ladi Kwali and in 1954 she became the first woman potter at the Training Centre, soon followed by other women. As a result of Cardew's extensive contact with and admiration of African pottery, his later work shows its influence. He returned to Wenford Bridge on his retirement in 1965.
Through his contact with Ivan McMeekin, in 1968 he was invited by the University of New South Wales to spend six months in the Northern Territory of Australia introducing pottery to the aborigines. He travelled in America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, making pots, demonstrating, writing and teaching.
He wrote Pioneer Pottery, an account of pottery-making based on his experiences in Africa, which assumes that the potter will have to find and prepare his own materials and make all his tools and equipment, and an autobiography, A Pioneer Potter.
Bernard Leach said that Cardew was his best pupil. He has been described as "one of the finest potters of the century and one of the greatest slipware potters of all times." The decorative style of his slipware is usually trailed or scratched and is free and original. The stoneware he made at Vumë and Abuja is similarly well regarded. There are collections of his work in museums in Britain, (for example in the York Art Gallery), the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
- Clark, Garth, Michael Cardew, London: Faber and Faber, 1976 ISBN 0-571-11305-2
- Cardew, M., A Pioneer Potter, London, Collins, 1988 ISBN 0 00 41288 7
- Wenford Bridge Pottery
- Michael Cardew teapot
- Harrod, Tanya, "'The Breath of Reality': Michael Cardew and the Development of Studio Pottery in the 1930s and 1940s", Journal of Design History, Vol. 2, No. 2/3 (1989), pp. 145–159
- Cardew, Michael, Pioneer Pottery, Longmans, 1969, ISBN 0-582-12623-1
- Rice, Paul, British Studio Ceramics in the 20th Century, London, Barrie & Jenkins, 1989
- Leach Pottery
- Winchcombe Pottery
- Collection of historic Cardew pottery at Stoke-on-Trent Museums
- "Michael Cardew, 'Cider Jar'". Ceramics. Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 9 December 2007.