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EXHIBITION

  • Johannes Scott

BERNARD LEACH: St. Ives Pottery, Cornwall England.

Exactly one hundred years ago, in 1920, Bernard Leach, together with Shoji Hamada, sailed to England from Japan to establish St. Ives Potteries, the first of its kind in the West. The pottery still functions today with weekly classes and courses but closed recently due to the Coronavirus epidemic.

There is no doubt, Leach was the conceptual founder of the artist pottery studio in the West. In fact, for us, he invented the idea of the potter as artist and established this practice in England, from where it disseminated to Commonwealth countries such as South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, and to the United States and Scandinavia.

TAB Studio is built on the template established by Bernard Leach in 1920; moreover, every other pottery studio in this field owes its foundation to Bernard Leach’s entrepreneurial interpretation and appropriation of the generic idea of ‘master potter’.

By no means do I mean that Leach represents the archetype ceramist, because as we well know, the African practice and culture of ceramic art was well established prior to the influence of the Commonwealth, not only here, but also in Europe in the form of the peasant potter and English slipware.

Instead, my gesture here is to revisit the legend of Leach in context to his visit to Japan and consequent intention to create a novel identity for ceramists in the Western world – the artist potter. Moreover, one needs to ask the question: what was the drive for this novel idea, how did it find ground, especially since it took even the young twenty-one-year-old Bernard by surprise? Leach later recalls, “By this to me a miracle, I was carried away to a new world. Enthralled, I was on the spot seized with the desire to take up the craft.”

My brief introduction here takes the form of a biographical narrative and following later, elsewhere, with genealogical, aesthetic, and ideological context. My ensuing interest is the contextual relationship between aesthetics and ‘master potter’.

*

Bernard Howell Leach was born in Hong Kong because his English family was immersed in the British Imperial life of East Asia and Far East. His maternal grandparents taught English at a Christian college in Kyoto City, Japan; his British father worked in Shanghai, China. In Honk Kong, on January 5th, 1887, his mother, Nellie, died giving birth to Bernard, her first born.

The infant Bernard was taken to Kyoto, to be nurtured by his Irish Grandmother – whom he later recalled as ‘the only person he felt loved him’. Four years later, after his father remarried, Bernard was taken back to Hong Kong and later to Singapore, where his father was appointed judge. Here, without any schooling, Bernard spent his early childhood, which he later recalls as very lonely.

In need of a British education, Bernard’s Great Uncle fetched him from Singapore and brought the teen back to England to attend school in Old Windsor. But, at sixteen, after showing promise only in drawing, elocution, and cricket, Bernard was taken out of academic college and enrolled at The Slade School of Art, in London. A year later, Bernard left art school and moved to Bournemouth, where his father had retreated to after falling gravely ill in Singapore. On his deathbed, Bernard promised his father he will return to Hong Kong and seek a career at Shanghai Bank (HSBC).

At eighteen, Bernard moved to Manchester to live with his Uncle and Aunt, and study for an entrance examination to HSBC. Here, at the home of his Uncle and Aunt, events took a dramatic turn when he fell in love with his cousin, Muriel. When found out, the relationship became forbidden and Bernard left, first for London and then to North Wales, to follow the novelty of painting full time.

At 21, Bernard received inheritance from his late father and enrolled at The London School of Art where he learned etching – months later he left. He rekindled his forbidden love with his cousin Muriel and set sail for Japan, to marry.

Two years later, on 7 May 1911, Muriel Hoyle Leach gave birth to David Andrew Leach, in Tokyo.

In Tokyo, Muriel taught English and Bernard gave classes from home in etching and produced wood cut designs for art magazine covers. Like most British stereotypes of the time, Bernard’s imagination was enthralled by the projection of an exotic Orient. He objected to the commercialisation, industrialisation, and westernization of, what he considered a pure East.

At this point in time, Bernard had shown no interest in ceramic art. Instead, his interest was the popular introduction of Rodin, Van Gogh and Cezanne into the public consciousness of Japan.

He developed a brotherly, artist relationship with his Japanese friend Tomimoto Kenkichi. Together, they visited Tea Houses in Tokyo – this is where Bernard was first exposed to the Buddhist custom of the tea-ceremony.

*

It was two years after Bernard’s arrival in Tokyo that he, through his friend Tomimoto, was one day, ‘wholly by chance,’ invited to ‘a sort of garden-party at an artist friend’s house;’ a ‘raku party,’ he recalled later in A Potter’s Book, published by Faber and Faber in 1940. Quoting, I will let Bernard do the narration from here, about his introduction to ceramics and ensuing return to England to start the first studio pottery in the West:

My connection with this line of potters came about almost wholly by chance. One day in 1911, two years after I had returned to the Far East, I was invited to a sort of garden-party at an artist friend’s house in Tokyo. Twenty or thirty painters, actors, writers, etc., were gathered together on the floor of a large tea-room; brushes and saucers of colour were lying about, and presently a number of unglazed pots were brought in and we were invited to write or paint upon them. Almost all educated Japanese are sufficient masters of the brush to be able to write a decorative running script of, to Western eyes, great beauty, and many of them can paint. I was told that within an hour’s time these pots would be glazed and afterwards fired in a little portable kiln, which a man was stoking with charcoal a few feet beyond the verandah in the garden. I struggled with the unfamiliar paints and queer long brushes, and then my two pots were taken from me and dipped in a tub of creamy white lead glaze and set around the top of the kiln and warmed and dried for a few minutes before being carefully placed with long-handled tongs in the inner box muffle. Although this chamber was already at a dull red heat the pots did not break. Fireclay covers were placed on top of the kiln, and the potter fanned the fuel till the sparks flew. In about half an hour the muffle gradually became bright red, and the glaze on our pots could be seen through the spy-hole melted and glossy. The covers were removed and the glowing pieces taken out one by one and placed on tiles, while the glow slowly faded and the true colours came out accompanied by curious sharp ticks and tings as the crackle began to form in the cooling, shrinking glaze. Another few minutes passes and we could gingerly handle our pots painted only one short hour before.

As a result of this experience a dormant impulse must have awakened, for I began at once to search for a teacher and shortly afterwards found one in Ogata Kenzan, old, kindly, and poor, pushed to one side by the new commercialism of the Meiji era, and then living in a little house in the northern slums of Tokyo. By him I was taught how to make raku and stoneware according to the Japanese tradition. There is no doubt that most of the things described as the work of the ‘First Kenzan’ in our Western collections were really made by him or his immediate predecessor, Kenya, yet the old man, like all craftsmen of the East, was lost when he departed from tradition and yielded to the influence of the West. Later on I made an agreement with him by which he was to build a kiln for me in my garden, teach me his traditional recipes, and coach me for a couple of years. Nine consecutive years I spent in Japan and China, giving more and more of my time to my new vocation, gathering ideas from every available source and putting them to the final test of fire. (Leach 1976:29-31)

*

After returning to England there were many, serious financial difficulties at St. Ives – to supplement the studio income, Bernard often held raku parties on Thursdays while Muriel served Cornish tea for one shilling.

Shoji Hamada, living and working with Bernard at St. Ives, was essential to Bernard’s authenticity as potter and construction of the kiln.

After the disaster of the 1923 earthquake in Japan, Hamada returned home to search for his surviving family.

Leach received financial sponsorship from a wealthy American family; he started travelling overseas to disseminate his novel ideas on the potter as artist, with much success.

Later, during his traveling lectures, Leach returned to Hong Kong to search in vain for his mother’s grave.

Leach died on May 6th, 1979 and was buried at Longstone Cemetery, Carbis Bay, St. Ives.

Leach’s son David and three grandchildren all became well-established potters, both in England and USA. His third wife, Janet Leach, a potter from the United States, took over the management at St. Ives and continued the St. Ives legacy until her death in 1997.

In 2005, St. Ives Leach Pottery was acquired by Penwith District Council as part of the Leach Restoration Project. On completion, the property was handed over to the Bernard Leach (St. Ives) Trust Ltd,. A registered charity set up to manage the Leach Pottery.

  1. 1961 The Arts Council of Britain held a retrospective exhibition ‘Fifty Years a Potter’ – Leach was acknowledged as master craftsman and his work was accepted as the standard by which others were judged.

  2. 1962 – Leach received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).

  3. 1966 – Faber and Faber publish ‘Kenzan and his Tradition, the lives and times of Koetsu, Sosatsu, Korin, and Kenzan’.

  4. 1968 – Leach & sculptor Hepworth bestowed the rare honour of Freedom of the Borough of St Ives by the Town Council.

  5. 1973 Leach was made a Companion of Honour (CH).

  6. 1974 – The Japan Foundation awarded Leach the equivalent of the Nobel Prize during his final visit to Japan.

  7. 1977 – Bernard Leach Retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

J.J.S.10.6.20.

BERNARD LEACH (1887–1979). Picture in public domain


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