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  • Johannes Scott

MASTER POTTER: exploring the ‘master’

MASTERS 1: The Western master

In a short essay titled Leach in Japan, Soyetsu Yanagi writes that Bernard Leach should have been nominated master potter the 7th Kenzan because the 6th Kenzan died without any heir. Instead, all the master potter bestowed on Leach was a ‘Certificate of Proficiency’ written on impressive hosho paper.

The designation master became contentious after the end of the 18th century philosophical movement Romanticism.

In history of art, one can study the Old Masters’ influence on Gericault’s painting, The Raft of the Medusa (1819). Similarly, in literary studies, the great Romantic era authors span from John Milton (1608-1674) to William Blake (1757-1827).

The Romantic era centred on autobiographical, innate identity – aesthetic value was attributed to the central position of the individual author as universal artist. For authentic interpretation of the intrinsic artwork, it was expected for the viewer or reader to consult with the author.

This ‘genius’ or authorial centred discourse expired with the collapse of essentialism. First, with the dawn of 19th century Realism, followed by 20th century Modernism, aesthetics shifted focus to social context, and contemporaneously to context and reception.

The French literary theorist Roland Barthes (1977:148) reflected on this pivotal culmination, recalling Nietzsche, he writes that Classical criticism never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature; the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.

The designation master remains useful as literary devise; as metaphor, it is an extremely skilled and accomplished conman. In the United States, the Mistress or Master Mixologist is an award granted by the Bartenders Guild; in naval discourse, it is the captain of a ship; in commercial branding, it can either make or destroy you.

The designation master was a well-established convention in the European guild system, where its usage dates to the Middle Ages. Only individuals, often only men, with the designated title master and journeyman were allowed as guild members. The title was earned, first by passage from apprentice to journeyman, then by financial purchase, and finally, by producing an item that would be approved as ‘masterpiece’ by guild members. Without such final approval, the candidate may be awarded the secondary title of journeyman.

In the United Kingdom, the College of Arms in London nominates guild membership by exclusive craft category. These include painters, carpenters, cabinetmaking, joinery, masons, and so forth. Historically, pottery is not recognised as a craft category and the potter does not feature in its heraldic crest.

In Germany, where, historically, privileged guilds were abolished in favour of a craft industry integrated with state departments of trade and education, a master craftsman is a professional qualification. The Bauhaus establishment and its master craftsman certification nominate state-approved grades such as Formmeister and Lehrmeister. Though it is not an academic degree, the German Meister grade can qualify the holder university entrance to study for a bachelor’s degree.

In the United States, guilds as such do not exists but trades, such as carpenters, electricians, and plumbers do follow the hierarchical model of apprentice-journeyman-master.

In Duchampian ideology, the entitlement is owned and possessed by will – everyone is a master. Or even better, everyone is his or her own master or mistress.


MASTERS 2: The Japanese master potter

Unlike in the West, where the master craftsman was a specialised journeyman, immersed in a specific guild, Japanese tradition followed a diverse trajectory. For Japanese culture, a traditional master would be a man well positioned in society and skilled in a wide range of talents.

In the West, the relation between individual mastery and guild could be represented by an arbitrary crest. In traditional Japan, the insignia would rather be essential to heraldry and imperial designation – innate to the individual and often, ancestry.

For example, the 16th century Korean tilemaker who was brought to the Japanese Imperial city of Kyoto by Tea Master Sen No Riyo, to create and produce the first raku tea ware, was awarded a seal. This ideogram signifies Raku and became the family name, by inheritance. Today, in Kyoto, the Raku family still represents a line of potters producing raku tea ware and, after 14 generations, the name of the current head is Kichizaemon Raku.

In Imperial Japan, social and professional networking meant to be well connected to a Tea Master, who, in turn, was not only well educated and sophisticated, but diversely, well connected to Buddhist priests, Shogun warlords, and the Imperial family. For example, one of the greatest Japanese artists, Hon’ami Kōetsu 本阿弥 光悦 (1558-1637), was a disciple of the great Furuta Oribe Tea Master.

By convention, the master would not refer to himself as master, instead, without self-appraisal, reference would always point to the predecessor – the ‘true’ master, the one who authenticates the apprentice as successor.

Hon’ami Kōetsu was master to many crafts, including painting, poetry, calligraphy, lacquer and landscape design, raku, and pottery. Most of all, he was a sword expert, born into a 15th century family of sword polishers and connoisseurs serving the Imperial court and devoted to the Nichiren sect of Buddhism. In 1615, his innovative designs earned him an Imperial granted territory near Kyoto, where he founded the Rinpa school of painting.

About half a century later, two brothers consolidated Rinpa designs by combining narrative scroll painting with bold, decorative screen paintings. The result was an historical influence on the Edo period, the final period of traditional Japan, near Tokyo.

The two brothers were Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716) and Ogata Kenzan (1663-1743).

For our exploration here, the Kenzan succession is important because the 6th Kenzan, of the Tokyo branch, was the master potter by whom Leach was apprenticed. If Leach had inherited the master potter identity, he would have been the 7th Kenzan. In turn, by tradition, Bernard Leach the 7th Kenzan master potter could have apprenticed his business-partner-son, designating David Leach the 8th Kenzan.

Albeit, let us explore the world of the 1st Kenzan, who left behind this enormous heritage of Japanese master potters.

Ogata Kenzan 尾形 乾山, was born Ogata Shinsei 尾形 深省 in Kyoto. Ogata Kenzan, respectively, also authorised his work by the insignia Shisui, Tōin, Shōkosai, Shuseidō, or Shinshō.

Kenzan was born into a wealthy merchant family and was apprentice to the master potter Nonomura Ninsei. In turn, Kenzan’s successor was the apprentice Aoki Mokubei. These three potters are known as the three great masters of Kyo-yaki (Kyoto pottery). Kenzan often collaborated with his painter brother Ogata Korin, and the resulting decoration is represented by the design style of Rinpa.

One needs to recognise that the master potter Kenzan did not produce his own pottery. The Japanese master potter was primarily a painter and designer. By convention, labour was divided into different sections of studio production. Clay preparation, wheel-throwing, and glazing were done by teamwork. Moreover, kiln-firing teams, operating as fire experts, moved from one pottery to the next, from week to week, overseeing to the firing process from beginning to end.

One needs to see Kenzan as artistic director, heading his design workshop, as was the practice throughout Japan’s traditional history. By the time Bernard Leach met the 6th Kenzan, Japan’s tradition history had already yielded to Western influence and British Imperialism.

Ogata Kenzan the 6th was, Leach (1976:30) writes, ‘old, kindly, and poor, pushed to one side by the new commercialism of the Meiji era, and living in a little house in the northern slums of Tokyo,’ and, ‘lost when he departed from tradition and yielded to the influence of the West.’

Bernard Leach (1976:29) claimed his authenticity back to Hon’ami Kōetsu (Koyetsu), he writes, ‘Kenzan was among the first to use a variety of colours and he did so with great richness and restraint. The fine breadth of his calligraphy and brushwork was unequalled by any other Japanese potter except Koyetsu, who was primarily a painter. His palette and glazes were handed on to me by my master, the sixth and last Kenzan of the Tokyo branch, who died shortly after the great earthquake and fire of 1923.’

MASTERS 3: The Leach Standard

The designation ‘master potter’ was likely introduced into the western canon through disciples of Bernard Leach. As we have seen, pottery fell outside of the Western guild system, excluding pottery from the designation master potter.

The designation has wide conventional reference in Japan, which is where Leach was apprenticed before his return to the West. We can therefore attribute the Western origin of the title ‘master potter’ to the artist colony of St. Ives that had invited Leach into their newly established Guild of Handicrafts, back in 1920.

It would thus be feasible for Leach disciples to argue that Bernard was the first master potter in the West, importing the title from Japan. Moreover, that it was the newly established Guild of Handicrafts, founded by Frances Horne in 1920, that first canonised the designation ‘master potter’ in the West. Horne invited Leach to settle at St. Ives and head the potter position within the group.


Together with Hamada, Leach identified a location next to the Stennack River for the St. Ives pottery, where they constructed the first traditional Japanese climbing kiln in the West. Built against the slope of a hill, the kiln was fuelled by wood at the chamber at the bottom of the slope; firing up along the draft of the slope, to the top where the chimney is situated.

For the endeavour of sourcing local clay and other raw materials, Leach set out to locate the ruins of the English peasant-pottery tradition. He found remnants of English slipware production, such as at the Fishley family of country potters who had been established at Fremington in North Devon since the late 19th century. By 1920, the family-run establishment was in serious decline, but provided Leach with what he needed to reinvent the English tradition.


Leach did not strive to establish a successive line of Kenzan-like master potters, instead, he wanted to rediscover and re-apply standards of English craftsmanship that had been lost in the passage from hand-made tradition to the dominance of mass production by Wedgwood factories.

Leach (1976:32) writes, ‘The change in style from English medieval tiles and pitchers to seventeenth and eighteenth century slipware is very pronounced, and one can only conjecture that it was largely a result of the dissociation of the potters from their ecclesiastical and architectural background, following the dissolution of the monasteries and consequent scattering of their patrons after the middle of the sixteenth century. For from the beginning of the seventeenth century English pottery becomes at once more advanced in technique and less dignified. The nobility and strength of form of the pitchers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and their uncommonly beautiful applied decoration disappeared with their Gothic environment.’

By inventing a novel artist-craftsman identity, an artist-potter type that is neither a guilder journeyman nor an industrial labourer, he intended a fusion between Western and Eastern practices, between art and craft.

On shifting articulation on synthesis, from grand narratives to standard, grounded practices, Leach remains obscure; he reaches for solutions in esoterica and Eastern criteria.

For universal standard, Leach references the ‘qualities of the pottery of the T’ang and Sung dynasties as the height of ceramic beauty.’ He quotes a well-known Japanese potter on how to recognise good pottery, ‘With their bodies,’ he explains, ‘with the mind acting directly through the senses, taking in form, texture, pattern and colour, and referring the sharp immediate impressions to personal experience of use and beauty combined.’

Leach (1976:17), grasping at Romantic era esoteric, explains that to distinguish between good and bad qualities in any given pot, ‘one should look first for the nature of the pot and know it for an expression of the potter in the background. He may be an unknown peasant, or he may be a Staite Murray. In the former case his period and its culture and his national characteristics will play a more important role than his personality; in the latter, the chances are that personality will predominate. In either case sincerity is what matters, and according to the degree in which the vital force of the potter and that of his culture behind him flow through the processes of making, the resulting pot will have life in it or not.’

Leach (1976: 22-23) gives the following guidelines for standard production at St. Ives.

‘The foot’, he explains, ‘upon which the pot stands, should be reasonably wide for stability, but over and beyond that its angles and proportion should relate to the lip, to which the eye instinctively leaps. The cutting of the foot does not end with the profile; the inside of the ring is nearly always hollowed out in the East. Stoneware pots are seldom glazed over the bottom, and the exposed clay tells how thoroughly the potter felt the contrast between the profile with its necessary concluding foot and the perfect curve of the pot through it.

‘It is interesting to see an Oriental pick up a pot for examination, and presently carefully turn it over to look at the clay and the form and cutting of the foot. He inspects it as carefully as a banker a doubtful signature – in fact, he is looking for the bona fides of the author. There in the most naked but hidden part of the work he expects to come into closest touch with the character and perception of its maker. He looks to see how far and how well the pot has been dipped, in what relation the texture and colour of the clay stand to the glaze, whether the foot has the right width, depth, angle, undercut, bevels and general feeling to carry and complete the form above it. Nothing can be concealed there, and much of his final pleasure lies in the satisfaction of knowing that this last examination and scrutiny has been passed with honour.’

The catalogued line of production at St. Ives pottery was well established and included a wide-ranging team of potters under Leach. These included his sons Michael and David Leach, who in 1930 became partner to the pottery business. The ‘local boy’ apprenticeship policy was established in 1938 and included the success story of William Marshall, who later with his son departed to establish their own business.

The ‘local boy’ apprenticeship was abandoned after young potters from all the world started applying for apprenticeship at St. Ives Pottery. Leach’s eldest grandson, John Leach, was selected from this pool; John later established his own line of production at Somerset, where Hamada’s son Atsuya joined the team.

Throughout its existence, and 20 years after the passing of Bernard Leach in 1979, a team of St. Ives potters produced the catalogued Standard Ware of handmade pottery for the public.



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