For potters, collectors and admirers it is the integrity of Leach's approach and his search for vitality - a major driving force in his life and work - that makes his work of enduring interest.
Emmanuel Cooper, Bernard Leach: Life and Work, (London, 2003)
Bernard Leach: line, form and legacy.
Jane Wilkinson, Independent Curator and former Curator of the East Asian Collections at the National Museums of Scotland
Bernard Leach (1887-1979) is best known for establishing the status of the artist studio potter in the twentieth century. Together he and Shoji Hamada contributed to "a quiet, benign, non violent revolution in the potters art, which has been gaining converts ever since."1 These words still ring true even though they were written on Leach's death in May 1979 by Michael Cardew, his first student at St Ives.
Leach had set up his first pottery at Abiko in Japan on land owned by his friend Yanagi Soetsu in 1917 towards the end of his ten year residence in Japan and China. There he met Shoji Hamada, a ceramicist who was a great help in the understanding of glazes and reduction firing. On learning that Leach had decided to leave Japan to set up a pottery in St Ives, Hamada asked to accompany him. Together they established the Leach pottery in 1920 and explored traditional English slip decorating techniques. Leach recorded that they had discovered 80 of the forgotten techniques by the time Hamada returned to Japan in 1923.
St Ives remained his primary base for the rest of his life though he also had a workshop at Dartington in Devon where he enjoyed the patronage of Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst, who shared his love of Asian aesthetics. Leach continued to produce three types of ware: raku (see lots 125,126 and 238), lead glazed earthenware known as Galena because of its yellow glaze and high fired stoneware and porcelain. The Leach Pottery attracted many apprentices and students who made a range of tableware known as Leach Pottery standard ware. Designed and often decorated by Leach, these subdued functional wares were more affordable than his exhibition stoneware.
"We want from the artist potter the same sort of quality which we expect from a good author, poet, painter or composer. Your main objective should be aesthetic, to know good pot from bad pot and to be able to find your way with your own clear convictions amidst all the good and bad pots past and present to making good sincere and honest pots of your own."2 These sentiments would have been expressed by Leach to any aspiring potter who came to work at the St Ives Pottery. Apprentices were taken on at St Ives after they had passed a successful trial period and interview. Leach believed that the skills of potting should be acquired in the workshop. Through daily application to repeated throwing of pots to a pre-determined shape size and weight the student would develop an inner rhythm giving life to their pots. Leach maintained he could tell which of the apprentices had made the standard ware cups bowls and plates placed on the shelves. He wanted to see the individual character coming through, believing "the qualities of the man can be seen in the pot."3
Norah Braden and Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie were contemporary students with Michael Cardew at St Ives. It was a time of experimentation in the making of hand-crafted pots and still quite an unusual vocation for women. Norah and Katherine became firm friends and together they worked on experimental vegetable ash glazes, made from plants and trees on the family estate at Coleshill in Berkshire where Katherine set up a pottery. Leach appreciated her contribution and when writing A Potter's Book, asked her advice about ash glazes. Today she is recognised as a pioneer in the field.
The first apprentice at St Ives was introduced by David Leach in 1938. Different to the art students these were local boys with no artistic vocation. William Marshall (see lot 173) was 14 years of age and came straight from the local school. He worked at the pottery for 39 years with a five year break during the second world war. Through contact with various students, Leach suggests that he not only became a first rate craftsman, especially as a thrower, but also an expressive potter, "one of the best."4 He became foreman, senior craftsman and teacher to many of the students who passed through the pottery. He threw the large studio pots for Leach who trimmed the foot and rim and decorated these pots. Marshall was particularly skilled at translating Leach's designs and drawings into form on the wheel. Later he set up his own pottery at Lelant near St Ives drawing his inspiration from the Cornish landscape.
Kenneth Quick (see lots 134 and 248) was the last local apprentice to come to the Leach Pottery straight from school, working there for 12 years before he set up his own workshop, Tregenna Hill Pottery in St Ives in 1955. In addition to being a good production thrower of standard ware his work had a distinct individuality sought by Leach in his students.
Bernard's policy was to encourage his students to make their own pots out of hours. Otherwise the team were expected to produce a designated amount of standard ware. To Leach's design, measurement and weight these were illustrated in the Pottery's catalogue. Dealers and customers were able to order the wares by post providing the pottery with a small regular income. Bernard and Janet Leach chose and priced individual wares they liked and passed a percentage of the sale price back to the student, helping to supplement their comparatively low wages.
As a result of his travels and lectures Leach received many applications from overseas students and he and Janet decided to stop taking local Cornish apprentices but instead employ young students from England and overseas on a two year work-trainee basis. Hamada's third son Atsuya (see lot 182) arrived in 1957 to fulfil his dream of working at St Ives for a year. He had known Bernard Leach from his visits to his father Hamada Shoji at Mashiko, Japan. Atsuya, "fiercely independent, argued endlessly with Leach but was an expert mould-maker and suggested some of the individual pots could be produced in a mould and then finished and decorated by Leach."5 A tall squared bottle covered with a temmoku glaze was produced this way (see lot 226).
Another connection with Japan had been made by Janet Leach when she worked at the Tamba pottery of Ichino Tanso in the early 1950s. Ichino Shigeyoshi, Tanso's eldest son was invited to St Ives for a year in 1969. New students often brought with them new ideas and shapes. Shigeyoshi introduced rice bowls and sake cups based on Korean shapes. In 1981 he returned to Britain having been invited to present a one man show at Dundee's 'Japan Fair'. There I purchased one of his pots for the National Museum of Scotland, the first of a small collection of Japanese contemporary pots acquired for the museum.
John Reeve (see lot 172), a Canadian, was invited by Leach to come to work at St Ives in 1958 and whilst in Cornwall received a grant from the Canadian Council to build a pottery at Hennock, Devon. He kept in touch with Leach as did Warren MacKenzie by talking on and circulating tape recordings of their thoughts. In 1966 he was invited back to St Ives to be the manager of the pottery but he and Janet Leach did not work well together. Reeve saw his role as selecting students and overseeing the quality of standard ware whilst also making his own pots. He did not want to involve himself in the repetitive production of standard ware. Eventually disagreements led to his resignation in the mid seventies, followed shortly by William Marshall leaving the pottery after forty years.
Bryan Temple, an American, was employed as manager in 1978 but again found the situation at the pottery difficult. He left after a year. This was the beginning of the end for the Leach Pottery as a major focus for students. The production of standard ware was discontinued completely after Leach's death in 1979. Janet continued to make pottery there until her death in 1997. Though the pottery buildings were listed as being of historical interest there was uncertainty as to what should be done with them.
Restored, they were eventually reopened in 2008 and are administered by the Bernard Leach Trust, with museum, gallery and studio. "The primary objectives of the trust are to further the development of studio pottery, provide training in the art, craft and making of pottery and to advance the public education of the life and work of Bernard Leach and his circle."6
Leach was a strong advocate of the importance of throwing and forming the pot as a basic skill to be learned through repetition at the workshop. This process moved the potter towards an understanding and development of a critical aesthetic. However, Leach's consummate skill lay in the decoration of the surface of his pots. His brushwork illustrates an affinity with line and balance that has its basis in an understanding of oriental culture. Leach visited Korea with his friend Yanagi Soetsu. Here he noticed that the spontaneity and grace of Korean art echoed the line of its landscape and this had a profound effect upon his artistic sensibilities.
Leach exhibited mainly in London and Japan but also in Europe and the USA. He travelled widely spending several periods in Japan, the USA, Australia and New Zealand where he gave lectures and demonstrations and visited many folk potteries. He wrote several books notably A Potter's Book7, a synthesis of his experience as a potter grounded on understanding of Asian aesthetics and the appropriate use of materials within the contemporary concerns of the artists who worked with him at St Ives. He also wrote books about the Kenzan pottery tradition in Japan and the philosophical writings of Yanagi Soetsu.
He thought of Japan as his second home where he was greatly respected and revered as an artist who had influence on Japanese art, understood Japanese culture and was accomplished in several disciplines. His exhibitions of pots, etchings, textile designs and furniture sold out as soon as they opened. He was awarded the Japan Foundation Cultural award in 1974 and saw himself as a bridge between East and West. His book Beyond East and West8 explores his work as a potter and writer in that context.
The Bernard Leach legacy has been illustrated and discussed in major exhibitions and accompanying catalogues, the first retrospective at the V&A in 1977 while he was still alive and then several important exhibitions in London, Japan and the United States in the 1990s. However it is Emmanuel Cooper's outstanding biography, Bernard Leach, life and work, published in 2003, that gives us the most detailed and scholarly insights into the Leach story.
1. Michael Cardew, Obituary for Bernard leach, Spectator 12th May 1979.
2. Letter from Bernard Leach to his grandson John, 1960, quoted in Whybrow, Marion, The Leach Legacy, St Ives Pottery and its influence, (Bristol, 1996), p6
3. Bernard Leach, Beyond East and West: Memoirs, Portraits & Essays, (London, 1978), p240.
4. Ibid, p156
5. Emmanuel Cooper, Bernard Leach Life and Work, (New Haven and London, 2003), p284
6. Leach Pottery website http://www.leachpottery.com/
7. Bernard Leach, A Potters Book (introductions by Yanagi Soetsu and Michael Cardew) (London 1940) Third edition 1975.
8. Leach Bernard, Beyond East and West: Memoirs Portraits and Essays, (London, 1978)
The Property of a Gentleman
The works were presented to the present owner by Janet Leach from Bernard Leach's apartment, Barnaloft on his death in 1979. They have since remained packed in an attic until 2012.
"A great work of art is as stable and inevitable as a mountain or a tree or any other work of nature. In it beauty is inseperable from utility".
Bernard Leach (1909)