Pioneering pottery sought unity of East and West
One hundred years ago, two potters—one English, the other Japanese—embarked upon a creative enterprise with the aim of uniting the art and traditions of East and West.
Bernard Leach was born in 1887 in Hong Kong and raised in Japan and Singapore. From his earliest years, he advocated the need for the East and West to meet and merge. His idealism and passionate concern for humanity, which found expression through his craft, were later strengthened and expanded as he embraced the Bahá’í Faith.
From its founding in 1920, the Leach Pottery, established by Leach with his friend Shoji Hamada in St. Ives, England, became one of the most significant and influential crafts workshops in the world. Its centenary is now being marked by a number of special exhibitions, including at the Crafts Study Centre—based at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham—and at the historic Whitechapel Gallery. At the Leach Pottery itself, a program of creative initiatives is also celebrating the anniversary.
“Leach would regard the pot as a kind of repository, not just of material but of ideas, of thoughts, of characteristics,” says Professor Simon Olding, Director of the Crafts Study Centre. “He deeply believed in the notion of hand, heart and head working together, and he could wed those to his own sense of spiritual and humanistic life.”
A synthesis of East and West
The young Leach studied drawing and printmaking in London, returning to Japan in 1908 with the intention of teaching etching. Some of his first works—showing his mastery of line drawing—are on display in Farnham, many of them from the collection of the late Alan Bell, a Bahá’í who worked for Leach in the 1970s. Bell’s archive, which was recently acquired by the Crafts Study Centre, includes many pieces that have never before been publicly displayed.
“The start of the exhibition relates his very earliest and unseen student drawings to his very early Japanese etchings,” says Prof. Olding. “It’s the first occasion where Leach is physically locating himself through that line in Japan, both in his self-portraits but also in his depiction of landscape. Japan is deeply set into his mind and his practice.”
In Japan, Leach became enthralled by the country’s ceramic traditions and devoted himself to learning the craft, evolving an approach that combined Eastern and old English techniques. Then, in 1920, he and Hamada accepted sponsorship to set up a pottery in St. Ives. But Cornwall’s lack of wood—essential for fueling the kilns—and its poor supply of local clay and natural materials for glazes, made it a less than promising environment for what they had set out to do. Persevering through many challenges and near-disasters, Leach and Hamada were convinced they were founding a new era for the artist-craftsman potter, reinstating the notion of truth to materials, and the beauty of simple design and subtle colors. Their belief in the synthesis of East and West was foundational to their approach.
“Leach introduced iconography from East Asian ceramics into his own work,” says Prof. Olding. “You can see that interplay between the UK and Japan both formally and informally.” Simple decorative motifs that Leach perfected for his pots included leaves, birds, and fish.
Belief and practice
The potter’s personal convictions were fortified by his discovery of the Bahá’í Faith—introduced to him by his friend, the American painter Mark Tobey—which Leach formally accepted in 1940. One of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings that particularly resonated with him was “…that the true worth of artists and craftsmen should be appreciated, for they advance the affairs of mankind.”
Leach had always believed that people using beautiful, handmade crafts could contribute significantly to the well-being of society. But, in time, he came to realize that attaining greater levels of unity was the only solution to meeting the larger challenges facing humanity. “I believe that Bahá’u’lláh was a Manifestation and that His work was to provide the spiritual foundation upon which the society of mankind could be established,” he wrote. His spiritual sensibilities were further stirred when in 1954 he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The experience of praying in the Bahá’í Shrines reinforced his feeling that he should step up his efforts to contribute to greater unity between East and West.
“Art, as we endeavor towards perfection, is one with religion, and this fact is better recognized in the East,” Leach wrote towards the end of his long life. “Our dualism commenced when we separated intellect and intuition, the head from the heart, and man from God.”
The importance of training was also central to the Leach Pottery’s practice. Students and apprentices were taken on from the surrounding area and overseas, creating a uniquely international environment. Rigorous workshop discipline was seen as the essential foundation for students’ future success as potters, as apprentices were tasked with repeatedly producing more than 100 standard designs, ranging from egg cups to large cooking pots.
“Leach,” notes Prof. Olding, “did not, in essence, move away from what he regarded as these founding principles and pots. These apprentices then established their own potteries, working in that same sort of idiom, seeing the small scale studio pottery as the means by which they could lead a hard but fulfilling creative and emotional life.”
An enduring legacy
The tradition Leach established dominated Western pottery for much of the twentieth century, attracting countless admirers around the world. At the Whitechapel Gallery, the contemporary German artist Kai Althoff has selected 45 of Leach’s pieces from major collections, for which he has designed special vitrines.
“Althoff is drawn to Bernard Leach’s work and his approach to making objects,” says curator Emily Butler. “He’s very interested in this synthesis of beauty and utility, how art and objects can be lived with and can be useful. Through the exhibition’s title, Kai Althoff goes with Bernard Leach, he’s saying I’d like my philosophy of work to be like Bernard Leach’s.”
Hamada died in 1978 and Leach the following year, aged 92, but visitors still travel from all over the world to St. Ives to see where these two potters founded a way of working that built an enduring friendship and understanding between cultures. To mark its centenary, the Leach Pottery had planned a year-long program of activities, much of which they have been forced to postpone or modify because of the pandemic.
“Leach Pottery has always demonstrated resilience against an ever-changing backdrop,” says its present Director Libby Buckley, “and has stood and survived the test of time, continually innovating and responding to challenges. And, in the determined spirit of our founders, this is how we continue to operate unabated.”
“We are sure people will continue to celebrate with us, learning from, honoring, and continuing the legacies of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada in fresh and exciting modern ways throughout this critical year for us, and well into the future.”