The leading British potter
of the twentieth century. He studied in the Far East
and brought back the technique
s of the best Oriental
styles of pottery
, integrating them with European traditions.
Born in Hong Kong in 1887, Bernard Howell Leach trained as an artist at the London School of Art. He learnt the art of etching under Frank Brangwyn and it was as an etcher that he returned to Japan in 1909, to teach the Japanese this art. He gave the first lectures there on etching, at a time when Japan was opening itself up to Western art and Japanese art was coming to be appreciated in the West. He often mentioned Augustus John, a figure more prominent then than now. Leach's own etchings languished in neglect during his lifetime.
Invited to a raku party, in which he clumsily imitated his hosts in making a few brushstrokes on a simple pot and seeing it fired within a couple of hours, as they talked, he was intrigued, and instead of teaching, he began to learn.
He stayed in Japan for eleven years, apprenticed to the great master of Raku, the Sixth Kenzan. Only he and another of Kenzan's pupils, K. Tomimoto, came out legally qualified as masters of Raku, and as Kenzan had no heir in his family, they jointly succeeded him as the Seventh Kenzan. Leach was the first Westerner to become a master potter of Japan.
Kenzan designed a kiln for him at Abiko, an artist's colony 40 km from Tokyo. Leach also visited China and Korea.
With the great Japanese potter Shoji Hamada, Leach returned to England in 1920 and founded his Leach Pottery at the seaside town of St Ives in Cornwall, which because of its extraordinarily beautiful light was an artists' colony. (It now houses a branch of the Tate Gallery.)
Here they developed their processes, learnt about the qualities of the local clays, and built up their philosophy of a fusion of the best of East and West. He believed in the work of individual artist (studio) potters and lamented the effect of industrialization, and how little input there was from artists in the work of mass producers.
Before him Chinese porcelain was mainly known by the more garish works of several centuries before, frequently imitated and in some cases incorporating Western motifs. Leach introduced the West to the highest perfection of Oriental ceramics: the simple, restrained works of the Song Dynasty and Tang Dynasty, the celadons of Korea, and the rough raku ware associated with the tea ceremony of Japan.
The key word in Japanese is shibui, meaning 'austere, astringent, subdued'. This is a word in ordinary use, and is a high compliment and criterion of beauty.
He was not famous at first, but success came with the 1940 publication of his A Potter's Book ("I dedicate this book to all potters."). I quote from the inside front cover, as a succinct description of what it's about. This book became such a standard that virtually every potter since will have a well-read copy.
This is the first treatise by a potter on the workshop traditions which have been handed down by Koreans and Japanese from the greatest period of Chinese ceramics in the Sung dynasty. It deals with four types of pottery, Japanese raku, English slipware, stoneware, and Oriental porcelain.
Bernard Leach had many apprentice
s, the greatest of whom was perhaps Michael Cardew
. Leach's first apprentice, William Marshall
assisted him in potting until 1972; Leach died in 1979. His wife Janet Leach
was also a significant potter, and ran the pottery on the road outside St Ives until her own death in 1999. There is now also a museum attached to it (a small ceramics museum, though the Tate inside the town also has many examples of Leach and Hamada work). A serious robbery took place several years ago.