LEACH, Bernard

Bernard Leach  (British-1887-1978)

Bernard Leach, potter, writer, printmaker. Leach was born in Singapore and lived there & Japan in his early years until he was sent to Boarding School in Britain. Leach left school at 16 having excelled only in drawing and enrolled at The Slade School of Art, London. Before his father’s death in 1904, Leach promised to seek a career in the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC). In 1906 he took up position as a junior bank clerk in the HSBC in London. However, he soon became disillusioned with banking and resigned. Leach travelled to Dorset and North Wales to draw and paint. At 21 he inherited a modest income so enrolled at The London School of Art in Kensington where he was taught etching by Frank Brangwyn who was an inspiration to Leach.

Leach decided to return to Japan with the intention of teaching the Japanese etching. Muriel, his cousin, joined him in Tokyo where they married. Leach painted, etched, produced wood cuts and designs for art magazine covers. Muriel taught English. David Andrew was born in 1911 and in this year Leach and a Japanese friend Tomimoto Kenkichi were invited to a raku party. He was enthralled by the firing process and he decided to follow the path of ceramics. He was recommended and then studied with Urano Shigekichi , known by his title of Kenzan VI, for two days a week for two years. He learnt throwing, brushwork decoration in the ancient style and different firing methods. He then set up a pottery in his garden and started to produce work to exhibit. Leach had successful exhibitions in 1914 and published his first booklet, A Review 1909-1914. This booklet was issued to accompany the exhibition. Leach briefly lived in China but returned to Japan in 1916. A year later he set up a pottery on Yanagi’s estate in Abiko. He developed his own style based on traditional Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English slipware. It was around this time that he met Hamada Shoji who became his soul mate. Unfortunately in 1919 his pottery burnt to the ground. Viscount Kuroda – an artist trained in France – offered Leach a kiln in Tokyo with the help and assistance of professional potters so he could continue producing raku, stoneware and porcelain. He had a successful exhibition of his work and a small book An English Artist in Japan was produced by his friends to mark his impending departure from Japan. In the summer of 1920 Leach with Hamada set sail for England.

Edgar Skinner, a friend of Leach’s father, introduced him to the St. Ives Guild of Handicrafts which was supported by local wealthy philanthropist called Frances Horne. She gave him a capital loan of £2500 to set up his pottery with Hamada. A site at the top of the Stennack was found, to build the pottery and the first climbing kiln and raku kiln. Bricks were used from the old dynamite works at Hayle. Hamada used iron barrel staves for arch support. In 1921Leach and Hamada produce individual pieces of stoneware in the three-chamber, wood-burning climbing kiln. In the round, up-draught kiln they were making decorated earthenware dishes, slip decorated, lead-glazed tableware and raku. The early firings were not successful as neither of them had much experience of controlled firing. Only 10 to 15% of the early pots were successful. It was also difficult to find a good clay body. They found earthen ware clay near St. Erth and obtained stoneware from Dorset and Ball clay from Devon. They burnt bracken for wood ash glazes and experimented widely adapting new materials and rediscovering old skills. .In 1923 Hamada returned to Japan as he was concerned about his family following the disaster of the Kanto earthquake. In the same year Michael Cardew joined the pottery. Leach continued to experiment with many forms and techniques. They exhibited with no success initially but Leach joined many societies and groups and continued to exhibit. Matsubayashi – an excellent technician – arrived in St. Ives from Japan and was so appalled with the kiln he pulled it down and rebuilt it. The first firing in the new kiln was in May 1924, during which, there was a ceremonial offering of salt. Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie joined the pottery as a paying student for one year along with Norah Braden. Although many others joined the pottery there were serious financial problems. . However, the pottery continued in financial difficulties so ‘shares’ were issued.

Michael Cardew left St. Ives in 1926 to set up his own pottery in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. In 1928 Leach published: The Potter’s Outlook, Handworkers’ Pamphlet No 3, (New Handworkers’ Gallery) Leach was invited  to Dartington in 1932 to set up a pottery and also to teach. It was at Dartington that Leach met Mark Tobey – an American artist – who introduced him to the Bahá’í faith. Whilst Leach was at Dartington and on a lecture tour of Japan he left Harry Davis in charge at St. Ives. On his return from Japan Leach informed Muriel that their marriage was over. In 1935, he and Laurie Cookes settled in Dartington and built his pottery. In 1938 David Leach returned to St Ives after studying pottery management for two/three years in Stoke-on- Trent. He initiated a wide range of changes. These included electricity, machinery and oil to fire the kiln which shortened the firing time by 20/25%. Leach Standard Ware was then produced in stoneware. There was now a permanent team that included William (Bill) Marshall who joined at age 14 and had a major influence on the pottery. In 1940 Faber and Faber published: A Potter’s Book and Leach joined the Bahá’í faith. David Leach was called up in 1941 and Leach returned to pottery and lived in Pottery Cottage

After the Second World War David Leach was made a partner in the pottery and consolidated the team with well-trained apprentices. The first catalogue of Standard Ware was issued in 1946.In the early 1950s Leach toured extensively in Scandinavia, USA and Japan. Meanwhile he passed the running of the pottery on to David. During his lecture tour of the USA – in 1953 – with Yanagi and Hamada, Leach met Janet Darnell – a young American potter. A year later they became intimate and planned to marry and live in Japan. However this was not to be and they returned to St. Ives. Muriel died in 1955 and in 1956 Leach divorced Laurie and married Janet who then took over the running of the pottery.

All through the sixties Bernard travelled on many lecture tours and published more of his writings. He published ‘A Potter in Japan’. In 1961;  The Arts Council of Britain held a retrospective exhibition ‘Fifty Years a Potter; . He received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1962; In Japan he was awarded Order of the Sacred Treasure 2nd Class; in 1968 Leach was bestowed the rare honour of Freedom of the Borough of St Ives by the Town Council.

In the mid-seventies, a sudden and dramatic loss of sight brought his potting days to an end. In 1978 Shoji Hamada died in Japan, Leach died a year later and was buried in St.Ives.

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