Bernard Leach was the best known of British studio potters. He set up the Leach Pottery in St Ives in 1920.
He was the son of a colonial Judge, and was born in Hong Kong in 1887. His maternal grandparents had been missionaries in Japan. His mother died soon after he was born and he lived until the age of 4 with his grandparents before going back to his father. At the age of 10 he was sent to England to go to school. By 1903 he was able to persuade his father to allow him to study at the Slade School of Art. His father died in 1904, and Bernard went into the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, but opted out of banking in 1906 to enroll in the London School of Art.
He went to Japan and began potting under the direction of Shigekichi Urano (Kenzan VI). He had a house and studio built to the north of Tokyo and started to learn Japanese. He married his cousin Muriel Hoyle, and they had two children, David in 1911 and Michael in 1913. Leach's sons, David and Michael later learnt their craft at the Leach Pottery in St Ives, before becoming part of the production and management team there. They had 5 children by the time they divorced in the 1940's.
In Japan he became friends with a young potter named Shoji Hamada. Hamada later went to St Ives with Bernard Leach, and together they set up the Leach Pottery at St. Ives, Cornwall in 1920, using a traditional Japanese wood burning kiln. Hamada later returned to Japan in 1928, but frequently visited St Ives.
In their work they focused on traditional Korean, Japanese and Chinese pottery, using traditional European techniques from England and Germany, like slipware and salt glaze ware. They saw pottery as a combination of art, philosophy, design and craft.
Many at first considered their pottery crude. Publishing A Potter's Book in 1940 became his turning point in gaining recognition for his work.
In the late 1920's Leach was a member of the St. Ives Society of Artists and in 1949 the Penwith Society of Arts was formed with Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Bernard Leach among its members.
In 1927 Bernard was invited to transfer his pottery to Dartington where Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst were establishing a centre for rural arts and crafts, and in 1932 Leach set up a small pottery there. He left the pottery in St. Ives in the hands of Harry Davis.
In 1954, during a lecture tour of America, Leach met sculptor and potter Janet Darnell and in 1956 she travelled to England to marry him. She was his 3rd wife.
In 1962 Bernard was awarded a CBE to mark his fifty years as a potter, in 1968 he received the Freedom of the Borough of St. Ives along with Hepworth and Nicholson for their services to the town.
In 1974 Bernard gave up potting and with failing eyesight moved to a flat overlooking Porthmeor where he continued his writing.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London held a major exhibition of his art in 1977.
Throughout his life Leach travelled extensively, passing on his knowledge to hundreds of potters around the world. Bernard Leach died in 1979 at the age of 92.
The pottery continued to remain open under the direction of Bernard's wife, Janet Leach. After her death in 1999 it was bought by businessman Alan Gillam, owner of the Western Hotel in St Ives. Trevor Corser and Joanna Wason were the main potters. The Pottery Cottage, next to the pottery, is now open as a museum, showing many examples of work of the potters who have been part of the Bernard Leach story.
The Leach Pottery The Leach Pottery can be visited.
Books about Bernard Leach
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