Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada founded the Leach pottery in 1920 (www.leachpottery.com). It’s probably one of the most well known and influential studio potteries in the world, outlasting both it’s founders and spawning a whole network of Leach trained and apprenticed potters. As legacies go, it’s not a bad one.
I’m interested from two perspectives: firstly, the way that a community of learning was created around the pottery and, secondly, in the way that the pots themselves tell a story. The narrative of form.
Apprenticeships have a long and illustrious history in the craft world, where it can take many years to master an activity. I guess that whilst many apprenticeships focus primarily on functional skills, in a school like this, there is a strong aesthetic imperative too. Leach had a strong focus on simple, utilitarian forms as a rebellion against more refined ‘fine art’ pots. His designs and technical approach are heavily influenced by Japanese art and have an earthy, rugged feel. From the start, the Leach pottery was a place to go to learn, indeed, Leach himself seems to have left a strong legacy of community, organising conferences and actively teaching and travelling widely. I guess he lived at a time when international borders were retreating and travel was easier, but he certainly facilitated the creation of an international community.
This was a community not founded around the needs of food production or shelter, but around art and imagery, around form and design. It was an ideal as much as a technology, although it was based on the technology of the kiln and glazing.
The output of this community was pots and ideas, both of which spread throughout the UK and the world. Many potters in this part of the world today would cite Leach as an influence and, although the original pottery has now slipped from being alive and independent into being ‘a museum’, there are still potters active today who trained under Leach. The transition to ‘attraction’ status, to a museum, rather moves the original location from actively creating to actively preserving. It ceases to be a place for innovation and becomes instead a place for conservation. Nonetheless, it’s tendrils still reach out.
The narrative of form is an interesting way to chart what was learnt by this living community. As with any expressive art, it’s interesting how it writes it’s own history, in clay, as it goes. You can literally line up the pots and see how ideas have developed, influenced and eclipsed their forebears. And with clay, you can literally connect, at one degree of separation, from the original artist. Each pot is a frozen moment of ideas, creativity, technology and design. Each fluid and expressive instance is held in place for eternity, or until it’s broken and finds it’s way into the ground for the archaeologists of the future to piece together.
It’s slightly odd exploring the legacy of Leach. It feels like a shadow of a once active community, now slightly frozen in time. But nevertheless, it’s fascinating to explore the legacy, to see how the ideas have been perpetuated, how they have made the transition from rebellion to mainstream, how people today are evolving and developing them further. I guess this is the ultimate legacy in art: to be subsumed into the inspiration of future generations.