As 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the iconic Leach Pottery, the historic gallery, studio and pottery looks to alternative ideas to ensure the celebrations are not missed.

Entering into the new year and the team at Leach Pottery were excited for what lay ahead – a year of activities, special exhibitions, collaborations, and commemorative events that would pay homage to an incredible milestone in Cornish and British pottery.

Of course, following the Covid-19 pandemic, much of the planned activity has had to be postponed, but the Leach team have been doing what they can so that the pottery and its current array of talented potters can still celebrate this significant centenary.

At the heart and forefront of Leach’s provenance and subsequent prestige is its founders, Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada, who created a working studio in the heart of St Ives in the 20th century during the beginning of what would become its renowned artistic community, of which Leach and Hamada would go on to take pioneering roles in craftsmanship.

Originally an old cow/tin ore shed, the 19th century buildings were transformed into a pottery with the addition of adjoined and separate cottages added by Leach over the subsequent years. Leach himself was born in Hong Kong in 1887, his mother, Eleanor, sadly dying in childbirth. For the first three years of his life, he lived in Kyoto, Japan with his father, Andrew Leach, until moving back to Hong Kong in 1890 when his father remarried. Leach would go on to spend some time in Singapore when his father was appointed as a judge there.

Leach’s journey and association to Cornwall first began when he was brought to England by his Great Uncle Granville, to attend school in Old Windsor. Leach left school at aged 16, his achievements lying only in drawing, elocution and cricket. A young man, he enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art, but found himself departing early when his father became gravely ill, in November 1904, Andrew Leach died of liver cancer.

Leach moved to Manchester at 18, with hopes of entering the world of finances in Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (HSBC), and began to study for the bank entrance examination, staying with an uncle and aunt in the process. It was there Leach met and fell for his cousin, Muriel. The relationship was forbidden and after taking up a junior bank clerk job in London at HSBC, Leach soon became disenchanted with the idea of a career in finances. When he turned 21, he used his inheritance to enrol at the London School of Art in Kensington, where he studied etching. During his time there, he became interested in Japan and Japanese culture as well as also rekindling his romance with Muriel in 1908. In 1909, Leach returned to Japan and was soon joined by Muriel in Tokyo, where they were married shortly after.

It wasn’t until 1911 when he was around the age of 24 that he was first introduced to ceramics at a Raku-yaki pottery party. Taken from the Leach Pottery archives, Leach was said to have been utterly consumed with a new passion to learn ceramics,

“By this to me a miracle, I was carried away to a new world. Enthralled, I was on the spot seized with the desire to take up the craft.”

Enamoured by the skill and processes, Leach began tutoring under Urano Shigekichi, a renowed Japanese potter known by his title of Kenzan VI, a 6th generation Kenzan who inspired Leach’s passion for Japanese ceramics. Leach spent two days a week for two years studying under Kenzan VI, learning ancient and traditional ceramic skills.

As Leach rose in the ranks of Japan’s ceramic colony, he welcomed two sons with Muriel, his second born in 1913. However, by 1914 Leach had become frustrated with Japan and its growing westernisation and would go on to spend over a year in Peking, China, under the influence of Prussian writer Dr Alfred Westharp. The move caused tensions between Leach and Muriel, especially when his first daughter Eleanor was born in 1915. Leach returned to Japan that Christmas, but soon after he was back in China, this time with his family in tow. The arrival of Leach’s family caused friction between he and Westharp. Eventually, it was friend and fellow potter Yanagi Soetsu, part of the potter group called Shirakaba and today regarded as the founder of Japan’s folk craft (mingei) movement, who visited Leach and persuaded him to return to Japan in 1916. As Leach began to explore cultural styles and processes throughout pottery globally, he found his passion for the craft reignited and a sense of purpose for where he wished to take his work.

During one of Bernard Leach’s ceramic art exhibitions in Tokyo, a young Shoji Hamada, a fellow Japanese potter born in Kawasaki, was impressed by Leach’s skill and wrote to him with the hope of an introduction. By then, it was 1919 and Bernard Leach had grown significantly in his ceramic skills and when the two met, they soon formed a good friendship. Shortly after, Leach was gifted a kiln from Kenzan VI, which he built in the garden of Yanagi Soetsu.

Bernard Leach

Following the completion of the kiln, Bernard Leach was invited by Frances Horne to return to England. Horne, a wealthy philanthropist based in Carbis Bay, was in the process of establishing a guild of craftspeople within the already existing and competitive art colony of St Ives and on recommendation, invited Leach to become the potter within this group, providing him with a capital loan of £25000 to set up his pottery. Leach, his wife Muriel and Shoji Hamada journeyed together to St Ives, Cornwall, where they identified a suitable site next to the Stennack River, where they could establish a pottery, Hamada was promised a payment of £250 a year for three years. They originally constructed a Japanese type kiln, the first ever of its kind to be built in the west, but it was a poor construction and was rebuilt in 1923. The road to building adequate kilns, and achieving successful ceramics, was long and arduous, sourcing material from across the South West and experimenting with materials for Raku. By 1922, Leach was now a father of five, Muriel having welcomed twin daughters Ruth Jessamine and Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Massey in 1920, living in Count House in Carbis Bay.

Shoji Hamada

After three years establishing the pottery, Shoji Hamada returned to Japan in 1923, largely due to the Kanto earthquake disaster and his desire to look after his family. Hamada would go on to spend much of his life in Mashiko, which he turned into a world-renowned pottery destination and committed himself to using only locally sourced materials. Championing young potters and artists who moved to Mashiko to learn, Hamada also established the town as a popular destination for tourism, housing and hosting workshops for visiting potters from across the world.

Leach would go on to see further difficulties with the pottery, but by 1924 with a new kiln the first firings were much more successful and promising. Leach started to welcome students, such as Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie and Norah Braden. A community started to grow, although finances were still a problem after the initial hardships of the pottery’s establishing years. However, Leach’s presence and charm saw him gain worldly and wealthy friends, such as American social activist and publisher Dorothy Payne Whitney Elmhirst, who had come to reside at Dartington Hall in Devon. Leach’s association with Dorothy would be vital for the St Ives pottery, as Dorothy’s wealth vastly helped with the development. Shares of the pottery were issued out in 1928 and Leach went on to publish several works on the craft. As the pottery began to grow both in prestige and profit, Leach continued to welcome young potters and students. In 1930, he hired Laurie Cookes as a shop assistant and secretary, the two would go on to have an affair.

In 1934 Leach embarked on a trip with American painter Mark Tobey across France and Italy, sailing from Naples to Hong Kong and Shanghai where Leach then journeyed solo back to Japan. Upon his return, Leach left Muriel for Laurie, buying a caravan and touring England with her in 1935, where after they would go on to settle in Dartington Hall to build Leach’s new pottery. Here, Leach would begin his most renowned published work to date, A Potter’s Book. In 1938, David Leach returned to St Ives after studying pottery management, and re-hauled the Leach Pottery for a newer, more modern age, bringing in electricity, machinery and oil to fire the kiln. A permanent team had established at the pottery by now and when David Leach was called to service in World War Two in 1941, Bernard Leach would return to run the pottery. In 1944, he officially separated and divorced Muriel, marrying Laurie Cookes shortly after. The two went on to adopt an evacuee infant, Maurice, who Laurie had taken care of during the war. David Leach returned from his service in 1945 and was made a partner of the pottery.

Today, Leach is regarded largely as the ‘Father of Studio Pottery’, his life history and notable career published in dozens of works and his legacy in ceramics honoured worldwide. Bringing western and eastern arts and philosophies together through his pottery, Leach combined many traditional methods from Korean, Japanese and Chinese with new technical processes seen in England and Germany. Leach would go on to extensively tour Scandinavia, the USA and Japan whilst David took over the reins of the St Ives pottery. A USA tour of 1953 would reunite Leach with Yanagi and Shoji Hamada and would also introduce him to his third wife, Janet Darnell, a young American potter. A year after their initial meeting, Janet and Leach became an item. Despite plans to marry and live in Japan, the two returned as in 1955, Muriel sadly passed away. In 1956, Leach and Laurie divorced and he married Janet, who would go on to take over the running of the pottery.

Until 1972, Leach continued to produce work, at which point he began to lose his eyesight. Even then, Leach continued his worldly travels and became known for his artistic globalism. Throughout the sixties, he visited Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Venezuela, Columbia, Honduras and many return trips to Japan and the USA. In Japan he was awarded Order of the Sacred Treasure 2nd Class, the highest honour given to a non-national, he would also go on to be awarded Companion of Honour from The Japan Foundation, the equivalent of a nobel prize, on his last ever visit to Japan in 1974. He received a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1962 and in 1968 was bestowed the honour of Freedom of the Borough of St Ives by the Town Council alongside Barbara Hepworth, he was also honoured with a second Retrospective exhibition at the V&A Museum in 1977, his 90th birthday year. On May 6th 1979, aged 92, Leach died at St Michael’s Hospital in Hayle following a heart attack in April, he was buried in Longstone Cemetery in Carbis Bay.

Following Bernard’s death, Janet Leach redirected the pottery to focus on her own individual pots, bequeathing the pottery to Mary Redgrave in 1997 following her death. Redgrave continued to run the pottery until her own death, after which the pottery was sold to a private buyer before its eventual acquirement by Penwith District Council as part of the Leach Restoration Project. On completion the Leach Pottery was handed over to the Bernard Leach Trust, a registered charity set up to manage the Leach Pottery and maintain its important history and heritage of those who founded and established it.

The Leach Pottery and Museum has become a centre piece for the history and heritage of pottery in England as well as a place where the pioneering craftsman, his friends and fellow potters are consistently honoured. A working pottery, new, innovative ceramicists still teach, train and develop their skills under the Leach roof, surrounded by many of his pieces and his works that have lasted the decades. 

Leach Pottery’s exclusive 100 Year Limited Edition Yunomi Range, designed and created this year, has now launched, this new range features a selection of functional and beautiful tableware, such as bowls and plates. Each design will be limited to only 100 pieces, every object is completely unique, and will be released in batches over the coming months.

Libby Buckley, Leach Pottery Director, said, “Leach Pottery has always demonstrated resilience against an ever-changing backdrop, 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.

“As a result, we are celebrating Leach 100 in different capacities, and already we are seeing the opportunities to drive the awareness, impacts and involved numbers in some of our programme elements even further, which is extremely encouraging. We are sure people will continue to celebrate with us, learning from, honouring, 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. I would very much like to take this opportunity to thank all at Arts Council England, Garfield Weston, Saskawa, Art Fund, Cornwall Council and at St Ives Town Council, Andrew Mitchell and the Community Chest fund as well as the Sylvia Waddilove Trust for providing ongoing support and encouragement for our now ‘pivoted’ 100 programme. I also wish to extend that thanks to all of the volunteers, team members, customers, supporters, partners and followers who are also coming with us on this amended journey.”

For more detailed information about the Leach Pottery, Leach 100 or any of the above elements, please visit: www.leachpottery.com or email office@leachpottery.com.

Image credits:

1. Image of Bernard Leach working at the wheel and applying decoration to a stoneware pot with a hakeme twig brush at St Ives in 1963. Kindly provided by the Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts, BHL/7095. Copyright the British Travel & Holidays Association Photographic Unit, Queens Square 64-68, St James St. London 

2. Image of the Leach Pottery kindly provided by the Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts, BHL/9000. Copyright Cornel Lucas Studio, Chelsea 

3. Image of Shoji Hamada demonstrating throwing in 1953 kindly provided by the Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts BHL/13300