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Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada

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Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada: British-Japanese Studio Potters

Samantha Harris
4th Apr 2017
By Samantha Harris

During the decanting of objects from the ‘cloisters’ gallery in preparation for the new display of our Egyptian and Greek collections, we have been documenting and photographing the Toys and Games, Ceramics, and Egyptian collections which were previously on display.

Two exciting, interlinked ceramic pieces, telling a fascinating story of cultural and artistic exchange, were recently documented during the process: a buff stoneware vase by potter Bernard Leach, and a buff stoneware jar by Leach’s contemporary, Shoji Hamada. Both pieces date from the 1920s in St Ives, Cornwall.

Who was Bernard Leach?

Leach, the British Studio potter and a great figure of 20th century art, had close links with Japan and Korea and was greatly inspired by their historic and contemporary ceramics. Born in Hong Kong in 1887, Leach spent his early years in Kyoto (Japan), Hong Kong, Singapore, and England.

Studying at the London School of Art in Kensington, he was able to pursue his passion in art, later returning to Japan between 1908-20 where he painted, etched, produced wood cuts, and designed art magazine covers. It was here that he was introduced to exciting pottery processes such as raku – and it was pivotal in his decision to follow a life in ceramics. He went on to study for two years with the Japanese artist-craftsman Urano Shigekichi, known by his title of Kenzan VI, learning ancient techniques of brushwork, throwing and firing.

Leach’s friend, Yanagi Soetsu, from the Shirakaba group (a literary group, translated as the ‘White Birch School’) , was also a Japanese philosopher and founder of the mingei movement promoting folk art and artisans including Leach. Yanagi ignited a fascination in Leach for Korean potteries, having visited them himself, and Leach returned to Japan in 1916 to build a pottery in Abiko (on Yanagi’s estate). Here, Leach developed his own style based on traditional Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English slipware. This mix of influences is visible in the Leach piece in our collection.

Significantly, it was around this time, and through Yanagi, that he met his lifelong friend and creative kindred spirit, Shoji Hamada.

In 1919, Leach’s pottery burnt down, but he was offered a kiln in Tokyo by Viscount Kuroda, and continued to produce raku, stoneware and porcelain with the help of professional potters. After a successful exhibition and a book published in his honour – ‘An English Artist in Japan’ – Leach travelled to England with Hamada in the summer 1920.

Moving to St Ives

Leach and Hamada set up a pottery in St Ives, England, with a wood-fired climbing kiln and raku kiln, novel for the UK, and both began producing pieces there from 1921. These included decorated earthenware dishes, slip decorated pieces, lead-glazed tableware, and raku. Initially the process was problematic with only 10-15% being successful.

This figure gradually improved as experience of the firing process increased and experimentation took place with new materials and integration of old skills, along with the arrival of a technician, Matsubayashi, from Japan, who rebuilt the kiln itself. However, Hamada returned to Japan in 1923, and the pieces in the museum collection date from this experimental period from 1921-23 at the St Ives kilns.

The first firing of the new kiln was in May 1924, and a community of artists rapidly built up around the pottery. Even today, it remains a well-known name in Studio Pottery. Leach himself is known as the father of British Studio Pottery and published a number of works throughout the rest of his life, his best known being ‘A Potter’s Book’ in 1940. He went on to work in St Ives and Dartington, as well as attending international lecture tours. He remained close friends with Hamada after the Second World War, both undertaking a lecture tour in the USA in 1953, along with Yanagi Soetsu who had created a circle of artist-craftsmen around the Mingei movement.

The ceramics in the Maidstone Museum collection show an interesting collaboration and link between the European and Japanese ceramics collection, and an insight into two of the early collaborators in contemporary studio ceramics.