I went away scratching my head. Who exactly was Bernard Leach? If, like me, your sole acquaintance with modern ceramics is transvestite artist Grayson Perry’s winning of the Turner Prize in 2003 for some sexually explicit pots, announced on the six o’clock news, then you won’t know either. If on the other hand, you are steeped in British pottery and the various folk revival movements tracing their twisty paths back to the broad inspiration of William Morris (1834–1896; Exeter College, 1852), then you may well know all about him.
I had just spent a morning with Jim Keeling at his Whichford Pottery (pictured left) in Hook Norton, north of Oxford, one of the UK’s leading commercial potteries. Leach had periodically sprung into the conversation like a slightly unwelcome ghost, and as a major figure that Jim is trying to circumvent, one might guess, to find a new direction in ceramics.
Soon after I’d returned to London, and before I could even Wikipedia him, I ran headlong into Leach while reading a tourist manual on Kyoto.
Because Kyoto was home to Japan’s imperial court for a millennium, says the manual, ‘the local pottery has a light, decorative flair that reflects the tastes of the old aristocracy and is characterized by delicate painting in blue, red, yellow, and green on a white porcelain background, often accented with gold.’
This style is a Japan-equivalent of Meissen or Wedgewood. It’s the best. Or is it the worst? Aesthetically ‘beautiful’, it is also in another view corrupting, because placing aesthetics ahead of function, thus becoming gaudy or ‘dishonest’, reduced to the status, one can imagine, of an overpriced tourist knick-knack.
This other point of view is attributed to Kawai Kanjiro, founder of the Japanese ceramics folk movement in the 1930s, ‘and’, says the tourist manual, ‘his friends Yanagi Soetsu, Hamada Shoji, Kuroda Tatsuaki and Bernard Leach.’
The acknowledged ‘father of British studio pottery’, Bernard Leach (1887–1979) spent his early years in Japan, built a Japanese-style kiln at St Ives in 1920, and later returned to Japan. His English name might strike an odd note among Japanese contemporaries, but he was more at home there than he was in St Ives.
Leach advocated simple and utilitarian forms, and like Kanjiro his ‘ethical’ pots were distinguished from ‘fine art pots’. In a move which echoes the arrival of democracy, Leach, via Japan, was trying to return ceramics to its humble roots.
The problem with Leach, if there is one, is essentially an anthropological one. He was committed to reconciling East and West in a new merging of global folk, whereas with today’s chastened perspective we are more aware of our ignorance of different traditions, and yet also of their deep importance to cultural meaning.
Jim is the first to offer this. What exactly do we in the west understand about the Japanese tea ceremony for which most Japanese pottery is traditionally produced? Not as much as we once thought.
All this is by way of explaining how Oxford’s two artists-in-residence at Wytham Woods, Dr Robin Wilson and Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley, together with Wytham conservator Nigel Fisher, and Jim Keeling at Whichford, and several Japanese experts, who will be artists-in-residence at Lincoln College, are to build two Japanese-style anagama kilns at Wytham, the University’s research woodlands.
There is a five-year plan, a budget, and the objective of learning about what Robin describes as ‘meaning-making’, not by trying to merge distinct traditions, but by recreating one in order to inform the other.
At the end of five years, the pottery will be selling its wares to offset its costs.
To make it a success, Oxford has the blessing of Isezaki Jun, a so-called ‘national treasure’ and guardian of a local tradition of ceramics (in Bizen, a small city south-west of Kyoto) which is conceptually a million miles away from the highly finished imperial style.
This is also a way of explaining my shock when Jim shows me some Bizen pottery, which might be esteemed for not going the way of Kyoto, but which is heavy, dark and apparently pseudo-unfinished. The opposite of beautiful.
But as we go on, I begin to see the point.
The pots are placed very carefully in the hillside-sloping kiln and fired for as long as fourteen days. At the Oxford site in Wytham, two kilns, one to an ancient build spec with a body made of willow, and one of modern brick, will be fuelled by local wood.
The much-esteemed (and massively pricy) result of the greatest Japanese examples display weird fusions of material and colour, the result partly of fortuity — how the firebox has played across the surface of the material over a very long cooking process. In this manner the artist is handmaiden to a natural process, not a controlling demiurge.
The pot thickens! Look out for more in the Trinity print issue and don’t mention Bernard Leach.
Images by Richard Lofthouse.