Covid and Christmas gave me the chance to catch up on reading and after Fiona MacCarthy’s life of William Morris, I’ve finally got round to Emmanuel Cooper’s biography, Bernard Leach: Life and Work.
As a man with no doubts about his own importance, Leach (1887-1979) left a large archive, which makes the work of the biographer easy, though Cooper may have been blessed with too much material and remains too close to the sources. In contrast to Leach, Dora Billington, another major studio potter of the period, left nothing. As Leach dominated the pottery studio world, so she dominated pottery in the art schools. She was in a better position to leave an archive than he was. He was peripatetic, had an emotionally turbulent life and was always in search of funds; she remained at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and lived in the same house with one companion for thirty years. The absence of a Billington archive suggests that her papers were destroyed, probably on her instructions.
Leach’s first wife, Muriel, said that no man was ever more in need of a religion than he was. Pottery was a religion for him. He thought that Beauty was to be found in the Absolute. Industry had no soul and bad pottery was “dead”. He could never accept that his work was simply a style that he preferred: he had to believe that it reflected a universal, unvariable and absolute standard that all pottery should measure up to, and damn it if it didn’t. He was brought up a Catholic and was educated by Jesuits. When doubts crept in, he became a follower of a charlatan called Alfred Westharp, who combined polygamy with the Montessori method of education. Westharp conveniently persuaded Leach that his discontent with monogamy was spiritually significant and that he would never develop as an artist if he didn’t follow his sexual urges.
Later, under the influence of Mark Tobey, Leach adopted the Baha’i faith. His employees at the pottery had to attend daily prayer meetings. He stood on a soap box in St Ives harbour to preach on the evils of modern life, which, by the 1950s, included not only industry but also cinema, chewing gum and Music While You Work.
Leach’s mission was to bring together East and West. In Japan he sold pottery based on the English vernacular tradition and he introduced Japanese potters to the clay handle instead of the traditional bamboo handle. He and his colleagues, Soetsu Yanagi and Shoji Hamada, encouraged a Japanese reading of Ruskin and Morris. But as he was so opposed to the values of the West it’s hard to see what he brought to the East – unlike, for example, Charlotte Perriand, whose design was inspired by Japan but who remained a significant Western designer.
Leach made successful tours of the United States, which challenged him because he couldn’t understand a country with diverse traditions and a love of innovation. Cooper is frank about his aloofness and dogmatism in America, but for all that he was often open to new experiences in the arts, society and nature. Most remarkable was his warm response to the designers Charles and Ray Eames, who, despite their collection of folk art, represented the antithesis of Leach’s values. He wanted to produce a small number of things for a discerning élite: their objective, in their memorable phrase, was getting the best to the greatest number of people for the least.
There’s nothing surprising about a man developing odd ideas but it is suprising that Leach’s odd ideas gained so much traction. He and Hamada irrupted from Japan into England in 1920 and worked in disregard of other art potters. There were broadly speaking three groups: Leach and his small band; the late followers of the Arts and Crafts movement, like Alfred and Louise Powell; and the figurative potters like Charles Vyse and Gwendolen Parnell, who were untouched by Orientalism, had little interest in the vernacular and didn’t share Leach’s aesthetic of simplicity, modesty and utility.
Leach’s style was slow to catch on. Some, like the Marxist Henry Bergen and William Slater, the managing director of the Dartington Trust, were unafraid to interrogate his vague ideas, but after the war there was an avalanche of interest. That is partly explained by Leach’s unshakable self-confidence, his talent for publicity and A Potter’s Book, but there have been many confident self-publicists without a following. Murray Fieldhouse, an enthusiastic follower, I think explained it. He told me that after the war a lot of people were looking for a new way of life and that the crafts seemed to offer it. He and several others who went for this way of life were pacifists like Leach. The Leach idea of a small pottery in the country, in the shadow of the atom bomb, away from the rat race, seemed to fit the bill. If oriental religion could be added to the mix, so much the better.