Ceramic Points of View: 'Cup and Saucer', by Bernard Leach
'Ceramics Points of View' is the result of a collaboration between The National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts and the V&A. A range of people were asked for their responses to the same ten objects from the V&A's 20th century ceramics collection.
On this page you can discover the six people's responses to 'Teacup and saucer', made around 1924 by Bernard Howell Leach (1897-1979). Simply choose one of the people below to see their response.
Here the work of Bernard Leach is critiqued by Alison Britton, Neil Brownsword, Emmanuel Cooper, Claire Curneen, Tanya Harrod and Oliver Watson in the following videos.
AB: Well it's a very sweet little object, very homely and unassuming and very early, soon after he got here isn't it?
[video clip starts] What's surprising about it is that it's earthenware, I suppose, and we think of Bernard Leach's major works all being in stoneware. This looks well used. It's rather strangely balanced, the saucer being, I think, perhaps a bit small, and the pattern doesn't even follow. The pattern he's got on the cup is not the same as it is on the saucer. I'm warm to it for its completely unpretentious enthusiasm for folk tradition, but it's not his best work, is it? It's something very, very modest and touching, in a way. But not spectacular, not inspiring. [video clip ends]
AB: You know it's thick at the bottom here.
MP: I suppose at that stage in his career he wasn't as adept as he was later?
AB: No, although there's a piece that the V&A bought before that, that was made in Japan [and] that's very sleek, so maybe he helped to make it rather than made it, but we don't know that. But no, it's a very early acquisition and it's possibly from the first exhibition they had, [him] and Hamada in 1923, or something like that. Is that what David said?
MP: Yes, the latest it could have been [acquired] is 1924, I think.
AB: Yes. I like its roots in the slipware tradition and everything, so it's fascinating rather than stunning, I think.
NB: I suppose the obvious thing that strikes me immediately is, looking at it from a purist point of view - I'm not a purist by the way - I suppose it's [the] lack of proportion. And I suppose it's just [that] these things were made by these icons of studio pottery, [and] when you see them actually in the flesh, you think today, in the cabinet, would you walk past them? Do they have an impact? Do they have a relevance today? And people making this kind of stuff, how do they manage to survive with the kind of industrial products ... again you've got these cups and saucers that you can get from Ikea for about 75p or a pound. Who's going to pay £50 for a cup and saucer? I don't know.
Speaking from a personal perspective, now I drink from an Ikea cup and saucer. But I suppose handling something, again it's like handling a piece of archaeology. You trace the marks of the maker, the flow of the clay from the the making technique. But as an object it doesn't really have any resonance to me or strike any chords really. I'll probably be damned by all the sandal brigade now, won't I?
MP: I suppose it's a period of studio pottery when they were seen as pioneers.
MP: There wasn't much advice about how to do these things.
NB: [video clip starts] I suppose what strikes me, as a relevance as the struggle they went through to do what they wanted to do. The years of being near bankrupt to finally achieve something. But just the dogmatic approach to this is how things should be done, I think has stifled ... There could have been a generation of makers which just hopped onto this bandwagon, but could have pushed or had some kind of individuality away from this kind of Leach towards a standard thing. [video clip ends] I've never read 'A Potter's Book'. I'm only familiar with Leach from lectures [by] Mick Casson, who was a tutor at Cardiff at the time. And I suppose that's the only connection I have with these things is remembering Mick's lectures, which I think I've still got on some audio cassettes from when I was a student. Some badly taped lectures, but they were fascinating to skip through a thousand years of pottery within an hour. But no, sorry Bernard.
EC: Yes. At the moment I am writing a biography of Bernard Leach so I'm very alert to and aware of Bernard Leach's pots. The first thing that strikes me about this cup and saucer is that they're not a pair. They're actually from two different periods. The cup is far too big for the saucer and although there's a superficial resemblance in terms of the way that the decoration has been put on, in fact this decoration is quite different. This is a sort of flowing fish or tadpole with a little dot underneath, and this has no dots underneath. So really they should be displayed quite separately. And these were from the period in Leach's making when he actually was making these pots. When he came back from Japan he set up the pottery at St Ives, of course, and then he for some years was the only person making the pots there, whereas in Japan he'd had various helpers, and he later had helpers. But at that point he was making everything.
So the point about these two is that they actually were made by Leach. And although one isn't immediately convinced that they are absolutely, perfectly, wonderfully made, there is a strong sense of form that dominates them and the way that the decoration does relate to the actual shape itself. I think it's a pity that the two are placed together, because it's rather silly - you know the saucer is actually quite a nice little saucer for a smaller cup, and the cup is a nice generous cup which needs a bigger saucer. But in terms of the difference, this is a very much paler firing. It's probably slightly lower. It's interesting that you can see on it where the glaze has been worn away and it suggests that somebody did buy it and did actually use it, which is nice to think that it's gone through a lot of use. Bit chipped round the edge. The body is quite hard fired using clay which they got from St Ives or near St Ives.
And this is altogether a different, it's not a different body, it's probably very similar, but the glaze is much darker. It's got much more iron in it, it's much more gold and you can see how gold that is compared to this. But that's also because it's got a white slip underneath, and you can see the white slip coming from here to here which gives this an extraordinary richness and it takes you right back to medieval pottery and ceramics, where the incorporation of the red clay and the white slip created a very attractive effect. Some people think it's a bit treacly but I actually find it very nice.
The other thing is of course that the cup itself is full of little bits of stone and the firings were very, very crude. His kiln was very crude at that point. It was a round, updraft kiln. Lots of bits of grit from the wood often fell into the pot and there they were. So you don't know quite how much use this got. And the handle is also quite interesting. [video clip starts] He didn't know how to make handles. He'd never learned how to make handles. They didn't have handles in Japan at that time. And so his handles were very, very poor and he went to a local pottery, Lakes Pottery in Truro, and this is where he learnt to make handles. And then they started to get better. And it's interesting that today you would say that handles should never come from the top of the rim, they ought to be slightly below it, but he put it from the top and it does work. And when you think that you can actually get your finger in that, it's quite a functional design. And again this is a very rich source of decoration around here. Leach always had a very odd attitude to whether or not he wanted to make functional pots or whether he wanted to make individual pots. [video clip ends] He was, after a very long time, confused, I think, as to whether or not he saw himself as fulfilling a functional need or whether he saw himself as an artist making individual pots. And this is from the period when he was consciously himself making both sorts of things. And in a very unthought out way in terms of whether he saw himself as an artist or whether he saw himself as an artisan.
MP: From a technical point of view, what does this say about Bernard Leach, do you think?
EC: Technically they're fine. They're not wonderfully made, but I actually quite like chunky pots. I prefer chunky pots to a skinny pot on the whole. It's a bit heavy, you know it's not wonderfully made, but the saucer is very competent. There's nothing wrong with that saucer. It's very well balanced, you know with a small cup you've got a little thing here where you can put your spoon. As long as you put that on it the two become silly really, which is a pity. But it gives you some idea of the sort of ware that he was making alongside the individual pieces at a time that he was trying to make a living, trying to think, 'Well how can I actually make this pottery viable?' But that is a pity that that doesn't go together.
CC: God it's very, very old, isn't it? Yes. It's very elegant, because I'm not a great Leachian person really, and [I'd] expect it to be much heavier and a bit more cumbersome. But it has a wonderful form in the way it sits and the way the handle just slightly overcomes the saucer. And as well as it being quite elegant and delicate, which seems special and sophisticated, it's incredibly humble as well. And also in the treatment of the glaze. There's some wonderful flashing there.
[video clip starts] The decoration's quite interesting in its freshness. There's something very... it lifts the whole piece. It really gives it that sense of energy, something moving, the way it follows the line of the saucer, you can also follow the line of the thrown form. I really quite like this. I thought I wouldn't, but it's that traditional honey glaze which is quite lovely. I started to use honey glaze a few years ago, [with] one of my figures in the hand just dripping glaze, and it's very seductive. I love the way it actually sits on the slip and turns that white slip into something very warm. [video clip ends]
MP: By the time you were a student, did Leach have any effect on your education?
CC: Leach wasn't very much taught actually to me in college, because I think it was very much that New Ceramics time. We were taught [about him], having to attend lectures, hence I tended to fall asleep I think at that stage because I did find it quite dull. It's only in recent years that I've actually started to... Obviously, he is the Godfather of Ceramics as far as the... But I always found his prints far more interesting than his actual play work. I thought they were a lot more sensitive. But in seeing this, this is a very different kind of thing. And I think being able to handle it has... It's quite lovely really. I think his later work doesn't really move me. I find it a little bit heavy and a bit conservative. When I think of some of his early [work], obviously this being an earlier one seems to be a lot more full of life. I think it's less conscious, less famous. And I don't think you can say anything else about it really.
TH: Well, it's a modest little object to represent the leading person who's pretty much seen to be the founder of studio pottery in Britain. And it raises all kinds of questions about the problems that Bernard Leach faced when he returned from Japan in 1920 and set up his pottery at St Ives. That's what it says to me, it says problems. You can see how chipped it is. Obviously it was bought, I imagine, from someone who'd used it, which is nice. It somehow gives it context. In fact it would be nice to know more about that. But one of the problems with earthenware, of course, is that it's very soft, and round the edge of this little saucer it's chipped all the way around.
I'd be interested to know the date exactly, because this is the moment when Leach, having set up a pottery in St Ives with the help of Hamada and another Japanese technician, Matsubayashi... round about this moment they depart for Japan leaving him to grapple with all kinds of technical problems. So this may stand as evidence of that rather difficult period in his life. It doesn't, to my mind, show the great man at his best. This little shape was a tea cup shape he started making in Japan, and I'm not quite sure of its origin. I mean, it's quite elegant in a way. But his real and extraordinary gift for decorating in slip doesn't really come over here. It's a rather timid little pattern. I think the motive for making this kind of work was to support the making of Fine Art pieces, and I think he did see himself very much as an artist at this stage and he was perhaps beginning to feel disappointed about the lack of understanding of ceramics as a species of Fine Art in Britain, as opposed to the situation in Japan.
[video clip starts] And it's odd to think of him all the way down in Cornwall, in a town where the other art practice of that date was fairly conservative seascapes, fisher boys sitting in nets, and [him] making these curious objects that are odd hybrids based on the English slipware tradition, but perhaps [with] a bit of a Delft shape, I don't know. Made in a kind of artistic void at that point and possibly bought just by trippers, these little functional pieces. Obviously he was beginning to have shows in London galleries and beginning to become aware that there were other people who shared his interests in ceramics as an art form. [video clip ends]
MP: Do you think they go together?
TH: I'm not even sure of that really. I guess we've had them separate. I'm not completely sure about that? Whether he perhaps wasn't a natural designer of functional wares, or whether, perhaps, there was a little coffee cup here and these were just cannibalised? I don't know. It does make you realise the extreme importance of David Leach as a technician and helper, and it helps you understand why eventually, when the Leach pottery started producing what they called standard ware, which was largely designed just before and during the Second World War, why they opted for stoneware because of this problem of chipping.
MP: Leach's tends to be known more for stoneware I suppose than earthenware. Do you think there's a tendency to think of Cardew as the person who took on the slipware tradition, but actually Cardew was working at St Ives at this period wasn't he? So ...
TH: Yes, that's right.
MP: I wonder how much they were bouncing ideas off each other?
TH: Yes, that's true, I'd forgotten about Cardew being there. And certainly we know that Cardew showed him his father's collection of slipware. But almost from the moment they arrived, Hamada and Leach, when they arrived at St Ives, they did take a real interest in slipware. And when he did make larger pieces, his extraordinary, lively skill as a draughtsman, a really original draughtsman, is given space which it isn't on this little object. At that date, I think he can decorate pots much more effectively than Cardew. The fact that Cardew hadn't gone to art school is quite obvious in his early work, the work he made after he left the Leach pottery and went to Winchcombe. So this, I think, has got to stand for a difficult period, a period that was going to get more difficult for Leach as he sought to position himself in this rather uncertain world of British studio ceramics operating as some kind of art form.
OW: Yes, it's rather a funny thing to start with really, because it's not the sort of thing of Bernard's we would have bought at that time, and in fact we didn't buy it at that time. This came to us much later from somebody who'd bought it from him from St Ives. [video clip starts] Red earthenware, lead glaze, slip painted. It's an example of the indigenous tradition that Bernard Leach came back to rediscover after he'd spent his ten years in Japan. It's rather a modest example and I suppose that's part of its interest, just being a cup and saucer, because at that time he wasn't really wanting to do domestic wares, earning his money by making tea sets and things, and he used to complain about that in his writings. What he really wanted to do were the stonewares which were the real essence, the real ceramics that he'd been learning about in Japan. He did the big slipware dishes for a few years which are very grand, dramatic things, and I think he even got a bit bored of those, because those were very successful in Japan. [video clip ends] The sort of thing that Yanagi said about them being born not made.. and after the first few years you felt he went back and had to do a few more to send back to Japan for sales to satisfy customers out there. But I always feel he never really got on that well with earthenware, he didn't particularly warm to it. It was more a notional thing about having to rediscover British roots.
What else to say about it? [It] shows all the disadvantages of earthenware, [it's] chipped around the rim [and] stained. In some of these blackened and matt areas it shows the defects that he had in his kiln at that time. [It was] very difficult to control, particularly for the earthenwares. The wear on the saucer shows the general dangerousness of this kind of thing, you can see the glaze coming off and poisoning you. But it's got some of that rich colouring that they look to. Of course, what's interesting in this is that you know all of Leach's coming back to rediscover the old traditions, those old traditions actually still happening, and if he wanted he could have gone around the country and found old country potteries still making earthenwares in a traditional manner. The one visit we do know of is recorded with a famous photograph with Hamada at Lakes Pottery where he learned the pulling of a handle, which was the great thing he went on to teach the rest of the world and Japan and so forth. But actually he wasn't really very interested. He didn't set out to go and find what was still left of old traditions and preserve them in any way. He was an artist craftsman who came in. What he wanted was the spirit of it rather than the actuality.
MP: What do you think of it technically?
OW: Well, difficult bloke Bernard, I've worked on him quite a lot. I suppose he did make this himself, if one can judge by the brushwork of something so simple, he did this. It's not actually got his personal mark on it, it's only got the St Ives stamp. It could well be by him. Of course, even at this time there is the popular notion that he was completely trained as a master potter in Japan and came back to practise his craft. Of course he wasn't, he was an amateur dilettante with a group of amateur dilettantes in Japan and struggling. You can see other parallels in the Arts and Crafts movement and other earlier studio potters in Britain. They didn't want to be professionals because that was trade, that was working class stuff and it would somehow undermine the artistic endeavour they were doing if they were associated with that. He actually wasn't a very good thrower. You don't see it so much in this piece, this is fine. I think tutors these days would like to complain a bit about the thinness of the rim, and the slip decoration's very, very simple. Not perhaps his best piece of slipware to judge him on, but interesting enough. And the other issue, of course, is who bought these? It certainly wasn't the same market as the country potteries who had been supplying this before. This in fact was bought by a nice lady in St Ives supporting the local artist.