Emmanuel Cooper on Bernard Leach
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.