Tanya Harrod on Bernard Leach
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.