Two Hakama Bottles by Gary C. Hatcher: Contact Studio for Purchase
A Conversation with David Leach by Gary C. Hatcher, Ceramics Monthly
In 1976 my wife Daphne Roehr Hatcher and I traveled to Devon, England where we began three years of apprenticeship training. We worked first for Bernard Leach’s younger son, Michael and then later for David, Bernard’s oldest son. After almost three year’s apprenticeship, two with Michael and David and one in studios in France and then in Greece, we returned to establish our studio in east Texas.
Over the last 17 years that we have maintained Pine Mills Pottery in northeast Texas, David Leach has visited us three times conducting workshops at our home and studio. Upon David’s visit in 1992 he said that this would be the last of his workshop trips to the States for he was at that time 82. He agreed to sit down with Daphne and I and do a question-and-answer session which lasted for most of a day. The following is taken from those taped conversations.
David speaks from a unique perspective on the world of pottery. Having worked as a full time potter for more than 65 years he has seen and done much. He worked closely with his father for the first 25 years of his career at the St. Ives Pottery in Cornwall. During that time he played a critical role in the survival and economic success of the St. Ives Pottery. David was relied upon to implement Bernard’s vision, to train apprentices and insure the economic viability of the St. Ives Pottery.
David’s significance as a teacher and role model to potters throughout the world can not be questioned. He trained many people at St. Ives and at Lowerdown Pottery. Throughout his life he has given generously of his time by helping students and studio potters and serving through many councils and associations. He has served as visiting lecturer at many universities and colleges of art in Britain, America and the Continent. Traveling extensively since 1978, he has done workshops in Italy, Spain, Canada, Venezuela, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Norway and Germany.
Gary: David, eighty people have just enjoyed your workshop here at our studio. You say that this may be your last visit to the States. Could we ask a few questions so that other people might be able to understand more about you and your work?
David: Certainly, fire away.
Gary: When did you first start coming over to the United States to lecture and give workshops?
David: Shortly after you and Daphne apprenticed with me in 1978. I have traveled all over the States since then, coming over every year doing seventy or eighty workshops in the course of that time. This has given me a fair insight into ceramics in the United States. This visit to your studio is the final visit for me to the States as I am getting on and will be eighty-one on my next birthday. This has been a shorter visit, with only two workshops: one at George Washington University and the other with you at Pine Mills Pottery and I will be leaving for England tomorrow.
Gary: David, what was it like in the early days working with your father at the St. Ives Pottery in Cornwall?
David: Well, as you know the St. Ives Pottery was started by my father and Hamada in 1920 when they both came over from Japan and of course I was only a young boy then, nine or ten years old. When I had finished schooling in 1930 I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do but I was becoming aware of what my father was about. So I went to my father at the end of my school days and said I would like to join you if I could be of some help. I started working in the pottery then in 1930.
If you are asking what it was like, well it was of course very different than it is now for we were very much aware that we were pioneers. There were few art schools interested in ceramics. There were no pottery suppliers and the home of ceramic knowledge was of course in the industry and that knowledge was applied to industrial production and had little to do with the studio potter. If you can envisage that background and envisage what I would call technical ignorance compared to what most students of ceramics have today.
When I joined the pottery at the age of 18 there were other people working there other than my father and I who were students, making up a team of four or five people. My father was doing what was called "individual stoneware" fired in a big three-chambered Japanese-style kiln which we fired two or three times a year. His best work was going up to London exhibitions on Bond Street to Pattersons Gallery and other well know places.
The others at the pottery were engaged in making repetitive functional slipware using galena glazes on a red earthenware body with slip decoration. Sometimes with just plain slip, others with sgraffito decoration. We were in those early years learning the craft. The students were usually advanced students who had come from places like The Royal College of Art in London, who had come down to learn about ceramics. These students rarely stayed more than a year and then new people would come and go and come and go.
I soon discovered that in order to build up a high standard of work at the workshop, it was not satisfactory to base that work on people who were going to be there for less than a year. So I went to my father and suggested that we staff the pottery with local people who had no artistic pretension but who wanted to come as apprentices over five years. These apprentices could really learn the craft, making the quality of work produced much higher at the pottery.
Gary: David, did you train anywhere else before you established your own pottery?
David: Well, yes I did, but perhaps I should say some more about why I originally began working for my father at the age of 18. This was brought about because entry into Edinburgh University was what both of my parents wanted for me because until then I had not shown much interest in pottery. Well the problem was that in those days to go to college you had to get a grant or scholarship, exhibition as it was called, or your parents had to be wealthy. Well, since I did not have the brains and my father did not have the money, the university was ruled out.
Also at about that time I was developing an intuitive awareness of what my father was about. At that age I could not reason it out but I had an instinctive gut feeling that my father was doing something very important and unique and I wanted to be part of it. It was not that I had great ideas about making pots myself at that point, but I wanted to help and support the work of my father. My father was surprised that I wanted to work in the pottery but delighted and welcomed me with open arms. I have never looked back.
Gary: Did your father encourage you to go and work somewhere else for awhile?
David: No, no he did not, this is an interesting thing. You see in about 1933 there came the possibility of starting a pottery at Dartington Hall in a large way, but still making functional stoneware or porcelain. It was my feeling that the technical knowledge that this project required was much more than either myself or my father had. Also at that time my father and his good friend, Mark Toby, had been invited by Dr. Yanagi in Japan to return to Japan after an absence of 14 years. My father accepted the invitation and returned to Japan with Mark Toby. This left a vacuum at Dartington where he had been working planning the early stages of this project. So in my father’s place, I was asked to come out to Dartington. This I did, doing a certain amount of experimentation, teaching and planning for this project, all the while attaining greater technical knowledge. At this time I heard about a technical course at the North Stafford Technical College in Stoke-on-Trent, a course designed to train pottery managers for industry. I said to myself this is where you can get the technical know-how that you need to be successful at studio pottery.
Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst decided that I should be sent up to Stoke-on-Trent and they would pay for my tuition there. All this was done without my fathers knowledge who was then away in Japan with Mark Toby. After my father got word of this he wrote a rather hot letter back to the Elmhirsts saying, "What is this I hear about David going off to Stoke-on-Trent, home of the industrial devil, to get a technical training? Why don’t you send him off to Japan where he will get a bit of direction, inspiration and conviction."
By the time the letter arrived, I was at Stoke-on-Trent well involved in my training and wanted to continue even if my father did not approve. I went on with the course which was a total technical and scientific training. We spent all our time making test clays and test glazes which were much more related to industry than making a pot. I did acquire a lot of knowledge and confidence which had been lacking. And then the time came to return to Dartington Hall and put it all to practice.
In the mean time the political atmosphere had changed in the country for we had all been scared by Hitler. No one knew if Hitler was going to come across the Channel and start something and no one wanted to start anything like a studio pottery. So we all decided that his was not the time to start a pottery at Dartington.
By that time my father had returned to St. Ives from Japan. Harry Davis was working there, where he had been in mine and my father’s absence. Harry helped a great deal in keeping the pottery at St. Ives going while we were away.
Gary: So this is really the time you came back and took over the management of the pottery?
David: Well let me just continue a little bit for there are some other important events that happened at that time I should tell you about. In the period between 1937 and 1941 I was running the pottery when my father was not there. At this time we were taking in local boys and training them up as apprentices. In 1938 William Marshall began working at the pottery straight from secondary modern school. Many other apprentices followed him and it was my responsibility to train them up.
This was also an experimental time when we made the change from the slipware we had been making to stoneware because we felt that this was more in keeping with the project we were planning at Dartington. We wanted to make a hard impervious ware rather than something porous like earthenware.
Gary: So at that time stoneware was not being produced anywhere in Britain by craft potters?
David: Hardly anyone was making stoneware. Staite Murray at the Royal College of Art was producing stoneware with students but only individual art-type pieces. Stoneware was an unusual thing in Britain at that time.
So there I was, trying with this bunch of apprentices to make a range of stoneware pottery with quite a lot of experimentation trying to get the body, glazes and kilns right. I was responsible for all of that. This continued quite happily. We began to produce ware, sell ware and had agents all over the place.
Gary: Was it difficult to sell pots at that time in England?
David: It was difficult to sell pots at that time in England. I remember going off in 1937 or 1938 to sell pots through the use of samples in a couple of big revelation cases in a battered old car. Traveling up all over the country as far as Scotland trying to contact craft shops or others who would buy pottery. It was very difficult selling indeed. I remember on one occasion phoning up from Newcastle-on-Tyne which was way up in the northeast of England to Harry Davis and Laurie Cooks who were working at the pottery saying, "I have an order for five pounds from a shop, they want it in three weeks, get cracking!" And five pounds at that time was quite a lot, I would say over a hundred pounds today and seemed a very reasonable order. And that was after traveling around England for a week with my box of samples and picking up hardly any orders at all. Well, this is indicative of the type of reception that hand crafted pottery had at that time in England.
Gary: I suppose that selling only got more difficult as World war II approached?
David: Well you see there were a few other potteries beginning to start up. But everyone foresaw the coming of the war and things closing down but for some reason, we didn’t. I really do not think our sales were adversely affected although it was already difficult enough at that time. The fact that there were few other potteries going at that time did manage to help.
In September of 1939 I was still at the pottery and was given an exemption from immediate war service because I was running the pottery, but that only lasted until September of 1941. My father was living at Dartington and had remarried. When I had to go into service it was obvious that my father would have to come back in order for the place to continue. So my father came back to the pottery about September 1941 with Laurie Cooks, his wife, and managed by hook or crook to keep the pottery going despite the fact that we had a land mine fall on the pottery on January 25th, 1941 that blew the roof off the pottery and the cottage next door. This brought things to a halt for about six months. We needed labor to help reconstruct what had been damaged. Also many people were being called up for war service, to work in munitions factories and we could not manage to get any work done in the pottery at that time. But we did manage to keep the place going. Most of that time I was away on war service until 1945. During the time I was away there were various people who went down and worked for my father. Patrick Harron, the well known painter and art critic, my sisters husband, Dick Kendall, worked there for a period and various other people who had been exempted from war service for one reason or another.
Well finally the war ended and I came back in December of 1945, immediately went back to work for my father and made a partnership. From that period onward the pottery really began to progress. When the war ended and we had managed to keep the pottery going throughout the war we were virtually the only ones in England making hand made craft pottery. Well-known London stores, Heal’s, Liberty’s, John Lewis and stores like those approached us, saying "Can we have your work We can sell anything you can make. We can not get any pottery from Stoke-on-Trent, for it’s all going over to the United States. We have shelves that are empty and we will take anything you can make." Well, we looked at each other and said what a change from 1938 when I drove all over the country trying to make a sale. But we realized that this was very nice for the moment, but it may not last and we should not put all our eggs in one basket. We did not want to be in a position were one of these large stores would take everything we could make and then drop us when they could get more industrial pottery. So what we did was give them a portion of our work, but not everything. It was a time when demand far exceeded supply and there was pressure on us which meant that we had to increase staff with apprentices and the students which still came on a shorter term. At any one time we would have eight or nine working at the pottery in one capacity or another. Of course they were not all potters, some of them were secretaries, people who worked preparing the clay and did the packing off for us. Due to this time of success in the pottery my father had more time to do his own work, although my father never really took a very active part in the repetitive production other than keeping an eye on it and to provide ideas for it, but really the interpretation of his ideas and the carrying out of these ideas was left up to me. I would make the initial prototypes with my father and if they were found to be successful they would be passed on to whoever could throw them. This way we kept the kilns going.
Gary: So, did your father work in a studio separate from that of you and the apprentices?
David: Yes, after the war we made an extension to the pottery which downstairs was a clay-making room and then upstairs above it was a studio where my father did his personal work. He would work in his studio in the mornings and then we would all meet for morning break at about eleven o’clock and he would look around the pottery and talk to different people doing the work and have a word with me and so forth. And so the work downstairs was a team, with my father upstairs doing his individual pieces which basically went off for exhibitions and were not very much to do with the general production.
Gary: David, could you tell us something about the apprentices and students who worked at St. Ives.
David: Well yes, going back to the beginning my father and Hamada started the pottery. Hamada was there until 1923. I, as a young boy, would come in and have a go at making pots and there was Hamada and he would help me make models and little elementary pots. I did have quite a connection with Hamada, which started much earlier when our family had come over on the ship from Japan together which took six weeks. Of course I was born in Japan in 1911 and was nine years old when we came by ship from Japan to England in 1920.
On this six-week voyage I remember Hamada in particular when we were crossing the Indian Ocean. You see they had set up a canvas-lined swimming pool on the deck of the boat about 15 foot across, five or six foot deep, and Hamada encouraged me to have a go. I could not swim and although he did not actually push me in he did give me a nudge and I sort of floundered into the water and swam this 15 foot with Hamada at the other end encouraging me and ready to plunge in and pick me out if I started to sink. I remember this experience with Hamada vividly as my initiation into swimming. Now this has little to do with pottery, but he did help me again when we were at St. Ives to swim, so I will always remember Hamada as the one who gave me my initiation into swimming. Hamada was a very kind man and I remember him as having very many good qualities. He lived in the pottery while he was at St. Ives.
Gary: What do you remember about Michael Cardew, David?
David: ‘Long about 1923 he came to the pottery from Oxford where he had been going to school and was a Classics scholar. He wanted to come and see my father to see if he would accept him as a student. I remember him first coming to the pottery on a Sunday afternoon and my father was not there but two miles away at Carbis Bay. Cardew met with Hamada and Hamada said, "Well, well. If you want to see Bernard Leach, walk across the field for two miles and there you will find him at Carbis Bay." So then Michael Cardew arrived at our house about tea time and we all joined in for tea around a large table. My father and this young fellow had a very spirited conversation and Cardew told him he was very keen to come work for him at the pottery. My father put various basic questions to him with the rest of the family more or less silent listening to this conversation. I could see my father getting more and more interested with this young fellow who was a very handsome and lively character. Finally he agreed to have him as a student. So that was the beginning with Michael Cardew who remained there three years until 1926. Michael was really my father’s first English student. Then Cardew went off to Winchcomb and continued the pottery that already existed there. Most people know something about Cardew because he became an internationally-known potter.
Daphne: David, who were some of the women who worked at the pottery while you were there?
David: Yes. Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie worked in the pottery in 1924. Also Nora Braden, a friend of Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, worked with us about that time. Nora came from a training at the Royal College of Art and Katherine from the Central School of Art. And subsequently they became well-known potters. Also, May Scott, as she was known then, came and worked and later married Harry Davis. May and Harry later set up potteries in England and then in New Zealand. Another female student was Gwen Hanson from Australia. She now has a pottery in Australia and does some very fine functional work. At that time she was Gwen John and then married Lewie Hanson who was also a potter.
Very early on a woman named Muriel Bell from Canada worked at St. Ives about the time I first joined the pottery. She went on to set up a pottery. Then just after Muriel Bell came Charlotte Epton who latter married Edward Bordon, the war artist. Neither of these women were there very long.
Then later about 1948 Dianna Dunn, who married Richard Batterham, worked at the pottery. She was a good potter although she did not do much pottery after she married Richard because you see they had a very big family. So Richard is the one we all know.
Certainly there are many who I have forgotten that came after my leaving St. Ives in 1955. It was really Janet’s idea that more American students should be brought over for a two year period. Janet was my fathers third wife who was from Texas, that he met in Japan.
So there were many, many people to come through the pottery from all over the world. Students from Japan like Atsuya Hamada, Hamada’s son, who spent a year working for my father and another potter from Tamba. So there were many students.
Then ‘long about 1933 Harry Davis came and already was a very skilled potter and arrived because he was attracted to my father’s ideas and writings about pottery. Harry had been simply a thrower who had worked at a touristy, gifty sort of place near Bournemouth. Harry and I became great friends, for he was near my age and also very skilled. I learned many skills related to throwing from Harry Davis because he was a very quick, accurate thrower. He knew much about kilns and was tremendously practical. He was as much an engineer as he was a potter. Later on he invented many things like de-airing pug mills and things of the sort. Harry influenced me in the area of skills perhaps more than any other individual. Harry left the pottery in 1938 and finally went off to Nigeria.
There were other students who came including Warren and Alex MacKenzie in about 1951 for a little over a year and became very good friends with my father. While they were there they made a film of the pottery which has been copied and viewed very widely. This film showed my father at work, kiln firing and others working. After returning to Minnesota, Warren became nationally known, being a big influence on many of his college students.
And certainly there were many, many students who came and went who did not become so well known but set up potteries in many parts of the world. So in the years between 1945 and 1955 when I left the pottery there were very many students who came through the pottery.
Gary: So, David, you left St. Ives in 1955 and then set up Lowerdown Pottery near Bovey Tracey in Devon?
David: Yes, I did leave St. Ives in 1955, but perhaps I should say a little bit about why I left St. Ives because you see it was unexpected. What had been happening was that I was running the pottery with all these people to take care of and I was not developing as a potter in my own right because there was too much to do otherwise. When I was younger my initial motivation was not to consider myself as a potter, which was a strange motivation for everyone else who came to the pottery to study wanted to be potters. What I originally wanted was to be of help to my father in some practical sort of way. But you see my father was getting old, he was thinking of the future of the pottery and there I had been for twenty or more years being trained as it were.
Well, ‘long about 1950 my father was sending out notices that he thought his future was going to be in Japan and he was handing the pottery over to me and that the future of the pottery lay in my hands. He had indicated to me that the future development of the pottery lay with me in what ever direction I wanted to take it.
At that I time, even though I felt myself competent in all the technical ways, I felt a bit inadequate in the sort of creative way that my father was. My father expected me to just take over with the same creative drive that he had. In the early 1950s I began to question whether or not I wanted to just take over the pottery with out having a period of time out on my own away from his very strong influence so that I could find my own feet. You see I felt that to run the pottery I had to develop further than I had so far done. I could not see that development happening in this very influential, stable environment.
Daphne: How old were you then?
David: Well, I was born in 1911 and left the pottery in 1955, so I suppose I was about 45.
Daphne: And you were married and had a family at this point?
David: Yes I was married to my dear wife Elizabeth and had two sons at that point, Johnny and Jeremy.
Daphne: So it must have been hard for you to leave a stable environment with your family?
David: Yes, but you see I had this growing conviction that I must get away because what I had intended to do in the first instance at that pottery, that is to be a help to my father, had been accomplished. Here was the pottery on firm ground, my father was doing many
things outside the pottery, becoming increasingly well known, going back and forth to Japan and other countries. So the pottery had reached a point that was stable and economically viable so if I wanted to do anything on my own, this was the time to make the change.
There were other factors that led to my leaving the pottery. We had never had a home of our own. My mother had died in 1955 and left us a little bit of money which gave us a little more freedom. And Elizabeth and I both shared the feeling that it would be good for us to get away. So I had to break it to my father that he could not count on me for the future of the pottery as he had anticipated. So I left in December of 1955.
I had discovered this place in Bovey Tracey which I had really investigated on my brother Michael’s behalf. Michael turned it down and there it was available for purchase and with the small savings we had and my small inheritance from my mother we bought it.
Also, I must say that there was a little misunderstanding between my father and myself. But I think he realized something then that he had overlooked. He was presuming that I had the same creative ability that he had making it possible to carry the pottery forward in the same way he would. This was a false assessment on his part and I am actually surprised that he had overlooked it. But after I left I think he did realize that it was very necessary for me to leave in order to develop creatively. So fortunately this was a quickly healed misunderstanding.
I want you to know that the relationship between me and my father was an extremely good one. A very intimate one. He shared all the problems of his life and I shared all the problems of my life in a way that seldom does take place between father and son. The relationship was on a very sound footing.
In 1956 my father returned from Japan. There is another aspect to my leaving that I feel I must mention. You see, my father had left for Japan saying that the pottery was mine to run with plans to live in Japan with his wife Janet, who he had married in England in 1956. When he arrived in Japan he decided not to begin working in Japan but to return to England with Janet and work again at St. Ives. Well, I understood that Janet was to take an active role in the running of the pottery and I did not see how it would be possible for the three of us to run the pottery. I got cold feet about this plan and it was yet another reason why I felt I must leave. I think this aspect needed to be mentioned.
Gary: David, people think of you as a porcelain potter but when Daphne and I were working for you I saw some very fine examples of earthen slipware that you had made when you first started Lowerdown Pottery.
David: Yes, now let’s go on to the point where I established myself at Bovey Tracey with most of my money spent. You know about that, I think, having established your own pottery. It became necessary for me to get active with production for I had no money. Since I had not built a stoneware kiln and was dependent on electric kilns, I decided to make electric-fired earthenware fired at about cone one. This was a red clay, slip trailed on with lead based glazes. Mostly yellows and browns and greens with a gray sgraffito decorated tin glazed ware. My intention was to do this for a couple of years until we got the stoneware kiln built and began making stoneware. I never intended to continue very long making this slipware but you see it became very popular and I allowed it to go on for five years instead of two and the result was that I postponed the building of my stoneware kiln until about 1961. When the kiln was built I began making stoneware very much like we had done at St. Ives years earlier.
Electric kiln earthenware did not have the quality that I had become used to. I was never really very happy with this process for you see I wanted the qualities you get from reduction fired stoneware. On the other hand there were certain shapes that I made in earthenware, specifically hump-molded dishes, that I did like very much and the public liked very much. Believe it or not, people still ask me when I am going to make some more earthenware and I have from time to time. So there are certain aspects, like the fluidity and degree of uncontrolled qualities in sliptrailed work I like, the qualities that are very characteristic of the pre-industrial English slipware. The Toft dishes and the Sam Simpson dishes, all those things.
Gary: So you liked many of the qualities you got from slipware?
David: Well, I look for fluidity used in a lively manner. One is always pursuing this idea of life in ones work. I look for life in pots, vitality, strength and honesty. I think the slip trailing technique lends itself to that quite well. It’s a loose technique which you have to do quickly with its liquid flowing around and behaving. It’s a technique that I like and could do more of.
There is a potter, Clive Bowen, who is my brother Michael’s son-in-law, who is a very good slipware potter and his work is very popular. So I do not think that slipware is on the way out simply because it’s in the lower temperature range. There is a lot of raku being made and that is a low-fire fragile pottery.
Daphne: When you set up your pottery a Bovey Tracey you obviously had to make choices which were based to some extent on economics. Could you talk some about balancing creative desires with economics, raising a family and aesthetics?
David: Yes, I do not want to suggest that those first four or five years making slipware was more economically viable to do than making stoneware. It might have been quicker to set in motion but not more economic to make. You see when we moved to Bovey Tracy there was an awful lot to be done not only establishing the pottery but establishing my family in this house, so some of the pottery activity tended to get postponed. A venture as large as building a stoneware kiln had to wait until other priorities had been met so therefore we had to do something that was rather easy and quick to make. This is why we started making this electric fired slipware.
As far as economics are concerned and the supporting of ones family is concerned, well this is a matter of a willingness to work hard and all sorts of hours, certainly to get the place going. One needs a good level of skill so you can make pots confidently and quickly. You need to be able to use time practically and intelligently. I think it requires an intelligent investigation of the market, and it requires a quality of work that has a sufficient individuality in its making and design to attract people. I feel very firmly that as long as one is doing a distinctive well-made thing with a modest degree of publicity that the world will beat a path to your door. I believed this. I acted on it and the world did beat a path to my door. People came to my showroom and bought on the spot or from the shops and galleries that I supplied.
Gary: But David, you did have a very good foundation of training and experience.
David: A very good point. Yes I did have a foundation and therefore my experience can not be taken as an example for everyone for I had advantages that most beginning potters do not have. The fact that I had my father and had worked already for 25 years with him did make a difference. I knew by my experience the level of intensity and level of skills necessary to succeed. I also had a good knowledge of the market and many other things which were invaluable to me. Those are things that a student does not necessarily have behind him. I am and I was in a privileged position.
But you see my training and experiences were not enough in themselves to insure my success. I have been very involved in education, traveling, lectures, workshops, exhibitions here and oversees. All of these things have been additional to the basics of a pottery which supplies a livelihood. Many things have contributed to my more than 65 years of making pottery full-time. I can say that over those 65 years of potting through many ups and downs in the economy I have always been able to achieve profitability.
How much of this is attributable to having Bernard Leach for my father and spending 25 years at the Leach pottery at St. Ives and how much is not a result of that is impossible to actually measure. I must say that I do feel that it is still very possible for a young person to establish a pottery today and get a livelihood from it.
Gary: Maybe it would be a good point for you to speak some about the training and education of a potter. You have had scores of apprentices at the Leach Pottery and at Lowerdown. You have been involved with art schools. You were advisor to the Dartington Pottery Workshop established, I believe, in 1974. Could you speak about apprenticeships and the future of educating and training potters?
David: Well. I think it boils down to one question. Is the best education for a potter in a workshop or in a four or five year program in an art school somewhere? Well, there is very little doubt in my mind that the best education for someone wanting to make a viable living is in the workshop. But the question really is when you work in someone else’s workshop, can you develop the creative qualities necessary to make your work distinctive? What you may learn in someone else’s workshop are skills, economy and how to make pots but the problem is you may end up as just an imitator of the person you trained and learned from. Being an imitator can provide a livelihood for a potter but you will not get much individual recognition or gallery exhibitions.
The art school system is supposed to develop you as a creative individual. And out of the art school system you are supposed to be able to go out and start a distinctive ceramic activity which has innovative personal qualities in it. Much of this is a false supposition in my opinion. There are a great many people with an art school training who have fallen by the wayside because the training in the art school may develop in you creative sensibilities and awareness but often times does not train you to apply those. This is a failure in the system whether it is in England or the United States. Far to many art schools are turning out far too many people who may experience a happy four or five years in school. When they leave they do not know how to employ their creativity to get a livelihood. It is a failure of administrators to recognize this and quite honestly must be described as wasteful.
Gary: So what you are saying is that both an art school and a workshop training have definite advantages and definite disadvantages.
Gary: I can speak from my own experience coming from an art school training and then coming to work for you: we had the best of both worlds. Would you advise someone to train in both an art school and a workshop as we did?
David: Yes. I have had many parents and teachers who have come to me and said their child or student has shown great promise in ceramics in school. Do you advise them to go on to an art school or try to get in as an apprentice with a potter? This is a hard question to answer and varies with the individual. In some ways I am tempted to send them first to an art school and then to go on to a pottery apprenticeship afterwards if the person is really going to devote his life to making a living with his work. But even this approach is questionable.
I think the young student leaving school and going into an art school at the age of 18 until 22 or 23 often does not get the discipline needed. The student is often allowed to float around experimenting with different things.
Daphne: David, most people today think of porcelain when they hear the name David Leach. When did you first develop an interest in working with translucent porcelain?
David: Well, I think my interest was first aroused very early on. I have always admired the porcelains of Sung Dynasty China long about the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This work has a quality in ceramics that I can easily and directly appreciate. This appreciation has been with me almost from the beginning, since I was eighteen or nineteen.
As far as making porcelain is concerned, I really did not do anything about it until I went to Stoke-on-Trent which was in 1934. And although it was not part of the course that I was taking, I did do some independent experimentation into porcelain. I had actually had some correspondence with Hamada about some of the plastic Japanese china clays. You see the first thing that confronts one about porcelain is the lack of plasticity. In 1934 the porcelain used by industry was pressed or cast and did not require the degree of plasticity that a potter requires. I was interested in thrown porcelain, translucent and white. So I needed a kaolin that I could use and started experiments during my time at Stoke-on-Trent and this continued when I returned to St. Ives. Most all the work was done with stoneware but I was conducting experiments.
Just after the war we had a fellow named Edwin Burke, who was the chief chemist of the Portland Cement Company, who was an amateur potter and a good chemist. He helped me develop a porcelain body doing such things as introducing me to the many types of bentonite. Mr. Burke would come down to the pottery at St. Ives and talk to us. I continued to develop this body and it was eventually made and marketed under my name by Pottery Crafts of Stoke-on-Trent who I gave the recipe to. Many others of course have taken this up and developed variations on this body. Most of the porcelain used today stems from that original body that I made.
As far as my own making of pots from porcelain goes, well, since 1960 I have continually increased the percentage of my work done in porcelain. Now I would say porcelain consumes forty percent of my making and sixty percent is stoneware.
Gary: David you have seen many changes in ceramics in your 65 years as a potter. Could you tell us now what you see for the future of ceramics in Britain.
David: This is quite a difficult question. What I see in British ceramics is not distinctive from what I see with ceramics in other countries like America. All countries are faced with the same sort of problems and trends. I think that many of the traditional concepts of functional ceramics are giving way to more individualist fine art types of expression. This does not mean in my book that there is not a place for well designed, well made, hand made functional ware. There will always be a place for that. Industry can not take the place of the characteristics of hand making. So there will always be a desire from people to have things that are not stereotyped and made by industry in large numbers. The future of hand made pottery does depend on the excellence of its design and making and the personal stamp of the individual who made it.
But the trend has to be recognized towards fine art. Whether the reasons for this are the same in other countries as I suspect they are in Britain, I do not know. You see if most of the people being trained are coming out of art schools and not workshops, they are being influence by art schools. Most art schools give a multi-disciplined training where you have departments that deal with drawing, painting, sculpture and design on the one hand and then craft departments such as ceramics, jewelry and weaving on the other.
There generally is a feeling among students and staff that the most innovative work is being done in the first area I mentioned. Now if this concept prevails we inevitably get that the fine art people are at the top and the craft people are lower down the scale. It is thought that those who want to express imagination go towards fine arts, those wanting to develop skills go towards the crafts.
If this produces a feeling of inferiority among craft people then they begin to desire a climb towards the fine arts. So the problem as far as I can see starts in the education system. The people who bypass colleges and go straight into a studio are not troubled with that feeling of inferiority and often make the grade very well. They first learn the skills and then they grow away from their mentors and people who have taught them in the workshops and express their own style of working.
Going back to your question about what the future holds. I think it is inevitable that as industrial design in ceramics improves, much of people’s requirements will come from there. But people who buy industrial made ceramics have different sensibilities and desires than those who seek out hand made pottery. Those persons needs can only be provided by the personal potter and not by industrial made ware.
This still leaves us with the question about which way the future will go. If we are producing too many students in art schools, and I think we undoubtedly are, who are not interested in function, in many cases they will not be able to support themselves because you see supporting oneself with ceramics requires recognition. Recognition takes a very long time. While they are achieving this recognition how will they support themselves? Usually they must earn a living by teaching or some other work which means the time they devote to their art will only be a portion of the week. If they only spend a small portion of their time making the work they will be considered a hobbyist.
Gary: So what you are saying is that the world can only support so many people coming out of art schools and many of them will have to go into other fields?
David: Yes, that is right. Whether it is in England or America, I am surprised that some schools are allowed to continue when they produce so little results. I think in many cases there is a great loss. Although I would not necessarily say that a person who goes through an art school and does not practice what he learns is a dead loss person at all. The person does gain in an art school degrees of awareness that make him a more educated person whether he performs in the field or not. Many of the things learned in art school can be applied to other areas of life. This is the justification often used for art schools and if people do not mind paying for it then so be it. But when it comes to making a living from what they learn, there is a very low percentage that do. And I do question this.
This takes us out of the specific context of pottery into a discussion of societal trends. Questions arise about various inspirational factors in life and work. The religious factor is bound to be part of this.
Gary: What are the deeper inspirational factors of your work David?
David: I think for me that inspiration must come from a quietness. The whole level of my thinking and feeling developed from a quiet meditative approach. A basic belief. A belief in what? I have to call this God. My apprehension of God has come down through Christian channels although I recognize that these are not the only channels. Religious faith has governed all manner of peoples all down through time and supplied sources of faith and inspiration. I go along with this, believe in it, practice it and find through this that I attain slightly higher levels of intelligence and application of creative forces that can be applied in my field. This comes through in the rightness and integration in a piece of work.
The steps by which this takes place from the inspiration to the final object that one produces with ones hands is very difficult to analyze and also to talk about. What I can talk about is what has worked for me and there I must talk about higher inspirational sources outside myself, beyond myself. What goes for others, I can not say, but I know that higher forces of inspiration have been used by many artists throughout time and right into the future. I hope this gives some idea in a faltering way of not only how I approach my work as a craftsman but in the entire field of living.
Gary: Could you talk some about the British studio ceramic tradition as it’s been established in your over 65 years as a studio potter.
David: This is a slightly difficult one to answer but I will attempt it. If we talk about British tradition as if it had a recognizable identity we must consider first another thing. I do not think the identity of any country’s ceramic tradition or indigenous nature is something that is very sustainable in the world of rapid change and communication that we live in. What was indigenous or identifiable in former times can not continue to be so because of the exchange taking place between all countries. Any identity that existed is a diminishing one. Anything that is good in one country is going to move from one country to another and the entire world will be richer for all the traditions that have existed and play a part into the best performance of the craft everywhere. The identifiable separateness will diminish, however let us have a look at what has existed in Britain.
I will try to talk about British ceramics without being prejudiced for of course I come from a prejudiced position. One of the most important movements in ceramics has been what is now widely called the "Leach Tradition". We should recognize that this is only one strand in the identity of ceramics with many other strands playing their part.
I will try and examine and suggest to you what I think the "Leach Tradition" is. Traditions are not quickly established. They are recognizable directions and qualities of work that have been tested throughout time to justify the name, tradition. It so happens that my father Bernard Leach did live for a very considerable amount of time and worked in the ceramic field for over sixty or seventy years and there is therefore nobody quite as long lived as he was. It is difficult to find comparable traditions in our time.
I would single out the following characteristics in the Leach Tradition which would be very much from my father’s own words when he was asked about this. He said, "I look for life, strength, vitality, simplicity and directness." Most of us have the ability to recognize those characteristics in work, this vital, strong direct attack upon the work. This is in contrast to a meticulous, clever, highly scientific way of working. It is a performance in work where the inventive heart and mind are conveyed very quickly into what the hand can do with very little interruption between the mind, heart and hand. Therefore the industrial processes are not part of it.
Daphne: So you think that it is an approach to work, rather than a particular type of pot?
David: It is an approach to clay or any expressive process which need not be in clay. It is an attitude to direct personal expression which can be interpreted, and it must not be confused with direct similarity in the way my father performed it. There are many people who work in the "Leach Tradition" whose work is quite different from anything that my father produced. The imitative people have not absorbed the fullest intent which is in the Leach Tradition.
It is always very interesting to me to find people who perform in very different ways who come up to me and say that they would not be working in clay had it not been for my father. I am always surprised for I often do not see in their work where the influence is. So again it is an attitude of mind, a quality of mind that expresses very direct conviction and vitality.
Daphne: So do you think the "Leach Tradition" is not only an approach to ones work but an approach to ones entire life?
David: Yes, yes, absolutely, absolutely. Do not look to much for perfection in that it is the attitude and the intention. It’s part of a life, the sort of attitude we see when we think of a craftsman’s way of life. Yes, it must be a quality that pervades all our performance in life of which our performance in a craft is only a part. It needs the whole integration of life, and because it has the whole integration of life it has at best a universality. It is interesting perhaps that my father’s personality and his performance has had as much or more recognition in the eastern side of the world as the western side of the world. The fact that Japanese people seem to appreciate the life and vitality in my fathers work as much as we in the west do is a certain guarantee of its universality and importance. I hope you do not think I am speaking purely as a convinced and prejudiced son! I do believe that this can be tested objectively.
Gary: Is making pottery a good way of life?
David: A good and fundamental question. I think it is a good way of life. I think it draws out of us many good qualities. Most of us who are performing in clay are individuals who often draw people around us, assistants, students and apprentices. It is a good way because it is a self reliant way of life. You are not being employed. You are doing what you want in the direction of your convictions. You are acquiring skills, learning all about comparative people who have done similar work in the ceramic field. You are learning science, learning sensibilities the entire time. It is a good way of life. You are generally speaking of a person who is financially responsible. I can not find any other way of life that is more full of potential other than pursuing some other way of creative expression in another craft field. Many of those enjoy the same independence and attack upon their craft in every way that brings out qualities in one which not only pertain to the craft but to the whole of life.
Gary: David, thank you for sharing your life and experiences with us.
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