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Review by Garth Clark
Bernard Leach: Life and Work

Emmanuel Cooper. Bernard Leach: Life and Work. New Haven and London: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2003. xvii + 419 pp.; 68 bw and 27 color illus., bibliography, index. $55.00.

Ceramics is not a field that has attracted many biographers. Even Josiah Wedgwood, one of the giants of the eighteenth century—a social visionary, gifted inventor, pioneering mass marketer, effective publicist, creative glaze chemist, and intimate of the leading scientists and scholars of his age—has yet to receive a biography worthy of his place in history. So the publication of Emmanuel Cooper’s Bernard Leach: Life and Work is a landmark event. As I recall, the last time a full biography appeared about a British art or studio potter was in 1922 with Anna Maria Stirling’s William de Morgan and His Wife. There have been many hagiographic illustrated surveys about Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Michael Cardew, and others, but those are not true biographies in the trade-book sense of the term.

There are reasons for this dearth. Ceramics is not a field that encourages strong literary support. It is a small market that favors how-to books over all others, and potters are notoriously anti-academic and anti-intellectual, hardly an encouraging field for the serious biographer. Also, potters’ lives do not often make enthralling reading except for other potters. They are rarely players at the key moments in our culture when art and design are swept by innovation or revolution. They tend to work in a relatively eremitic world, and so their circles, often the core that gives a life story its vitality, comprise other potters and little else. I do not mean this to sound demeaning, but biography is an elusive art form. It is best suited to larger-than-life personality and dramatic engagement with one’s time. 

Bernard Leach: Life and Work, then, is more than a book. It is a test case. Can one of the most influential figures in studio pottery be the subject of a great biography, and can it find a wider audience than just the ceramics world? At first glance, the author could not be better equipped for the task. Cooper is both a potter and a skilled writer with a wide array of interests. Aside from his books on ceramics, he is also a respected contributor to another world, homoeroticism in photography and the fine arts. For nearly four decades he has edited Ceramic Review, one of our leading journals, and so the entire history of studio pottery has flowed across his desk. 

For those who have no idea who Bernard Leach is—and their numbers are growing, even in ceramics, where he was once an omnipresent god—the following is a quick thumbnail sketch. Leach (1887–1979) was born in Asia. His father was a high-court justice who worked in the colonies. Leach went to England for the first time in 1897 at the age of ten to complete his education. He attended the Slade School of Art in London in 1903 and, after an unhappy stint in banking, joined the London School of Art, where he studied etching and drawing under Frank Brangwyn, among others. Missing the East, he returned in 1909 with the intention of teaching etching in Japan and instead became a student of the art of ceramics. In 1921 he returned to England with Shoji Hamada and set up his pottery in Saint Ives, Cornwall.

In the years that followed Leach wrote many books, attracted apprentices and thousands of followers from around the world, and by 1950 was the most influential figure in ceramics. (His A Potter’s Book, published in 1940, has never been out of print and is referred to reverentially as the potter’s bible.) Leach’s success was curious in that he had a strangely anachronistic view of the field. He was (in theory) a strict functionalist and poured scorn on those who came to ceramics to make art. He dismissed almost all Western ceramics as decadent and worthless, and set up certain early classic periods in Chinese and Korean ceramics (Song and Koryo˘) as the aesthetic models to follow.

Leach rejected modernism and was at odds with industry. The latter is ironic because it was the lessons that his son David learned from the factories at Stoke-on-Trent, in the very belly of the beast, that enabled him to put Leach Pottery’s standard ware production on a profitable basis. As Leach aged (he led a long life, dying at ninety-two), two conflicting responses emerged to his regime. He became the most honored potter in recent times, receiving the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II and the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Japan’s highest award given to a foreigner. At the more progressive end of studio pottery, however, he became a publicly reviled figure who was blamed, both rightly and wrongly, for all that ailed the field. His socialist ideas about the economics of pottery turned out to be disastrous for the industry, and his moralistic approach to functionalist pottery created a schism in the ceramics world. 

Leach was never a man of his times, perhaps because he missed World War I. He was living in Japan during the conflict, so it was something of an abstraction for him, but for those in Britain and Europe it was a brutal experience, the first war fought on industrial terms, and it dragged these countries, kicking and screaming, out of the nineteenth century and into the realities of the modern world. Having missed out on this experience, Leach returned from Japan untouched—as his first Western apprentice, Michael Cardew, describes him, “a perfectly preserved Edwardian.”[1] He remained trapped in this time warp for the rest of his life.

Given this profile Leach would seem to be a perfect focus for the biographer: a complex and often troubled man, exotic locales, art, fame, family conflicts, controversy, and even a dash of sex, as Leach, despite his stuffy formal appearance, was something of a womanizer. Sadly, however, both subject and author fail to produce a fascinating biography. It comes to life in fits and starts but has no narrative force. Leach, while unquestionably a man of substance and passion, emerges as tedious and repetitive. His positions, tastes, values, and limitations were fixed early in his life and barely changed. By 1950 the most interesting part of his life was over, and, while it was from that point that he gained true power, the next thirty or so years bring nothing fundamentally new to the narrative aside from family travails. 

Cooper’s first error was the length of the book—419 pages of dense type. Leach would have benefited from a shorter treatment. As even Leach’s closest friends would admit, a little Leach goes a long way. Cooper would have benefited from a stronger editor. It has the feeling of a draft rather than a final refined manuscript. But the big surprise, given Cooper’s background, is that, despite its length, the study lacks perspective and analysis, and it barely acknowledges that Leach’s reputation is in free fall. Contemporary judgments about Leach as a potter (let alone an artist) are not flattering. Questions about the accuracy of several of his books and claims of cultural distortion have hurt his credibility as a writer. Edmund de Waal’s analysis of his beliefs and philosophies was a damaging assessment of a man whose view of Asia was narrow and, at times, bordered on racism, benign but nonetheless misguided.[2] Many now believe that, were it not for Leach, the field of ceramics would have been less marginalized and would have played a greater role in mainstream art and design.

It is not enough for Cooper to take as a fait accompli that Leach is important; it is incumbent upon him to make the case. To achieve this he has to do several things with this book: present a character study of Leach, analyze his relationship to the arts and crafts of his day, and make a clear and winning argument for his purported place in the canon. Cooper does not succeed at any of these tasks. Such portrait as emerges of Leach comes haphazardly from a series of events, postcards of moments in his life strung together in lieu of real narrative development. There is no underlying mapping out of a psychological profile. It is not that Cooper misses much: Leach’s pompousness, his anxious search for spirituality, his guilt about his poor performance as father and husband are all touched on but fleetingly. The problem is that Cooper never gets under Leach’s skin and so, as readers, neither do we. The supporting cast, filled with such intriguing, forceful personalities as Michael Cardew and Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, fare even less well. They arrive and depart as little more than names, poorly introduced and given little substance.

What is also surprising is that, for all the detail, the exhaustive list of names and places, and the exciting locales, the book never communicates any mise-en-scène, the rich brocade of description that transports one into time and space. Since Cooper did not travel to Asia to retrace Leach’s journeys, his attempts at escorting the reader through Japan, China, and Korea lack authenticity. However, he does not do well in this regard even when describing places he does know, such as Saint Ives and the hard, barren, and mysterious landscape in which this seaside town is located. Conjuring just does not seem to be Cooper’s forte.

The book is burdened with endless names, facts, quotation marks, and endnotes—an almost obsessive cramming of largely undigested protein into the text, perhaps to establish authority—but it does not work. One irritated critic claimed that there are 9,000 notes. There are, in fact, slightly fewer than 1,500, but they are excessive and largely unrevealing. When one seeks out the notes, there is little more to be learned than the source, and, when there is interesting information, it is often material that belongs in the main text. The placement of quotes in the book is also often unnecessary. Even the most banal information appears within quotation marks and is often awkwardly placed, impeding flow and creating a disjunctive rhythm.

Cooper’s book also fails to create cultural context. It seems to be trapped in Leach’s own narrow vision. For example, one cannot place a figure into the canon of the decorative arts without trying to understand the times that produced him. That means coming to terms with Leach and modernism, an oil and vinegar proposition but an interesting challenge nonetheless. When Leach opened his Saint Ives pottery, it was at the beginning of the major thrust of the modernist movement. The Bauhaus Pottery Workshop was still operating, a doctrine of serving the workingman through industry (whether realized or not) was in place and becoming popular, Dada had just handed over the avant-garde baton to Surrealism. Everything was in flux: the way people lived, how they dressed, the shape of their houses, the subject of the art they put on their walls, and, yes, even their modern teacups indicated that a new era had begun.

Yet all these sweeping changes gathered together occupy no more than a few pages of the book and are not revealing. Cooper rolls out that tired concept of Leach as the accidental modernist based on the flimsy thesis that he liked simple forms and minimal decoration and worshiped at the altar of utilitarianism. Leach was actually a determined antimodernist and his historicist approach to pottery, channeling the dead potters of China, was an anathema to modernist doctrine. Then Cooper teases us with the revelation that the founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, and Leach actually met in Tokyo. Could this be the jumping-off point for an analysis of Leach versus the New? Regrettably that does not happen. The encounter consumes all of half a paragraph, and we learn nothing more than that Leach, predictably, found the Bauhaus designs to be “too industrial.”

This weakness is ongoing. Context is rarely given. As a result the book is largely impenetrable to those with little knowledge of studio pottery’s history. For example, in 1952 Leach met Peter Voulkos at the Archie Bray Foundation during a lecture tour of America by Leach, Shoji Hamada, and Soetsu Yanagi. Their encounter is given the standard half-paragraph treatment. The reader is not told who Voulkos is, though there is a footnote. If one turns to that, the century’s most influential potter is described in nine words. The second, slightly longer footnote about the movement he spawned is inaccurate. Cooper completely misses the theater of the moment. This event marks the coming together of the two most powerful ceramic influences of their time in the small town of Helena, Montana, prior to a changing of the guard that would take place within a decade. 

Leach’s ideas were played out by that time, while within a few years of that meeting Voulkos would explode onto the ceramics scene with the most radical work the field had ever seen. His approach was the antithesis of Leach’s. He argued that ceramists needed to be freed from the restraints, conservatism, and drudgery of making functional wares so that they could take their place in the fine arts. His impact on other artists was immense, and he is credited with turning the American ceramics movement around from being a moribund group of Eurocentric potters to a liberated environment of innovation and risk. One will not learn this from the book. Nor will one learn what was happening on the other side of the street in British ceramics. It is as though Leach’s blinders have been put on Cooper’s eyes.

Ultimately, Bernard Leach, as a biography, repeats all that is weak about ceramics as a discipline. It is an inward study with way too much gnawing over technical and studio matters. Its view of history and culture hardly extends beyond the clay pits. Also, Cooper relied too much on Leach’s own archives, losing the perspicacious objectivity that biography needs if it is not just to parrot the story of its subject. 

That would have been the end of this review but for a colleague of mine. Alarmed that I seemed too ready to write off a major book about a major figure written by a major writer, he convinced me to read it a second time. 

This time I read it differently. Instead of following the text chapter by chapter, I began to move backward and forward, using the index to find issues that interested me and sample a few pages at a time. To my surprise I became engrossed and in a few weeks had not only reread most of the book but had thoroughly enjoyed the process. Does that mean that what I have written above is wrong? Not at all. I stand by the criticisms and, to put it even more bluntly, Bernard Leach: Life and Work fails as a biography. Its second life comes from treating it as another literary form: an artist’s journal. It is neither a diary nor an autobiography but a marriage of the two.

A journal is usually edited directly from the subject’s writings, but in this case it has been faithfully transposed by Cooper. Many of the aspects that doomed the book as a biography give it strength as a journal. Cooper’s apparent reliance on Leach’s papers and letters is acceptable in the journal form. Context is not required of a journal, which is published mainly for those who already know the subject and want to explore more deeply. Cooper’s clinical style suddenly becomes the correct tone, objective and free of editorializing. There is no requirement in a journal that the subject be defended or explained. So, while it did not satisfy as a multicourse meal, Bernard Leach: Life and Work succeeds if treated as a smorgasbord, a rich assortment of bites, tastes, and textures. It is thorough and condenses a vast amount of information into the pages. Even Cooper’s way of giving all events the same weight, be it a breakfast on vacation or an encounter between giants, emerges as a satisfying and disciplined approach. 

The definitive biography on Leach is yet to be written, if that proves necessary. Bernard Leach: Life and Work leaves an aftertaste of pessimism about the longevity of Leach’s legacy. How much time, space, and wordage should we continue to give to a man who is an anomaly, who did not influence his time except in a regressive manner, who left little enduring as artist or writer? This comment refers not to the number of pots and books he produced but to their quality. 

Some might argue that he is still a force. Adherents to the Leach school do still exist but they tend to be mainly older potters. The few younger potters who follow him are more a testament to the tenacity of fundamentalism in the crafts than an endorsement of the virtues of his beliefs. Within less than a generation Leach may become invisible except to serious scholars, and even for them he may be reduced to a large footnote. Nothing in Cooper’s book convinces us the opposite will be true.

Despite this we may still need another attempt at encapsulating his life because Cooper’s book does not give the field what I suspect it was seeking: closure. Leach remains an ambivalent, unresolved presence in the ceramic arts. Thanks to Cooper we now know more about his childhood, his life and beliefs, and his diary of activities but nothing about his cultural relevance or value. A future biography could benefit from being written with a wry and witty sense of affection for Leach (something missing in Cooper’s text) to compensate for the potter’s rather leaden persona. It will also need to present Leach as what he was, an eccentric romantic. Now that we have some distance from his life, it is becoming clear that Leach was our Don Quixote, a misguided moralist who created his own distorted realities about life and art based on an imaginary threat from a changing society. Clad in his tweed armor, he tilted his lance against the windmills of modernism and self-expression. It proved to be a futile battle but heroic in the mythic sense. In this context his earnestness, intelligence, determination, contrariness, and unquestioned love of the medium take on a charm that is not communicated in the current book, that one-man-against-the-world kind of tale that is a staple of biography and, as importantly, of legend.

Garth Clark
New York, 2004

Ceramics in America 2005

Contents
  • [1]

    Garth Clark, The Potter’s Art: A Complete History of Pottery in Britain (London: Phaidon, 1995), p. 154.

  • [2]

    Edmund de Waal, Bernard Leach (London: Tate Publishing, 1998).