Bernard Leach was born in Hong Kong, living both there and in Japan until 1897 when he returned to England to attend Beaumont Jesuit College in Windsor. He studied at the Slade School of Art (where he was the youngest pupil) and etching at the London School of Art under Frank Brangwyn.
In 1909 he returned to Japan to teach drawing and etching. Leach ‘discovered’ pottery at a Raku tea party, attracted to the art of the Japanese potters he studied under Ogata Konzan, a master of Raku craft. Ogata Konzan was the original head of the Konzan School of potters and tradition decreed that the Master of the School should permit his best pupils to use his name, palette and glazes. Bernard Leach represented the seventh generation in the Koznan tradition.
Leach exhibited in China and Japan, before returning to England in 1920 with his family and the potter Shoji Hamada, with whom he started a pottery on the outskirts of St Ives in Cornwall. In 1934 he once more returned to Japan, and there he worked with Hamada, by then a potter of repute with his own pottery in Mashiko. Two years later Leach began writing, and his first book A Potter’s Book was published in 1940.
As Leach himself stated ‘All my life I have been a courier between East and West. I believe in the interplay and marriage of the two complimentary branches of fuman culture as a prelude to the unity and maturity of men. I believe that from this century forward a potter must be an artist and that non-industrial pots will be judged as works of art. Today, and practically only from today, the concept of form, pattern texture and colour in a non-industrial pot springs to life in a single man’s brain. Thus the question as to whether a potter is an artist or not becomes vital’.
In 1961 a retrospective exhibition of his work was shown in Britain and Japan, and that same year he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Exeter University, together with the writer Agatha Christie. In 1973 he was made a Companion of Honour. The Victoria and Albert Museum mounted a major exhibition of his work in 1977 and in 1998 a retrospective exhibition was toured throughout Japan. Leach is rightly regarded as the father of British studio pottery and was a forceful presence for over 60 years. It is said that he made over 100,000 pots; many were functional tableware pieces that were produced by the St Ives Pottery at a price affordable by the general public but maintained the high standards of form, glaze and decoration that Leach felt was fundamental. His studio pieces are mainly in stoneware and porcelain and his use of decoration owes much to his understanding of Japanese calligraphy and brushwork.
Bernard Leach: Potter and Artist, Crafts Council, London 1997 (introduction by Oliver Watson)