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Bernard Leach and British studio pottery: Foundations and Lineage

Bernard Leach and British studio pottery: Foundations and Lineage

The intricate ties between British studio pottery and Japanese ceramics can be traced back to the interwar period and actors at the time who laid the foundations to British pottery as fine craft. Formally established during a time of artistic fluctuations and social instability, studio pottery in Britain today encapsulates Modernist concerns and its early lineage from the period: with a focus on the tactile quality of handcrafting, a strong sense of experimentation in terms of technique and the integration of various cultural influences referring to the past as well as non-Britsh cultures. 



The Beginning: Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada

Bernard Leach (b.1887, Hong Kong; d.1979 St Ives) was an eminent artist-potter and teacher, widely regarded today as the ‘founding father of British studio pottery.’ Though Leach was born British and exerted prominent influence in Britain, his practice was international — it incorporated aesthetic ideals and crafting techniques from East Asia, particularly Japan — and Leach himself lived and travelled frequently, moving between Europe and Asia. Leach spent the early years of his life moving between Kyoto, Hong Kong, Singapore and England. He was enrolled in the Slade School of Fine Art, London shortly before his education was interrupted and at the age of 19, Leach took up a position as a junior clerk in the HSBC in London. Leach then joined the London School of Art in Kensington when he was 21, where he was trained and taught etching by Frank Brangwyn

“By this [raku] to me a miracle, I was carried away to a new world. Enthralled, I was on the spot seized with the desire to take up the craft.” — Bernard Leach, 1911

Between 1908–1920, Leach lived mostly in Japan, punctuated by a couple years in China 1914–16, instigated by Leach’s disillusionment with the growing westernisation in Japan. The turning point in Leach’s artistic career as a ceramicist happened in 1911, when Leach became enthralled with Japanese raku pottery that he had encountered at a raku party with his Japanese friend Tomimoto Kenkichi. This fascination brough Leach to study, for two years, under Urano Shigekichi, known by his title of Kenzan VI. In 1916, another one of Leach’s friends from the Shirakaba (Japanese literary group), Yanagi Soetsu, founder of the Minggei (folk crafts) movement who had been exposed to Korean pottery, persuaded Leach to return to Japan from China. During this critical period, Leach developed his unique style based on traditional Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English slipware, and importantly, met his long-time artistic partner Shoji Hamada (1894–1978) in 1917.


Hamada had a significant influence on studio pottery of the twentieth century, and was a major figure of the Minggei movement. During his time, he established the town of Mashiko as a pottery centre. In 1955 he was designated a ‘Living National Treasure’ (Ningen Kokuhō) in Japan.

Together, Hamada and Leach left for England in 1920. With support from the St Ives Guild of Handicrafts (backed by philanthropist Francis Horne), they set up a pottery, the first climbing kiln and raku kiln, at a site in Hayle. With much experimentation and persistence, the ceramicists formed their own community of students and potters, which included Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie. In 1932, the American couple Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst invited Leach to set up a pottery and teach at Dartington, Devon, where Leach settled in 1935. In 1938, after studying pottery management in Stoke-on-Trent, Leach returned to St Ives and initiated a wide range of infrastructural changes.

Writing avidly as a pioneering crafts artist at the time, Leach’s work and his studio gained pronounced importance within and beyond Britain. His pioneering spirit and makers’ instinct coincided with the 19th-century Arts and Crafts Movement — the resurgence of crafts as a reaction against industrialisation combined with a sense of urgency following mechanised destruction of the First World War. 


Close Contemporary: Lucie Rie 

Very few people in this country think of the making of pottery as an art.
Bernard Leach, May 1940

Lucie Rie (1902–1995), Jewish Austrian-born British ceramicist, another leading figure of British studio pottery in the twentieth century, was a close contemporary to and friend of Bernard Leach. Though she was impressed by Leach’s practice as a potter and his philosophy on the ‘completeness’ of a pot, their works are remarkably different — Leach’s pieces looked back on traditions of craft-making and rustic Japanese aesthetics while Rie’s brightly coloured works were rooted in European Modernist aesthetics. Despite the visible differences in their work, the two shared the same modern spirit, exposure to global craft-making techniques in an increasingly interconnected world. 

Powerful Lineage: Jack Doherty; Kenta Anzai

The same strand of experimental zeal in technique and material, and the principles and philosophies in handcrafting remains a recurring concern in contemporary crafts. The legacy of foundational characters in the story of British studio pottery like Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada and Lucie Rie live on through a lineage of potters and crafts artists trained by these pioneers, or introduced to the craft through institutions or potteries they had led. They continue to inspire with their work, lives, philosophies, institutional infrastructure and writing.


“Clay vessels made in a contemporary context can link people through history. As many of our functional needs have changed, what remains is the physicality of form and the detail of surface which we can experience in daily life.” — Jack Doherty

Jack Doherty’s encounter with the works of Lucie Rie as a young student altered his course and he resolved to devote himself to ceramics. Upon graduating, he took post at the Kilkenny Design Workshops, before establishing his first working studio in County Armagh. Upon relocation to Cornwall, where the artist still lives and works, Doherty acted as the first Lead Potter and Creative Director at the prestigious Leach Pottery, St Ives. Doherty is a fellow of the Craft Potters Association of Great Britain and a founding member of the organising committee at Ceramic Art London. 

Observing how Lucie Rie co-existed with her works was fundamental to Jack Doherty’s relationship with ceramics; informing the persevering role of the domestic space and daily life in his creations. To this day, Doherty’s work speaks of a sustained inquisition into the concept of function - viewing his works as domestic-related objects rather than utilitarian. Doherty’s signature soda-firing technique creates chemical reactions that radically alter each of the vessels’ surfaces uniquely. 

Part of an outstanding lineage of Japanese artist, Kenta Anzai, based in the Fukushima prefecture, was apprentice to Taizo Kuroda, apprentice to the second Japanese Living National Treasure of Mashiko, Tatsuzo Shimaoka. Shimaoka received his training under the first National Treasure, Shoji Hamada, speaking to the long-standing and direct influence of prominent modern potters on the landscape of contemporary crafts.

 Anzai’s handcrafted ceramic pieces are informed by the notion of simplicity. He produces vessels and moon jars in porcelain, which are later covered with a black glaze containing a small amount of urushi lacquer –– a natural Japanese lacquer that originates as tree sap. Anzai’s use of urushi lacquer in his ceramics defies their conventional use for wood, and looks back to over 5000 years ago, when it was used in the creation of Jomon pots. Each piece is indicative of the Wabi Sabi aesthetic, with Anzai taking months to complete them and achieve their thoroughly aged surfaces through continuous sandpapering, polishing and refining. The simple forms of his vessels are contrasted with the unique surface patterns which represent the time and energy that Anzai puts into his ceramics.



Selected Bibliography



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