This month we journeyed to St Ives and went behind the scenes at The Leach Pottery, where our hand thrown, stoneware mixing bowls are made.
In the studio of the Leach Pottery in St Ives, Lead Potter Roelof Uys is standing at a workbench wiping glaze off the bottoms of oversized pots. Potter Laurence and apprentice Annabelle are contorted at the wheel, throwing mixing bowls from local clay. Kat is in the bisque room, stacking pots for drying out before being glaze fired. Matt is in and out of the kiln shed.
The atmosphere is just as Bernard Leach, in the 1940 text A Potter's Book, said rooms in which pots are thrown and decorated ought to be: friendly and inviting. Leach also believed the tools and furnishings attractive in themselves, however simple, and a few specimens of first-rate pots against light toned walls make all the difference to the mood in which work is done.
For potters the world over, the Leach Pottery is a place of pilgrimage. For people living in Penwith the most westerly region of Cornwall it's a part of their consciousness. Not everyone living in St Ives or Penzance or any of the villages in between will have visited it, but many will be familiar with a Leach pot, or a cup.
Founded in 1920 by Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada, the pottery played an important role from the off in shaping the artistic identity of St Ives. While contemporaries in the town such as Peter Lanyon, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth helped define 20th century painting and sculpture, the Leach Pottery established itself as the birthplace of studio pottery.
Born and raised in the Far East, Leach studied etching at the London School of Art before settling in Japan and becoming in thrall to the art of making pots. When he returned to England and set up his pottery, he brought with him the principal of an East/West exchange. Students from across the globe came to train here, firing pots for domestic use in a traditional Japanese climbing kiln.
That kiln was in use for over 50 years. It remains on site, housed in the Old Pottery workshop that now forms part of the Museum. International students continue to be employed here, trained in the craft of producing handmade, functional wares. Six potters and an apprentice work in the studio today.
In between the gentle, teasing chat among them, the potters talk to me thoughtfully about what they do. Laurence and Annabelle sit next to each other so they can compare the size and appearance of the bowls they are each luring out of large spheres of clay. They are aiming to produce bowls on the same scale, but their throwing lines will always vary. The distance between the lines is dictated by the speed of the wheel they operate and the size of their hands. It's differences like this; the bevels created when a piece of clay is cut off the wheel with a wire, or the still-present finger marks on a mug where it was hand-dipped into a glaze, that makes each piece of studio pottery unique.
We don't need to make pots like this, says Roelof, referring to the ready availability of mass produced ceramics. It's a way of life. That tends to go for the user as much as the maker. Handling a Leach bowl, drinking from a mug with a curved lip, is a tactile experience and a counter to the largely audio and visual world in which we live. We are communicating with people when they use our pots, adds Roelof. We interact with them as musicians do with their audience.
The difference? We don't care whether you think we're artists or not, says Roelof. This is creativity with a degree of restraint we're making for other people, not ourselves.
That restraint is the hallmark of Leach Standard Ware pottery designed to be used everyday, not put on a shelf and looked at. Glazed in colours created by the particular atmosphere in the kiln, its beauty becomes more apparent through use. It takes years to know how to make something so simple so well to approach a craft with the carefree swagger Roelof says defines the studio.
Learning through doing' is at the heart of the Leach philosophy and, happily, the pottery runs school sessions and short courses so others can have a go.
Words by Caroline Davidson. Images by Harry Wade.