Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

East and West Melded in Spout and Lid

BRITISH potter Bernard Leach (1897-1979), in his book "The Potter's Challenge, suggested that the best pots are "born rather than "made.There is plenty of evidence that he knew what it is to make fine and original pots; he is considered one of the 20th century's most outstanding potters. But his even more exacting task, perhaps, throughout a long career, was to achieve and promote not just a naturalness and vitality in the making of handmade pots, but a natural and vital context in which they can be made. He felt that, in the West at least, the making of pottery by hand had largely vanished under the onslaught of machine-made ceramics. Leach's passionate drive to re-create a raison dtre for handmade pottery in this modern context made him something of a campaigner on behalf of potters. He trained, lectured to, wrote for, encouraged, and befriended many potters and pottery lovers. Even a brief meeting with him could propagate an awareness that pottery could be as serious a way of expressing a sense of art as sculpture or painting - and that it had added dimensions of utility and domesticity as well. Leach was always poised fruitfully between the East and the West, famous in Japan (where he first learned to pot) earlier than he was in Britain. He introduced Eastern forms and practices in Britain and some Western traditions, such as the making of handles, in Japan. But it was the fact that there was still a living tradition and context for the potter in Japan that he felt should have the most significance for the West. Leach identified two main reasons for the bad times that had befallen the Western potter. On one hand, he felt that the machine-made, mass-production pottery was devoid of the humanity and warmth, the touch and immediacy that the craftsman-potter, traditionally coming from a long line of potters, invested in his work. Such pottery was "born quite as much as it was "made because the how and why of its making was an unbroken inheritance, handed down. To that degree, both the potters and their wares were un self-conscious. No matter that in the pre-industrial world this handmade pottery was, in fact, often a kind of production line with forms and types being endlessly repeated; each pot was still inevitably and subtly different because its production involved the "whole man. Machine-made, mass-produced pottery had sliced the potter into two separate functions: design and execution. The traditional potter embodied both. On the other hand, looking at it from the Western point of view, Leach felt that the emphasis on individual stardom in the art world went too far the other way. For one thing it wasn't humble enough. His aim was a balance where a potter might be somehow both individual and anonymous, an artist and a craftsman. ONE of the things he admired about his friend the Japanese potter Shoji Hamada (1894-1978) was that having tasted the modern Western individualism of the artist - exhibiting in a London gallery, making for himself a reputation - he then went back from England (where he and Leach had set up the Leach Pottery in St. Ives) to Japan and "buried himself in the small town of Mashiko, which for 200 years had supplied Tokyo with its kitchen crocks. Leach saw this as Hamada's aim "to rid himself of pretense and s elf. Hamada used local clays; he gave up signing or sealing his pots. Leach says, "He was concerned with the 'good pot,' leaving personality to take care of itself. What is interesting is that Hamada's individual reputation simply burgeoned, while Leach, working in the West, struggled for recognition for many years. The Leach Pottery came to produce a mail-order range of "standard ware, as well as impressive "exhibition pots, in order to survive commercially - a dichotomy that in spite of Leach's best efforts and considerable influence, will probably always be part of the Western notion of hand-made pottery. How can it be anything else when, as Leach himself pointed out, "a potter on his wheel is doing two things at the same time . . . . His endeavour is determined in one respect by use, but in other ways by a never-ending search for perfection of form. However sincerely a potter may insist that his or her work is domestic, utilitarian, and meant to be inexpensive, if it has idealism and "individuality, collectors will collect it. And however determinedly ceramics collectors - George and Cornelia Wingfield Digby have been remarkable examples of the genre in Britain - believe they are collecting for "use as well as "love, they no less than the potters have little control over the market that determines price. The potter Lucie Rie has been quoted as saying that it is not her doing that her pots have now become so remarkably valuable (you'd need to have an insurance policy to dare to give a tea party with her ware). She made them to be used. But the problem is built-in. Good handmade pottery will express the individuality, experience, and hand of its maker. Because it is the work of one artist-craftsman, it will inevitably be relatively rare, it will be sought by collectors, and it will become expensive in a wa y that the endless clones of mass-produced ware won't. Some potters try to fight this paradox; others have simply decided that pottery is art and should be accorded the same seriousness and value that art is. To make a beautiful book of the Wingfield Digby collection (the superbly photographed works on this page come from this book) is really to acknowledge the preciousness of the pots collected. The chunky stoneware Hamada teapot, with its bold facets and rich tenmoku glaze, was used by George Wingfield Digby in his office. But other teapots in the collection were surely bought for their form, color, glaze, and character alone. Teapots are particularly intriguing in this respect, because their peculiar form is dictated by their particular function. A teapot without spout, lid, or handle (either arched above or attached to the body on the opposite side to the spout) is simply not a teapot. Traditionally, it should have a vent in the lid and straining holes where the spout joins the body. The lip of the spout must be higher than the level of the lid - or the hot tea will dribble out of the spout when the pot is being filled. The body must have a broad base for stability, but also to make sure the brew infuses properly. One much-admired maker of teapots, Geoffrey Whiting, goes so far as to suggest that a teapot lid without a knob "worth getting hold of is an "abomination. What would he think of the lovely, white glaze, porcelain Leach teapot shown here? In the Leach tradition of mingling East and West, the cult of "tea assumes considerable symbolic importance. The Japanese "tea masters were also traditionally the art critics. The tea ceremony has long been a thing of highly civilized meaning, etiquette, and behavior in Japan, in which utilitarian artifacts, handled with extraordinary delicacy, achieve a status beyond mere objects. It is easy to see, then, how the apparently humble "teapot, whether typically English or Eastern, contains deep aesthetic si gnificance as well as hot brown liquid. So a potter aiming at a delicate balance of down-to-earth usefulness and high art is likely to find in a teapot a special challenge and a special satisfaction.

The photographs on this page are from 'Bernard Leach, Hamada, and Their Circle, From the Wingfield Digby Collection,' by Tony Birks and Cornelia Wingfield Digby, which is available from Alphabet & Image Ltd., Sher-borne, Dorset DT9 3BR, in England, and from Seven Hills Book Distributors, Dept. MH, 49 Central Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45202, in the United States.

About these ads

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.