The photograph above is of an Arita (Japanese) porcelain bowl of circa 1610 given to Bernard Leach by Shoji Hamada whilst both were still in Japan prior to their moving to England by 1919 and the establishment of the Leach Pottery in St Ives, Cornwall from 1920. As founder members of the Japanese Mingei (folkcraft) movement they were both fascinated by surviving examples of handmade objects by ‘unknown craftsmen’ – that is to say admired objects of ceramic craft not bearing an identifiable maker’s mark.

There is a dichotomy here in between certain aspects of artists and craftspeople. Both Hamada and Leach had harboured aspirations to make a living as artists. Leach had trained as an etcher at the Slade in London and had originally travelled to Japan just before WW1 to introduce the technique there before falling in love with pottery as a medium at a Tokyo Raku party.

Hamada in his writings also admitted artistic aspirations in his published writings but chose a career as a potter as he felt he was more likely to earn a living in this following. Hamada was to follow the precedent of his potter forebears in not applying a seal or signature to his pots after leaving St Ives in 1923.

In the context of the post Reformation era in Europe, artists would more typically sign their work. Conversely, with certain notable exceptions – the ‘Toft wares’ of 17th century Staffordshire, 18th century harvest and other wares of Bideford and Barnstaple being good examples – pottery output was typically anonymous. Workshops typically served local communities and villagers would generally know the maker personally so there was no need to sign work.

In the case of Leach, very much the artist manque, the application of his monogram or signature to work produced to his designs or with his influence was conversely the rule. As with the studio of a master artist on canvas or paper, where art produced from workshops was classically the work of several hands, be it in the preparation and sizing of canvas, the addition of supplementary details and so on, it was the name of the Master that predominated in the finished work. For canvas, substitute thrown or prepared ceramic form.

So for Leach the artist, the design to be applied to the finished pot was of equal importance to the form itself. The form was as much a receptacle for design than produced for its own practical purpose: the pot as art object.

Are pots and ceramics produced to Leach designs for him to embellish less valid and valuable than, say, a Shoji Hamada form made and decorated personally by the Japanese master at Mashiko? The output of both owed their genesis to the spirit of the individual creator-designer. How is ‘ownership’ of creation to be judged…

Returning to the Willow tree, the subject of my initial blog in this theme, this features as the sole motif on the Arita teabowl at the head of this piece. This was also to become a signature design initially for Bernard and subsequently even more strongly for his son David. The use of such a cultural symbol in English studio ceramics produced in the Eastern tradition continues the East-West dialogue highlighted in my first posting.

Original design or homage?

Bernard Leach brushwork tile, St Ives circa 1928-1930