Bernard Leach: life and work by Emmanuel Cooper

The man who became pottery's Picasso
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The Independent Culture

No potter was more influential or held in higher esteem in the 20th century than Bernard Leach. Through his own work over 60 years, his seminal writings (in particular A Potter's Book, popularly known as the potter's bible) and the generations of apprentices who worked alongside him in Dartington and St Ives, he contributed profoundly to the evolution and status of his art.

Although, before the First World War, artists as diverse as Matisse, Le Corbusier and Roger Fry had worked with clay, for them it was always a sideline. As this exemplary biography points out, it was only in the 1920s that pioneering artist-potters emerged. The critical factor was the first large-scale exhibition in the West of early Chinese ceramics. This had as decisive an effect on their development as exposure to African art had on Picasso's.

Leach was already a passionate orientalist. He was born in Hong Kong in 1887, his mother dying in childbirth, and he spent his first four years with her parents in Japan before returning to his remarried father. His respect for the cultures of the East was manifest from an early age, as when he successfully opposed the motion that "the Empire of China should be divided amongst the Powers of the World" in a debate at his public school.

After brief periods at the Slade and London School of Art, and having married his cousin Muriel, he went back to Japan with little but the word "artist" in his passport to sustain him. He planned to teach and work at his etchings, but the displays of ancient porcelain in Japanese museums and an invitation to a "Raku party", where guests were asked to decorate pre-fired pots, challenged his artistic priorities.

He studied with Japanese masters but made no attempt to imitate them, on the grounds that he "wasn't an oriental" and should not work "in a direct oriental style". Indeed, he was as influenced by English medieval jugs, 18th-century slipware and Delft earthenware. The one constant was his detestation of modern mass production. In later life, he bitterly opposed his son David's decision to train in the "commercial scientific graveyard of Stoke-on-Trent".

Leach's entire life was a spiritual quest that culminated in his adoption of the Baha'i faith. For him, making pots was an intensely spiritual activity: he wrote that just as "artists paint their bodies and souls into their pictures", so potters made pots that reflected their character. This lofty aspiration was not always translated into practice. As at least two of his three wives had occasion to note, the purity of his pots was not reflected in his often messy private life. The book sensitively interweaves the artistic achievement with the domestic turmoil: his failed marriages, his fractious, sometimes violent, relationship with David, his fraught third marriage to the bisexual Janet Darnell.

"The Pot is the Man" was one of Leach's favourite maxims. This lavishly illustrated biography does full justice to the personality and achievement of a visionary potter and a complex, intriguing man.