Potter son of Bernard Leach who developed his own distinctive style
Friday 25 February 2005
David Andrew Leach, potter, designer and lecturer: born 7 May 1911; OBE 1987; married 1938 Elizabeth Facey (three sons); died Torquay, Devon 15 February 2005.
Moving out of the shadow of a highly successful and charismatic parent is never easy, but the potter David Leach achieved this difficult task after serving an apprenticeship and working with his father, the eminent studio potter Bernard Leach, who is often seen as the founding figure of 20th-century studio pottery.
For the first 25 years of his life as a potter, Leach saw his work as supporting and developing that of his father, and was happy to do this. When he eventually set up his own workshop in the mid-1950s he rapidly established his own style, which, though clearly inspired by Leach's ideas and philosophy, was sufficiently individual and different to identify him as a potter in his own right.
David Leach was born in Japan in 1911, the first of five children. His father had moved there in 1909, and married Muriel Hoyle, his first cousin, the same year. Although intending to teach etching, Bernard Leach was introduced to pottery at a raku party, and decided to learn the craft from a traditional potter.
Disillusioned by the rapid Westernisation of Japan and what he saw as the rejection of old and meaningful traditions, in 1914 he and his family moved to China to encourage interest in traditional ways. Perhaps not surprisingly this did not work out, and the family returned to Japan, where Leach set up his first pottery. At this time the young David could speak English, Japanese and Chinese.
In 1920 the family sailed to England, where Bernard Leach set up a pottery at St Ives, building a traditional Oriental climbing kiln for stoneware and porcelain, and a round up-draught kiln for slipware in the English style and low-fired raku.
David was sent to Dauntsey's School, Wiltshire, a non-denominational institution catering chiefly for the sons of country farmers, where he did well in sports but showed no great academic aptitude. At one point he considered the medical profession as a career, but abandoned this when he realised that he probably did not have the required academic skills or his family the funds for the long training. Much to his father's surprise and delight - for he had shown no interest in potting - he asked to join the pottery.
It was a difficult period in his father's life. The pottery was struggling financially, his marriage was failing and when he began a serious relationship with a student at the pottery he thought it prudent to accept Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst's offer to move to Dartington and establish a pottery there. Despite limited experience, David Leach was left to run the St Ives workshop, ably assisted by Harry Davis, a young but highly talented potter, and others.
With a growing awareness of his lack of any technical training, during his father's two-year tour of Japan in the mid-1930s (sponsored by the Elmhirsts) Leach enrolled on a Pottery Manager's course at North Staffordshire Technical College. This was anathema to his father, who felt that ideas rather than technique should be paramount, describing Stoke-on-Trent as home to the "industrial devil".
Feeling more confident about his technical abilities, Leach returned to St Ives, married Elizabeth Facey, moved into Pottery Cottage and became an active supporter of Moral Rearmament, a commitment he held until his death.
Recognising the need for a sound professional approach, he initiated a series of profound changes to put the pottery on a more stable financial footing. The kiln was converted from wood to oil, an apprenticeship scheme was initiated to provide a well-trained, stable workforce, and, in collaboration with his father, a range of Standard Ware was designed that was to be produced in stoneware. This was sold through the pottery to stores and, a great innovation, through a catalogue. Making effective use of the plain, unglazed toasted body contrasted with deep, rich glazes, the clean, simple tableware shapes proved a success, setting the model for studio potters across the country.
When called up for war service, Leach, a pacifist, at first refused to wear military uniform, and spent a period in prison; he later served with the Devon and Cornwall Light Infantry. At the end of the Second World War he returned to consolidate earlier success with a steady output of Standard Ware, and individual pots mostly made or decorated by his father. David Leach was made a partner in the business and given the property. In 1949 he held his first one-person exhibition, which was sensitively reviewed by Barbara Hepworth.
In 1952 his father left for an extended stay in Japan, leaving Leach in charge of the pottery, with the implication that he would be free to develop it as he chose. But he showed signs of restlessness. He spent several weeks helping to build a kiln in Denmark, for a year he took charge of the ceramics department at Loughborough School of Art - the beginning of a long involvement with education - and he established a pottery for the Carmelite Friars at Aylesford. All these events took him away from the pottery.
Two years later, Leach's intention to run the business was jeopardised when his father returned from Japan with the news that he was to marry an American potter and they were to live in St Ives. Feeling that this drastically changed their agreement, Leach decided it was time to set up on his own, and he and his family moved to Devon, where in 1956 he established the Lowerdown Pottery at Bovey Tracey.
The move, although traumatic, was the opportunity for David Leach to establish himself in his own right. After first producing a range of earthenware with slip decoration, he built a high-temperature kiln for firing stoneware and porcelain, devising his own range of tableware with distinctive painted decoration.
While clearly reflecting the influence of his father's ideas, David Leach tableware, with its lively brushwork decoration based on abstracted plant motifs, was instantly recognisable and, as well as being well-made, was practical to use and attractive to look at. His individual pots, often with simplified form and decoration, included a range of full, rounded, narrow-necked bottles, often with fresh, minimal brush decoration that were quite distinctively his own. Other full and rounded pieces were covered with a matt glaze stained with iron-red pigment to bring out the crackle.
As part of an abiding interest in the technical aspects of the craft, Leach developed a range of glazes and a porcelain body that was plastic to use and translucent when fired, which were marketed commercially.
In 1966 he held his first important solo exhibition in London at what is now Contemporary Ceramics in Soho. Other important exhibitions were held there and at the British Craft Centre and at Galerie Besson in London, as well as on the Continent and in the US. A major travelling retrospective exhibition in 2003, together with a book on his life and work, detailed the richness and sensitivity of his achievements.
While never claiming the intellectual command of his father, David Leach was a fine potter and a warm and helpful friend to potters and students, generously offering help, advice and encouragement. With a quiet sense of humour, a witty turn of phrase and a self- deprecating sense of his own achievement, he was a likeable companion and an erudite lecturer.
As a highly respected figure within the studio pottery world, Leach was a champion of the burgeoning Craftsmen Potters Association (now Craft Potters Association), serving for a time as its chairman. He was a knowledgeable advocate and helped establish the studio pottery course at Harrow School of Art in the mid-Sixties, and later the Dartington Pottery Training Workshop, both based on the atelier system of teaching. Students were taken at his pottery, and these at different times included his three sons, Johnny, Jeremy and Simon. In 1987 he was appointed OBE.
At their best David Leach's pots are fresh, clear and bold, the decoration, whether brushed or incised, articulate and animate the form. Some of his finest pieces were porcelain tea sets with delicate fluted decoration and a pale blue celadon glaze, which combine elegance and finesse with a sound understanding of his chosen material.
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