Obituary: Janet Leach
Saturday 13 September 1997
Despite her commitment to the Leach Pottery at St Ives, in Cornwall, she succeeded in establishing her own international reputation in the 1970s and 1980s for ceramics which were quite different in mood and appearance to those of her more famous husband. Powerful and often monumental, her pots reflect the strength and determination of her character.
Like many artists who work with clay, Janet Leach did not come into contact with the material until she was in her early thirties. She was born Janet Darnell, in Grand Saline, a small town in Texas, in 1918, an only child of parents whose families had travelled to Texas by horse and wagon.
From early on she showed an aptitude for art, especially sculpture, though, given the economic depression of the time, there was little money to fund her studies. In the absence of any better materials she used to whittle wood and sandstone with the Swiss army knives which her grandfather, a policeman, picked up from the criminals he arrested. For a short period she went to a small art school in Dallas, drawing local prostitutes, who were only too pleased to pose. For a time she helped create dioramas depicting aspects of Texan history, but she saved assiduously to enable her to move to New York and begin a career as a sculptor.
With a friend, Janet travelled to New York by Greyhound bus, arriving with an accent so broad she felt almost as much a foreigner in the city as she was to do later living in Japan. She worked as an unpaid assistant to the sculptor Robert Cronbach before becoming involved in the Federal Works Art Project. The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 brought this to an end, and although she was briefly married to Joe Turino, an Italian shipyard worker, they had little in common, and she refused to have children, to delay his entry into the forces.
Politically aware, involved in Communism and strongly anti-Fascist, like many others she had been shocked by the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939. When the United States entered the Second World War, she took a job in the shipyard, learning skilled tasks such as welding, traditionally carried out by men, and riding to work on an ex-army 32cc motorcycle, nicknamed Dude. Although she continued to make sculpture after the war ended, it seemed a difficult career for a woman, a notion she shared with Barbara Hepworth when the two became close friends in St Ives.
Her first introduction to clay was at the Inwood Pottery outside New York, run by two elderly sisters, one of whom had won a Gold Medal in Paris. Here Janet learned how to throw pots and was lent an early copy of Bernard Leach's ground-breaking text A Potter's Book (1940), which made a tremendous impact on her. For a time she combined making pots with teaching the subject at Rockland State Hospital, a large New York State mental institution.
A move to Spring Valley, 25 miles from New York, brought her into contact with the Steiner community and anthroposophy. From their threefold concept, which can be interpreted as head, heart and hand, she developed a triangle for the seal she stamped on her pots, and which she continued to use throughout her life.
Feeling the need for more serious instruction, she attended a summer course at Alfred University under Charles Harder in 1950, meeting other young potters for the first time, and realised the depth of her own involvement with pottery, though she was at a loss to know how to proceed. The news that Bernard Leach was planning a lecture tour with the Japanese potter Shoji Hamada and the writer Soetsu Yanagi promised contact with people who understood pottery and its relevance in life, and her meeting with them proved to be a major turning-point.
At Black Mountain College, North Carolina, while she was expecting to be inspired by Leach, it was Hamada who held her attention. Seeing him sitting cross-legged on a table making pots while someone else turned the wheel, she knew exactly what was wrong with her own work. "He used to play pat-a-cake with the pots, pushing them around. I had never seen anything like it. I knew I was treating the wheel like a lathe, we were too mechanical," she said. She decided to ask to study with him in Japan. She had struck up a friendship with Bernard Leach, and he helped her gain Hamada's consent. Travelling by cargo boat, she arrived in Japan in 1954.
For a time she stayed at Hamada's pottery at Mashiko, despite the strong local convention that women should not work as potters or travel around the country unaccompanied. Inevitably, the language was also a problem, as she assumed, wrongly, that Hamada spoke no English, although he had lived in St Ives for two years. He advised her not to learn from him but from where he learnt, and suggested she work at the Ichino family pottery in Tamba where they still made pots in the traditional style.
Here she watched and learned to work on a Japanese wheel and to appreciate the natural qualities of clay and firing. With Bernard Leach she travelled around the country, typing out his manuscript for A Potter in Japan (published in 1960). Their friendship deepened, and they agreed to marry on the understanding that he would leave his pottery at St Ives in the hands of his eldest son David while they would settle in Japan.
Marrying a man over 30 years her senior and with an international reputation as a potter and artist was fraught with problems, some of which immediately became manifest. David Leach had for some time been feeling the need to break away from his father's influence and set up his own pottery, and, with the impending marriage, took the opportunity to announce his move. With no one to run the Leach Pottery, which produced a steady income, their plan to settle in Japan had to be abandoned, and in early 1956 Janet arrived in England.
There she discovered that she was expected to manage the pottery without having had any experience of a production workshop, organise a team of around a dozen workers, develop new markets and help design new shapes. As a foreigner she was viewed with much suspicion but succeeded in holding the pottery together and, while her manner could be intimidating, it was clear to everyone that she cared for the pots and the potters who made them.
Janet eventually set up her own private studio complete with a Japanese wheel and built an experimental kiln to fire pots surrounded by the actual flame. Given her independence and intention of making pots quite distinct from those of Bernard, it is surprising that Janet took the family name. Any hesitation in bearing the Leach name was put aside under pressure from Bernard, and, not wanting a confrontation with him on the issue, she eventually agreed.
The marriage was never an easy one. Janet was not a Leach worshipper, she did not seek Bernard's advice, was sometimes openly critical of his pots, and she did not share his increasingly important Bah'ai faith. However, they both loved Japan and enjoyed their frequent visits. In 1962 Bernard moved to his own flat, leaving Janet to run the pottery. When he died in 1979, production of Leach standard ware ended, and Janet shared the pottery with Trevor Corser, an ex- apprentice, until her death.
"Janet's pots show no direct influence from mine," wrote Bernard, admiring her independence yet bewailing her interest in "irregular forms and textures". Janet was careful to avoid dogmatism, claiming that "the good pot is not one kind of pot, but many. I am quite satisfied with the pursuit of that good pot."
Her combination of thrown and hand-built pieces incorporates characteristics of traditional Tamba and Bizen wares, while many of her forms are a reinterpretation of classical Japanese pots associated with the tea ceremony, though rendered freely and with great vigour. Surfaces are often covered with rich runny glazes, and a range of black pots is enlivened with a dramatic white slash, animating and defining the form. In its strength and clarity, her work carries an unmistakable voice, combining both austerity and sensuality.
Exhibitions in London at major venues such as the British Crafts Centre, Craft Potters Shop and private galleries were complimented by 10 important one-person shows in Japan. A retrospective is long overdue.
Janet Darnell, potter: born Grand Saline, Texas 15 March 1918; married first Joe Turino (marriage dissolved), secondly 1955 Bernard Leach (died 1979); died St Ives, Cornwall 12 September 1997.
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