Leach Pottery: An essay for radio

I wrote this short essay for a hypothetical radio programme when I applied to the BBC Radio 3/AHRC New Generation Thinkers competition in December 2010. I was fortunate enough to be chosen as a finalist out of over 1000 applicants and attend a thought-provoking workshop. Although I did not make the final ten I wanted to share the work I prepared for the competition here. Next I will post my idea for a radio series on the history of copper.

A visit to the Leach Pottery, St Ives, Cornwall, May 2009

Leach Pottery Standard Ware mug and Turmeric/Grape Virginia Creeper silk dupion by Clarissa Hulse
Enlightened design: Leach Pottery Standard Ware mug and Turmeric/Grape Virginia Creeper silk dupion by Clarissa Hulse
My morning breaks will never be the same again. The small steel teaspoon chimes, rather than clinks, as I stir together frothy milk and velveteen coffee in my new Leach Pottery cup. As I stare longingly at the ever-decreasing swirls I remember my visit to the Leach Pottery Studio and Museum in St Ives, Cornwall. The burnished yellow ochre glaze, the exquisite lip and the pleasing weight of the finely turned stoneware has placed 90 years of British studio pottery into my hands.

An unpromising walk from the centre of town brings you to an equally unpromising house at Higher Stennack. But don’t be discouraged. Venture in and you too will become students of the two most significant pioneers of artist pottery: Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. The pair established the pottery in 1920 after they met while Leach was an apprentice potter in Japan. As you step quietly around the recently restored studio and galleries, around the climbing kiln and along the delicate wooden platforms you can’t fail to become absorbed in the ideals of functional beauty that Leach spent so many years learning and teaching. The early decades of studio pottery in Britain embodied a marriage of philosophy and thought from east and west.

While wandering around the galleries you begin to learn how to read the pots. They were not just exquisite to look at. Leach created objects that were statements against the shallow conceits of many fine art ceramics. Now I could begin to understand what he meant by the standard forms of unity, spontaneity and simplicity (explained in “A Potter’s Book,” 1940). There is enlightenment in simple design, colour, texture and shape. This museum is dedicated to keeping this philosophy alive and so who could resist bringing some of it back home?