Saturday, August 30, 2008

Leach: Is art any use?

Is art any use? Is anything any use? So asked one of Britain’s most famous potters, Bernard Leach, in his diary exactly one hundred years ago today. And, he gave himself an answer - of sorts! Historically, there are not many craftspeople who kept diaries, but Leach did, and, according to Archives Hub, they make for ‘illuminating reading’.

The Archives Hub - which provides access to descriptions of unique and unpublished primary source material held in universities, colleges and research institutes - gives a good short biography for Leach. He was born in 1887 in Hong Kong and lived in the Far East until the age of ten, when he came to school at a Jesuit college in England. At 16, in 1903, he was admitted to Slade, as their youngest student, and subsequently studied etching, and in 1909 went to work in Japan as an etcher. Soon, though, he discovered ceramics and trained with Japanese masters. After befriending a young potter named Shoji Hamada, the two of them came to England, to St Ives, Cornwall, and set up the Leach Pottery, which over time was to become hugely influential.

During the 1930s, Leach started teaching at Dartington Hall, and he set up a pottery in Shinner’s Bridge. He also worked as a draughtsman and, according to the Archives Hub biography, was hugely influential as a writer and thinker. During an extremely active life, he was continually at the centre of developments in the studio crafts, leading and participating in demonstrations, conferences, and exhibiting and touring around the world. It is estimated that Leach made about 100,000 pots during his lifetime and sold well over that number of his most famous written work, A Potter’s Book. Moreover, Archives Hub says, his letters and diaries, which are housed at the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham, make ‘illuminating reading’.

Historically, many priests, writers and politicians have kept diaries, but very few craftspeople have. Of over 500 diarists listed by The Diary Junction only five are categorised as craftspeople, and none as potters (there is no data on Leach himself yet). So Leach is quite a rarity. VADS, the online resource for visual arts in the UK, has nearly 1,000 images for Leach, including, of course, his ceramics, but also photographs, letters, and many pages from his diary. 

One of those pages is for 30 August 1908, one hundred years go today. Leach, then aged 21, was in a philosophical mood. He wrote this in the diary: ‘Question: What is the greater - the artist (Raphael) who appeals to all the multitude and the senses or the artist (Blake) who appeals only to the highest minds. What the devil has the ‘mot’ to do with art? What is the ratio between art and humanity? Is art any use? Is anything any use? To live happily one must take it for granted it is!’

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