Volume 14 Number 2
Good for a Thousand Years
01 April 2001

Veteran potter David Leach believes art is about transcendental values. He talks to Mary Lean and Anastasia Stepanova.

When David Leach examines a pot fresh out of the kiln, he looks for one thing above all else: does it convey life?

Ninety in May, Leach has been making pots for 71 years: and he certainly conveys life himself. He may be diffident about his achievements, but not about his convictions. 'Breadth, strength and honesty can all be expressed in the thing you make,' he says. 'Art to me needs to be inspirational: to lift.'

If William Morris was the great-grandfather of the British arts and crafts movement, David's father, Bernard Leach, was its grandfather. He went to Japan in 1909 as a two-dimensional painter and etcher, was captivated by the three-dimensional art of ceramics and returned 11 years later with a Japanese potter, Shoji Hamada, to set up his own studio. The Leach Pottery in St Ives, Cornwall, reinvented pottery in the UK, and trained or inspired the leading British potters of the 20th century.

David, born in Japan in 1911, was Bernard's eldest son. Over coffee in his home at the foot of Dartmoor in the West of England, he describes three milestones in his career: his choice, aged 19, to work with his father; his first encounter with the Oxford Group (later known as MRA) in 1934; and his decision in 1955 to leave St Ives and launch out on his own.

David's choice of career was a surprise to his father, who had expected him to go into medicine. 'That fizzled out because I was not clever enough to get a scholarship to university and because my father was an impecunious artist who couldn't possibly afford to send me there without one.' At the same time he had begun to recognize that his father 'was about something which was unique and potentially universal'--and that he needed help in achieving it.

By this time the Leach Pottery was employing several people, and producing a range of pottery ware. 'Like most artists, my father wasn't the most practical of men to run a business. I could see all sorts of technical, business and organizational areas where I might learn and help him.'

Apart from periods away for training and war service, David stayed at St Ives for 25 years, running the pottery under his father's artistic direction. Together they would identify gaps in their range, work out how to fill them, and then David would make the prototypes from his own and Bernard's designs. Later David selected the students or apprentices best able to produce the pots. 'I was a sort of filter of our original ideas to that which was reproducable by the team.'

In 1934, somewhat to his father's horror, David Leach embarked on a three-year course at the North Stafford Technical College in Stoke on Trent, the centre of Britain's mass-produced pottery industry. While hand potters throw each pot individually, industrial processes devised in the 18th century use moulds to produce large quantities of identical crockery. 'We studio potters don't take very much line from Josiah Wedgwood,' he says. So it wasn't for artistic guidance he went to Stoke, but for training on such highly technical subjects as firing methods and kilns, and the composition of clays and glazes. He still makes up his own glazes and pigments.

It was in Stoke that Leach encountered the Oxford Group, through his brother, Michael, who had come home for the summer from Cambridge having 'undergone a change: we all thought for the better'. David made contact with Oxford Group enthusiasts in Stoke, and accepted an invitation to a 'house party' conference in Harrogate. 'It hit me between the eyes'--to such an extent that he returned the next weekend with two or three friends.

For Leach, the measure of spiritual growth, as of art, is 'life'. Just as one can recognize quality in a work of art, he says, one can recognize inner change in a person--the transformation from 'a life that didn't have life to a life that becomes full of life'. He sees MRA, with its stress on listening for God's direction, on moral values and on putting faith into action in the community, as 'the most effective way of focussing my Christian life'. Taking part in MRA events has provided some of the 'most inspirational moments' of his 89 years.

Not, he is quick to stress, that trying to live out his values has been easy. 'It's been a battle: it's sometimes successful and it's sometimes not. There's been a tussle between the vocational life as a so-called creative artist and the direct demands of living out what is common to us all on a more general moral level, whether we call ourselves artists or roadsweepers.' Sometimes he has agonized over whether to give up potting, so as to devote his whole time to MRA campaigns; thankfully for posterity he has held to his vocation.

In an interview with a former student, Gary Hatcher, in 1992, Leach describes his deeper inspiration as coming 'from a quietness' and a 'basic belief' in God. 'I go along with this, believe in it, practise it and find through this that I attain slightly higher levels of intelligence and application of creative forces. This comes through in the rightness and integration in a piece of work.'

The third turning point came in 1955, when Leach left his father's pottery to set up on his own at Lowerdown Cross in Bovey Tracey, Devon. 'By then my father was getting old and was writing little pamphlets saying "my days are numbered and I want my son, David, to carry on the pottery". I got cold feet: I had become proficient enough in the things I went to the pottery to help my father over--training, technology, marketing--but that wasn't artistic creation. My father presupposed this was naturally there: I wasn't that confident.'

To find out what he could do, Leach felt that he had to get out from 'under my father's seeing eye and rather strong domination'. 'He was a good teacher, very clear about what he thought was good and bad, and he didn't mind telling you. For many years after I came here I went on producing very similar pots to those I made, under my father's direction, at St Ives, and then because of the separation I began to develop my own expression.' Looking back, he is inclined to regret that he left it so late.

David and his wife, Elizabeth, have been married 63 years and their three sons all trained with him at Lowerdown Pottery. The eldest, John, now has a pottery and international reputation of his own, at Muchelney in Somerset, while Jeremy and Simon both combine potting with other interests. None of David's seven grandchildren have taken up the family vocation, though John's eldest son, Ben, is a sculptor. There are eight great-grandchildren.

Like his father before him, David has trained a generation of potters, and lectured and given workshops all over the world. He received an OBE in 1987. The Devon Guild of Craftsmen, based half a mile from his pottery, is an abiding enthusiasm. The guild was founded in 1955, with the aim of becoming the 'best craft guild' in England, and today has 220 members, drawn from the whole southwest of England. Selection is rigorous: 'if we pass three or four applicants out of 20 we're lucky,' he says.

Leach is disturbed by the 'strong disrespect for tradition' and the overemphasis on 'rather inward-looking self-expression' he sees in much of art today. 'Art schools are not so interested in the acquisition of skills as in drawing out the student's creative capacity and ideas, which are sometimes very immature and quite unskillfully performed. I think it is important to learn the skills first, then you have the facility to do what you have in your mind successfully. The modern generation wants to take short cuts to self-expression.'

He has little time for the 'shock tactics' of such modern stars as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin with their bisected sheep and unmade beds. 'If you ask some modern artists what they're trying to convey, they will nearly always say it's up to you, make of it what you will. I think that is an abdication of responsibility. The communication between maker and viewer is not good, because the work is not founded on these basic feelings we share.

'There's too much novelty-seeking. Novelty is here today and gone tomorrow. If my pot is good I want it to be good for me, good for the people who see it and good for a thousand years.'

And if, for David Leach, art is about conveying life, this is not an exclusive preserve. 'We tend to wrap artists up into sculptors, painters, poets, musicians.... Eric Gill said, "An artist is not a special sort of man, every man is a special sort of artist".'

More examples of his work:
Mary Lean and Anastasia Stepanova

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