As a teenager I visited Bernard Leach’s 90th birthday retrospective exhibition at the V&A Museum in 1977. Some of the pieces resonated strongly with me – in particular I remember being drawn by the striking presence of a large dark tenmoku bottle and a charger (large platter) decorated with the tree of life. I also attended the associated seminar at which Bernard, along with Michael Cardew and others, was present. The events confirmed in me that there was some substance to my attraction to ceramics – that the creation of art was something important, that it was more than just skill – that at its best it was an expression and a reflection of the ‘spirit’ of the artist – that it could and should come from a genuine place, one with which I identified, although perhaps didn’t understand at the time. It was a dot-joining moment of revelation that this muddy material I was interested in could with passion, care and integrity, be transformed into objects that could smack you between the eyes.
A year later I was offered an apprenticeship by Bernard Leach’s son David at Lowerdown Pottery, Bovey Tracey in Devon. It was an intensive and demanding period of learning. David was a hard task-master but with one-to-one teaching, skills acquisition was rapid and in just a few months I had progressed from making his standard egg cups and ramekins that were sold to summer visitors, to the fluted porcelain bowls and teapots that were exhibited in New York and London. There were daily coffee time talks sat around the stove, chewing the ceramic cud and cogitating life. Bernard visited Lowerdown while I was there, just three months before he died. He was blind and physically frail by then but still possessed a razor sharp intellect and a questioning nature. As an eighteen year old student I was impressed by his infectious energy and insightful thinking – he put me on the spot, challenging me about my own motivation. He and David recognised the importance of a foundation in skills, but that each maker has eventually to find their own creative voice and should be constantly on their mettle, exploring for themselves. But they also knew that the process is gradual – something that happens in tandem with maturing personal development. I returned to share David Leach’s studio for a number of years in the 1980s and 90s and he was always interested in and encouraging of the new directions in my work, even if they were not always to his taste. It is interesting that, although the ‘Leach tradition’ has been a strong influence in ceramics, many potters that worked at St Ives, or Lowerdown have gone on to become individual makers with very different styles and techniques – they haven’t on the whole become Leach clones. I’m sure it is due in no small measure to the encouragement of that self-challenging attitude and it is certainly an awareness that have carried with me for the last thirty years.