The life and work of Bernard Leach as a potter, writer, artist, and thinker spanned not only Europe and Asia but much of the twentieth century. Born in Hong Kong on January 5th, 1887, he was the son of a colonial judge and much of his childhood was spent traveling between Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. When he turned ten he was sent to England to continue his schooling, and at sixteen he attended the Slade School of Art which for Leach was a dream come true. He had found his calling, and his life change direction. Although his teacher, Henry Tonks, did not agree and told his father that he did not recommend allowing his son to become an artist. This led to Leach spending a year working at a bank and in a museum, before attending the London School of Art for two terms.
In 1909 he returned to Japan intending to make a living teaching etching, and simultaneously studying Eastern art and culture. In 1911 Leach attended a rakuyaki tea-party with a group friend, and saw for the first time raku pots being made.
He recalled: 'One was taken out from the kiln, red hot, with long-handled tongs, dipped into a bucket of cold water, and it did not break. I thought, "Isn't it exciting! I want to do that; I believe I could learn to do that. I wonder if I could get a teacher?” I did.' Full of excitement and enthusiasm, he apprenticed himself to potters working in the tradition of Ogata Kenzan, who was a note maker of raku ware in the 17th and 18th centuries. During this time Leach earned the prestigious title of Kenzan VII, making him part of the seventh generation of Kenzan potters.
In 1920 Leach returned to England with Shoji Hamada and together established his pottery in St. Ives, Cornwall. Leach also built the first Asian-style climbing kiln in the West with his friends Shoji Hamada and Matsubayashi Tsuneyoshi.
When Leach saw the low standard of commercial ceramics he was appalled, and set out to make well designed pottery that everyone could afford. With his blend of classic oriental pottery and pre-industrial slipware Leach saw a bridge between the two cultures that he was raised in. His work was pivotal in initiating the studio pottery movement in Britain, of which he is the father figure and most famous practitioner.
His close friendship with the American artist Mark Tobey, whom he first met at Darlington Hall in the early thirties, resulted in a period of study and inner search which several years later led him to accept the Baha'i Faith - a religion whose very basis is the unity, not only of East and West, but of the whole world of humanity. So important was this faith to him that he could claim it was, 'inherent in my thoughts whether written, drawn or tucked away in the background of my pots.
Bernard Leach's artistic and cultural work won him distinguished awards. In 1962 he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his contribution to the development of British pottery. In 1966, for his cultural services to Japan, he received the Order of the Sacred Treasure, Second Class, and the highest honor the Japanese Government bestows on a foreigner. In 1970 he was honored by the World Crafts Council at a gathering in Dublin, and in 1973, in a private audience with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, he became the first craftsman ever to be made a Companion of Honor. In 1974 he received the Japan Foundation Cultural Award. The centenary of his birth, 1987, was commemorated in Britain by the issue of a special set of postage stamps in his honor. Bernard Leach died in 1979, at the age of 92. He has been referred to as 'the greatest artist-potter-writer of this age', and 'perhaps one of the greatest men of our time'.
"Drawings, Verse, & Belief" - Bernard Leach - ISBN 0815550200
"Inside Japanese Ceramics" - Richard L. Wilson - ISBN 0834804425