Graduating from Camberwell College of Arts in London, Michael’s interest in studio ceramics led to collaborations with David Leach, an instrumental figure in the success of St. Ives pottery.
Often credited as the father of British studio ceramics, Bernard Leach brought the art of the exotic and oriental to the traditional craft of pottery-making in the early 1900s. At the time, pottery in Britain was very much seen as a lesser art-form: inferior to contemporary paintings by Picasso or Matisse for example. After initially setting out to teach the art of print-making in Japan, Leach quickly became fascinated by the Japanese potter’s wheel. After training with some of the country’s master-potters he was introduced to Shoji Hamada, whose partnership was fundamental to the development of modern British studio ceramics.
In the idyllic setting of Cornwall, Leach and Hamada produced a distinctive style of ware; characterised by utilitarian forms, rough natural glazes and minimalist decoration which often looked to Japanese calligraphy for inspiration. Common motifs included leaping salmon and flying birds, along with an array of decoration techniques brush involving work, stencilling, wax-resist and fluting. Reacting against the industrial age of mass-production Leach believed that pottery should above all express a sense of integrity, authority and purity of form.
Many successful British potters began their artistic career at St.Ives pottery, having been trained by Leach and Hamada. Among the most distinguished were Bernard's American wife Janet, his eldest son David, and Michael Cardew, all of whom developed their own unique style based on Leach’s ideology.
Cardew’s work is largely recognised by the intense colours he applied to slipware designs. Like Leach, his extensive travels heavily informed his unique artistic style. Cardew spent a considerable time working and teaching at the Abuja Pottery in West Africa. Following this, the stoneware he produced tended to be much darker, reflecting the earthy tones of the landscape around him. In this example (lot 479), a rich tenmoku glaze covers the pots, each one displays the free and original handwork of Cardew’s incised decoration, inspired by the wares of Shoji Hamada.
The success of St. Ives pottery after the Second World War was, in many ways, due to David Leach’s transformative production methods. Working largely with stoneware and porcelain, his pots display an incredible degree of control and restraint, the elegant beauty of the sweeping brushwork decoration in this example (lot 490) draws heavily from his father’s wares.
Janet Leach’s bold stoneware designs are unequivocally Japanese inspired, in the same manner as Bernard Leach’s pots. The bold, rustic nature of the clay and flat cut edges of her wares pay homage to her husband’s artistic vision which advocates form over function and simplicity over the ornate. A clear fusion of East meets West, Janet Leach’s designs, much like this example, captures the vitality of modern design which has continued in British studio pottery-making today.
Through Leach’s pioneering artistic vision, modern British ceramics grew into a form of contemporary art in its own right. These functional domestic wares now served as vessels of artistic ideas concerning form and aesthetic, where traditional pottery techniques could be challenged and transformed.