Maker of exquisitely fluted and glazed ceramics who first proved himself a painstaking manager of his father's St Ives Pottery
David Leach made three distinct contributions to the craft of studio pottery,
the production by artist-craftsmen of individually hand-worked ceramics.
First, he put his business acumen, his organisational flair and his hunger for
technical refinement at the disposal of his father, the great potter Bernard
Leach (1887-1979), when the Leach Pottery in St Ives was going through rough
times, thus enabling his father to do much of his best work. Second,
although starting his own pottery somewhat late in life, he dazzled
connoisseurs with his work, particularly the finely fluted designs
facilitated by the light porcelain he developed, which is now widely used.
Last, he was a painstaking educator of young artist-craftsmen, both in-house
and in a variety of schools, colleges and other centres, putting much-needed
emphasis on the importance of their learning basic techniques before they
sought to evolve a style.
Throughout their careers, both father and son were heavily influenced by
oriental traditions of handcrafted pottery and, significantly, David Andrew
Leach was born in Japan in 1911, while his father was studying techniques
there. He spent the first nine years of his life in Japan and (briefly) in
China before his father, returning to England in 1920, settled his family at
St Ives in Cornwall. There, with the Japanese potter Shoji Hamada as his
assistant, Bernard Leach established a studio pottery that was soon at the
forefront of a new British fashion for pots individually hand-made by
artist-craftsmen rather than mechanically produced with moulds in factories.
David, who was his elder son, originally intended to pursue a career in
medicine, but, helping out at the pottery during his school holidays, he
could not help absorbing some of his father’s all-consuming passion for
ceramics. Ceramic art would even be discussed at the tea table, where his
father likened the trailing of black treacle over Cornish cream to the
interaction of differently coloured slip decorations.
Despite Bernard Leach’s brilliance as an artist and teacher, the sales of
Leach pottery were barely covering the costs of production by the time David
left school, and there was no money available for his medical training. The
astute 19-year-old had, however, observed that his father’s sublime skills
as a craftsman were not matched by any great business sense, and so decided
that it must be his first role in life to make himself an expert in the
management, marketing and technical side that he could see his father was
Gradually he became his father’s righthand man, even surmounting strongly
expressed paternal displeasure in 1934 when, in his father’s eyes, he went
over to “the enemy” by embarking on a three-year pottery managers’ course at
Stoke-on-Trent, intended for industrial manufacturers (his father’s arch
competitors), rather than for studio potteries such as the Leach. The young
man went ahead regardless, and what he learnt at Stoke about subjects
crucial to both factory and studio production was vital in seeing the Leach
Pottery through its difficult years and into profit.
Returning to St Ives, he instituted a policy of slowing down staff turnover by
encouraging local boys to become apprentices. His first local recruit,
William Marshall, became his most spectacular success, joining the pottery
in 1938, becoming its foreman and staying for the best part of four decades.
Another of David’s innovations was a bread-and-butter line of table, kitchen
and oven stoneware, to be designed by his father and reproduced by potters
repeat-throwing to a set formula. Sold as Leach standard ware, this kept the
firm ticking over between sales of its more individualistic pieces. The
result was bulk orders from department stores throughout the Second World
War, when the national export drive diverted the industrially produced
pottery, which they had hitherto bought away from the home market.
After war service with The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, David wasted no
time in introducing a mail-order catalogue, which helped to maintain this
new sales momentum, publishing it before many of his father’s competitors
had even resumed production.
Managerial success did not preclude a personal urge to make pots, however, and
at a St Ives art gallery in 1949 he showed a hundred of his own pieces,
remarkable for a sense of proportion and their combined functionality and
understated beauty. He was spreading his wings in other ways, too: advising
on the establishment of a pottery near Sandefjord in Norway in 1951;
spending a year, 1953-54, running the pottery department at Loughborough
College of Art; and starting a pottery for the Carmelite Friars at Aylesford
in Kent in 1954.
The Leach Pottery was by this time on a firm financial footing. When Bernard
Leach married, as his third wife, the American potter Janet Darnell, she
showed both willingness and ability to take over the managerial function
with the help of Marshall.
In 1955, then, both David and his younger brother Michael, who had joined the
firm in the late 1940s, were free to leave to start their own potteries.
David founded the Lowerdown Pottery at Bovey Tracey in Devon, where his
creation of hand-produced tableware ranges and individual pots would match
the highest standards of his father.
His undimmed enthusiasm, his continuing quest for technical and artistic
improvement and the blessing (shared with his father) of an unusually long
productive life meant that, in this second career, too, he was able to exert
a considerable influence on contemporary ceramics.
For the first few years, while a large stoneware kiln was being built, he
concentrated solely on the production of earthenware — either slipware in
the Leach Pottery style or with a mushroom-coloured tin-glaze similar to
work being made by Marianne de Trey at Dartington. Much of this work is
good, but fairly unremarkable when compared with his later pots. In 1961,
production of stoneware and porcelain began. This was much more successful,
and his gifts as an individual potter began to emerge.
Continuing experiments he had begun in his final years at St Ives, he made a
breakthrough in 1967 in producing a light, translucent, hard-paste porcelain
body, capable of being thrown very thinly without distortion. This helped to
make a name for him at Lowerdown as a potter of the greatest precision,
capable of crafting the most delicate, narrow fluting decorations. “Fluting
calls for a steady hand and a calm inner spirit, particularly when a large
bowl may involve about one hundred flutes and all must form part of a rhythm
that echoes and flows into a whole. David Leach became highly skilled in the
technique,” wrote Emmanuel Cooper in the combined biography/catalogue, David
Leach (Richard Dennis Publications, 2003), which accompanied Leach’s
travelling exhibition of 2003-04. In the estimation of the critic Bill
Ismay: “His cut flutings on pots of essentially 20th-century feel are among
the most sensitive done by anyone since the technique was classically
developed by oriental potters.”
“What I aim for,” Leach told Crafts magazine in 1979, “is
integration between the deeply cut, sharp-edged foot and the flutes, which I
vary in sharpness and width and complement with different glazes, some
shiny, some gently breaking the surface, some muted, as in recent
experiments with gun-metal glaze.” These different glazes included celadons
with a wide range of colour — from jade green to ying-ching blue — as well
as tenmoku, gun-metal and reds and yellows. The fluted celadon porcelain
bowl by David Leach became an icon of British studio ceramics.
Many of David’s stoneware pots are also incredibly beautiful. He was an
outstanding thrower and was one of the few potters able to make really
successful large work. His technical skill was excellent, and many of his
tenmoku and celadon pots show a remarkable degree of control. He also
developed a number of signature glaze effects including one with dolomite
over tenmoku using wax-resist decoration and another with an oatmeal glaze
over an iron slip. While his pots can be superficially similar to his
father’s, they are never copies and always have a very different character.
David’s pots rely on strong shapes often modified with carved surfaces but
his brush decoration — while very competent and decorative — lacks the
spontaneous grace of that of his father or Hamada. The willow tree, a wave
pattern, the foxglove and a distinctive floral pattern were among his
favourite motifs. To the normal iron brushwork he would often add cobalt
blue and vivid red dots.
Leach continued teaching part-time at Loughborough until the mid-1960s. He
advised Harrow School of Art on the establishment, in 1963, of a two-year
vocational diploma in studio pottery, with an emphasis on repetition
throwing, and in 1976 he played a pivotal role in setting up the Dartington
Pottery Training Workshop. He was chairman of the Craftsmen Potters
Association of Great Britain in 1967 and of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen,
1986-87, a council member of the Crafts Council in 1977 and a member of the
grants commitee of the Crafts Advisory Commission. His first of many one-man
shows was with the Craftsmen Potters Association in 1966, and in 1967 he won
the gold medal of the International Academy of Ceramics. He also exhibited
in New York, Washington, Tokyo, Istanbul, Copenhagen, Rotterdam, Düsseldorf,
Heidelberg and Munich (as well as nearly every major craft outlet in
Britain) — all before 1980.
In the 1980s, his success, if anything, was even greater. There have been few
potters whose work is as universally popular as that of David Leach. He is
represented in more than 40 public collections in Britain alone. Even in his
nineties, he was still creating pots, mainly for exhibition or commission,
and experimenting with shapes, glazes and decoration.
He is survived by his wife Elizabeth, whom he married in 1938, and by their
three sons, all of whom have worked with him at Lowerdown.
David Leach, OBE, potter and teacher, was born on May 7, 1911. He died
on February 15, 2005, aged 93.