Author: Rachel Viney, Historical Story Researcher at the Leach Pottery
Past and present meet – in some surprising ways – in this account of the sea voyage that brought Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada to Britain 100 years ago
In June 1920, the cargo-passenger steamer NYK Kamo Maru set sail from the Japanese port of Yokohama, bound for London. She had been built 12 years earlier as the first of six new 8,500-ton-class vessels constructed for the Japanese shipping company Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK) to strengthen the company’s Europe Line fleet. (NYK, 1985)
NYK Kamo Maru. She was built in 1908 in the Mitsubishi dockyard in Nagasaki.
Credit: NYK Maritime Museum
On board Kamo Maru as she left Yokohama on that June day, 100 years ago, were Bernard Leach, his wife, Muriel, and their young family: sons David and Michael and daughter Eleanor. And the family was continuing to grow: at the time of making the voyage Muriel was several months pregnant.
The start of a new chapter
The journey to England marked a new chapter in Bernard Leach’s life. Born in Hong Kong, he lived in Japan as a small child, returning to the country in his early twenties. It was there that he married Muriel in late 1909 and started a family. It was in Japan too that Leach, who had been pursuing a career predominantly as a fine artist, had the famous encounter with raku that was to change the course of his life.
By 1920 Bernard Leach was making and exhibiting pots regularly. However the death of Muriel’s mother and a changing political situation in Japan had already prompted plans for a return to Britain. Around the same time, an opportunity presented itself in the form of a new venture – establishing a studio pottery in St Ives with the backing of local philanthropist Mrs Frances Horne – bringing with it the chance to forge a new life in a country of which Leach knew relatively little. (Cooper, 2003)
A fellow potter comes on board
Passenger records show that Bernard Leach was not the only passenger on board Kamo Maru to give his profession as ‘artist’. (TNA, 1878-1960) Joining the ship in Kobe, having taken advantage of the last-minute availability of a single cabin, was a 25-year-old graduate of the Tokyo School of Technology and aspiring studio potter, whom Leach had got to know over the course of three days the previous year. His name was Shoji Hamada. An admirer of Leach, Hamada turned down offers of work in his native Japan and China and instead sought the permission of Mrs Horne and of his patrons in Japan to join Leach in his new venture.
An intriguing discovery
After Kobe, the ship called at Shanghai. And it’s at this point that past and present intersect, thanks to a recent discovery in the archives of the Penwith Society of Arts in Cornwall (of which Bernard Leach would become a founding member in 1949).
Earlier this year, a small, unassuming book, The Flight of the Dragon by Laurence Binyon, turned up in a box of books in the Penwith archives. Inside was the inscription ‘To Leach’ from someone whose name reads like ‘Jones’. Their location was Shanghai and the date 8 July, 1920.
A search of the Leach catalogue turned up a letter to Bernard Leach from one Thomas Jones, who worked for Reuters in Shanghai. In the letter, dated 11 June 1920, Jones expresses the hope of seeing Leach in London. (CAPBL, Vol II) Given the date inscribed in the book, it seems entirely possible that their meeting came much sooner – during the Kamo Maru’s stopover in Shanghai – and that the book was therefore given to Leach in person.
Before being assigned to Shanghai in 1919, Jones had worked in Japan as an English teacher and a correspondent in the Reuters Tokyo office. (Akutagawa, 2006) It is possible that he got to know Bernard Leach during this time.
The book holds a further, delightful surprise in the form of a number of line drawings by Bernard Leach.
The recently-discovered book, complete with Leach’s sketches, inscribed to Bernard Leach at the time of his journey from Japan to Britain. Credit: Penwith Gallery
The journey continues
After further stopovers – including Leach’s birthplace Hong Kong, Singapore and Colombo – Kamo Maru eventually docked in London on 24 August. From there the Leach family travelled to Cardiff, home of Muriel’s father, Dr William Hoyle, who was director of the National Museum of Wales. They arrived not a moment too soon. Only days later, on 28 August, Muriel gave birth to twin daughters: Ruth Jessamine, known as Jessamine, and Elizabeth Massey, known as Betty. Shortly afterwards Bernard Leach returned to London, rejoining Hamada who had been enthusiastically “taking bus routes from one end of the city to the other, and visiting museums and galleries”. (Cooper, 2003) From there, the pair made their way to St Ives – on the final stage of their momentous journey from East to West.
An incident from the later history of Kamo Maru, reported in the Sydney Herald, carries a familiar echo of our own times. In 1931, now assigned to NYK’s Australia Line, the ship, her crew and her passengers were quarantined for several weeks after a passenger who boarded in Shanghai was discovered to have smallpox. (shipwatcher.com)
Kamo Maru in June 1934. Credit: The McPhie Family/The ShipWatcher Blog
Tragically, smallpox was to claim the life of the Reuters journalist Thomas Jones, who contracted the disease in Shanghai in 1923, while still in his early thirties.
In 1941 Kamo Maru was requisitioned by the Japanese army and used as a transport ship. In 1943 she survived being torpedoed and was repaired and returned to service. In July 1944 she was again torpedoed, by the submarine USS Tinosa, and sunk. In total, NYK was to lose 185 vessels in the war. (nyk.com)
In 1923, having helped Leach establish the Leach Pottery in St Ives, Hamada returned to Japan, where he set up a pottery at Mashiko. He and Leach remained friends and stayed in regular contact throughout their lives, making many more journeys between Britain and Japan.
Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada admiring an English medieval pitcher, 1966. Image kindly provided by the Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts, BHL/12872.
Copyright Sugiyama Kira
With special thanks to:
NYK Maritime Museum, Yokohama
Neil Ennis and Jo Bass
About the Author
Rachel Viney is a cultural researcher, writer and editor, specialising in the visual arts, publishing and broadcasting. Having loved studio pots for as long as she can remember, she’s thrilled to be working with the Leach Pottery in its centenary year.
NYK, 1985. Voyage of a Century: Photo Collection of NYK Ships. Tokyo: Nippon Yusen Kaisha.
Cooper, Emmanuel, 2003. Bernard Leach: Life & Work. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Ancestry.com. UK and Ireland, Incoming Passenger Lists, 1878-1960. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2008. Original data: Board of Trade: Commercial and Statistical Department and successors: Inwards Passenger Lists. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA).
Crafts Study Centre Bath, 1984-1985. Catalogue of the Additional Papers of Bernard Leach, Volume I (ref. 2338).
Translator’s Note in Akutagawa, Ryunosuke, 2006. Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories. London: Penguin Classics.