Author: Julia Ellen Lancaster, Leach 100 Residency Artist
Leach 100 artist, Julia Ellen Lancaster, reflects on her influences and encounters with the Leach Pottery’s legacy as she embarks upon her month-long residency at Porthmeor Studios, St Ives.
Although I first became familiar with the work of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada some years ago, as a ceramic artist it would be hard not to encounter their story somewhere along the line, nonetheless, it wasn’t until I started to visit St Ives about eight years ago, in relation to work, that I also visited the Leach Pottery and its Museum. Later, followed by two extended stays in Japan, one involving a residency in Tokyo, I began to appreciate the enormity of this unique relationship that formed the genesis of the Leach Pottery. Back then the idea of this kind of cultural exchange, between two individuals with a shared passion from two continents with such wildly conflicting histories, surely must have been, well, unusual, challenging and somewhat odd!
A pottery built on the principles of friendship and exchange, is how the Leach Pottery is often described. I am drawn to this, and it resonates with what I’ve come to recognise as a driving force in my own ceramic practice. Clay, and the forms produced from it, has the ability to tell a story and articulate personality and meaning. Personally, I strive continually to understand and respect the techniques and processes associated with clay, a constant source of exploration, exhilaration and failure, but it’s its ability to transmogrify – from a natural material, manipulated, nurtured and moulded by hand into something else, that captures my imagination and fuels my curiosity.
Right now, I feel like an explorer, excited by the possibilities and the rich resource of inspiration I know I will encounter as I make my way to St Ives, thanks to the Leach Pottery and Porthmeor Studios, who have made this residency possible.
Poignantly, hanging in my brother’s house, in the suburbs of Bedfordshire, are two photos of a group of other explorers – Victorian mountain climbers ascending Mont Blanc in 1892 – which I’ve always been fascinated by. The woman climbers wearing their ankle length, woollen skirts (hardly the ideal wear for such precarious pursuits) clamber nimbly across the wooden ladders, ignoring the perilous drop below them. As this growing sport developed and with it the need for better ways to secure these climbers in case of falls, ‘Pitons’ came to be used. These were nailed into the rock to support a rope, replacing the method of simply inserting rocks with rope tied round them. Pitons are left in the rock when the climb is over and mountaineers and climbers with a deep appreciation of the natural beauty of the mountains, began to question the ethics of the practice of Pitons, seeing them as a permanent blot or trace of human intervention. Many resorted back to the natural or no-safety-net method, choosing to respect and preserve the natural beauty of the mountains.
Ascension du Mont Blanc, Chamonix 1892. Original photos by Gay Couttet.
It would be remiss of me not to recognise and acknowledge the extraordinary times within which this residency is taking place, living through a major pandemic and the impact that it has had on individuals, communities and institutions. For much of 2020 there has been no safety net. So this residency is not so straight forward and social distancing measures and risk assessments have been needed and everyone has had to re-negotiate space and boundaries, both physical and social.
As I make my way, via the Great Western Railway, to St Ives, I’m thinking about the idea of ‘trace’, even before this word became so loaded in relation to the pandemic, and our impact on the earth’s natural resources. Just before I left my studio in east London I began a new project collecting the waste materials from other ceramicists and reconstituting these to have a purpose. But in that studio I have all my tools to hand; a kiln, a throwing wheel and other resources. For the Leach 100 Residency, Studio 5 at Porthmeor Studios will be the base for the residency. It’s a huge, empty studio and one which many artists have passed through since the 1880s, all leaving a trace of some kind. Despite the temptation to fill this space, I’ve chosen to leave behind the trappings of my practice and have come almost empty handed, apart from my most important tools – my hands! I think this may have been rash, but this year has been one of continuous new challenges, so it seems ok.
My own studio in east London, coincidently sits almost exactly on the site of the first purpose-built porcelain factory in England, Bow Porcelain Company, built in 1749. The founder, Thomas Frye was born in Dublin in 1710 and won acclaim in Ireland as a painter before coming to London in 1734. Frye was a keen inventor and his love of art and invention came together when he devised a method for producing soft paste porcelain. He eventually discovered a method of making porcelain using bone ash and by 1749 with the formula perfected and the help of the wealthy Peers family, who already owned much of the land across Bow, the Bow Porcelain works was set up. By 1760 more than 300 people were employed at the Bow Porcelain, whose main factory was called New Canton as a nod to the Chinese imports. More than a quarter of the employees were painters. A quarter of a millennium later, no physical trace of the works remains. Fragments of Bow porcelain were found on the south side of Stratford High Street during excavations in 1867 and further finds were made on the north side in 1921, just behind a row of wooden fronted buildings known as China Row.
Left: Facsimile of a treatise produced by Professor Graham Ellard, 2018. Right: Bow porcelain bowl painted by Thomas Craft, Bow Factory, London, c.1760
On the sixth floor of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Kensington, the display cabinets include hundreds of figurines and crockery from the east end of London. Some, the most ordinary-looking wares of all; cups, a jug, a saucer, are marked with the code letter ‘A’ indicating their ground breaking significance, being the first recorded items created by Frye’s pioneering patent – the first in Britain to use china clay for making china. It was the Plymouth apothecary called William Cookworthy who in 1745 at Tregonning Hill, near Germoe, in Cornwall, found the material that resembled the kaolin that had been used for so long in China – a rare type of decomposed granite, finer than most talcum powders.
Julia Ellen Lancaster in east London studio, 2020.
To pass the time on my train journey to St Ives, thanks to the rapid increase of digital technology, helping us or some of us, stay connected, I join a webinar online. The event, ‘A Celebration of Hamada Shoji and Bernard Leach’, is hosted by Japan House, and I learn a little more about this extraordinary relationship between Hamada and Leach. Matsuzuki Yuko (Curator, Mashiko Museum, Tochigi Prefecture) talks about the beginnings of Mashiko ceramics and the notion of mass-produced pottery for use by the population of Tokyo. Dr Matthew Tyas (Curator, Leach Pottery), shares on his screen some recently acquired historical artefacts. One, a faded brown paper, 3D pop-up plan of the Leach Pottery, hand drawn by Bernard Leach himself, showing living quarters incorporated into the building, indicating there was always an intended work/live element. The other is a detailed, technical blueprint for ‘The Leach Pottery Japanese Style of Kiln’, designed by Tsuronosuke Matsubayashi, 39th generation of the Asahi family of potters, in 1923. (A recording of this webinar is available here). The blueprint looks remarkably like a plan view and cross section view for some kind of great, modern ship. I remember how I used to handle these kind of blueprints all the time, when, as a young teenager I worked for my step-father during school holidays, who was himself a structural engineer. Seeing them now, on the screen, I still imagine the smell of ferric ammonium citrate and potassium ferricyanide that was used to produce them and lingered, faintly, every time they were unrolled – something you can’t possibly experience from a digital viewing. It makes me wonder what the impact of this digital revolution will have on places such as the Leach, with both the possibility of greater access from farther afield, at the same time as potentially underestimating the importance of real-life touch and handling, the smell and the first-hand sight of materials. Much of my own work has centred on ideas of ‘Future Museums’; how we relate to objects and the notion of future generations being puzzled by what we produced.
Left: Bernard Leach, paper model of the Leach Pottery, c.1920. Leach Pottery Collection. Credit: Matthew Tyas.
Right: Blueprint of “The Leach Pottery Japanese Style of [climbing] Kiln. Design by T[surunoske] Matsubayashi”, 1923. Credit: Image kindly provided by the Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts, 2002.22
I’m not quite sure what I’ll end up making as part of the residency but responding to incidental influences and looking at the physical legacy of the Leach Pottery will form part of it, along with an exchange of ideas and friendships through clay.
About the Author
Julia Ellen Lancaster forms part of the group ‘Eutectic’, alongside fellow artists, Anne-Laure Cano and Jim Gladwin. Throughout December 2020 the three artists will undertake a residency at Porthmeor Studios in St Ives, with the opportunity to investigate, explore and expand their practice in response to the Leach Pottery’s centenary.
Lancaster gained an MA at the Royal College of Art. Largely self-taught, her work with ceramics began as an expansion of her practice. The properties of clay, its immediacy, fallibility and unpredictability mirrored a desire to re-connect with the real world. She went on to study ceramics at City Lit, London.
Alongside her practice, Lancaster headed up the Residency & Awards Programme of Acme Studios, until 2017 and was responsible for managing two London based galleries. She currently runs a community ceramic project in East London, providing a platform for individuals underrepresented in the arts, to participate both as producers and audiences.
Learn more about the Leach 100 Porthmeor Studios Residency artists here.
Follow Julia on Instagram to keep up-to-date with her progress: @jlancastr