Blue Veins and Blue Skies

by Julia Ellen Lancaster Leach 100 Residency Artist

Julia Ellen Lancaster writes about her journey so far, three weeks into her Leach 100 Artist’s Residency based at Porthmeor Studios, St Ives.


Almost three weeks into the Leach 100 Residency and I’ve been visiting the Leach Pottery Museum for short periods of time thanks to the Leach team, taking impressions using a white earthenware clay, gently pressed against various parts of the museum. The thickness needed to hold the clay means the drying process is long. In order to speed this up I started drying them near to the wood burner – this was a mistake, as at least one then dried too quickly and shattered. Drying things out is the challenge for any clay maker and requires time and patience. 

Every time I go to the Museum I’m struck by its quietness, partly because staff are still working from home and there are no visitors to the Museum of course. But it’s more than that – I’ve noticed how there are particular daily sounds associated with a working pottery studio and I’ve noticed this more in the residency studio in the short time I’ve been here. Partly perhaps because I’m just noticing everything a little more. This is one of the benefits of a residency like this one, the Leach 100 Residency, to take time out from your normal daily schedule, which for most of us involves an overload of information and visual noise that we don’t have time or make the time to process. I’ve started recording these sounds whilst in the Residency studio, the sounds I’m making and that of two clay colleagues, Anne-Laure Cano and Jim Gladwin (#Eutectic), who have joined me. Sounds such as grinding, mixing, slapping, wedging, carving, throwing. These are the sounds, associated with a working studio that are missing from the museum right now. Right next to the museum is the current working studio, where all these sounds are going on, but in the museum everything is held in suspension, evoking a time through visual clues of the working studio and the incidental conversations that might have taken place between Leach and Hamada and the team that worked with them. The impressions I’m making started as an attempt to somehow look more closely at those visual clues and traces to hold onto parts of the Museum, but as time has gone on they’ve become less important. Partly, perhaps because they can never wholly mimic the original elements they try to capture, which have themselves been worn down, rusted, man handled. Instead they will remain mementos of a place.

Back to the Residency – from Day 1 my intentions of becoming an explorer, have been happily rewarded. Through conversations with local clay makers and experts, along with knowledge gleaned from readily available digital research, you can work out where might be likely places to find clay. However, getting to it is a lot harder. In the past, I’m told, potteries in Cornwall were concentrated around a river estuary such as St Germans, Lostwithiel, Truro or the Helston area, mostly all on the south coast. The clay (poor quality) was used from the river banks. The estuary clay is difficult to get because you have to invade peoples land which they tend not to like! Nearer to St Ives, Porthia China Clay Works, built in 1923, holds some well-hidden deposits left behind. The source for earthenware clay used by The Leach Pottery back in its heyday, seems a little more mysterious but some can be found at St Erth, sometimes accidently dug up by badgers. The excitement of discovering and digging up any kind of clay is hard to describe and immediately makes the idea of buying already processed clays in a plastic bag, much less appealing. That sticky, wet, unprocessed clay opens up all sorts of enquiry and it’s this enquiry that much of the residency has been preoccupied with. 

Some long days in the studio have involved drying out found clay, pounding it to a powder or granule enough to then mix with water, sieve and then form some kind of clay or slip you can work with. One of my favourite pieces so far has been formed by pressing the raw earthenware, unwashed, un-sieved, still containing all the other bits of earth, dug up with it, into a shape forming a bowl. Once fired, the rich red iron content has come through and where I’ve rubbed the surface slightly more with my finger, the beginnings of a glaze forms. 

It’s things like this, the incidental uncontrolled outcomes, that then lead to another line of enquiry; what could it look like as a glaze? And so off we go again……another process starts.

The residency studio has increasingly become like a clay laboratory, gathering foraged clay, materials, rocks, glass residue, metal, bog iron, all with the intention of seeing what they do with clay when fired. This process has been incredibly fascinating and the moment of trepidation and exhilaration that most ceramic makers will be familiar with, when the kiln is opened, was intensified, with so many unknown factors.  The found objects and materials have also become a significant colour palette, reflecting directly the earthy colours I’m drawn too. Go on a walk in any direction along the coast from St Ives, and the landscape is rich with natural colour. It’s calming and the opportunity to dwell on the landscape and embrace its impact on my work is welcome. Being outdoors, experiencing and observing the landscape, has quickly become an important part of the residency.

I’ve become curious about the work of Janet Leach, partly because her use of black clay resonates with my own work. Some of her pieces sit in the display cabinets of the Museum but considering Janet, who married Bernard Leach in 1956, took over the running of The Leach Pottery until her death in 1997, evident information about her as a ceramic artist in her own right, is conspicuous through its absence. I’m inspired by her work to resume working with black clay and test out some pieces incorporating a mix with some of the found materials, bisque dried sand from Porthmeor beach and slip made from the Porthia china clay.

In 1972 Janet wrote an account of the pottery for ‘Ceramics Review’ – “Bernard and I decided…to take a series of more advanced young potters…We developed a programme of encouraging individual pots by providing a separate kiln where they could function outside of existing orders and standard kiln firings if they chose”. This way of working which enabled access to resources in return for paid work is a founding principle of many shared ceramic studios today. As I talk to people living here in St Ives, it becomes clear that the Leach Pottery, as a working studio and as a Museum, is alive and very present, touching residents lives in some way, and I begin to hear many stories from those who worked or volunteer there or had family members that worked there. Even my cab driver is able to point out a number of houses as we pass by, in which fireplaces are tiled with the Leach tiles, some with motifs of rocks or prawns. 

Janet Leach, who by all accounts drove a yellow sports car about the town, often wore a Stetson (a nod to Lone Star state, Grand Celine, Texas where she was born), was fiercely independent and often referred to as a ‘character’. I suspect this euphemism refers to her not quite fitting into a ‘type’ and, like so many women of her generation, her own work took on a secondary role to the one of managing the enterprise and being the business brain. I’m intrigued to find out more about Janet and head to St Ives Archive Centre in Carbis Bay. I find a number of obituaries, but still only a limited number of references to exhibitions of her own work. I will write more about Janet in my next blog but one article that included an interview with Janet did strike a chord with me. Janet talks about being an accomplished technician on the potter’s wheel by the time her and Bernard had set up the Leach Pottery but it was only when she observed Hamada on the wheel that she experienced a revelation about her own technique and style. “There he was sitting cross-legged, sort of pushing the clay around, making patty-cake…very loose and fluid and all, and I thought that’s what’s wrong with my pots”. It was this approach to clay, very relaxed, from which she developed her own organic pottery. It is exactly this kind of seemingly effortless but accomplished making that I think I aim for in my own work. 

This residency is the opportunity for myself and two clay colleagues to immerse ourselves in everything clay and reflect on and move our practices forward.

About the Author

Julia Ellen Lancaster is a ceramic artist currently based in east London. Alongside artists, Anne-Laure Cano and Jim Gladwin she also forms part of the group ‘Eutectic’ which aims to initiate opportunities for research, exchange and dialogue between clay makers. Throughout December 2020 the three artists will undertake a residency at Porthmeor Studios in St Ives, providing the opportunity to investigate, explore and expand their practice’s 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 workshops in communities to encourage and support participation in making with clay.

Learn more about the Leach 100 Porthmeor Studios Residency artists here.

Follow Julia on Instagram to keep up-to-date with her progress: @juliaellenlancaster_ceramics 

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