Shoji Hamada & Bernard Leach, St Ives & Japan: An Enduring Friendship

A celebration of 100 years of friendship and collaboration as we welcome the Japanese Prime Minister and his delegation to St Ives for the G7 Summit

Shoji Hamada sitting in front of Old Pottery fireplace. © Courtesy of the Bernard Leach Estate. Image kindly provided by the Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts

First Meetings

Bernard Leach, the Leach Pottery, and St Ives, have a century-long friendship with Japan. Bernard’s bond with Japan began with living in the country as a small child before returning in his early twenties with a desire to be an artist. Resisting his father’s wishes for him to pursue a career in banking, Bernard arrived in Japan in 1909 and was determined to teach etching. 

Invited to a raku party in 1911, Bernard had a chance encounter with pottery which changed the course of his life. Enchanted by the immediacy of raku, Bernard was inspired to take up ceramics from watching the firing process, saying “By this to me a miracle, I was carried away to a new world. Enthralled, I was on the spot seized with the desire to take up the craft”.

Pottery became Bernard’s focus: he began learning pottery from Ogata Kenzan VI and, in 1916, was invited by his friend, Soetsu Yanagi, to set up a pottery in Abiko. Soetsu was part of the Shirakaba school of mainly writers, artists, and literary critics, who were known for sharing Western ideas around art and literature in Japan, as well as promoting Japanese folk art and other styles being rejected by more dominant cultural trends in Japan at the time. 

It was in Abiko that Leach met Shoji Hamada, a young ceramicist who had written to him to say how much he admired his work. Hamada made a strong impression on Bernard too, openly and frequently offering him support and advice. This shared attitude towards open knowledge and exchange became an important part of Bernard’s life, which included a vast amount of international teaching and written work, such as the renowned A Potter’s Book (1940) and A Potter in Japan (1960).

St Ives: A Beginning

Bernard and Shoji saw a mutual opportunity when the prospect of establishing a pottery in St Ives arose with support from local philanthropist Frances Horne, who was establishing a Guild of Handicrafts in the town. Shoji could continue sharing technical knowledge whilst gaining new perspectives on craft and pottery from a unique vantage point. Bernard intended to seek Cornish materials, and to develop clays and glazes inspired by documentation which Shoji had helped source in Japan. Together with his first wife Muriel, and their children, Bernard and Shoji travelled to the UK on the cargo-passenger steamer NYK Kamo Maru, docking in London on 24 August 1920.

In St Ives, Bernard and Shoji were pointed towards a site at the top of the Stennack where the Pottery remains today. At the time it was a strip of cow pasture alongside the River Stennack, uphill from the town’s centre. Here, they introduced Japanese kiln designs to the UK and the West with a wood-fired climbing kiln (noborigama) and a raku kiln. The project was described by a local newspaper as “an interesting industrial experiment… in the nature of an industrial pottery, where it is proposed to combine old technique with the ideas of both East and West”. Bernard, of course, was keen to stress his desire to make “genuine handicraft of quality” on a small scale.

International Connections

Hamada returned to Japan in 1923 to be close to his family after the Kanto earthquake. Around this time, Japanese potter Tsurunosuke Matsubayashi came to St Ives to continue supporting the Pottery and to rebuild the main kiln.

Over the decades, Bernard and Shoji’s lifelong friendship and collaboration continued. As soon as 1929, Shoji returned to the UK along with Soetsu, who was en route to a teaching post in the USA. The trio’s time together, on this four-month visit, laid the foundation for various international teaching posts, conferences, and exhibitions throughout the latter half of the century. Bernard did not wait long until his next visit to Japan either, leaving St Ives for fifteen months in 1934, making stops in France, Italy, and China along the way.

The trio also visited Dartington Hall in 1929, ultimately leading to an internationally significant conference on pottery and textiles in 1952 – the first such meeting of about a hundred delegates from twenty countries. Bernard was instrumental in organising the conference, his opening speech described his role as “a kind of link or courier between English and Japanese potters in the interchange between our preindustrial traditions and theirs”. He believed that early Chinese and Korean ideas and methods were often best-preserved in Japan when long lost elsewhere, and that Japan corresponded to Asia as England did to the continent. Leach sought a symmetry between them: “in both cases these two countries, protected by a band of water – even if a narrow band – have become the repositories of the cultural content of the continent behind”.

The Leach Pottery has become more than the sum of its parts – museum; historic workplace; contemporary ceramics gallery; a studio for the experienced and the novice. It is a symbolic and a pragmatic place of adventure, discovery, reflectiveness, engagement, history and legacy. A place where the local connects to the international. The Leach Pottery is, in fact, a site of world cultural importance for potters and pots.” 

Simon Olding, 2019 (Leach Guide Book)

Fostering Exchange

In the mid-century, Bernard toured extensively in Scandinavia, Japan and the USA, often together with Shoji and Soetsu. Bernard’s third wife, Janet (né Darnell), was for a brief time a student of Shoji’s, coming to work in Japan after meeting them both at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Janet’s journey with pottery ultimately took her to Tamba where she studied under Tanso Ichino for two years, developing her own aesthetics inspired by this experience.

Fostering these international exchanges, Bernard and Janet encouraged potters like John Bedding, a student at the Leach Pottery in the late 1960s, to work with Shigeyoshi Ichino in Tamba in the late 1970s after they had become friends during Shigeyoshi’s time in St Ives (1969-73).

More recently, Koie Ryoji, from Tokaname, undertook a three-week residency at the Leach Pottery in 2010 and Yusuku Matsubayashi visited for a residency in 2015. Heading to Japan, Kat Wheeler, at the time a Leach Production Potter, undertook a ten-week residency in Mashiko at the Hamada Workshop in 2015. Similarly, fellow Production Potter and former Leach-Seasalt Apprentice Callum Trudgeon spent twelve weeks in Bizen in 2018.

These international exchanges continue between Japan and St Ives and more are planned. Since their first collaboration, the Hamada and Leach families have both seen three generations become potters. As well as Bernard visiting Japan, Shoji and his family have visited St Ives too, including one son, Atsuya, who trained at the Leach Pottery for two years. One of Shoji’s grandsons, Tomoo Hamada, remains a friend of the Pottery and is hoping to undertake a residency and exhibition in late 2021.

St Ives’ cultural relationship with Japan is expansive and growing. In 2018, the Leach Pottery hosted its first ‘Poet in Residence’ with Cornwall-based Katrina Naomi, who had travelled to Japan in 2017. Likewise, the local communities of St Ives and Mashiko have grown closer over the years, with the relationship being formalised in a declaration of friendship and cultural collaboration in 2012. Since the Leach Pottery reopened as a Museum in 2008, Mashiko has frequently sent its school children on exchange trips to St Ives, giving them the opportunity to not only try their hand at pottery but also experience Cornwall for themselves.

Dr Matthew Tyas, Curator

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