Mike's Pots

The International Conference of Craftsmen in Pottery and Textiles
Dartington Hall 1952

Dartington Conference 1952


By Bernard Leach

I'm going to sit and talk this morning because I've got a good deal of reading to do. I wish I could flash out like Michael can with his vitality; and I'm terribly aware of my shortcomings for handling one of these last talks in an attempt to talk on a very difficult matter - this question of how the craftsman can find his own genuine true feet.

It's been a very happy time, I think. It certainly has for me. I haven't, perhaps, been able to enjoy it quite as much as I think some other people have. I've been too busy. I know that I will look back to it as long as I live with a sense of thankfulness that I could have got a group of people together at this time when we're all filled with a good deal of anxiety about the future and can do very little about it. I'll just tell you and that's really why I'm reading this morning rather than talking, because in the months when I had quietude I was able, to some extent, to put down my own rulet conclusions about how integration took place. It can only be a matter of hints, and so I'll read you part of this and break off and tall you other things as they occur to me. And I'm going to talk a bit about Hamada this morning. He won't talk about himself, so I'd better talk about him. Because he, I think more than any man I know, has achieved this thing that I have at heart, and I think we all have at heart- integration. I think it's very obvious that we're standing in a world which is at the crossroads. Not only in the crossroads, such as we've discovered in our crafts, but in all the life behind it. In religion, in morals, in sciences, arts, politics. And out of all that our common answer or our common need is the capacity to stretch oneself to the world orbit - to become citizens of the human race rather than merely citizens of one culture. No solution of the individual problem seems possible unless we get a total solution. It is that which leaves one standing with awe in front of the present situation because it is so great a thing, and it has never presented itself to the human race more than as a possibility, and now it is being forced by events upon us.

But back to the potter. I believe the potter's problems are exactly, in a smaller field, the universal problem. Integration, as I conceive it, is the state in which a man attains a natural balance or inter-relatedness of his inner and outer capacities. Repeating the paraphrased words of Confucius, "The wise man is he who in his maturity can make natural use of the gifts with which he was born". This is the pre-requisite of the artistic function, even when periodic and fragmentary. Integration is, of course, the common goal, the slipping of the part into the right place in the whole pattern. But it is hastened and eased when the larger framework of society is itself in the healthy state of poise. Nobody could make such a claim today. Never has there been such a widespread disruption. Into what sort of socket of which pattern is the individual to slip to attain fulfilment? For the potter the local terms of reference, what I elsewhere call tradition, have been broken or at any rate greatly weakened, and he finds himself alone in his search with the world to roam in, torn as it is with polarities of inner and outer, East and West, to choose between. He is thrown back upon himself with primary decisions to make at the roots of life. My claim is that an instinctive answer is being found at the present moment by sensitive potters (I'm speaking at the moment for potters only) in very different parts of the world in a criterion of inner beauty which reflects the religious philosophies of Asia. By this means they are reassessing and rediscovering their own values our European values, for instance. It means - subordination of the external values which have been pursued to the cliff edge. It is the movement of life from inner to outer whether in East or West. It begins in the individual. I call it integration. As against integration, think of the disintegration that one sees in so much craft-work produced today. I'll come back to this a little later. But how seldom you find in the work itself organic naturalness, wholeness particularly. What Confucius calls "chung yung". It may seem alien, strange, difficult, to bring Eastern philosophic ideas, religious ideas, or even practical ideas of Eastern potters immediately to play upon Western conditions and Western minds. My belief, having lived half my life more or less in the East, having been born there in China, and more or less half in the West, is that the two halves are complements to each other in the whole. And as one of our leading historians recently wrote in "The Listener", it may very well be that in a hundred years' time people will look back at the most significant event of now as having been this beginning of the inter-relatedness between East and West. Because the differences are not fundamental; the differences are more local and temporal. We have had the "inner" before the "outer" in our earlier past, in our cultural background, in our religious background, and we have perhaps got out of joint. And if the voice of the East means anything it means that the "inner" comes before the "outer", and it may be our corrective, and I believe that that is the case. I would also say that our outwardness is the corrective for the East. If anyone had lived, as I have, in Northern China, and seen how decay has attacked the State, economics, the roads, the money, everything, so that everybody is out for what he can. get his rake-off - the disease, the rivers that flood and kill, and so forth, plague, bubonic and so forth, they'd know. You can see so sharply as a European out there - how our side of things is equally important. It's the "inner" and the "outer". But we are seeking this synthesis in all aspects.

When one tries to assess the influence of the East on European ceramics right down the centuries, one discovers an incalculable permeation from Egypt, Arabia, Persia, Japan and China. Eventually we may admit that we descendants of Celts and Goths, Angles and Saxons, and culturally of Romans and Greeks, have always had the major task of assimilating the spirit of the East. The hands of time have gone full circle. The barriers are down. We are not any longer playing at gathering knick-knacks, exploiting coolie labour, selling dope or sending missionaries out to convert the "heathen Chinee" to every warring sect of Christianity. We are at grips, East and West. We have to decide how we intend to relate the inner and the outer aspects of feeling, thinking and acting. America has to decide. The individual potter has to decide, and indeed his deepest problem is the universal problem of integration.

Interest in contemporary pottery as a personal and intimate expression of art has been spreading in England and many other countries during the last half- century. This appears to be one aspect of the movement away from the domination of money and machine towards the re-establishment of feeling, imagination and personal responsibility in work. Not necessarily against Science and the Machine as such, but fundamentally opposed to that castration of man's inner nature which has taken place during the hundred years since Morris and Ruskin. That the truths which underpin the arts and crafts movement are not dead is evidenced by their spread all round the world; by my own surprised discovery in America in 1950 that during the last ten years the numbers of practising non-industrial potters, mainly working singly and by hand, has grown to that astonishing figure of 70,000 with a turnover one-third of that of the entire ceramic hollow-ware industry in the United States. I'm going to break off there and tell you a story of an experience of mine during the War. I was going up to what was then called the C.I.A.D. the Central Institute of Art and Design where we met monthly during those ragged years and tried to see the situation as a whole and do something to help craftsmanship from being stamped out. Well, in travelling people talk to each other freely and ordinary Tommies, Sailors, Soldiers would get talking as they don't in peacetime as a rule. And this was a thing that I heard several times said. Excuse the language. "When this bloody show's over I'm bloody well going to do a job I like". Well, there have been thousands coming into the Art Schools. Wanting to come into workshops like ours. We've had to turn away several hundred. Because in war frustrated desires have time to come to the surface while people are working in barracks working outwardly although this part - the feeling is not working. Although it wants to work and therefore it makes these plans. With peace, however, came the spate of disillusioned young people and ex-service men and women, part of a growing minority everywhere who want to find a new way of life and work with reward and fulfilment in the effort, even at the cost of a simpler standard of living. These people with whom I associated myself want to make things, including pots, which are alive as they are alive, belonging to our day, inheriting the past and probing the future, made by and for the whole man - heart, head and hand. Many would like to follow this path who have not the courage. Many do follow it without clarity or strength or proper training. Galleries and art shops are filled with their half-digested assimilation. No other age has produced such ill-begotten crafts not so much from lack of stimulus as from over-stimulus and insufficient digestive capacity. The modern craftsman, since the time of Morris, is an individual cut off from the security of living tradition. He is hardly aware of the meaning of those traditions which in vital periods were the repository of unselfconscious right-thinking and right- action. We are horribly self-conscious and so we perpetrate horrors. We have only vague and disintegrating standards of right-thinking and corresponding technique. Wherever I have travelled in Japan, in Scandinavia and in America the basic questions which have been put to me have concerned criteria of pot and potter. What is the good pot? How to become a good potter. To a wider public some of these problems may not be so obviously relevant but there must be some standard of evaluation whereby the minor is seen against the major and the false against the true. The ability to differentiate turns upon some measure of value explicit or tacit as widely acceptable as possible. The high common denominator. Such a criterion we automatically accept from the highest known level of achievement. In this respect the era in which we live differs from any which has preceded it. The expansions, freedoms and discoveries of post-renaissance Europe which culminated in industrialism have broken down the barriers of culture and continent. Modern man finds himself alone in his individualism inheriting the increment of all the past, precariously balanced upon the peak of time. Small wonder that the enquiring mind should experience faintness before the task of personal integration and world citizenship even in the small field of the potter. Yet it is here in the general ubiquity that a seed has sprouted as a result of an inner contact between East and West. One of the many required for the unification and maturing of the human race. In the nobility and the universality of the best Tang and Sung pots discerning minds have recognised the highest achievement and therein a measuring rod of values.

If I am correct in my summing up of present-day potters as suffering from the malady of self-consciousness and contrasting with it the naive, impersonal character of all primitive art, then we would seem to need to draw a true conclusion as to how to escape this pervading sickness. This is the road which individual potters, and others perhaps, may wish to tread. Before considering this further I would like to say that my observation of Eastern craftsmen of the old countryside order, corresponding more or less to our old smiths and wheelwrights, seems to indicate that they are guided in design and technique by what has been proved by generations of forbears to be the right way of making things. There is little or no thought of art. There was not even a word in the Japanese language for folk art, and my old friend, Dr. Yanagi, who has been the shepherd of the modern movement, had to invent the term "Ming gei", or people's art, and that is the nationally used term now.

Behind medieval man and his unified handiwork lies primitive man with his tribal laws in all shapes of emergence from the animal background where everything is governed by instinct and magic, and all is clothed in nature. Throughout this evolution consciousness has grown sharper, judgment more private, and individual choice greater. The momentum, since the Renaissance, has gathered way until today we have arrived at a destructive self-consciousness, an intellectualisation. How to transcend it, how to rid ourselves and our art of the overstressed self which stands between our efforts and the quiet integrity of the best Sung pots or Persian or Spanish or Old English or anything else that is our problem. Consciousness we need, but the relation- ship of wholeness. There is one potter living who has, in my opinion, achieved this more than any other and that is Shoji Hamada. I have watched his growth at close and long range over thirty years. He made his reputation first as an artist-craftsman in Exhibitions in Bond Street, then he returned to Japan and buried himself in the small town of Mashiko, which for a couple of hundred years has supplied Tokio with its kitchen crocks. There in the fifty or more kilns a simple stoneware was made of local materials by farmers who were half-time potters. Hamada, having refused a variety of positions on his return from Europe, preferred to hire himself out three or four years I think it was - as a thrower in this background of honest handcraft, partly I take it to gain the acceptance of himself as a human being and a good workman and also to rid himself of pretence and self. He used to call it "getting rid of his tail". He used and still uses the quite ordinary local clays, ashes and pulverised rocks but with the unobtrusive discretion and insight of an artist - an artist keeping his greater consciousness in its right unobtrusive place. He abandoned the practice of signing or sealing his pots, saying if questioned that if the pot itself did not answer the query it was either because it was not good enough or because the questioner was blind. He was concerned with a good pot - leaving personality to take care of itself. One day in 1934 when I was in Japan staying with Hamada in Mashiko I went up one day from his little town to Tokio to do some shopping. I got hungry for the fleshpots of England, and whilst wandering around the reconstructed Tokio (after the great fire of 1923) I saw on the other side of the street an Exhibition of pots like Hamada's. I was surprised that he had not mentioned that there was a show of his on. I crossed and stood in front of a window, puzzled, for the skill and resemblance to his work was quite extraordinary. On entering I was given the name of the maker. When I got back for supper I asked Hamada about this man. Hamada replied that he lived next door and was the bright lad of the village. Rather indignantly I protested that such imitation was rather too much of a good thing. Hamada replied "What does it matter? In a hundred years his best pots will go by my name and my worst by his". (LAUGHTER) The story doesn't end there, but it serves to indicate that whilst pursuing the good pot as an end in itself he was not unaware of the situation, but there was no egotism in his mind or in his attitude. Beyond this point it is unnecessary and unwise perhaps to use words. They are poor substitutes, halting lamely behind what he the potter actually does in his proper medium, clay. Silently showing us one way out of this trouble.

That is the bulk of what I have to say I think. I hope we've been wise. I think we have in leaving the act to speak. I know so many people have said to me that just watching Hamada meant so much. That's better than words. At the same time it may be of some value if I take the standard the criterion as far as I understand it myself. There's bound to be a personal bias in this. Make allowances for it if you will. I've got something in the nature of an analysis of this criterion. I give it to you for what it's worth. It may be worthwhile to attempt an analysis of the new criterion which potters are applying as the outcome of the impact with the classic Orient. I can at least reflect the thought of my contemporaries in Japan from participation in their movement, and they are here to correct me if I'm wrong. Their approach, as I have suggested all through, has a direct relationship to an overall concept of life and its meaning, to philosophy and religion, to Buddhism, Taoism, rather than to Mohammedanism or Mohammedan influences which came with the Thirteenth Century to China and spread. The impulse comes from a modality which is Taoist and Zen Buddhist, touched though it may be by Christian love. Hence its emphasis on the inner as preceding and determining the outer. Such an attitude is no prerogative of the East either in life or in pots. Nevertheless, we have in the West arrived at a domination of the inner by the outer, and one of the quietly corrective voices is that of Sung pots. When I make reference to this Christian element I can tell you another story. My first Japanese friend I made in London before I went out to Japan in 1909 was a sculptor. He's still alive. He was a sharp critic, a good poet. And when he came back to Japan a year after I got there he said "Why do you English insist on calling us 'Plucky Little Japs'? Do you think we like being called 'Plucky Little Japs'? It was the time of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. I said, "Well, I'm sorry about that". He said, "I suppose you do that because our conscripted soldiers are beating the Russian conscripted soldiers in Manchuria and Korea, or have done so. Do you know that in every household in Japan at that same moment the Japanese people were reading Tolstoy? It was Tolstoy who won the war because he conquered our hearts." That was one way in which the meanings of love in life and love in society associated with Christianity came to Japan. The appeal such pottery makes is not only different from that of the best industrial wares but poles apart in conceptual approach. The se opposite concepts are, I believe, complementary again but their successful fusion depends upon a true relativity of inner and outer. These Eastern pots are organic rather than tectonic. That is to say their mood, character, shape, pattern, colours and materials and techniques are consonant and parallel with the unified elements and creative processes in nature. The industrial revolution has had the effect of splitting the personality. Almost all of the work which we do is the child of the marriage of intellect and body. The soul is left out, feeling, intuition, imagination, of so much of it. I don't say it will be so. Factory-made pots are not produced by the whole man. The pots of which I write are, and they make their appeal because many of us are coming to know the poverty of our day. These pots were made of natural clays, pigments and glazed materials, simply prepared and usually containing impurities of which the potters made use. Ours are pastes, purified oxides and other raw materials which have in most cases been standardised by complex processes which rids them of irregularities. The result is that potters coming from the freer world of art are unsatisfied with these dead pastes, etc., and if they must use them are forced to reintroduce impurities as best they may to capture some of the old natural effects. In consequence, the results often look too considered and artificial. Again, it's not necessarily so if you know how to do it. Regard for material and its proper and sensitive use is the primary concern of all true potters. That is the given framework into which meaning has to be put. Surface, form, pattern, texture, so inter-related as to make a whole which is an extension of wholeness in the maker. Most pots are made to serve a practical need. There will be no lack of critics in the Western World when this service fails. But man does not live by utility alone and a public which demands it is itself lacking in wholeness. Aesthetically a pot may be analysed either for its abstract content, its abstract forms, or as a humanistic expression subjectively or objectively; for its relationship to pure form or, for its manner of handwriting that suggestion of source of emotional content. It may be coolly intellectual or warmly emotional or any combination of such opposites. Whatever school it belongs to, the shape and pattern must, I believe, conform to principles of growth which can be felt even if they cannot easily be fathomed by intellectual analysis. Every movement hangs like frozen music in delicate but precise tension. Volumes, open spaces, outlines, the play of pattern are parts of the living whole. They are thoughts, controlled forces in counterpoise of rhythm, a single intuitive pressure on the wet clay and the whole pot comes to life; a false touch and the expression is lost. Twenty similar pots on a board - all made to weight and measure in as many minutes and only one would have that life. A potter on his wheel is doing two things at the same time. He is making hollow wares to stand upon a level surface for the common usage of the home and he is exploring space. His endeavour is determined in one respect by use, but in other ways by a never-ending search for perfection of form. Between the subtle opposition and the play of centrifugal and gravitational force, between straight and curve, ultimately of sphere and cylinder, the hints of which can be seen between the foot and lip of every pot, are hidden all the potter's experience of beauty. Under his hands the clay responds to emotion and thought from a long past, to his own intuition of the lovely and the true, accurately recording the stages of his own inward development.. The pot is the man. His virtues and his vices are shown therein. No disguise is possible. The virtues of a pot are derived from the familiar virtues of life and can be seen by the naked eye of anyone sensitive to form, colour, texture, who is reasonably experienced in the language of clay. That language has its construction and even rules perhaps which the innate sense of fitness has extracted by experience in every quarter of the globe. Now we are bringing them all together into broad principles, if not to precise rules. Rules seem to ask to be broken if they are not of our own making. But principles, if they are deep and wide enough, can be suggestive and helpful. Whether we verbalise them or not, we are aware of them, from this angle or that, individually as well as historically they form the invisible cord of standard and tradition.

The pot is the man. He is the focal point in his race, and it in turn is held together by traditions embedded in the culture. In our day the threads have been loosened and the creative mind finds itself alone with the responsibility of discovering its own meaning and pattern out of the warp and weft of all traditions and all cultures. Without achieving integration or wholeness he cannot encompass the extended vision and extract from it a true synthesis. The quality which appears to me fundamental in all pots is life in one or more of its modes, inner harmony, nobility, purity, generosity and many other virtues and qualities. And even exquisiteness and charm. But it's one thing to make a list of virtues in man and pot and quite another to interpret them in the counterpoint of convex and consave, hard and soft, growth and rest, for this is the breathing of the universal in the particular.

Reproduced from the conference report with the permission of the Dartington Hall Trust Archive.

Dartington Conference 1952