Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada in Gloucestershire

by Helen Brown

Bernard Leach opened his pottery in St.Ives in 1920, having spent the previous ten years in Japan. The Japanese potter Shoji Hamada joined him, helping set up the pottery, working there for three years. They and Michael Cardew who had been Leach’s first student, and was to open his pottery in Winchcombe, became great friends. The friendship meant there were several memorable visits to the Cotswolds.

The first was a visit to Broadway in 1926 to take part in a demonstration of rural crafts organised by Gordon Russell. Leach and Cardew made the three-day journey from St.Ives on Leach’s motorbike, Cardew riding pillion. They gave daily demonstrations and spent the evenings discussing craft and design disagreeing about the use of mechanisation in the crafts. It was on this visit that Sydney Russell, Gordon’s father, took them to see the redundant country pottery at Winchcombe which Cardew was to take on.

Michael Cardew at his kick wheel at Winchcombe around 1930

Leach brought his Japanese friends, the philosopher Yanagi, founder of the mingei (folk craft) movement, and Hamada to Winchcombe in June 1929 when Hamada memorably showed Cardew how to use finger-drawn decoration on his pots a technique which was to become an important part of the Winchcombe repertoire.

The Japanese made a second visit later that summer on an antique collecting trip visiting shops in Broadway, Evesham and Tewkesbury. It must have been a fascinating exchange as Japanese visitors would have been rare in the 1920s. Hamada was very curious and a keen collector. His son wrote how he loved ‘encounters with things’ and these often also inspired his pots. Both he and Yanagi were interested in objects made for everyday use by anonymous makers ‘unknown craftsman’. On their trip they bought slipware, pewter, Windsor chairs and Victorian samplers as well as Winchcombe pottery to send back to Japan. Hamada’s gave his collection of over 2000 objects to the museum he founded in Mashiko, Japan, in 1977.

For Bernard Leach the Cotswolds were also a place of refuge. In late autumn 1935 he stayed in Cardew’s orchard for a month pitching up with his then partner Laurie (who was to become his second wife) in their de luxe Car Cruiser caravan. He spent the days there in retreat formulating his thoughts on Japanese and western religions.