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Book Review

Bernard Leach (St. Ives Artists)
by Edmund De Waal

Bernard Leach is regarded as one of the great potters of the 20th century. He spent eleven years in Japan, from 1909 to 1920, after which he returned to England to set up the St. Ives pottery and to spread the message of ceramics the Oriental way. His influence through his writings and as mentor of many successful English potters has earned him a reputation as pivotal reformer of Western ceramics. Edmund De Waal's book Bernard Leach (St. Ives Potters) takes a refreshing and critical look at Leach's life and accomplishments, offering a healthy, at times dissenting view to the normal assumptions of exactly what Leach contributed to 20th C pottery.

It is little known that Leach seldom threw his own pots, but rather had them made for him to decorate. He dismissed traditions, that didn't fit into his concept of ceramics, such as those of French stoneware potters or Italian Maiolica artists. He ignored ceramic sculpture, proposing that art school traditions fostered a lack of skill masked by arty conceit amongst students. He preached humility, but was himself quite an autocratic character.

De Waal's book offers a somewhat different view from that propagated by the Leach's followers. I would say that it was quite an objective one and that this is a valuable book on Leach's lifes work. It is dissenting at times but not overly critical and certainly not disrespectful of the Old Master. It takes you through various stages in Leach's life fairly objectively. Actually De Waal probably could have been much more critical of some of Leach's idiosyncrasies. However many people will not agree with some of the criticisms. One reader, posting a review on the Net, described the book as "a bitter attack on the man who was solely responsible for the renaissance of the pottery movement in Britain at the early years of the century". I cannot share this view at all. However, if you don't want to know about criticisms of Leach's legacy, this book is not for you.

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