Born in Hong Kong in 1887, Leach studied art in England, before moving to Japan in 1909. While he intended to make a living by teaching etching, he found himself "enthralled" by pottery in 1911 after participating in a Raku party, in which pots are fired at low temperatures and then allowed to rapidly cool, resulting in intriguing surface crackles. He went on to hone his pottery skills with Japanese masters, before returning to England in 1920 to set up the Leach Pottery with his friend, the Japanese potter, Shoji Hamada. Together, the pair built a Japanese wood-burning climbing kiln – the first in the West, which can still be seen in the pottery’s museum today – and Leach set to work creating pieces informed by his time in the Far East. Glazes were oriental, but they were combined with forms that felt distinctly English.
In the 1920s, many pieces were stand-alone, but by the 1940s Leach had developed a range of Standard Ware tableware, so-called not just because it was produced in large quantities at a low price point, but also because it provided standardised shapes and sizes. While he did throw and decorate pots, Leach saw himself as a ‘composer-conductor’, overseeing an orchestra made up of a few ‘local lads’ – many of whom went onto be successful potters in their own right – and a moveable feast of visiting students from across the world. The latter, very much upholding the founding spirit of the pottery, ensured there was a constant interchange of Western and Eastern ideas.
Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, The Leach Pottery continues to welcome potters and art students from across the world in what Roelof describes as a “great melting pot for ideas.” While Leach established a fairly rigid framework of how to make pots – especially through his 1940 A Potter’s Book, a seminal work that functioned as a kind of rule book – Roelof is quick to point out that experiments are encouraged at the pottery today. “This is very much a place where good and bad ideas are tested – the good ones grow and the bad ones go in the bin, but we’re learning together,” he explains. Of course, there is a certain amount of control required too. For apprentices – of which there tends to be just one a year – this involves getting a good grasp of the basics, including preparing clay, mixing glazes, loading kilns and waxing the bottom of pots. “There are a lot of jobs that are quite mundane, but every job here is important,” Roelof says. Crucially, he shares Leach’s belief that pots should be about pleasure: “good design for me is all about the person making it enjoying it and the person using it enjoying it,” he explains.