26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 58


Between East and West

Susan Moore

In June, Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury sold Modigliani's portrait of Baranowski, a marriage gift from husband to wife, to endow a Unit for Japanese Cultural Stud- ies at UEA. Last week, they dipped into their pockets to provide it with the basis of a research library, securing virtually all of the late 19th and early 20th century Japanese and Korean books on ceramics and other arts offered at Bonhams from the estate of the late Janet Leach, potter and third wife of Bernard, who died last year.

The Leach collection of Japanese and Korean ceramics, textiles, scroll paintings, prints, lacquer, books and furniture provid- ed the centrepiece of The Art and Influence of Asia. Alongside the historic and modern pieces amassed over a lifetime by the Leaches were their own ceramics, and those of a handful of Japanese Living National Treasures, principally Shoji Hamada, a loan exhibition of whose work was also on show at the auction house. This unusual offering realised over £700,000, almost doubling the expectations of Bon- hams' studio-ceramics consultant, the vet- eran film director Cyril Frankel.

Bernard Leach is seen as the founding father of the studio pottery movement in Britain. As Dame Lucie Rie declared: 'No potter in Britain could have made a living had it not been for the championship of the medium by Bernard Leach.' All his life he acted as a courier between East and West. Having spent his childhood in the Far East, he returned to Japan in 1910 with the idea of introducing the technique of etching. His road to Damascus was a raku party where guests decorated and fired their own pots. From then on he devoted his life to pottery — making it and preaching to the world the principles of his approach to the craft, an approach influenced by both the fledgling Japanese folk art movement and Oriental religions. In 1920 he returned to England with the young Shoji Hamada to set up a pottery in St Ives.

Hamada, like Leach, had intended to be an artist, a painter in the Western style, until he encountered Leach and Kenkichi Tamimoto. At St Ives they set out to revive and develop two kinds of humble and tradi- tional wares: the slip-decorated provincial earthenware pottery produced in England before the arrival of 'foreign' Delftware and porcelain, and the early stonewares produced in Tang and Song China and Choson-dynasty Korea which were begin- ning to be unearthed in great numbers dur- ing the construction of the railways.

One such masterpiece of the Korean pot- ter's art provided the highlight of the sale. This was a massive and seemingly roughly potted Full-Moon Jar, made some time during the 17th or 18th century. Its appar- ent simplicity of form and glaze — an even white — belies a complex Buddhist signifi- cance of which Leach was perfectly aware. Acquired in Korea in 1943, the jar was give to Lucie Rie to look after on his return to England, as he dared not risk a war-time train journey with it. In the end, it remained in Rie's studio for 50 years.

Such a grand rarity would have made a small fortune at auction a few years ago. Given the retracted claws of the Asian tigers who fought to secure prized Korean ceramics for huge prices (one jar made $8.4 million in 1996), Frankel gave the Moon Jar a cautious estimate of £150,000. It sold for £360,000 to a Korean collector living in America. (Snowdon's portrait of Rie in her studio beside the pot, commissioned by Issey Miyake for the retrospective of her work he organised in Tokyo in 1989, fetched £1,600, as did the compelling close- up of the potter's tiny clay-covered hands.) By far the largest group of ceramics came from the hands of Shoji Hamada, a profound influence as well as friend to Janet Leach. Hamada is the consummate potter's potter, his work characterised by a confident and relaxed handling of clay. Unlike Leach, he rejoiced in the sponta- neous, the random and the accidental. Paradoxically, the best of his boldly deco- rated and sculptural pots are invested with a rare energy. Relatively few of these pots have come to the block, the best achieving prices around £5,000-£6,000. Of the 30 or so examples on offer at Bonhams, the majority from the Leach collection, five fetched more substantial amounts, with a pair of richly glazed and textured stoneware hand-warmers making £12,000 and a square stoneware dish, again with tenmoku glaze and with wavy poured lines, selling — again on target — for £8,000.

One of the most striking aspects of this sale was the extent to which the studio ceramics sold within their published esti- mates. Given the relatively small sums involved, in many cases just a few hundred pounds, this field has remained one of those sane, small collectors' markets sup- ported by enthusiasts. Oddly, the two lots Rupert, Elisabeth, Lachlan ... ' which most confounded expectations were by Bernard Leach himself. A large biscuit- fired vase carved and incised with the Chi- nese Tree of Life symbol, was one of two pots left beside the wheel in the Leach pot- tery. Cracked in the kiln, this one was never glazed. Estimated at £1,800-£2,500, it went for £8,800. The final lot, a 'highly important' dish in olive and red-brown glaze bearing a stencilled figure of a pil- grim and staff set against a mountainous landscape (impressed with BL and St Ives seals and made around 1965), failed to find a new buyer at £8,000-£10,000. 'It is a mas- terpiece — I will sell it, of course,' said Frankel. No doubt Leach would have been pleased to note that, alongside recognised British, Japanese and American collectors and the odd museum, notably the Japanese Folk Art Museum in Tokyo and the Bernard Leach Museum outside Kyoto, the sale attracted a lot of new buyers, from East and West.