Sometimes, perhaps rarer than that, I meet a person through photography whose qualities match exactly the trade or calling to which they have dedicated their life. They were quite simply born to do what they do, destined to follow their chosen path for life; it is impossible to regard them, or begin to know them, in any other way. John Leach, master potter, is just such a man.
I visited him at his delightfully situated pottery in Muchelney on the Somerset Levels recently as part of a project on craftsmen. John has been a potter for over 50 years. He is from the Leach family of celebrated potters, a lineage started by his grandfather, Bernard Leach, who did much to reinvigorate the studio pottery tradition of this country, and continued by his father David; so it’s in the blood. John though makes it absolutely clear that it was only once he had decided as a young man to take up the craft that he was helped, tutored and encouraged by his family in a serious way. He is a true craftsman, a champion of his craft who has dedicated his life to pottery.
John produces a practical range of hand thrown, no nonsense household utensils such as cooking pots, jugs, coffee mugs, plates and bowls which come finished in a lovely distinctive toasted hue. Like the man himself, these items have been fashioned from a lifetime of experience and fired with enthusiasm and love. Inside his cosy low ceilinged studio, which he shares with his two colleagues, Nick and Mark, both skilled potters in their own right, I get a sense of timelessness and feel more than a hint of tradition. It is obvious that this is a place which upholds a solid work ethic, history and a tangible respect for the potter’s craft. There is a beauty to its cluttered functionality.
Pots line the shelves drying out before their initial firing with their evocative shapes and muted tones creating a perfect backdrop to the potter at work. A reassuring calmness and a purposeful but relaxed precision pervade the way John and his two colleagues work the clay with their hands. There are no unexpected movements just a smooth, elegant methodical flow through the rapid turn of the wheel. Among the three potters here I realise there must be nearly a hundred years of experience between them.
Every two months or so, when it is packed to capacity with 2,000 pots, Muchelney’s large traditional Japanese climbing kiln is fired up. From start to finish the process takes the best part of a working week. I can see why they call it The Dragon as I felt the heat radiate and watched the smoke and fire billow from its chambers. The intense temperatures give the Leach pots their unmistakable colour and texture; some quite darkly fired others a more delicate biscuit shade.
Muchelney stands as a totem to an ancient art: here, lumps of clay are skilfully and lovingly transformed into utensils to be used, often daily, and cherished for a long time. How much better is it to eat off a plate or drink from a mug that has been made by hand rather than a machine? We live in a rather homogenised throwaway world based on cheap manufacturing uniformity; we give no thought to their provenance. However, to use a piece of hand crafted tableware allows us to establish a connection between it and its maker in an uplifting reaffirming experience. Places like John Leach’s Pottery are so special and so heart warming to behold.