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The Marriage of East and West : Bernard Leach as a Cultural Pilgrim

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This article is reproduced from the 2004 Conference of the International Comparative Literature association. The original (www.ln.edu.hk/eng/staff/eoyang/icla/SUZUKI%20Sadahiro.doc) is a Microsoft Word document.

The 17th Triennial Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association
8th-15th August 2004, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Monday, August 9, 2:00pm-3:30pm, Special Topics 1, “Writers Who Were Considered to Have ‘Gone Native’” (MC1)


“The Marriage of East and West”: Bernard Leach as a Cultural Pilgrim
SUZUKI Sadahiro (Ochanomizu University)

Bernard Leach (1887-1979) was an artist-potter who played a key role in the history of the twentieth century British crafts. Born in Hong Kong, he received his education in England, but he determined the course of his life in East Asia, encountering pottery by chance in Tokyo in 1911 and choosing it as his lifelong profession in Peking in 1916. Returning to England in 1920, the Englishman began his professional career, eventually making his name as the “Father of Studio Pottery”.

Leach’s life and art is notable due to his positive idea of cultural amalgamation. He concludes his autobiography, Beyond East and West (1978) with the following passage: I have seen a vision of the Marriage of East and West, and far off down the Halls of Time I heard the echo of a childlike voice. How long? How long?

The phrase “the Marriage of East and West” encapsulates one of the major themes Leach explored during his lifetime. In the twentieth century, the development of transport and communication systems made the world relatively small in scale, and artistic traditions in the world necessarily changed as a result. Leach wrote in his autobiography that “[m]odern art is inevitably eclectic. Abruptly in the unfolding tale of humanity, we have become the inheritors of all history and geography”. This statement reveals his recognition of the way that globalization enabled artists of the twentieth century to source their inspiration in different regions and historical periods.

Bernard Leach was an artist who embraced this trend in art. As the word “marriage” suggests, he approved of mixing arts and cultures from various places and times. The Englishman explored innovative possibilities of expressing the new age in the field of crafts, and considered the establishment of new standards to assess the results. He expressed his views in his pottery as well as in writings and occasional lectures. In this respect Leach's life and art is significant not only to art history but also to comparative cultural studies.

Although the citation with which I opened this paper is worth careful examination simply by virtue of its being the artist’s summation of his own career, there is another interesting fact to consider: exactly the same passage can be found in an essay he wrote in Tokyo in 1920. The fact that a sentence written in 1920 is found, without any alteration, at the very end of an autobiography published in 1978, suggests that the future direction the artist would pursue had already been defined in 1920, by his experiences in East Asia.

Therefore, to evaluate the whole of Leach's life and art, it is essential to consider the meaning of his expression, “the Marriage of East and West”. In the first part of this paper, I will trace the process by which this idea was formed in East Asia in the 1910s and consider what Leach intended by the phrase. In the second part, I will offer a reading of one of his works as an embodied expression of “the Marriage of East and West”. It will be seen that his career as a potter was a continuous endeavor towards the understanding of “East”, which for Leach usually meant Japan, China, and Korea, and “West” meaning Western Europe, and towards the exploring the possibility of a new mode of expression.

The Marriage of East and West

Before starting the discussion, it seems appropriate to take a brief look at the artist’s early life. Bernard Leach was born in Hong Kong in 1887, as the first and only child of a colonial judge. As his mother died soon after she gave birth to him, he was taken in by his mother's parents who were then living in Japan. He returned to Hong Kong in 1890 when his father remarried, and going on to live in several parts of South East Asia afterwards. He first set foot in England in 1897, when his father decided to send his son to the Beaumont Jesuit College in Windsor . In this Roman Catholic school, Bernard found an interest in art, and in 1903 went on to the Slade School of Art, continuing on, in 1907, to the London School of Art. In these schools Leach learned the skill of drawing and etching, but never studied pottery in England. Around 1907 or 1908, he became increasingly interested in Japanese art. According to his autobiography, the paintings of J. A. Mc. Whistler (1834-1903) and the books of Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) fascinated him.

In April 1909, Bernard Leach arrived in Japan and remained there until 1920, with several excursions to China and Korea. Leach studied Japanese arts in Tokyo while he furthered his acquaintance with Japanese intellectuals and artists. With help from these friends, the Englishman studied not only Japanese arts but also those of China, Korea, the Ainu and Taiwan, including both painting and crafts. In February 1911, he encountered “raku-yaki”, a form of pottery. He was fascinated with it, and began to study in earnest. Although his study was abandoned from 1914 to 1916, during which period he was in Peking, he finally decided to choose pottery as his profession in September 1916. He returned from China to Japan and devoted himself once more to the study of pottery. Trying to emulate the Asian traditions of pottery, he gradually felt the need to study European pottery as a next step. He returned to England in June 1920, and set up his new kiln in St. Ives, Cornwall.

Let us, with Leach’s early life in mind, return to a close examination of his vision of “the Marriage of East and West”. Although the text is too vague for us to interpret with total clarity, the meaning becomes more apparent when it is considered in conjunction with other essays that Leach wrote in the 1910s. I would like to quote three passages from his writings to assist in an examination of the phrase.

The first quotation is from the essay “East and West” (1920), which contains the relevant phrase, “the Marriage of East and West”. This article includes a list as below:















Personal Religion

Impersonal religion[sic]

Objective Art

Subjective Art



For Leach, exposed to various cultures in his infancy, the two words “East” and “West” always represented the diversity of cultures on the earth, and were constant subjects of his speculation. This table clearly shows that the artist regarded the “East” as feminine, intuitive, spiritual, and passive while the “West” was masculine, rational, material and active. Through this dualistic thinking, whereby two seemingly incompatible principles are set against one another, Leach proposed an explanation of the phenomena of the world: dualism is a keynote concept conditioning Leach’s views, out of which his art, and views on art, naturally developed.

It took Leach considerable time before he succeeded in formulating his understanding of “East” and “West” into this table, and found a word, “marriage”. Originally he accepted the Western values and supported openly the modernization of the “East”, like all other European people did . However, his attitude changed in the middle of the 1910s. Please look at the next quotation:

In claiming that the meeting of East and West is the meeting of the two extremes of human evolution, the spiritual and the practical: that the decadence of the East is due to the exaggeration of spiritual life, of imagination and dreamy idealism unsupported by reason and exact practical knowledge of things; that the perversion of the West is due to the exaggeration of practical life, of reason and the exact knowledge of things, not governed by spirit, by intuition by instinct, by imagination, naturally I not only make an aesthetic claim, but one, which if it is accepted, is of widespread importance . It means that the East has more to offer us than we have to offer to the East. It means, to anyone who is not a sheer materialist, that the failure of the East is not so great as that of the West, and that consequently our traditional attitude of superiority towards the Yellow and the Brown races is indefensible .

This is from a lecture entitled “The Meeting of East and West in Pottery”, a paper he read at a meeting in Tokyo in 1915, soon after his second trip to China. In this lecture he criticized the “West” for not making a sufficient effort to understand the “East”, while the “East” did much to understand the “West.” For him the relationship between “East” and “West” should be equal, and he insisted that the East and the West should “meet” and collaborate so as to reciprocally offer their strong points and compensate for the other's weak points. This text shows that not only the experience in Japan but also that in China were necessary for the artist to gain the culturally relative viewpoint necessary to reflect on his own background. His experiences in these countries convinced him that “East” and “West” share a common history of communication and cultural values. Apparently Leach uses the word “meeting” in the sense of compromise, mutual understanding and mutual support. For him, “East” and “West” should try to overcome the distance between them, and support each other without losing their own characteristics. When Leach writes of “the Marriage of East and West”, he seems, in the first place, to insist on cultural relativism against a Euro-centric view of the world. However, at this early stage it was the word “meeting”, not “marriage”, that he used to discuss the paring of “East” and “West”.

It was in 1917 that Leach found the word “marriage” to regulate the relationship of “East” and “West”. He had a sudden inspiration on the morning of March 16th, 1917. Leach wrote as below:
Before getting out of bed this morning I was thinking about the real meaning of the word “ai no ko” which is always used in a scornful sense.

This seems to me senseless, both if we examine the literal meaning of the word,i.e. “Child of mutuality”, or if we ponder over the popular meaning of the word, i.e. “Foreign plus Japanese mixture”, or any mixture of extremes.
It became clear to me to-day for the first time that the real blending, or mixing, of extremes, whether in life or in art, is the highest aim we can strive after, and that the scorn which is contained in the manner or tone of every Japanese when he uses the word “ai-no-ko” is at bottom a just scorn of that miserable half-mixture, not only in marriage, but also in all other directions, which is the inevitable result of the meeting of East and West. Till this morning I had always believed that the marriage of, say Japanese and Americans or English, was an utter wrong to the children, even if it was not a mistake for the parents, this morning I grasped that uniting of two extremes into a new whole increases in difficulty and also value according to the difference between the two.

In this passage Leach discussed the mixing of two extremely different things. He put such mixtures into two categories according to the degree to which the mixing was successful: “the miserable half-mixture” and “a new whole”. He was critical of the former, exemplified by new architecture in Tokyo and Japanese export wares produced in contemporary Yokohama. On the other hand, he thought highly of the latter. In the beauty of “ai no ko” he found the features of parents coexisting and achieving harmony. Certainly he acknowledged that the more difference the two “extremes” had, the more difficulty there was in their marriage, yet he claimed that the significance of the marriage would increase all the more for such complication.

Importantly, the word “marriage” appears in the quotation above, while the phrase “the meeting of East and West” is still retained. It is true that Leach discusses here an international marriage between foreigners or “extremes” and he does not yet fully extend the analogy to art or pottery. However, the word “marriage”, significantly, appears here for the first time in his consideration of the problems of eclecticism in art, in terms of a child of mixed parentage.
The expression of “ai no ko” i. e. “child of mutuality” shows that when Leach refers to “the Marriage of East and West” later, he is imagining a child in his mind rather than matrimony itself, and that his “marriage” lays stress on the act of “blending, or mixing”. This approach to finding a positive meaning in cultural amalgamation in art was formulated into a phrase “the Marriage of East and West”, in 1920.

Regarding the way Leach attempted to “blend” or “mix” the different cultural traditions, there is an interesting report of an interview with Leach written by a Japanese art critic. In the report Leach refered to a letter written to a Japanese politician by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), a philosopher known for his theory of social evolution . In this letter Spencer mentioned an international marriage and approved it only on condition that it is between parents from what he would term as “close” races. We have already seen that Leach, who had originally been sympathetic to this view, changed his opinion on March 16th, 1917. After mentioning Spencer's letter as a starting point, Leach, in the interview, discussed the condition of art in terms of an international marriage. He insisted that an artist, the “parents” of an artwork, should be responsible for the works and the effect they may cause. According to Leach, if the artist understands the strong points of both the native culture and the foreign culture, he can perceive “a good harmony of beauty” and avoid “the miserable half-mixture”. The context of social evolution explains what Leach intended in the production of such a work. For him, to produce a work with a “beauty of good harmony” and propagate it in the rapidly changing society of the modern age, was a strategy to reduce the ugliness of daily life. It should be noted here that what concerned Leach were events in the present and the future, not the past. In this sense we should say that Leach applied Social Evolutionism, rather than Darwinism, to art.

Leach seems to hold a basic belief that his present existence is regulated by the notion of a better future, and that he is responsible for enabling this future to be realized. Adapting this to the interpretation of the text quoted at the beginning of this paper, we can theorize that “the echo of a childlike voice” heard “far off down the Halls of Time” is coming from the future toward “I” in the present, and that “I”, who heard the voice asking “How long? How long?”, realizes his responsibility for the child to be born in the future. And it seems Leach’s later activity after his return to England in 1920 is conditioned by this vision of a child destined to be born.

Practice of “the Marriage of East and West”

I would like now to consider Leach's works in terms of his idea of “the Marriage of East and West”. As we have already seen, this idea took sharper form in the latter half of the 1910s, the period in which Leach developed his skill as a professional potter. For the artist, the process of learning pottery meant an exploration of East Asian cultures on the one hand, and the rediscovery of European cultures on the other. Pottery not only offered Leach a useful foothold to deepen his understanding of the various art traditions of the world, but in addition, led him to a field beyond the difference of cultures, where he conceived his vision of cultural concoction.

The work we shall analyze is <Tile Panel, Consisting of Nine Tiles with Tree of Life Painted Decoration> owned by the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Japan. Tiles were Leach's favorite and specialty. As he originally trained as a painter at art school, the surface of a tile was a good space for him to satisfy his desire for painting. The “Tree of Life” is one of the most important motifs employed by Leach in his works.

The motif, “Tree of Life” has dense symbolism in terms of history, culture, and religion. It is a symbol of life in the universe. Its roots, trunk, and branches connect the three worlds: the Underworld, Earth, and Heaven. It signifies endless rebirth and victory over death. In Christianity, it is first a tree in Eden in Genesis, but its religious significance can be extended to the cross in the New Testament. In the system of symbolism, the roots, trunk, and branches of the tree have associations with animals: serpent and dragon for the roots; lion, unicorn, hart, ox, and ram for the trunk; and peacock, dove and eagle for the branches. The three parts also have their own significant colours: black for the roots, white for the trunk, and red for the branches .

Leach's version of the “Tree of Life” does not seem to follow the symbolism described above. There are birds among the branches and at the edge of the tile; under the branches, there is a man and a horse on the right side and a woman on the left; above the tree, there is a zodiac sign, the Plough; and beneath the tree, there are three fish swimming in a stream. Although Leach's choice and distribution of the animal imagery does not correspond directly to the received symbolism, the intentionally symmetrical composition of these creatures suggests that he was conscious of his motifs. However, it is still difficult for us to understand with complete clarity the meaning that the motifs were intended to convey.

There is an interesting source concerning the interpretation of the tree: in an article from a newspaper Leach contributed to in 1955, he wrote about his friend, Ryusei Kishida (1891-1929), one of the most important painters in the modern Japanese art. Leach regarded Kishida as his comrade in seeking a balance between “the East” and “the West”. In praising the Japanese artist, Leach wrote as follows:
Kishida had an ability to perform the tense work of weaving a new cloth out of the Eastern warp he originally possessed and the West European weft…In order to bridge East and West, the two big branches of the human culture, I think it an urgent necessity for an artist to have deep comprehension of both of their cultures. This task is not only a problem of an artist's mind, but also of his heart.

When Leach mentions “the two big branches of the human culture”, he is probably thinking of a genealogy which shows the process of biological evolution. In other words, he understands that historically and geographically, human culture has been developing in two directions: Eastward and Westward. Apparently, he regards it as a task of the modern artist to bridge the gap between “East” and “West”.

Here we find an interesting overlap between the image of a cultural genealogy conceived by Leach, and the motif of the “Tree of Life” depicted in his works. One of the characteristics of his tree is its branches, which cross and weave repeatedly. Since a man is on the right side and a woman on the left, we can ascertain that the right branch means “the West” and the left, “the East”. The overlapping branches seem to imply the contact of “East“ and “West”, which Leach thought was taking place with more frequency in the modern age. Leach expresses his sense of the vivacity of creatures by composing the animals, the zodiac, and a stream, implying the endless flow of time and the cycle of life. It may be possible for us to conjecture that the birds among the branches represent an idealised image of artists, who can move between “East” and “West” and bridge the two. In this way, the artist generates a new symbolism by incorporating traditional motifs into his own vocabulary.


In this paper we have considered the formation and meaning of Leach's idea, “the Marriage of East and West” and its application in his pottery. Discussion has revealed that the artist groped for cultural eclecticism in art, and hoped the various elements from the world art traditions would coexist in his works. A dualistic way of thinking was an effective tool and standpoint for the artist to explore and digest the arts of “East” and “West”. He explained his ideal in terms of international marriage. It was important for him that each of the elements in his works should combine to achieve harmony without losing their original features, just as a child of mixed parentage inherits the features of his parents whilst retaining uniqueness as an independent person. He thought the result of this eclecticism should be judged by making reference to “the highest standards of the past constantly checked by the present”. In his later years, he began to employ a motif of a pilgrim. It seems this motif not only succeeds the birds bridging “East” and “West” in the “Tree of Life” motif, but also his self-portrait. Leach did not stop shuttling between Britain and Japan until he became blind and retired in 1973. Leach’s activity is characterized by his aspiring to universal values through the continuous exploration of cultural diversity, and in this sense his life and art is a remarkable case of dynamic cultural exchange in the twentieth century.