I arrived at the Leach Pottery in late 1988 when Janet asked me for help with clay preparation, mixing glazes, and general assistance in her workshop.
At that time she was making very loosely-thrown stoneware pots with iron-enriched red or manganese-black clay, on low-tech Japanese momentum wheels. There were two; one for each type of clay she was using. She also slabbed pots in red stoneware or heavily grogged porcelain, sometimes raised on roughly-cut feet.
The finished surfaces were often left bare except for two very characteristic ‘Janet Leach’ black or white glaze pours, one on each face, with asymmetrical lugs or vestigial handles marking the sides. The porcelain was glazed in celadon or bone ash white, with black or white pours.
She used limestone and ash glazes on low open dishes and on thrown pots, which she sometimes smacked while still relatively soft, once on each side, with a roughly- broken piece of wood. This was something she saw used on Bizen pots and which she had used to decorate the pots she made in Tamba in 1969.
Janet was always respectful of Bernard’s life work, but was known to say “I married Bernard Leach but I didn’t study under him.” While attending a seminar held by Bernard and Hamada in USA in 1952, it was Hamada who really impressed her by throwing a large pot having barely centred the clay with just a few soft punches.
Later in Mashiko she encountered his quick and lively glazing methods. Then in Tamba and Bizen she found potters who instead of applying glaze, fired their asymmetrical and roughly-finished pots, piled up anyhow, amongst pieces of wood and rice straw which made part-reduced, part-oxidized, cratered surfaces of various quiet colours with spots of naturally occurring ash glaze.
Back at the Leach Pottery in the late seventies, Janet was experimenting with similar firings, achieving a variety of surfaces with locally found materials on very small pots which I later recognized as remarkably true examples of Bizen shapes.
Janet said that when she first saw Hamada at work, she realized that her pots were too mechanical; and she grew to love the exorbitant looseness and deliberate asymmetry of some of the most ‘extreme’ traditional Japanese pottery. However, the results of her experiments weren’t well received by some of the older Leach employees. Hurt by their scathing remarks, she put the pots away and stopped her experiments.
I didn’t see these pots until Janet asked me to fetch another very large dusty old pot from a low cupboard in her workshop. It was only biscuit-fired, and was decorated with a ‘tree of life’ in oxides and scraffito. Both Bernard and Hamada had stamped the base. (This pot was later sold at Bonham’s as the only existing example of a ‘B.L’. pot in this stage of its production.) Behind it were these very same small, wonderfully wild pots, which I handled and studied with delight as Janet spoke about them and how she had hidden them away over ten years earlier.
The pots in Janet’s living room were Hamada’s, Bernard’s, Lucie Rie’s, Korean, Chinese and many others, but nevertheless I hadn’t really felt as strongly about any pots before I found these. The fact of their incarceration, and the circumstances surrounding them, all added to their charm. They were completely unexpected. We talked about them for a long time sitting in her workshop. We brought them out into the light and checked them for firing cracks. Those that went into the showroom were greatly admired and quickly sold.
Much encouraged, Janet began her next batch of thrown ‘Bizen’ pots, glazing the insides with celadon or tenmoku, and leaving the outsides unglazed. They were fired inside saggars (which I made for her, from painfully large-grogged clay), amongst woodchips, charcoal, and driftwood for spots of salt-glaze, in a small gas kiln. These became exhibition pieces.
When I first arrived at the pottery I never used to comment on pots in the making, (partly traditional Leach Pottery etiquette, partly my inexperience), but after the rediscovery of Janet’s ‘Bizen’ pots, she often asked for my opinion.
In the early nineties she began a series of tiny (6-8”) black clay slab pots with white pours, some gently beaten to curve their bellies, some with extremely long necks formed around a pencil, some open boxes.
In the morning after a productive evening’s work, she would greet me beaming, “See what you think!” I’d go into the workshop on my own, and look at what she had made, very carefully. These pots were unlike anything I had ever seen before. Most of the time I liked them very much indeed. Once I laughed and asked her whether one of them hadn’t gone a bit too feral. I was actually quite concerned about it; but she enjoyed the idea greatly and obviously found this question encouraging.
Going back to work with enthusiasm, she was certainly ultimately vindicated by the interest in these pots. Several went to prestigious international collections.
In January 1997 Janet had her final exhibition, held by Austin Desmond Fine Art, in Bloomsbury Square, London. All her pots were specially made for the show, the culmination of a life’s work; and all were sold.
They were the last pots she ever completed. Such productive energy in the last months of her life demonstrated her extraordinary and serious commitment to pots. During that year she became increasingly unwell, and in September she died.
Janet had been approached about writing an autobiography, but she didn’t like the idea of spending her time reliving the past. Although understandable, this was our loss as she had led an extremely colourful life, and she was an engaging story-teller with natural style; as I discovered when she asked me to write out her letters for her, at the table surrounded by her own and Bernard’s unique collection of pots from everywhere. Her dictation, quietly reeled off without notes, was always charming, meaningful and direct.
Janet was a Texan who still said ‘railroad’ and ‘mail truck’ after forty years in Cornwall. She was very comical talking about her earliest memories of Texas. She told me the townspeople of her home-town, Grand Saline, had looked down on the local small farmers, until they found oil. Then the farmers, anyone with a bit of land, suddenly got so rich that they were buying their daughters ‘a piano each’.
She also spoke of her spinster aunt who had been kept at home to look after her parents when they got old, who had married the postman, the only man ever to cross her path. Janet’s childhood was very strict too, but she told me that when she was a teenager, ‘a guy’ (who was later to become her first husband) had taken her flying in small planes while her mother thought she was at the library.
Janet was full of humour while describing events and encounters in her life, but I noticed that whenever we were discussing pots, although I often laughed, she never did.
Joanna Wason. My thanks to Joanna who so generously allowed us to use her article talking about her time with Janet Leach.
Born - 1918 Texas USA
Died - 1997
Janet Leach (nee Darnell) having enrolled in Sculpture lessons just before the second World War in 1938 when she was 20, then spent some years as a welder on Warships on Staten Island before discovering pottery in 1947. In 1948 she set up a pottery at the Steiner Institute at Spring Valley, near New York, USA
1952 - Meets Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach while they are on a study tour in North Carolina.
1954 -1956 Japan, studies with Hamada at Mashiko and Tamba. Joins Bernard Leach on his tour of Japan (see A Potter in Japan 1952-54 by Bernard Leach - Faber 1960 where he refers to Janet Darnell "..has come up with me to do the typing of my manuscript. She arrived recently from New York to work with Hamada. She was one of the pottery students at our seminar at Black Mountain College in South Carolina. .....she has character and sincerity of purpose.")
1956 - England to marry Bernard Leach and join him at The Leach pottery, which she managed for many years.