From clay, water and fire, a craftsman creates beauty with his hands
A long time ago mankind began to evolve differently from all the other creatures on Planet Earth – and tens of thousands of years later the subject of what differentiates we humans from our fellow species is still fascinating us.
One great leap forward must have been when we learned to make tools which helped us hunt, fish and complete other life-sustaining exertions more quickly and efficiently. With the extra nutrition gleaned – and the extra time on our hands – the act of thinking must have progressed in line with our creative capacity.
What we began to do was to recognise a basic need and then to make things which addressed that requirement.
This might sound a rather odd way of introducing a major new Western Morning News series about traditional crafts and pastimes, but I begin in this prehistoric fashion for two reasons…
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One is that most people in the western world no longer use their brains or hands much to make things. We might be creative on computers – we might even do a bit of DIY around the house – but how many of us regularly create something out of nothing more, say, than a bit of wood or a lump of clay?
What links the people we will meet in this series is this simple act of creation. They form things, design and manufacture objects, bend nature to their will or adapt this, that or the other. In general, they bring something in to being that wasn't there before.
These crafts-people and artisans do not get someone else to make bits for them. They do not order parts or ingredients off the internet. They do use their own skills to produce. It is as simple, and wondrous, as that.
The other reason I begin the series by mentioning the folk of ancient times is that one of the first skills our forefathers learned was to take the bare earth on which they stood and form it into some kind of useful object. By which I mean pottery.
Our first traditional craftsman in the series does just that – although he happens to be one of the most famous potters in the world and his work is known from Tokyo to New York. Having said that, there is something refreshingly basic and organic about John Leach and his Muchelney Pottery.
For a start, he has a wood-fired kiln – which is, of course, the same fuel that the Beaker Folk used to create their basic pottery more than 4,000 years ago.
The Beaker People extended their range across Western Europe between 2800 and 1800 BC – and perhaps it's worth sitting back for a moment and trying to imagine what life would have been like before humans had objects in which to cook and store things. The best you could have hoped for was a handful of raw fruit or a lump of meat roasted on a stick.
Suddenly, though, all manner of cooking and storage opportunities would have opened up, which would have made unimaginable differences to the lives of folk in places like Exmoor and Dartmoor where shards of 4,000-year-old pottery are still found.
Talk to John Leach about all this and you'll soon see the man warm to the subject just as eagerly as he warms to his extremely hot wood-fired kiln…
"When they stopped being hunter-gatherers and became farmers they had to store things and that meant a lot of jars to keep things dry and away from vermin and so on," says John as we begin our chat by talking about the Westcountry's first potters. "Clay-work was so necessary to life – and that's why archaeologists get so excited about a shard of pottery. It would have been soft-fired and therefore could have been put over a gentle flame. My stuff – stoneware – can't stand that."
At this point John muses further afield over the idea of primitive pottery: "If you travel to Nigeria to meet the potters (who are nearly all women) they make these big water coolers that hold about ten gallons – and they are soft-fired in that old fashioned way.
"That means the pitchers are porous – so you put the water in and it sweats on the outside and that acts like refrigeration. My pots fired at higher temperatures – much more sophisticated in one way – would be absolutely useless. It will seal the water in. If you left it outside for three hours in the sun, the water in mine – fired to 1,300 degrees centigrade – would be tepid and warm and start growing nasty bugs. But the porous pitcher will sweat on the outside and be nice and cool inside."
Now John returns to his native Westcountry: "I suppose after napping flints, making pottery would have been the second thing they'd have started creating," he says.
"The early people would have had to go to a river bed to where the geology changed and things had moved. For instance, the Bovey Basin (on the River Teign) where the mother rocks of Dartmoor – the granites, feldspars and quartz – all came down to a secondary position where they mixed over millions of years.
"There are a lot of different clays with completely different chemical analysis in the Westcountry," John adds. "When you first come somewhere, the natural thing is to dig a hole in the ground – I did it here and threw a pot with it.
"You have to get the clay into a malleable consistency and get out the organic matter. I can get a Devon ball-clay – throw a pot with it – get my Somerset clay here which is high in iron and turn it to a slip. So I can take my stoneware pot, tip it in and the local stuff becomes a glaze at the temperatures I fire to.
"What this country, before the 1700s, was known for was earthenware," he explains. "That's low temperature stuff. Earthenware is a low-maturing clay. The old panchions on farms and pitchers and harvest jugs – they were earthenware. You can change the colour through glazes and slips you add, but the basic material is red clay and it matures about 1,050 centigrade. Here, I go another 200 degrees."
The old pottery ways went on for many centuries then, in the 1700s, travellers started returning from the Far East: "The Chinese were a thousand or more years ahead of us technically when it came to high-fired porcelains," said John as we started to discuss the subject of China Clay and the Westcountry's own William Cookworthy.
That's when pottery grew to be a manufacturing process on an industrial scale – and the rest is the Potteries history of Stoke-on-Trent. Or nearly…
"Centuries later my grandfather went off to Japan and studied in Korea and China. In about 1911 he happened to be amongst a whole lot of philosophers, thinkers, poets, potters, weavers, and so on in a potter's house. The host would bring a pot with a little cup and give it to you with a brush and a palette of pigments," says John, recalling his famous grandfather Bernard Leach who eventually settled in St Ives and began a potting dynasty.
"My grandfather decorated this little pot and handed it back. And in the distance he saw this potter dip it into some white stuff – and he thought: 'Oh, they don't like my decoration'. Of course, he later learned it was a translucent glaze.
"After that he sought a master and he and another Japanese man became the seventh in a line of raku potters and gained a formal title which stopped with them at the seventh dan. My grandfather became so famous in Japan that when he got off the plane microphones were shoved at him.
"He brought home wood-firing from Japan – but people were using a form of it here anyway. They used anything from furze, bracken, all sorts... To put it in a regional perspective – every farm had a pitcher. You had a Cornish pitcher which has a very high belly. Then you've got North Devon, only 60 miles away, and you had a lower fat belly pitcher with a trunk and a neck. Then you come to Donyatt down the road here and they have more gentle lines – then over to Verwood in Hampshire and it has the lowest slung belly of all the pitchers.
"How did they all evolve?" asks John. "I've often thought about that question. Did someone start a tradition? Or did things just evolve? Why is the Cornish pitcher opposite to the Verwood? Or maybe it has something to do with the different clays. My grandfather did bring in a different design of kiln – it was chambered and climbed up a ramp which was all part of the chimney process. Ours is the same, but the three identical chambers here only rise 10 inches.
"I'd always wanted to use wood because it is a happy marriage with nature," says John, who built his first wood-fired kiln at Muchelney in 1976. "I've been getting it from Weavo Fencing at Hatch Beauchamp for 40 years – it's their slab wood, their off-cuts. If I didn't have it, it would be turned into chipboard. I get 24 bundles at a time, 18 months in advance because it's got to dry out.
"The joy of it is that I'm not using a fossil fuel. Wood is a remarkable renewable fuel source. Those bundles out there – we use about 14 in a burn. There are five or six of us working in shifts because it's about 40 hours. Someone has to be there all night and it's quite a skilled job.
"I had an Italian here who was studying pottery and he saw my kiln which has got lots of vents and so on – and he said: "Oh John – it's like a Ferrari!"
"It's working with nature. You have to allow the vagaries of nature and it makes the product more interesting. If we knew precisely what was going to come out of the kiln, I'm not sure we'd be so interested. Wood fire is unpredictable – we get a flash here and bloom there. It's so natural with the draft pulling the flame and the volatiles from the wood through."
As John says, it's all a long way from the industrial potteries where they have computer programmes to control what goes on in the kilns.
"Our pots are handmade – all handmade. Even lighting the fire we do by hand. Actually – as this was the last kiln I'll need to build in my working life, I wanted to start it properly. I couldn't just light it first time with a box of matches, it would be wrong…
"So I rang up Phil Harding of television's Time Team. We met and I told him the story and asked him if he could make fire the Stone Age way. I said: 'I've seen you do it – I can't afford your fancy TV fees but you can have a couple of your own pots from this first firing of my new beast'.
"And, good as gold, he lit the first firing with a bow and string in a notched bit of wood. He had his own birch bark tinder paper and dried moss – as soon as it started in that little cup, he put a bit in – and off it went.
"It sounds childish," grins John. "But it meant so much to me at the time."
And he grinned even more at the thought that this would have been exactly the same way in which the Beaker Folk of Exmoor and Dartmoor would have lit their kilns 4,000 years ago.