Saturday, February 7, 2009

Cambridge, Bernard Leach and Korean Ceramics

I promised a quick post on the Fitzwilliam’s collection of Korean ceramics (which I visited the other week in Cambridge) after noting the museum’s current Chinese jade exhibition the other day in a post. The Fitzwilliam is home to the Godfrey Gompertz collection of Korean ceramics – Gompertz was an Englishman who both collected Korean pottery and wrote extensively about it. Korean arts and crafts have never been as highly prized and esteemed by either experts or the general public as the periodic crazes for Chinoiserie or Japanoiserie, which is a shame.

Korean ceramics should have reached a wider audience. They were first popularised to an extent by the English potter Bernard Leach and his Japanese Folk Crafts Movement. Leach was a fascinating character who had been born in Hong Kong and raised across the Far East including in Japan at the start of the twentieth century. He felt pulled towards two strands of art – William Morris’s Arts and Crafts Movement from the English side and Japanese arts and crafts through contact with Shirakaba, a group of young Japanese art lovers. In Tokyo Leach befriended a young potter named Shoji Hamada and later Hamada and Leach established the Leach Pottery at St. Ives, Cornwall in 1920. St. Ives of course is an arts centre (and where Virginia Woolf wrote To the Lighthouse by the way). In Cornwall the two men turned out ceramics inspired by Chinese, Japanese and Korea pottery. An example of Hamada's work is left.

Leach liked Korean ceramics for the reason I do – their ‘natural unselfconsciousness’, lack of pretension and implicit simplicity. Scattered around my flat in Shanghai are various Chinese and Turkish ceramics (none very valuable I can assure you!) but my favourite piece is a simple traditional Korean vase in the style of the Koryo Dynasty (12th century) with a celadon glaze and the classic Korean green tinged pottery. It’s not valuable, except sentimentally (I bought it on a visit to Pyongyang so it reminds me of time spent in the DPRK too). It’s simplicity and, as Leach would have had it ‘natural unselfconsciousness’ continue to appeal to me. It’s something like the slightly more valuable one opposite.

Still sadly Korean ceramics are undervalued compared to the more ‘trendy’ Japanese stuff and the more obviously Orientalist-appealing Chinese pottery. To see as much Korean ceramic together outside Korea as in the Fitzwilliam’s Gompertz collection is a joy.


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