Through the teaching of Bernard Leach and Shōji Hamada, and the search for the 'humble pot' New Zealand became obsessed with the Japanese aesthetic of simple rustic pottery.

The philosophies of Leach and Hamada changed the face of New Zealand pottery in the 1960s-1970s. Their visits created a wave of excitement when they toured the country.

By Finn McCahon-Jones

Bernard Leach comes to New Zealand

In 1940 British potter Bernard Leach published ‘A Potter’s Book’ which became somewhat of a bible to New Zealand potters. At the time this book was published most potters in New Zealand were self taught as there were no pottery classes or teachers.

Most domesticware was either imported from England or made at the pottery works. By the mid 1950s 'A Potter’s Book' was widely available in New Zealand – the book not only taught potters how to pot, but how to 'be' a potter in an ‘honest and unassuming way’.

The philosophies promoted in this book came at the time when New Zealand artists were looking for alternative ways to live and were searching for an authentic New Zealand aesthetic. The sentiment of the book were easily adapted to the local environment, and were followed in a serious and genuine manner.

Leach encouraged potters to work towards creating a ‘standard’ pot: one that was well made and well proportioned, and had the simplicity of a pot made by an anonymous craftsman. Leach preached philosophies similar to those of William Morris about the wrongs of industrialization, inspired by Japanese lore.

When Bernard Leach arrived in New Zealand in 1962 he was 78 years old and spent one month travelling around the country giving lectures, seminars, slide shows and showed films. He gave ‘stimulating talks’ to groups of potters. A 20-minute film was made on Len Castle’s lawn containing a discussion between Bernard Leach, Len Castle and Barry Brickell. By the end of his trip Leach had really invigorated the pottery community. Potter Helen Mason reported that "He said many times during his stay that he was surprised to find how strong was the pottery movement in New Zealand. The reiteration of this remark by such a famous man helped greatly in our endeavour to have the seriousness of our work recognised as a cultural potential." [1]

A Potter's Book by Bernard Leach; with introductionss by Soyetsu Yanagi and Michael Cardew. 2nd edition. Faber & Faber.

© All Rights Reserved Auckland Museum, call number NK4255LEA

Shoji Hamada visits

Even more exciting was the arrival of Shōji Hamada. Hamada was good friends with Bernard Leach, and the other part of the anglo-oriental relationship. Hamada promoted the humble art of the 'everyday' craftsman and helped found the mingei pottery movement. Although Hamada often embraced the guise of a country potter, he was technically trained in industrial pottery as well as being a master potter; in 1955 the Japanese government designated Hamada as a Living National Treasure (人間国宝 Ningen Kokuhō).

Mingei,  which roughly translates to 'folk art' is an art movement founded by Yanagi Sōetsu in the 1920s-1930s. The movement was inspired by 'low' objects made by unknown or common rafts people that made un-pretentious objects that embodied the essence of craft. This was a reaction to the rapid urbanisation of Japan after it opened to the West. 

1965 Pan Pacific Arts Festival & the arrival of Hamada

Handle pulled by Hamada Shoji, and bisque fired by Len Castle, 1965

© All Rights Reserved Auckland Museum, 2013.13.4

In late February 1965, potters and members of the Christchurch Ikebana Society crowded the tarmac in giddy excitement. “We were all rather anxious when his arrival was imminent – the legend about to materialize.”[2] Shōji Hamada and his son Atsuya Hamada (also a potter), were here as part of the 1965 Pan Pacific Arts Festival in Christchurch where he was guest exhibitor, organized by the Christchurch Potters.

Between events in his spare time, Hamada worked in Yvonne Rust’s studio throwing enough pots for two firings. Eager potters watched him throw, glaze, stack and fire the kiln, and then open and examine the fired pieces. When Hamada potted he wore traditional Japanese clothes and sat cross legged while Mirek Smisek kicked the wheel and oversaw the firings.

As well as holding a workshop at Janet and Wilf Wright's Reikorangi pottery near Waikanae, Hamada travelled to Auckland where he was welcomed with a casual morning tea on Diane and Peter Stichbury’s lawn.

bottle, thrown and decorated by Shoji Hamada. Brought by Hamada to New Zealand in 1965 when he visited.

Christchurch Art Gallery, 71/52

Hamada toured around Auckland looking at pots, and frequenting antique shops looking for ‘mingei’ objects. On March 19, 1965 Hamada provided a demonstration and showed some films at the Mt Albert War Memorial Hall. Neil Grant was Hamada’s assistant, kicking the wheel as Hamada threw.

Len Castle described Hamada at work: "a flow of unhurried, desicive moments from his hands or the bamboo tool determined the thrusts and curves of his pot forms. Behind the hands and eyes his mind, warm and cool at the same time, made fast intuuitive decisions."[3]

Four items from this demonstration were carefully bisque fired by Len Castle and now reside in the Auckland Museum collection. These items still hold the spontaneity of the moment - Hamada’s hand marks and fingerprints indelibly baked onto the clay.[4]

Auckland Museum catalogue card showing various forms thrown by Shoji Hamada at his demonstration in Auckland, 1965

© All Rights Reserved Auckland Museum, K1126

A Humble Pot?

By the mid to late 1960s craft shops were popping up all over the country keen to sell craft, especially pottery, which had now reached mainstream acceptance. Craft shops were hungry for stock, and even novice potters could often sell a whole kiln load in advance sight unseen. Armed with Leach’s ‘A Potter’s Book’ and fueled with the recent visits of Leach, Hamada and others, many New Zealanders took up pottery, embracing the Japanese aesthetic with gusto!

Pots with muted brown glazes were accentuated with brushed decorations slashed across the fronts. Trickling glazes half dipped over a pot became an exemplar of the wabi sabi look. In the 1970s New Zealand sent an exhibition of pots to Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan where local Japanese visitors mistook the work for genuine Japanese pots. The pottery craze had moved beyond the philosophical search for a New Zealand aesthetic, instead, in many cases, becoming little more than just emulating the Japanese masters.

Header image: Atsuya Hamada, Shoji Hamada, Terence Barrow, Janet & Wilf Wright at Reikorangi, 1965. Te Papa,  CA000587/002/0004/0002

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

Buy now


McCahon-Jones, Finn. Relics of the Anglo-Oriental, Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Published 11 11 2019


[1] Helen Mason, 10 Years of Pottery in New Zealand

[2] David Brockenshire, Shoji Hamada At The Pan Pacific Arts Festival In Christchurch. New Zealand Potter, Vol.8, No.1, 1965


[4] Auckland Studio Potters Collection, Auckland Museum, 2013.13

Further reading

Mingei Museum, Japan

Te Ara, Crafts and Applied Arts

Carol Hogben, The Art of Bernard Leach. Faber and Faber: London, 1978

Bernard Leach, Hamada: Potter. Kodansha International LTD: Tokyo, 1975

Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book. Faber and Faber: London, 1940

Moyra Elliott & Damian Skinner, Cone 10 Down: Studio Pottery in New Zealand. David Bateman LTD: Auckland, 2009

Peter Cape, Artists and Craftsmen in New Zealand. Collins Bros & Co. Auckland, 1969

David Craig & Gregory O’Brian, His Own Steam: The Work of Barry Brickell. Auckland University Press: Auckland, 2013

Helen Mason, 10 Years of Pottery in New Zealand. New Zealand Society of Potters: Wellington, 1967

NZ Potter magazine (1958-1998)

This Is Expo (1971) (short film), NZ On Screen