For top U.K. ceramics, no need to see Cornwall

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Koichiro Isaka was traveling with his wife in the south of England when he first became aware of a ceramic tradition. Like many Japanese, he knew the name Bernard Leach, who studied with Shoji Hamada in the early 1900s as part of Japan’s folkloric revivalist movement and helped establish Mashiko as a pottery town. He also knew the name of the Cornish fishing village St Ives, where Leach was based. But to discover that Britain’s contemporary scene is so dynamic and varied came as a great surprise.

It was his wife, Akiko, who wanted to stop at a studio in the Devon village of Drewsteginton. She had seen an article in a Japanese magazine about a local potter who dug his own clay and specialized in clay and wood-ash glazes. “Over the next two years, I sought out 80 potters nationwide. The work was so much better than I ever expected. I was fascinated by the differences in shape, color, ideas.”

For 10 years Isaka had been thinking to open a gallery. His original idea was to specialize in painting, but in 1998 that changed. The result? Gallery St Ives in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, dedicated to familiarizing Japan with contemporary British pottery — and hopefully placing more than a few pieces in Japanese homes.

Noting tentatively that Gallery St Ives is perhaps rather off the beaten track (take the No. 01 bus from Jiyugaoka Station), Isaka agreed, but what could he do? “The property’s owned by relations. It was too good an offer to turn down.” He also knows Fukasawa well, and likes the busy but laid-back friendliness of the neighborhood.

The gallery is hard to miss. Painted bright red, it stands next to a promenade of cherry trees extending from Toritsudaigaku Station, 300 meters north of Kinokuniya. “Originally we thought to paint the frontage green. But I decided that it would be lost in summer with so much greenery around. We’re looking forward to the blossom next month. We think the red and pink will make quite a picture.”

Born in Tanashi, Koichiro Isaka was moved twice as his father bought larger and larger houses to accommodate one, two and finally three sons. After studying economics at Keio University, and joining a trading company, he was transferred to London as a trainee. In 1990 he was relocated to Nagoya, three years later jumping ship. “I went back to the U.K. to take an MBA in business studies at Warwick University.”

He says he always knew he wanted to work independently. His father, a typical salaryman, is very happy that Isaka’s younger brother at least is following in his footsteps. “I’m wearing a business suit now because I have a meeting later on. But before you take a photo, I’m taking it off!”

With his gallery still a dream, Isaka went to work in the City, the financial heart of London. But he quickly realized that not everything in the futures market was clean. “The Sumitomo case of ’96 was just after I joined. I remember worrying that I’d entered a questionable industry. Luckily I was ‘made redundant’ three years later. But happening just six months after I got married, I did wonder what to do next.”

What he did initially was take it easy, using his severance pay to find his own future. “Discovering British ceramics, I decided to prepare a business venture that would bring them to Japan. So we stayed on to research and lay the ground for Gallery St Ives. Obviously the function of ceramic pieces is different in the U.K., but what our two cultures do share is this passion for tea.”

He returned to Japan this time last year, leaving his wife in London, where she is studying for a Ph.D. in education. “I met her best friend in London, also doing a master’s. Hiroko was keen from the beginning to be involved in Gallery St Ives. We’re partners.”

“Business partners,” Hiroko Fujisue corrected, laughing. She works in the gallery two days a week, responsible for display and changing exhibits every two weeks so that work always looks fresh and new. She leaves the business side to Isaka. “He’s good with money. I’m more creative. I especially like organizing events, like tea parties.”

Choosing which potters to represent was difficult, Isaka acknowledged. He finally whittled the number down to 20. “I was thinking about what would sell here,” he said. “Hiroko helped a lot in making the final selection. Also my sister-in-law and her friends. After all, buyers are mainly women in the 30-50 age range. If one style of work proves not to hit the mark, I can quite reasonably give new young blood a chance. As for the gallery’s name, in my opinion St Ives connects Japan and the U.K. with Bernard Leach.”

Gallery St Ives opened Nov. 30, with a tea-party event Dec. 9 and 10. The runup to Christmas was good, but the start of this year slow. “We’re hoping that spring will bring people to visit us. We’ll be staging a similar event for April 7 and 8. It would be nice if the blossom were out, but who can predict these things.”

Asked whose work had sold best, Isaka and Fujisue chorused, “Philip Wood.” This potter, who works in Nunney, Somerset, can sell virtually any drinking mug at 5,000 yen plus that he makes: “The shape is simple, the weight comfortable, the price right. Women seem to love the pinkish tones and surface reliefs of animals, fish and birds.”

Another favorite is May Ling Beadsmoore, whose soda-glazed ceramics produce subtly dramatic color combinations of greens and black, grays and oranges. A raised flat dish for offering cheese or cake may seem expensive at 32,000 yen, but when a buyer falls in love, price is irrelevant. “We had a queue wanting Bridget Drakeford’s first teapot in ceramic, wood and silver. It went to the first guy who reserved it for 85,000 yen. Two more have since sold, and we have another shipment arriving for April.”

The most expensive piece in the shop (tucked away upstairs when I visited) was yet another teapot, this time by Walter Keeler, from Monmouth, Wales. Exhibited at Mashiko last year, his extraordinary “Teapot with Thorns” is 210,000 yen. “To my way of thinking, Keeler is currently the U.K.’s top potter.”

Hiroko Fujisue is also fond of Steve Harrison’s salt glazes. His work — in blue and dark jade green, from which Isaka selected jade dark green for sale in Japan — is surprisingly light, and the detail exquisite. Visitors are entranced at the decorative elements of Jill Fanshawe Kato’s plates and jugs, mugs and tea bowls, but a little put off by their price. (Though much cheaper than in any department store.)

A woman had come in several times to mull over two of Sandy Brown’s oversize cups and saucers. “She really likes them, but is still thinking. . . .” Brown’s exuberant colors and wild painted designs are a far cry from Clive Bowen’s traditional utility shapes — pitchers and crock pots — in earthy natural tones. Bowen, who lives in Devon, also digs his own local clay.

Sculptural pieces are failing to hit their mark for the time being. “There’s no tradition here, though I am surprised the lamps are not selling.” (Maybe they are the wrong lamps?)

One surprise was the stunningly refined creamware of Takeshi Yasuda, who years ago turned his back on the complex and hierarchical world of Japanese ceramics. Currently he is at home in Bath, Gloucestershire, and a professor in applied arts at Ulster University in Belfast. “He is one of some 10 Japanese potters based in the U.K. that I know of.”

For his own part, Isaka is especially fond of salt glazes — unique surfaces that have no tradition in Japan. “Walter Keeler used to teach; Jane Hamlyn — the next generation — is one of his ex-students. Such glazes are not easy to control in high temperatures, and salt damages kilns.”

By the same token, wood-fired ceramics are a rarity in the U.K. “There is only one ‘noborigama’ climbing kiln that I know of, in Somerset, used by Bernard Leach’s grandson, John.”

So what did Isaka think of St Ives, reputed to have more artists and craftspeople jostling for creative breathing space than any other community in the British Isles?

“Actually,” he admitted ruefully, “I’ve never been there. We’ve only got as far as Looe, with the southernmost tip of Cornwall still to go.”

But Koichiro Isaka, now managing director of Isaka International Ltd., will be there soon, driving down with his wife to make St Ives and so Land’s End. Next month, after the cherry blossom, a few more tea parties, and hopefully a lot more sales.