“ Almighty God touched me with
His little finger and said:
Write for the theatre”

— Giacomo Puccini

“ Down in Nagasaki,
where the fellas chew tobbaccy,
and the girls wicky wacky woo.”

— ‘Nagasaki’ by Dixon & Warren © 1928 Remick Music Group, New York

In his 1999 book Orientalism — the title of which is confusingly shared with Edward Said’s hugely influential 1978 tome Orientalism — the English academic, writer and self-styled ‘critical polymath’] , Ziauddin Sardar, uses the example of David Cronenberg’s 1993 film M. Butterfly to illustrate the propensity of the West to misrepresent the East, a place where ‘actuality has always been encapsulated in forms of storytelling as fact, fiction and fable.’ [1] In Cronenberg’s fable, Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly is transported to the 1960s and considerably altered to address the ideological struggles of the time — the Cultural Revolution in China, the Vietnam War and the student uprisings of Paris in 1968.

Cronenberg’s film is indeed a story about stories. The screenplay, and the play by David Henry Hwang from which it was adapted, takes Puccini’s opera as a starting point, just as the libretto of the opera was itself taken from a play that Puccini had seen performed in London in 1900. This early production of Madam Butterfly, by the American playwright and director David Belasco, was in turn based on a short story published in 1898 written by the Philadelphia lawyer John Luther Long, and it is here, in Long’s Madam Butterfly , [2] that the characters of Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, Cho-Cho-San and their child, Dolore, [literally ‘pain’] who is nick-named ‘Trouble’, are introduced for the first time.

Even this is not the final layer, as Long partly based his story on Pierre Loti’s 1887 novel Madame Chrysantheme, in which a young French naval officer enters into a temporary marriage with a geisha while stationed in Japan. It seems that M. Butterfly is a film based on a play based on an opera based on a play based on a short story based, at least partly, on a book. Yet, there is nothing in all of these stories — or variations of a single story — that would detract from Ziauddin Sardar’s thesis regarding the West’s unrelenting boorishness towards the East. As he writes, ‘ M. Butterfly presents a complete discourse on Orientalism.’

There is another aspect of this history to be considered, concerning the material John Luther Long drew on for inspiration. Long had a sister, Jennie Cornell, who was married to a Methodist missionary and lived in Nagasaki from 1892 to 1897, and it seems that it was Cornell who furnished her brother with details of the city, Japanese customs and the lives of the small expatriate community, details which Long incorporated into his tale.

One of the most intriguing of these figures was Thomas Blake Glover, the so-called ‘Scottish Samurai’ (now there’s a thought). Glover was born in Scotland in 1838 and at an early age had gained employment with the powerful trading company, Jardine and Matheson. He was posted to Shanghai and then to Nagasaki, arriving in 1859, just five years after Commodore Perry’s second expeditionary force had effected the opening up of Japan to the West. Within a few years Glover had established his own trading house, and had diversified from buying and selling green tea to dealing in far more dangerous goods. This included supplying arms to factions aligned with the Satsuma, Tosa and Choshu clans who were opposed to the Tokugawa Shogunate, the rulers of what was still essentially a feudal nation. In 1863 Glover helped smuggle five dissidents to England, at a time when Japanese citizens were still forbidden to leave the country under the sakoku [closed country] policy, which had been in effect for over two centuries. Glover would weather the political changes of the Meiji reformation, to eventually see Japan assume the mantle of a modern democracy. As a businessman he made and lost several fortunes, but he contributed greatly to the industrialisation of the country, particularly by facilitating the growth of Japan as a maritime power.

Glover constructed a grand residence overlooking the harbour in Nagasaki, the first Western-style house to be built in Japan. And it is here, in the details of Glover’s private life, that myth begins to impinge on reality, providing fodder for the stories that were doubtless recounted by Jessie Cornell to her brother John Luther Long, which then became woven into the story of Madam Butterfly .

In reality, Glover’s life was not at all mysterious. Following a short-lived first marriage, Glover’s second marriage to Yamamura Tsuru would last thirty years, with a daughter, Hana, resulting from the union. Glover also had a son (the boy may actually have been the child of Glover’s brother, Alfred Glover) Kuraba Tomisaburo (the phonetic approximation of ‘Glover Thomas’), by a woman named Kaga Maki. Christopher Hatch, in his review for Opera Quarterly [3] of Jan van Rij’s 2001 Madame Butterfly: Japonism, Puccini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San [4] , notes the author argues that it was the son, Tomisaburo, who served as the model for the character Dolore, but it seems likely that there will never be a definitive answer to the question. Late in her life, Jessie Cornell stated that the story was actually based on the life of a tea-house girl named Cho-san, who had fallen pregnant to a visiting sailor, but again there is no proof — just stories upon stories upon stories.

Glover was ultimately awarded the Order of the Rising Sun (Second Class) for his services to Japan, the first foreigner to be so honoured. He died at his home in Tokyo in 1911 — two years after Bernard Leach arrived in Japan — and is buried in Nagasaki.

Glover House survived the Second World War and the atomic bombing of the city, and was subsequently requisitioned by the occupation forces. It was at this time that the connection with the Madam Butterflystory was cemented, with the troops nick-naming the residence ‘Madam Butterfly House’ because its view over the harbour recalled scenes from the opera, hardly surprising when one knows that much of the fine detail in the original story was based on information furnished by Jessie Correll to her brother, who never himself visited Japan. Now a museum, Glover House attracts large numbers of visitors, where they can stroll through the house and gardens to the strains of Puccini’s aria ‘Un Bel Di’ played on a continuos loop. [5]

Bernard Leach wrote of standing on the deck of a ship as it was steaming from Nagasaki to Tokyo in April, 1909, seeing Mt. Fuji rising majestically above the clouds in the distance. ‘Alongside stood an engineer — a matter-of-fact, sturdy Scot who, tired of my enthusiasms, said, “Oh for God’s sake shut up — don’t you understand that you cannot make friends with the Japanese? I know, I’ve been married to one for thirteen years!” Poor woman!’ [6]

It may seem odd to make a connection between postcolonial theory, Japanese history, Madam Butterflyand Garth Clark’s oeuvre, yet his derision of the Leach school’s attempts to ‘do Asia’ [7] certainly raises some interesting issues.

There is a tendency for some contemporary commentators to retrospectively impose the ‘Goldilocks principle’, where the relationship of the West to Asia must be seen to have been ‘just right’. This is always difficult terrain to navigate, in art as in other enterprises, and in the past the position of Asian artists who adopted Western idioms was just as fraught as that of Western artists who borrowed too literally and too often from their Asian sources. It is sometimes forgotten that these things cut both ways, and until the recent homogeneity of the contemporary art world has called into question the very logic of continuing to identify art as Asian or Western, many very good Asian artists were ignored simply because they were seen, by the West, to be too Western.

Nonetheless, if Leach’s assimilation of Asian influences is to be judged on artistic criteria alone he will be found lacking, particularly amongst those who see the goal of art as ushering in the new, the different and the unique.

Clark cites the example of Mark Tobey as being someone who successfully took ‘…Zen and Japanese calligraphy and converted them into his groundbreaking … painting’. [8] Tobey had met the Chinese artist Ten Kuei in Seattle, before travelling with Leach to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Japan in 1934. During this period, Tobey also taught at Dartington Hall alongside Leach, eventually convincing him to accept the Bahá’í faith that Tobey had adhered to since 1918. Leach and Tobey were certainly very different artists, but they shared an intense interest in the spiritual, which spilled over into their work. As Peter Plagens’ notes, in his lucid and informative entry on Tobey in Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast 1945 — 1970, his ‘…tenets have confined him to smaller, more private, quieter and less polemic art than that of the New York Expressionists … the essence of Tobey’s art is not public and physical, but private and psychic, which is the reason the work incurs underrating, and feckless apings by secondary artists.’ [9] Plagens’ book is also of interest in that it positions major figures of West Coast ceramics within a wider context than is often the case, although his comments on Voulkos et al should only be taken as an adjunct to the writings of Clark and others who concentrate on this area.

Bernard Leach and Mark Tobey shared a deep friendship. Where Leach’s books are notable for their insularity to contemporary developments in Western art, he honoured Tobey’s contribution, writing about him at great length. For example, he quotes a full two pages of a lecture Tobey gave to a drawing class at Dartington in 1930, a lecture, incidentally, in which Tobey argues for the kind of artistic freedoms that Clark would say Leach denied to others. [10] Leach also discusses the development of Tobey’s ‘white writing’ style and the inspiration Tobey gained during the week he and Leach spent in Hong Kong: ‘We drew constantly. He was fascinated by the vertical signboards outside every shop — characters, black on white, red on gold …’, [11] and ‘It was out of his experiences during that week in Hong Kong that Mark Tobey drew his inspiration for the “white writing” style … He was not be caught in a net, however, … later developing a kind of brush-work weaving over big pictures … in which all the form and colour of his past is included. For any verbal description only a musical term such as a symphony is possibly adequate.’ [12]

Clark’s observations regarding Leach’s artistic conservatism hardly come as a revelation, even to an Antipodean audience.

As early as 1950, when the Australian artist/potters, David and Hermia Boyd, first encountered this type of Anglo Oriental hybrid in London, they couldn’t get over all the: ‘Japanese squiggles or the Leach-introduced hieroglyphic for ripening corn …’ [13] Scions of an Australian artistic dynasty and siblings of the avant-garde, they were almost prevented from selling their highly decorated earthenware pottery in England by Heber Mathews, who, though an ex-student of William Staite Murray at the Royal College of Art, advised the Boyds that he could only issue them a license from the Board of Trade, ‘If you can make a pot like Bernard Leach …’. [14] Thankfully, the license had already been approved and the Boyds’ ceramics, as always, went on to combine commercial and artistic success, and perhaps to be a greater influence on the English majolica revival of the 1950s than is currently noted.

Similarly, the Australian sculptor Marea Gazzard, studying ceramics in London in the 1950s, although admiring Leach for his approach to materials was enamoured of the ceramics of Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Nicholas Vergette and Lucio Fontana. She would return with these influences to Australia in 1960, and her role both as an artist and as a powerful crafts bureaucrat — Gazzard served on both the Crafts Board of the Australia Council and on the World Crafts Council — is an indication of the plurality of approaches that found official favour within the Australian crafts.

Even the author’s father, the then Queensland-based potter Milton Moon, challenged the dogma surrounding Leach, when in 1963 he published his article ‘Pottery — a Personal View’ [15] in the third issue of the journal Pottery in Australia. Commenting on the exchange of letters and views taking place in the pages of the English journal Ceramic Quarterly between Paul Brown and Bernard Leach, Moon paraphrased the Australian art critic Robert Hughes, who had parodied a popular song title with the quip ‘I think I’ve seen that Sung before…’, ending his article by writing that ‘The potter in fact can be part of both, painter and sculptor, developing similar sensibilities, but yet remain a potter, expressing things that are peculiar to clay and the fire and say things that only he can say’ [16] , whilst also acknowledging that both Leach’s and Brown’s views, though arbitrary, were probably valid for each individual writer. At the time, Moon was arguably making the most experimental and challenging ceramic work in the country, taking his artistic cues more from the avant-garde painters with whom he mixed than any interpretation of an Anglicised mingei.

Given this long established variety of practice — as any examination of the literature will demonstrate — I find it of particular interest to note the ‘cultural differences we [Clark and del Vecchio] noticed during our stay: the high esteem in which Leach is still held down under. In New Zealand he is practically considered a saint … my comments were greeted with shock and disbelief. It was as if I had killed Gandhi.’ [17]

If Clark was surprised at the reaction he got, I must in turn admit to even greater surprise regarding his assertion that Leach was still highly regarded in Australia and even considered a saint in New Zealand. I have managed to complete a doctoral thesis examining Leach’s influence on Australian ceramics without yet encountering an active fan base, although a certain residual affection and respect probably remains. With regards to New Zealand, since ceramics has gone from being a major feature of the cultural landscape of Aotearoa to the point where it is hardly even taught any more, perhaps the New Zealand potters were just praying for a miracle?

I do not intend to enter into a point by point rebuttal of Clark’s Blunting the New. I willingly admit to one mistake, in stating that Clark ‘sent-up’ Rose Slivka’s article ‘The New Ceramic Presence’, [18] when he instead was referring to another text, albeit by the same author. As for the rest, the substance and tenor of Clark’s remarks will be judged by the reader, and if any of this serves to promote discussion within the ceramics community (I use that term advisedly) then so much the better. Since both Clark and del Vecchio report they are delighted their visit provoked debate ‘and in particular that [their] views have been contested’ [19] , I am sure that any further responses would be met with equal enthusiasm.


I will end this essay by quoting John Pagliaro, the editor of Garth Clark’s 2003 publication Shards. [20]

The first relates to the manner in which I have chosen to begin this piece. Pagliaro states that:

Garth Clark’s writings are expansive. … Their greater breadth is a metaphoric one — Clark’s voice extends far beyond a mere command of history. His writings on ceramic art depend on abstract connections, sometimes an oblique point of contact, but consistently ones that he makes to expand his conversation about the medium to a broader horizon in time, history, and culture.’ [21]

The second addresses Clark’s remarks regarding Bernard Leach, made during his recent visit ‘down under’ and in his essay Blunting the New.

‘Finally, I have kept an eye (and ear) to Clark’s voice of consummate dissent and transgression within the ceramic rank and file. It is one of his immutable critical assets. Nonetheless, when I feel it becomes too zealous or admonishing in tone (and usually by mere word choice) as to prevent his audience from persisting to the point of apprehending the argument, and not, rather, being dissuaded due to argumentativeness, I have said so.’ [22]

[1] Ziauddin Sardar Orientalism Open University Press 1999

[2] John Luther Long Madam Butterfly Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine January 1898

[3] Christopher Hatch ‘Review’ The Opera Quarterly vol. 18, no. 1 Winter 2002, Oxford University Press

[4] Jan van Rij Madame Butterfly: Japonism, Puccini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San Stone Bridge Press 2001

[5] Alan Spence ‘The Butterfly Effect’ Home 5 April 1999 Scotland

[6] Bernard Leach Beyond East and West Faber and Faber 1978, p. 40

[7] Garth Clark Blunting the New www.craftculture.org

[8] ibid

[9] Peter Plagens Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast 1945 — 1970 University of California Press 1974, p. 48

[10] Bernard Leach ibid pp. 165 – 167

[11] ibid p. 171

[12] ibid p. 172

[13] John Vader The Pottery and Ceramics of David and Hermia Boyd Mathews/Hutchinson 1977 p. 37

[14] ibid p. 39

[15] Milton Moon ‘Pottery — a Personal View’ Pottery in Australia vol. 2. no. 1, May 1963, pp. 25 – 27

[16] ibid p. 27

[17] Clark ibid

[18] Rose Slivka ‘New Ceramic Presence’ Craft Horizons July — August 1961

[19] Clark ibid

[20] Garth Clark Shards CAF: Ceramic Arts Foundation & DAP: Distributed Art Publications 2003

[21] ibid p.xii

[22] ibid p. xiii