Across The Ditch


This chapter might be expected to examine the extensive web of personal and professional connections between the ceramics communities of New Zealand and Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, that period when the modern studio pottery movement was born. Unfortunately this is not really possible, as there actually were quite few. What remains is a striking similarity in the way ceramics developed in both countries, insofar as this development occurred quite independently. It is as if the two nations, by virtue of their shared British heritage and distance from the centres of activity in the northern hemisphere, were destined to follow a parallel course.

Granted, there were differences. Peter Rushforth, one of the few influential Australian potters to have spent at least some time working in New Zealand, recalled that '[In New Zealand] ... a kiln opening was ... well, the community would come and see it and buy things almost immediately, and here was the philosophy really working ... [but] when New Zealand lifted its import restrictions and particularly this flood of Asian work ... now there are only a handful of potters who are able to earn a living, which is rather sad.'[1]

Tariff barriers placed on imported ceramics also existed in Australia for a period in the 1940s and 1950s but they were relaxed much earlier than in New Zealand. While they were in place many small potteries were able to sell quantities of decorated earthenware — not all of it boomerang shaped ashtrays and sets of ramekins — to a public hungry for 'fancy goods' after the austerity of the war years, but by the time the interest in Anglo-Oriental ceramics was peaking those halcyon days were well over.

In the burgeoning field of studio pottery the most readily identifiable influence was that of Bernard Leach and of Japan, not quite one and the same thing as it turns out. Scandinavian design and modernism also played a part, with influential potters like Marea Gazzard returning from London in 1960 imbued with the aesthetic of Lucie Rie, Hans Coper and Lucio Fontana.[2] Towards the end of the 1960s another set of influences came into play and when Margaret Dodds arrived back in Australia from working with Robert Arneson at the Davis Campus of the University of California in 1968 with her 'Funk Holdens', it really was game over for any ideals of unity in ceramic expression.

This chapter, however, is about a slightly earlier period, when ceramics was finding its feet as a mode of expression, or even as a lifestyle. It was here that Leach was most powerful and that Australian potters established a connection with Japan which remains a singular phenomenon in Australian art history.

Earthenware Origins

In the first half of the twentieth century the practice of Australian ceramics was a fairly amateurish affair. Ignoring any beneficial influences that may have been had by aligning themselves with existing ceramic manufactories, many of which made robust and useful pottery, the majority of these first Australian studio potters produced a rudimentary kind of decorated earthenware, often leaning towards a naïve modernism and replete with motifs taken from the Australian landscape.

Foremost among these potters was William Merric Boyd, scion of a well-credentialed Australian artistic dynasty. Boyd held what is thought to be the first exhibition of studio pottery in Australia, when in 1912 he exhibited at the Centreway Gallery in Melbourne. In the years before the Depression, Merric Boyd's work was (occasionally) selling in Melbourne for as much as sixty guineas, a sum on a par with Leach or Staite-Murray in London. Merric Boyd was an artist potter, the first Australia had seen.

His children — Arthur, David, Guy, Lucy and Mary — also made pottery. Notable works were made in the 1950s and early 1960s by Arthur Boyd in collaboration with John Percival (although both were primarily painters) and by David and Hermia Boyd, by far the most successful Australian potters of the late 1940s and 1950s.

For example, on their return to Australia from a sojourn to England in the mid 1950s, David and Hermia Boyd were able to buy a house in the beachside Melbourne suburb of Sandringham and a Citroen Light Fifteen from the proceeds of sales of pots. They had sell-out shows and, being bohemian and rather attractive, were often featured in the social pages. Their pots were collected by all the major galleries and they were accorded considerable respect as artists. The various generations of Boyds never embraced stoneware or the Anglo-Oriental aesthetic, perhaps one of the reasons their contribution was largely ignored by the emerging power brokers of Australian ceramics. In London, Hermia Boyd had occasion to remark on the proliferation of 'Japanese squiggles or the Leach-introduced hieroglyphic for ripening corn splashed in oxides'[3], a refreshingly honest sentiment but hardly one calculated to endear them to the coterie of anglo oriental potters back home.

Another artist who had taken to ceramics in the early 1900s was the Australian painter Margaret Preston. Together with Gladys Reynell, Preston studied ceramics in London around 1917 at the Camberwell School of Art, and in 1918 they worked in a pottery in Cornwall, just missing out on Leach's return to England.

It is interesting to speculate what the effect would have been on Australian pottery had the timing been slightly different, but, as it stands, Preston's article 'Pottery as a Profession'[4], published in the prestigious journal Art in Australia in 1930, demonstrates a cavalier approach to ceramic techniques which borders on the reckless: 'Only in wheel throwing is it advisable to have a teacher... but even in this there is always the original mind that gets over such difficulties... If stoneware, there is no need for a glaze, or a second firing ... the pots will be placed in a kiln, brought to about 2,000 centigrade ... [at which point, of course, both kiln and contents would have melted] ... Only original work should receive applause in such a young country. There's plenty of clay in Australia. Just get to it, someone, and originate.'[5] The text and accompanying photographs would seem more at home in a hobbyist journal than in the most highly regarded art magazine of the day. To be frank, it was articles like this that gave pottery a bad name.

Preston was only ever a part-time potter, although she did make significant contributions to the field of modernist painting and print-making. If one was searching for a more direct tie to Leach in the period before the Second World War, the closest one could come would be the little-known South Australian-based potters, Norah Godlee and Mary Egerton.

Following an early training in the techniques of China painting, Godlee travelled to England in 1925 where she enrolled in pottery classes run by Dora Billington at the Central School of Art in London, at a time when Billington had just introduced the study of stoneware into the curriculum. Together with her fellow student Mary Egerton, Godlee travelled widely, visiting Leach in Cornwall. In 1928 Godlee and Egerton returned to South Australia and established the Lyme Studio in a suburb of Adelaide, complete with a kiln capable of reaching stoneware temperatures, arguably the first instance of this approach being employed in Australian studio-pottery. The few stoneware pieces attributed to Godlee and Egerton represent the sum total of the Leach influence on Australian pottery from this early period and their work is so little known that it is normally disregarded in texts that seek to establish the beginnings of Leach's influence in Australia.[6]

During this period, other possibilities existed for the dissemination of the Anglo Oriental approach to ceramics, although these were not always acted on. The distinguished English scholar A.L. Sadler had been appointed Professor of Oriental Studies at Sydney University in 1922, a post he held until his return to England in 1948. Sadler had previously been a long time resident in Japan, where he gained his knowledge of Japanese language, history, politics and culture. This may be appreciated through his numerous publications, which include Cha-no-yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony (1933), a text that remains pre-eminent among books written in English about the tea ceremony.[7]

Sadler's time in Japan [1909 to 1921] coincided with Leach's tenure [1909 to 1920] and it seems that the two men knew each other and were on friendly terms, which is hardly surprising when one takes into account the relatively small expatriate population in Japan at that time.[8] Sadler even dedicated his book The Art of Flower Arranging in Japan[9] to Bernard Leach, but Australian ceramics would still have to wait a few years for the Leach influence to become really noticeable.

The Word

The publication of Leach's A Potter's Book in 1940 would be a turning point for Australian potters, albeit following a brief hiatus during which armed conflict with Japan was resolved. For many, the idea of pursuing ceramics as a career came about rather by accident, as ex-servicemen who flocked to art schools under the Commonwealth Retraining Scheme studied pottery as an adjunct to courses in painting and sculpture, at colleges like the Royal Melbourne Technical College in Melbourne or the National Art School in Sydney.

It was at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology that Peter Rushforth, who had spent some years as a prisoner of the Japanese, was introduced to Leach's book by the ceramics teacher Jack Knight.[10] As a firm believer in earthenware, Knight found this interest in stoneware and oriental ceramics difficult to comprehend; he sat outside in the sun reading a newspaper while Hamada demonstrated at RMIT in the 1960s, saying that they were 'always talking about stoneware ... can't understand them.'[11]

For Peter Rushforth, as for many other Australian potters, an interest in oriental ceramics was reinforced by seeing the extraordinary Kent Collection at the National Gallery of Victoria, amassed by the Melbourne-born businessman Herbert Wade Kent during thirty years living in China and Japan. This was Leach's 'Sung standard' reified, and it would have a powerful influence on a generation of Australian potters who were able to see at first hand the classic works to which Leach constantly alluded in A Potter's Book.

The first Australian potter to have direct contact with the Leach tradition in the early post war years was Ivan McMeekin. During the war McMeekin had served with the Australian navy and then as a merchant seaman on the 'China run'. In the late 1940s he found himself living in China, where he become interested in ceramics. Forced out by the revolution, he travelled to London where he enrolled in art classes and made the acquaintance of the well-known scholar of ceramics, A. L. Heatherington, who had just published the second edition of his influential text Chinese Ceramic Glazes.[12] Following Heatherington's advice that there was 'only one man in Europe with the practical knowledge that [McMeekin] needed, and that was Bernard Leach[13], McMeekin cycled down to Cornwall, hoping to learn how to make the type of ceramics which had so captured his imagination.

There were no places available at the pottery in St. Ives, but the suggestion was made that Leach's ex-student Michael Cardew might be able to use his services – as David Leach observed, he 'doesn't want an assistant but he certainly needs one.'[14] The two men hit it off and Ivan McMeekin would spend several years at Cardew's Wenford Bridge Pottery, first as an apprentice and then as the de-facto manager during Cardew's absences in Africa.

It was during this period that McMeekin attended the 1952 International Conference of Craftsmen in Pottery & Textiles organised by Leach and held at Dartington Hall in Devon. This was perhaps the first conference of its type and the list of attendees was impressive, although, given Leach's predilections, it was somewhat dominated by the Japanese delegation and by Leach himself. McMeekin obviously enjoyed the conference and the associated exhibitions, especially one which featured '... Chinese pots from the Sung and Ming Dynasties [which] for me, simply sang... . It was the same with the collection of 100 slides presented to us by Hamada with Bernard Leach translating ... these again did not contain a single 20th century artist potter's pot ...'[15], a statement that may, in retrospect, ring alarm bells. In late 1952 Ivan McMeekin returned to Australia, where he had been invited to institute a ceramics component at the Sturt craft workshops, a few hours drive from Sydney.

McMeekin's experience of the Leach tradition had been gained through Cardew and therefore it is important to differentiate Leach from his most famous student. Unlike Leach, Cardew was not enamoured of Japanese pottery and McMeekin even less so. McMeekin would never visit Japan, somewhat dispelling the myth that all Australian potters who admired Leach immediately set out for Mashiko armed with A Potter's Book as a kind of muddy Michelin guide. Another consequence of McMeekin's training with Cardew can be seen in his attitude towards materials. Although Leach stressed the aesthetic benefits of using local or relatively unrefined raw materials, at the same time availing himself of several grades of pre-prepared clays and minerals, Cardew was forced by dint of circumstances to take this approach to an extreme in Africa, in that everything he used had to be found, dug-up and processed. At Sturt, McMeekin rigidly followed this dictum and in doing so made a valuable contribution to the knowledge of Australian clays and other materials, even if this approach sometimes got in the way of running an economically sustainable pottery.

There is an interesting, if minor, connection here to New Zealand, as the English potter Michael Gill, who Helen Mason described as the 'first bearded, sandalled potter to arrive in this country [New Zealand] with a post-war outlook and a new set of values'[16], also visited Sturt in 1954 on his way to New Zealand.[17]

McMeekin would remain at Sturt for several years, aided from 1954 to 1957 by the young Australian potter Gwyn Hanssen-Pigott and then, following her departure for England, by Les Blakebrough and Col Levy. In late 1959 Blakebrough assumed the role of workshop head and Ivan McMeekin left Sturt to start a ceramics course at the University of New South Wales.

Another Australian potter associated with the Leach style of pottery was Harold Hughan, commonly referred to as 'Buzz' in reference to his profession as an electrical engineer. Hughan had been born in 1893 and was therefore of an older generation, but as he didn't take up pottery until 1940 he is situated firmly in the post-war pottery movement. The beginning of his interest in ceramics coincides neatly with the publication of A Potter's Book, which he first read in 1940, the year it was published.[18] Hughan also made use of C.F. Binns' 1910 text The Potter's Craft, teaching himself to throw with the book propped up in front of him so that he could follow the illustrations.[19]

In 1950 Hughan would contribute a chapter to Australian ceramic history by staging the first major exhibition of stoneware ceramics at the Georges department store gallery in Melbourne. His first retrospective exhibition was held in 1968 at the National Gallery of Victoria and a second exhibition (an exceptional honour) was held at the gallery in 1983 to commemorate his ninetieth birthday. In the catalogue accompanying this second exhibition, the then Director of the gallery, Patrick McCaughey, wrote that 'More than any other Australian ceramist Harold Hughan has been able to absorb the feel and colour of that landscape into his own practice and so returned something authentically and familiarly Australian to us.[20]

With the greatest of goodwill, it is hard to see how this was the case. Rather than making identifiably Australian pottery, Hughan actually worked in what was a powerful global style, that of Anglo-Oriental ceramics. One couldn't tell whether a faceted celadon glazed jar was made in Melbourne or London, and even when Hughan produced a magnificent late series of temmoku glazed platters with decorations based on Australian wildflowers, the actual origin of the flora was not at all apparent, buried as they were in a calligraphic cipher of brown on black.[21] These were international pots made in response to Leach's philosophy of a timeless standard in ceramics and the primacy of traditional Oriental techniques and they were made in Australia just as they were made everywhere A Potter's Book was read.

In 1956 the inaugural meeting of the New South Wales Potter's Society was held at Peter Rushforth's home in the Beecroft, a suburb of Sydney. It was a pivotal moment in the development of Australian pottery, in some ways marking the beginning of the era of the professional craftsperson in their modern guise. The founding members — Peter Rushforth, Ivan McMeekin, Mollie Douglas and Ivan Englund — all occupied salaried ceramic teaching positions. They exhibited in prestigious galleries, arranged and judged competitions, gave lectures and, from 1962, began publishing a journal, Pottery in Australia. That the initial cover image was of a small, rather undistinguished Bernard Leach jug, spoke volumes.

Going to Japan

At the end of the 1950s England was the destination of choice for Australians wishing to study ceramics abroad. It was home to Bernard Leach, a bevy of well-credentialed art schools and the inhabitants spoke English. But there was a growing feeling that something was missing and that thought had been implanted by Leach himself, since the country to which he constantly referred was not England, but Japan.

In 1957 Cecily Gibson, a nurse working at the Canberra Royal Hospital, made the acquaintance of the wife of a Japanese diplomat posted to the embassy in Canberra. Gibson was invited to dinner, where she had her 'first glimpse of a Japanese way of life; the space in the room, the kimono, the food and the flower arrangement... . I was casually handed a small Japanese vase ... and immediately felt an overwhelming sense of exhilaration... . It was just a lovely simple pot, but it evoked in me a profound desire to become a potter.'[22] She enrolled in part-time ceramics classes at the Canberra Technical College taught by the Dutch émigré potter Henri le Grand, began learning Japanese and, with the help of her contacts at the embassy, in 1959 found herself setting out for the famous Japanese pottery village of Mashiko.

In May 1960 Cecily Gibson attended the World Design Conference in Tokyo. Also at the conference was a young British potter named John Chappell and the New Zealander Helen Mason, and it was through an invitation extended by Mason to Chappell for him to visit New Zealand that the first really significant connections would be established between Australia and Japan.

Gibson would remain in Japan until 1964. Despite achieving major successes, culminating in a one-person exhibition at the Mitsukoshi gallery in Tokyo, Gibson remained outside of the mainstream of Australian ceramics and as a consequence is little known in this country today.

In 1960 Les Blakebrough was contacted by Helen Mason, asking if he would look after John Chappell during his stay in Australia en-route to New Zealand. Blakebrough enthusiastically agreed, hosting Chappell at Sturt at a time when the workshops were at a significant point in their evolution. Following McMeekin's departure Blakebrough had altered the production process, with the result that the workshop now was paying its own way. Still, Blakebrough was on a steep learning curve and Chappell was able to offer much valuable advice – most of a potter's knowledge is gained empirically and Chappell's experience showed. It was during this time that Blakebrough first considered going to Japan.

In 1962 Bernard Leach made his one brief visit to Australia. His main destination was New Zealand, as might be deduced from his account of this time in Beyond East and West, where the few days he spent in Sydney are described in less than a hundred words. Leach, having flown overnight from Tokyo via the Phillipines, was met at Sydney airport by Ivan McMeekin and Peter Rushforth and taken straight to a reception at the University of New South Wales. Once there, he 'suffered the good-hearted handshakes of a multitude of people — my sympathy went out to the Royal Family.[23] Les Blakebrough remembered the event as being slightly awkward, with attendees lining up to be introduced to Leach, so the allusion to a royal visit seems accurate enough.

The most complete picture of Leach's visit is given by Ivan McMeekin, reporting on the film evening and lecture Leach gave in Sydney. Here, we see several familiar themes being raised by Leach, as he screened both the documentary that had recently been made by the B.B.C. on his activities in St. Ives, titled A Potter's World[24], as well as a second film which took as its subject Leach's old Japanese colleague Kenkichi Tomimoto.

In addition to answering questions of a technical nature, Leach introduced a discussion of aesthetics by comparing the qualities of medieval English jugs to ceramics which were influenced by 'the courts of Europe'[25], in other words ornate wares made for the moneyed classes. He then equates these two kinds of ceramics with a division between the countryside and an essentially urban taste: 'There are two broad ways of looking at crafts — including pottery; that of the countryman and that of the courtier ...'[26], and ends his talk by acknowledging that the contemporary craftsperson is a creature of the: 'Age of Leisure. ... The modern craftsman is not a village-minded person – parish pump — he has got to be a citizen of the whole world. He has all of man's doings to draw upon and the weight of tradition behind him. ... Yet he is more privileged in a way, for though these people who did far better work in their villages ... were secure in their unity and we are insecure in our universality, yet we have the maturity of mankind to look towards with the hope and belief that it will regain much that has been thrown away too quickly, and will regain certitude and faith...'[27]

For all the logical inconsistencies and generalisations, what this demonstrates is Leach's willingness to place pottery at the centre of the kind of social debates that were occurring in the 1960s, just as he had done in the 1920s when he issued his first major essay on craft, A Potter's Outlook. For Leach, the craft of pottery was a metaphor for the divisions between modern and pre-modern life, the city and the country, even man and machine. It was a way of life, and not to be taken lightly.

The October 1963 issue of Pottery in Australia carried reports from no less than six Australians who were either travelling to, or who had just visited, Japan. Cecily Gibson, Peter Rushforth, Jean Higgs, Ivan Englund, and Robert Hughan (Harold Hughan's son) all contributed articles, as did Les Blakebrough, who described his experiences of living and working in the pottery village of Onda, a remote and tiny community which had been mythologised by Yanagi and Leach to the point where it was seen by Western potters as a kind of oriental ceramic arcadia.

The Japanese potter Takeichi Kawai, who was to be of such great assistance to Western potters wishing to study in Japan, also contributed an article titled 'Letter from Kyoto', which ends with a paragraph that begins, 'Next year, at the suggestion of my friend John Chappell, I shall be visiting Australia ...'

Les Blakebrough was in Japan at an interesting time. Numbers of American potters were studying there, and the Americans Doug Lawrie and Fred Olsen both worked near Kawai's studio in the Gojozaka area of Kyoto, as did Donna Nichols, who was friendly with Cecily Gibson. Chappell had moved to Do Mura, a village outside of Kyoto, where Blakebrough would visit to make pots and help fire the kiln, a scene celebrated in verse by the American poet Gary Snyder, who, with other artists and poets like Alan Ginsberg, found Japan as fascinating as did Western potters.

“The Firing

for Les Blakebrough and the memory of John Chappell

Bitter blue fingers
Winter nineteen-sixty-three A.D.
showa thirty-eight
Over a low pine-covered splay of hills in Shiga
West-south-west of the outlet of Lake Biwa
Domura village set on sandy fans of the sweep
and turn of a river
Draining the rotten-granite hills up Shigaraki
On a nineteen-fifty-seven Honda cycle model C
Rode with some Yamanashi wine “St Neige”
Into the farmyard and the bellowing kiln.
Les & John
In ragged shirts and pants, dried slip
Stuck to with pineneedle, pitch,
dust, hair, woodchips;
Sending the final slivers of yellowy pine
Through peephole white blast glow
No saggars tilting yet and segers bending
neatly in a row —
Even their beards caked up with mud & soot
Firing for fourteen hours. How does she go.
Porcelain and stoneware: cheese dish. twenty cups.
Tokuri. vases. chawan.
Crosslegged rest on the dirt eye cockt to smoke —

The hands you layed on clay
kickwheeled, curling,
creamed to the lip of nothing,
And coaxt to a white hot dancing heat that day
Will linger centuries in these towns and loams And speak to men or beasts
When Japanese and English
Are dead tongues.”

— Gary Snyder from The Back Country A New Directions Book 1968

In January 1964, Les Blakebrough and John Chappell met Takeichi Kawai on his arrival in Sydney. There is a remarkable photograph taken on the upstairs balcony of the Hungry Horse gallery in Sydney of the three men, joined by the American Fred Olsen, marking the occasion of Takeichi Kawai's first Australian exhibition. The international nature of the gathering demonstrates how far Australian studio pottery had come in a relatively short time and emphasises Japan's importance as a place where potters from many countries gathered to work and celebrate ceramics.

Tragically, John Chappell would be killed in a motorcycle accident on Sydney Harbour Bridge a short time after this photograph was taken, but his all too brief contact with Australian ceramics would have a lasting effect.

The years 1963/64 would also see the only comprehensive exhibition of New Zealand pottery to be shown in Australia, courtesy of Kenneth Hood, curator of decorative Arts at the National Gallery of Victoria. This is unsurprising, as Hood was by far the most active of all museum officials at the time in promoting ceramics and his activities, combined with the extensive Asian holdings of the NGV, placed it at the forefront of curatorial activity in ceramics in the early 1960s. The acknowledgements in the catalogue to this exhibition, which features the work of no less than thirty-two New Zealand potters, together with twenty-eight Australians, credits the Editorial Committee of the magazine New Zealand Potter with selecting the New Zealand participants[28]

In his introduction, Hood reiterates what is by then the standard story of the development of ceramics in Australia and New Zealand, citing the lack of an indigenous tradition 'in either country ...on which potters could build'[29], and the importance of 'Chinese Sung and T'ang artists, ...English medieval pottery ... and, more recently, from Japanese ceramics'[30], as well as noting that potters 'are also beginning to discover the exhilarating possibilities of ceramic sculpture and new forms'.[31] In other words, ceramics had come to Australia and New Zealand via Leach in the post-war period, and now local potters were beginning to branch out a little. As usual, the pre-war, often feminine, contribution to ceramics was ignored, as was a hundred years of local ceramics manufacturing.

Nonetheless, the exhibition was comprehensive and it travelled throughout Australia. It was the first — and last — major survey of New Zealand and Australian ceramics to have been undertaken.[32]

End of the Affair

In this chapter, I have sought to present an overview of Australian ceramics at a crucial time in its development. Since the main aim has not been an analysis of the artistic value of the work that was made, many individuals have been omitted who, on this criteria, should have been included. If Leach has been a constant theme, it is due more to his impact as an author than the presence of his pottery, which, at least in Australia, was rarely seen in any other form than in reproduction. But Bernard Leach wrote where other potters didn't and the word is a powerful thing.

When all is said and done, the numbers of Australian potters who literally took Leach at his word were few. As early as 1963 some, like the Queensland potter Milton Moon, publicly challenged the validity of Leach's ideas in the pages of Pottery in Australia,[33] paraphrasing a young Australian art critic by the name of Robert Hughes, writing that: 'I think I've seen that Sung before.'[34]

Any examination of the work made during the middle-sixties actually shows that a wide variety of approaches were employed, the only unifying factor being that a stoneware firing and low-keyed glazes predominated. Everything was allowed, it seems, unless it was bright, glassy and made in earthenware. But towards the end of the 1960s an irreverent, iconoclastic and, to many, provocative stream of ceramics arrived in Australia via the West Coast of America. In addition to the abstract expressionist ceramic interventions styled after Peter Voulkos, which often shared at least superficial parallels to the distortions of some Japanese tea-ceremony vessels, there appeared a new body of colourful, subversive ceramics, either based on the vessel or purely sculptural, that broke the final taboo not only by their sexual or social content but also though their (re)employment of the panoply of earthenware techniques. This was Funk, and, in a curious coincidence, its arrival coincided with an exponential increase in the amount of funding available for the crafts in this country.

The first half of the 1970s saw the arts, and its subset the crafts, benefit from government funding to an extent which was unprecedented. In particular, grants available to individual craftspeople meant that they were able to make work which need not concern itself with the demands of the marketplace. This greatly benefited ceramists working in a non-functional, non-traditional way, as there was a very limited market for this type of work outside of specialist collectors and museums. And, although the anglo oriental style was perhaps not as dominant as it once was, the entire field of the crafts had undergone such an enormous expansion that there were in fact more potters working in a traditional, functional style at the end of the 1970s than there were at the end of the 1960s.

Although the last forty years saw a period of expansion and then a contraction in ceramic activity in Australia, it remains true to say that very little has changed structurally since the early 1970s. Ceramics still occupies an interstitial position somewhere between the fine arts and crockery, with various practitioners staking out parts of that nebulous territory as their own. Every style, from conceptual gestures to facsimiles of Japanese tea wares are apparent, all sharing a space which seems increasingly tenuous, given the constraints placed on art education and the demands on the public's discretionary income. If there has been a change, it is in a long awaited and much needed evaluation of ceramic history, and it is perhaps understandable that much of this initial analysis is given over to the role of Bernard Leach and his influence on the craft and art of ceramics.


  1. Peter Rushforth in Damon Moon In the Beginning was the Word: Bernard Leach and Australian Studio Pottery from 1940 — 1964 Doctoral thesis University of South Australia 2006 p. 215
  2. It is not possible here to discuss whether Leach represented a particular facet of modernist aesthetics, but it is question that certainly needs to be asked.
  3. Hermia Boyd in John Vader The Pottery and Ceramics of David and Hermia Boyd Mathews Hutchinson 1977 p. 37
  4. Also see Margaret Preston 'Pottery as a Profession' Art in Australia Third Series [Vol. 3] No. 32, Ure Smith, Sydney. June-July 1930
  5. ibid
  6. An intriguing coda to this story concerns a letter to Bernard Leach, dated April 1938, from a correspondent known only as 'Mary', whose address is given as Lower Mitcham in South Australia, a suburb very close to the location of the Lyme Studio. In this letter, 'Mary' writes of a fire that has destroyed part of the studio and some pots, but that a Kenzan pot survived unharmed. Although various sources indicate that Mary Egerton left Australia in 1932, it is unlikely that there was another 'Mary' living in the vicinity who was a potter and who knew Leach well enough to sign a letter to him using only her first name, not to mention the matter of the Kenzan pot and Leach's place in that particular ceramic lineage. For the Egerton letter see entry #5971 — 5986 Volume 1 Catalogue of the Papers and Books of Bernard Leach compiled by Alyn Giles Jones, Crafts Study centre, Surrey. For discussion of Egerton in South Australia see Noris Ioannou Ceramics in South Australia 1836 — 1986: from Folk to Studio Pottery Wakefield Press 1986, pp. 310 - 312
  7. A.L. Sadler Cha-no-yu The Japanese Tea Ceremony First edition 1933, J.L. Thompson & Co. Kobe and Kegan, Paul, Trench and Trubner & Co., London. Abridged edition 1962, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc. Vermont and Tokyo.
  8. See entry # 2333, p. 226 & # 9996, p.493 Volume 1 Leach archives op cit.
  9. A.L. Sadler The Art of Flower Arranging in Japan Country Life Ltd. 1933
  10. John Barnard Knight
  11. Reg Preston quoted in Grace Cochrane The Crafts Movement in Australia: a History New South Wales University Press 1992, p. 146
  12. A. L. Heatherington Chinese Ceramic Glazes Second revised Edition P.D. & Ione Perkins, 1948
  13. Ivan McMeekin 'In His Own Words' Ceramics, Art and Perception No. 13, 1993, p 62
  14. ibid
  15. ibid
  16. Helen Mason Ten Years of Pottery in New Zealand New Zealand Potter 1968, p. 16
  17. Michael Gill interview with the author conducted 4 January 2008
  18. I always find it surprising that A Potter's Book found its way to Australia so quickly, given that there was a war going on.
  19. Chas [Charles] F. Binns The Potter's Craft D. Van Nostrand Co. 1910
  20. Patrick McCaughey in Kenneth Hood Harold Hughan: a retrospective exhibition in honour of his ninetieth birthday National Gallery of Victoria, 1983
  21. see endnote 111
  22. Cecily Gibson quoted in Damon Moon op cit.
  23. ibid p. 276
  24. Film A Potter's World directed by John Read for the BBC, 1960
  25. Bernard Leach quoted in Ivan McMeekin 'Transcription of Bernard Leach's Film Evening' Pottery in Australia Vol 1 No. 1 May 1962
  26. ibid
  27. ibid
  28. Australian & New Zealand Pottery catalogue to the exhibition organised by the National Gallery of Victoria. No publication details available, catalogue in the possession of the author.
  29. ibid
  30. ibid
  31. ibid
  32. The New Zealand artists were Martin Beck, Nancy Beck, June Black, Doreen Blumhardt, Barry Brickell, Len Castle, Betty Colson, Roy Cowan, Helen Dawson, Denis Hanna, Mary Hardwick-Smith, Wailyn Hing, Jack Laird, Helen Mason, Margaret Milne, Muriel Moody, Guy Mountain, Jim Palmer, Particia Perrin, Juliet Peter, Betty Rapson, Inez Rennie, Rachel Rose, Peter Stichbury, Graeme Storm, Lee Thomson, Hilary Thurston, Carl Vendelbosch, Lilyan Walcott, Jean Weir, Jocelyn Wilkie, Wilfred Wright.The Australian artists were Les Blakebrough, David Boyd, Mollie Douglas, Phyl Dunn, Ivan Englund, Patricia Englund, Wanda Garnsey, Marea Gazzard, Guy Grey-Smith, Harold Hughan, Eileen Keys, Alex Leckie, Henri Le Grand, Col Levy, Alan Lowe, Carl McConnell, Milton Moon, John Perceval, Reg Preston, Rachel Roxburgh, Peter Rushforth, Bernard Sahm, Edward Shaw, Margaret Shaw, Derek Smith, Charles Swain, Margaret Tuckson, Jeffery Wilkinson.
  33. Milton Moon 'Pottery: a Personal View' Pottery in Australia Vol. 2 No. 1, 1963
  34. ibid

A State of Flux: The Future of Australian Ceramics Education

Appearing under the banner 'Scotland's Last Ceramics Course to Close', the March 2008 article from the Glasgow Sunday Herald discussed the imminent demise of ceramics at the Glasgow School of Art. Responding to concerns raised by current students, ex-students and staff – one of whom was the potter Alex Leckie, an influential figure who worked in South Australia as far back as the late 1950s – the article quoted a statement released by the school, which reads as follows.

'Across our other design programmes, competition for places is very high. In contrast, a growing lack of competition for places within ceramic design represents a significant risk to Glasgow School of Arts academic reputation and makes it difficult to ensure that consistency of student attainment is maintained across the design programme.'

Damon Moon’s workshop
Damon Moon’s workshop

I do think the phrase 'significant risk' is worth highlighting, as we all know just how dangerous ceramics can be.

This press-release mirrored, albeit rather bluntly, a conversation I had recently with the Dean of an Australian art school, one of a diminishing number where ceramics is still offered as part of the syllabus. The phrase this person used concerning the future of ceramics was, and I quote: 'Between you and me, mate, it's buggered', a comment which at least dispensed with the management-speak emanating from the GSA.

Ceramics, it seems, is well on its way to becoming a historical oddity, a phenomenon which had taken off in the post-war era and would fizzle out in the early twenty-first century, only to be remembered as a minor curiosity of Australian art history. Some even thought they could pinpoint the time when Australian ceramics began its decline. Apparently it occurred at a meeting of the Australia Council in the early 1990s when the crafts were amalgamated with the visual arts for funding purposes, resulting in the creation of the dreaded level playing field.

This view sheets home any current difficulties to a time when ceramics began to be treated in the same way as the rest of the visual arts, something which, in all fairness, many ceramists had wanted for years. I take another view, in attributing the current malaise to the fact that ceramics had already started to mimic the rest of the visual arts, in the mistaken belief that the rich, complex and often puzzling world of contemporary art somehow lacked enough things made out of clay. In doing so, it neglected to value its own craft traditions, while at the same time it largely failed to assume the critical rigor that would validate its participation in the fine arts.

‘Te-rokuro’ Japanese style hand-wheel in Damon Moon’s workshop in Willunga South Australia
‘Te-rokuro’ Japanese style hand-wheel in Damon Moon’s workshop in Willunga South Australia

This mostly came about because ceramics, for quite some time now, has been solely taught within an art school system transfixed by the razzamatazz of contemporary art, an enterprise so successful at marketing, public relations and branding, that what is being presented hardly matters. The money that is thrown at contemporary art is quite staggering, and I would guess that the budget for Australian representation at the Venice Biennale alone overshadows any federal funding for the crafts. Only today — as I was putting the finishing touches on a wood-kiln, of all things — I was stunned to learn that a tabloid newspaper in Adelaide had opined that what the city really needed was a Guggenheim! I'm guessing that this wasn't because the editors were desperate to see more contemporary art, but simply that they had heard about the brand. I doubt that suggestions of building a small annexe to house the Art Gallery of South Australia's wonderful collection of Thai and Cambodian ceramics would be met with such journalistic enthusiasm.

Yet, given the primacy of contemporary art within the education system and its overwhelming presence in the cultural landscape, it is no wonder that some ceramics departments began taking on some of the more dubious benefits of a theory-laden environment which had become part and parcel of art school education.

Earnest discussions took place about Gaston Bachelard, who had written a book called The Poetics of Fire– perhaps it was mistaken for a book on kilns? Julia Kristeva was abject and Jacques Derrida was everywhere, causing otherwise perfectly normal people to look po-faced and babble about the concept of difference in a silly French accent. In a bid to reign in the confusion, a leading art school paid a philosopher (as opposed to a hack art theorist) to come down from Melbourne Uni one morning and answer questions from the student body. I still remember seeing a hand being raised during question time and hearing a small voice ask, 'Please, can you tell me what hermeneutics are?', sounding for all the world like the urchin Oliver asking for more food in the poorhouse.

Damon Moon, wood-fired bowl photo: courtesy Freeland Gallery
Damon Moon, wood-fired bowl photo: courtesy Freeland Gallery

In an unfortunate coincidence, the uncertainties of post-modernism coincided with a series of amalgamations in higher education, implemented in a policy called the Unified National System thought up by John Dawkins, Hawke's education minister from 1987 to 1990. Doing away with CAEs, Teachers Training Colleges and the like, this collection of new and expanded universities were soon to be subjected to the strictures of economic rationalism, first with Keating and then increasingly under the Howard regime. At a time when universities were forced to offer a plethora of courses in management and business studies to fee-paying students just to stay afloat, it is quite obvious that the humanities, and particularly the arts, would suffer. (In fact, one could also say the same things about the sciences. I was in the geology department of a major university the other week where basic analytical equipment was not maintained in working order and there was no longer a technician, which, given the importance of minerals and mining to the Australian economy, is a bit of a worry.) That these financial strictures never seem to affect the budget for new buildings is one of life's great mysteries.

Still, it is hard to think of any course that is more vulnerable within a financially stretched, economically-rationalised university than a course in ceramics. And, quite frankly, it is hard to think of any course that is more ill-suited to being taught within a university.

Luckily, and perhaps inevitably, the decision of how to reconcile these glaring contradictions seems to have been taken out of the hands of most art school ceramics departments within universities, due to the simple fact that they are closing down.

The reality is that there are now very few art schools - or TAFES for that matter – offering any training in ceramics at all. The 'elephant in the room' of Australian ceramics education in 2008 is that of the art schools which do still offer ceramics, only a few are able to do their job properly, due to the severe cutbacks in staff and equipment which have plagued them for years.

Again, let me stress that there still are some places where the training is of a good standard – I won't single them out but it's pretty obvious where they are – but they are precious few and diminishing as we speak. So, the question is, what are we to do about all of this?

For a start, I'd give up on the idea of a large scale reinvigoration of ceramics within the art school system. It's not going to happen, and I'm not sure it should even if it could. Most art schools never really considered ceramics as part of their 'core business' anyway and to hang around when it is obvious one is not wanted is undignified. But there are alternatives approaches that might be taken, and one of them is as follows.

Someone who wants to learn how to make pottery should be able to work with a skilled, mature practitioner in a thorough, ongoing, comprehensive fashion in a workshop-based environment.

I am not talking about the current system of mentoring here, in that mentoring normally involves taking someone who already has decided on a form of individual expression and then pairing them with an experienced practitioner who gives sage but occasional advice, although this doubtless has its benefits. What I am talking about is a system where a student enters a workshop and is trained in the style and philosophy of the teacher. In six months a student could easily learn more workshop skills in this way than in three years in an art school ceramics department.

Of course, their experiences would largely be shaped by the type of work made by the teacher, but surely a student would choose a teacher because they liked their style of work in the first place? Perhaps this might be called a traineeship mentorship as opposed to emerging (and don't we all love that term?) mentorship. Instead of looking at mentoring as an activity that occurs towards the end of an art school education, maybe a traineeship mentoring scheme would be valuable as a precursor to art school, at least ensuring that the student goes into further education with some basic skills.

Whether a student was interested in wood-firing, funky sculptural work or slick and reductive porcelain, the main repository of expertise and knowledge — as opposed to information — rests, quite literally, in the hands of experienced makers, most of whom do not work in art schools. This is a resource that is going begging, as far as education is concerned.

As someone who has numerous degrees, including a doctorate in art history, I am very aware of the significant role an academic training in the arts plays in educating, informing and challenging one's views.

Equally, I can say without doubt that my grounding in actually making pottery was gained through working with my father — one of this countries most respected potters and someone who doesn't have a degree to his name – and in time spent working in production potteries, in travelling and visiting museums, in meeting with other potters and simply by looking at and handling pots in the company of others who also knew and cared about pottery. This is the way many people used to learn. It is the way Gwyn Hanssen Pigott learned as did her teacher, Ivan McMeekin and it makes a good deal of sense.

In conclusion, I do not advocate the wholesale scrapping of art school ceramics training. Institutions like the Jam Factory in Adelaide and Sturt Workshops in New South Wales also play an important part, as do the plethora of associations, collectives and clubs around the country. I do want to see a healthy diversity in educational options and workshop based training should play an increasingly important role in the future.

And no, I don't know how this is to be achieved. Maybe students should think about other ways that a $5,000 a year HECS debt could be made to work for them, or if the Austudy payment of approximately $175 per week, with all its entanglements in the bureaucracy of Centrelink, is the deciding factor as to whether one studies at an art school or comes to a private arrangement with a teacher. Maybe a teacher should consider just how much they would want for their services?

All I can say is that I would consider very seriously any requests that came my way.

Damon Moon
Willunga, 2008

The Devil is in the Detail: The Ceramics of Jane Robertson

Jane Robertson lives on a hundred acres outside of the township of Nairne in the Adelaide Hills. The property occupies one side of a hill opposite Mt. Barker, sloping from the dirt road that crests the ridge to a winter creek in the gully below. It's summer now and the country is dry and the Murray Grey cattle have cropped the tawny grass down to the ground.

This sweep of the ranges out to where the hills fold down to meet the river is rocky country. Some farmers even sell the rocks to landscape suppliers, where they will end up adorning a small section of manicured garden and a tiny patch of bright green lawn in a suburban housing estate. On Robertson's property the rocks don't suffer such indignities; they jumble down a hillside dotted with ancient red gums, where the grey schists, reddish ironstone and creamy quartz add a subdued and delicate beauty to the landscape. Understanding this kind of beauty is one key to Robertson's work.

I'm here to see Jane's new collection of ceramics for her exhibition at the Kerrie Lowe Gallery in Newtown, where they will occupy a very different, urban setting in this journey from making to display. Not that her ceramics are the clichéd equivalent of wide-eyed country folk coming to the city; far from it. This work is urbane and modern - although thankfully not post-modern – and there is nothing faux about it.

Robertson's pots, mostly variations on an upright bowl-form which sometimes extends to become almost a vase, sit on an oak table in a room full of antiques and artefacts. It turns out that her father, Ivar Mackay, was a respected London dealer with a shop in Kensington Church Walk and an eye for the unusual. As a child she grew up in a house full of objects that glowed with the patina of age and rejoiced in the subtle calligraphy of wear. This also probably gives a clue to Robertson's work, although again the connection is not explicit.

It is somewhat of a luxury to be able to view the work about which one is to write in such a setting, but just for minute I'll pretend that I have not had this advantage, and instead have come across Robertson's work in the anonymous space of a gallery. What then would I see?

Firstly, the scale is – for want of a better term — domestic, expected. The dominant shape is bowl-like, and yet in all instances upright enough to give as much visual emphasis to the outside as to the inside. Both foot and lip are un-accented apart from the slightest variations in the curve of the wall, and the silhouette is restrained. The area covered by the base of the vessel is small as compared to that of the mouth, although in the taller forms the differences are less pronounced. As in the work of the British artist Jennifer Lee, to which the reductive forms of Robertson's work bears some similarities, the base is emphatically present, its attenuation suggesting balance and lift.

The surfaces of these ceramics are satin or matt, the texture of the glaze like smooth-worn pebbles or eggshell, the unglazed clay a little rougher still. The glazes are muted in tone and the porcelain clay is speckled with iron, a refreshing variation on the perfect gloss and high finish that characterises much contemporary work. In a move that would shock those who strive after an ever-whiter paste (and I use that old industrial term deliberately) Robertson adds iron-rich clay from her property to Southern Ice porcelain, adding vigour and life to this rather neutral material.

The effect, the sum of all these parts, is quite European. There certainly is no overt reference to Asian ceramics, to the tea-ceremony or Bizen or the Sung, but instead to a time and place – somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century and in countries from Scandinavia to Australia – where the best ceramics became a sophisticated part of mode

Damon Moon

Published in Ceramics, Art and Perception #72 in 2008

A Review

The history of figurative ceramics is marked both by its antiquity and the inherent limitations of the material. Clay has the advantage of being malleable, abundant and virtually free, but it also has distinct drawbacks when used for sculptural purposes. It must be kept moist in order to be modelled but moist clay has limited mechanical strength. This can be overcome by making the piece thicker and consequently heavier, but the thickness itself then becomes a problem if the piece is to be successfully fired. If clay is not fired then it is nothing more than dried mud, and so it goes on. Put simply, making largish sculptures out of clay is not the easiest thing to do.

Different cultures have found different solutions to these challenges. The apotheosis of archaic ceramic figurative sculpture is found in the so-called terracotta warriors [in pinyin bingma yong or "soldier and horse funerary statues"], a collection of around 7,000 life-size warriors, together with horses and chariots, that were made during the reign of the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang around 200 BC. As with all of the Chinese ceramics, an astonishing level of artistry was achieved through a long familiarity with the material and a no-nonsense approach to manufacture that was more akin to industry than art. It is salutary to remember that Chinese ceramics reached dizzying aesthetic heights through a collective approach to making that is antithetical to our contemporary notions of how art is made and the importance we place on individual expression.

Inspired by another Chinese ceramic tradition, that of porcelain, European manufacturers have produced vast numbers of ceramic figures which combined an exquisite control of clay and glaze with imagery taken directly from Renaissance sculpture. The consequences of using that most difficult of ceramic materials – porcelain – to mimic a formal language grounded in the obdurate necessities of carved stone was that the size of the ceramic figure was severely constrained. What may have started life as an imposing figure occupying a central place in an Italian piazza was reduced to a bibelot sitting on a square foot of dining table; where Neptune once raised his trident over splashing fountains and pulchritudinous mermaids, he now lorded it over the halibut.

It is debatable just which of these two traditions had a stronger influence on modern ceramic sculpture, but there certainly were places and times in this country where the delicate and rather effete quality of Dresden centrepieces took the upper hand.

All of which makes Liz Williams work more remarkable, since, despite being at the epicentre of Australian (Skangaroovian) Funk – Adelaide in the 1970s — she has nonetheless developed a language which finds its formal vocabulary in the hieratic, totemic and folk traditions of ceramic sculpture, rather than the florid and gilded excesses of the China cabinet. Just how this has come about is an interesting story.

Williams has been making ceramics for well over thirty years and she is certainly well-trained, although her work reveals no direct influences of Milton Moon, Gwyn Hanssen-Pigott or Paul Soldner, teachers with whom she had direct contact during the 1970s and early 1980s. Her formal education encompassed both the Anglo Oriental tradition of functional pottery and the experimental approaches of Californian ceramics, all of this during the period where ceramics was perhaps enjoying its most diverse and rambunctious phase.

Williams was amongst the first generation of ceramic artists trained in this country where everything — information, publications, techniques, materials and styles — suddenly became available. Faced with this confusion of riches, Williams did the only sensible thing: she began to work through her artistic options. Her early work was not opinionated but neither was it shy. She moved from functional stoneware to Raku, gradually altering the vessel form and experimenting with decorative techniques. In Los Angeles, Williams worked with Soldner at Scripps College and travelled to San Francisco, looking long and hard at the Avery Brundage collection, one of the world's great collections of Asian art, then housed in a wing of the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park. She became fascinated by the relationship of Chinese ceramics to bronzes and her work from this time shows the influence of formal and decorative devices sourced from these archaic works successfully translated into a contemporary, personal idiom. Although this work would not provide Williams with her final artistic destination, it demonstrated an increasing ability at interpretation, a facility which would stand her in good stead.

When tracing the development of her current work – those still, carefully modelled and rather reductive figures - one searches for the moment where the decorated vessel finally transited into the sculpted figure, where glaze and colour gave way to plain clay and the subtleties of posture. None of this happens suddenly, over the course of a day or even a year, but looking back it is often possible to identify a time or a place which seems to provide the necessary impetus for a profound change to occur.

In 1993, as part of the National Ceramics Conference held in Adelaide, Liz Williams held an exhibition of figurative ceramics at the Adelaide Central Gallery. Titled Recuerdos (which may be translated as meaning "memories", "memorabilia" or even "remembrances") this work called on experiences she had accumulated during a study tour of the United States and Mexico in 1991. Groups of clay figures were lit by candles, at once evoking a church and a reliquary, Spanish Catholicism and the rich tradition of pre-Columbian (literally "before Columbus") America. In modern parlance, it was an installation. In William's development it was a pivotal moment, one where she publicly declared her own thoughts in a language she has been refining now for over fifteen years.

The changes to her work over this time have been — as they should be — incremental, thoughtful and sustained. The basic elements have remained the same, but there have been a myriad of subtle shifts. One of the most notable differences has been an increasing realism, born of William's involvement with teaching and her observation of the movement – and occasional stillness – of children. The coltish poise of the young ballet student, the slightly "I'm not here right now" expression on the face of a young girl preoccupied with her own world, all of these things have been observed and now re-emerge in clay.

At times, there is an air of intentional theatricality to the work, in the use of props like a bright red chair, an earring or a mirror. But, more and more, the emphasis is on the body at rest and in motion, and in pushing the technical limits of clay to keep up with William's demands. This is made all the more complex when the figure is required to stand without external support, because William's figures stand as we do. This provokes a kind of kinaesthetic exchange between the viewer and the viewed, where we somehow intuit the fact that these figures are not pinned, fixed or glued to the ground and that they therefore rely a little – as we all do – on trust in order to keep standing.

William's constant challenge is to fulfil this very real need for balance without the poses becoming stiff and constrained. Her solution has been to invest the figures with a certain abstract quality, whereby they are not realistic enough that we expect them to be truly animated, but on the other hand they defer to the small gestures — the bunny-rabbit slippers worn by a young dancer — that mark us out as human. After all, the aim of this work is not verisimilitude but empathy, or perhaps in William's case one should say simpático.

There are other, discreet references to be found; the tutu made of real cloth worn by Edgar Degas' famous 1880 bronze La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans is quoted and the curious, pear-shaped figure on one of the larger figures comes from the 15th century Northern European painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472 — 1553). Contemporary work is also quoted, with William's friend, the Australian painter Gary Shead, being directly referenced, and one might even think of Charles Blackman, at least in the subject matter. But these contemporary resonances always seem to be balanced (there's that word again) with a very much older tradition found in the anonymous works of pre-Columbian America, of China and in the folk traditions of Christendom.

Williams has plans for the future. Now retired from teaching, her output — which is prodigious, given the exacting nature of the work — can only increase. An inveterate traveller, she will doubtless continue to build on an impressive list of overseas contacts and there is some discussion about a leap in the scale of the pieces, a process that would necessitate some changes in technique and materials. It will, I'm sure, be worth the wait.

Damon Moon
Willunga 2008

Cecily Gibson — Obituary

Cecily Gibson (20/11/1930–02/05/2007) was at the forefront of the cultural exchange between Australian and Japanese potters in the 1960s, a movement which not only contributed to the development of Australian ceramics but added greatly to the burgeoning relationship between the two countries.

On the 2nd of May 2007 a significant figure in Australian ceramics passed away. Although many will not recognise her name, Cecily Gibson was at the forefront of the cultural exchange between Australian and Japanese potters in the 1960s, a movement which not only contributed to the development of Australian ceramics but added greatly to the burgeoning relationship between the two countries.

Cecily Gibson was born and grew up in Yass, near the newly established capital city of Canberra which was to be her home for most of her life. She studied nursing in Young and then moved to Sydney to undertake specialised training at the Royal Hospital for Women in Paddington, later working in Queensland and Victoria and even caring for the ailing John Curtain in Canberra. Curtain was impressed enough by her skills that he lobbied to gain her a place studying medicine in Sydney, an offer she eventually declined.

In 1955 after an extended stay in Europe, Cecily Gibson returned to Australia and took up a position at the Royal Canberra Hospital. She was a keen amateur artist and was first introduced to ceramics when she enrolled in part-time classes at the Canberra Technical College. It seems that her first teacher may have been Ivan Englund, but the post was soon filled by the influential Dutch émigré potter, Henri Le Grand. Ceramics, however, would remain a hobby for Gibson, until a serendipitous meeting with the wife of a diplomat introduced her to Japanese pottery. As she later described:

'I was casually handed a small Japanese pot ... and immediately felt an overwhelming sense of exhilaration, impression and enchantment. For the first time ... I was holding a pot for which the potter knew what was truly 'right' ... its effect evoked in me a profound desire to become a potter.' [1]

She began taking her studies seriously, and, encouraged by Le Grand, set her sights on going to Japan. She was greatly aided in this endeavour by her friendships with Japanese officials in Canberra, an undoubted advantage for a young Australian woman wishing to enter into the very traditional and male-dominated world of Japanese ceramics. By the end of 1959 she found herself boarding a plane bound for Tokyo, and although increasing numbers of Australian potters would undertake a similar voyage in the years to come, she was to be the first.

Cecily Gibson would spend four years in Japan, during which time she studied in Mashiko, Tokyo and Kyoto, eventually becoming a private student of Kenkichi Tomimoto, who had been honoured as a Living National Treasure in 1955. During this time she travelled throughout Japan and visited Korea, and her report on the Bizen pottery of Imbe [2] for Pottery in Australia in 1963 appeared alongside articles on Japanese pottery by Ivan Englund, Peter Rushforth, Les Blakebrough, Robert Hughan, Jean Higgs and Takeichi Kawai, placing her in the midst of a distinguished group of Australian potters who were exploring the rich Japanese ceramic heritage.

Cecily Gibson achieved a great deal during her time in Japan and in 1964 she was honoured with a one-person exhibition of her work at the prestigious Mitsukoshi Gallery in Tokyo, a rare honour for a foreigner. Together with Bernard Sahm, Alex Leckie and Milton Moon, she also participated in the landmark International Exhibition of Contemporary Ceramic Art, with her exhibit being accepted into the permanent collection of Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto in 1965. [3]

On her return to Australia, Cecily Gibson's familiarity with Japan continued to be recognised by the government, who were keen to foster relationships with a country that was rapidly becoming a major trading partner. She was a guest at a small private dinner hosted by the then prime minister Sir Robert Menzies for the Japanese Crown Princess Chichibu, having previously met the Princess in Tokyo through a shared interest in pottery. [4]

1967 would see two Australian potters, Cecily Gibson and Peter Rushforth, awarded Churchill fellowships for overseas study. As well as visiting Europe and the United States, Gibson travelled to Mexico and South America where she was particularly interested in pre-Columbian art. In 1968 her Canberra home and studio was enlarged to included a purpose built showroom and although she continued to exhibit her work, the emphasis shifted towards a more private engagement with ceramics. At a time when the Australian crafts were undergoing a rapid period of expansion, when membership of networks and committees, the attainment of academic positions and undertaking a constant round of high profile exhibitions were part and parcel of the growing professionalism in the crafts, Cecily Gibson quietly stood back from the mainstream.

In 2001, I travelled to Canberra to interview Cecily Gibson as part of my doctoral research into the history of post-war Australian ceramics. My work had been made considerably easier through reading her charming memoir The Gift of Fire and Clay [5] published the previous year. She was generous with her time, providing me with a folder of reviews, cuttings and invitations dating back to the early 1960s, as well as showing me a large collection of her work. This included some small, delicate porcelain pieces decorated in cobalt blue, which had been made in Tomimoto's studio in Kyoto some forty years earlier.

As a researcher and practitioner who had grown up in the milieu of the Australian crafts, Cecily came as quite a surprise. In the 1960s, when Australian potters would spend a number of weeks in Japan and then return to this country to write articles and give well-attended lectures, she had certainly 'been there and done that'. If she had embarked on a lecture tour, writing articles and giving illustrated talks to potter's societies, she would have quickly gained a prominent place in Australian ceramics. Instead, Cecily Gibson remained in Canberra and worked away in her studio. She moved to Queensland in the 1980s but a serious accident put paid to any notions of continuing to make pots, and so she returned to Canberra.

In 2003, a final exhibition of Cecily Gibson's work was held at the Watson Arts Centre in Canberra. Writing of this celebration of a long career, Francesca Beddie [6] notes that despite the exhibition's success it was a bittersweet affair. There would be no more pots, and I think any of us who are makers might guess how that feels.

I am very glad to have met Cecily Gibson and I warmly recommend her autobiography, The Gift of Fire and Clay, published in 2000 by Canberra's Ginnenderra Press. At the time this article is going to press, there are still a few copies available from the publishers.

The author wished to thank Anne Brennan of the Australian National University and Tony Rumble for help is assembling this article.


[1] Cecily Gibson The Gift of Fire and Clay Ginninderra Press 2000 p. 93

[2] Cecily Gibson 'Bisen (sic) Yaki of Imbe' Pottery in Australia Vol. 2 No. 2, October 1963, p. 14

[3] Leckie, Moon and Sahm were chosen to represent Australia through an Australian-based selection process, whereas Gibson, already being resident in Japan, was invited directly.

[4] see Bernard Leach Beyond East and West Faber and Faber 1978 p. 294 et al

[5] see endnote 1

[6] Francesca Beddie 'Cecily Gibson' Pottery in Australia Vol. 42 No. 3, 2003 p. 68

An Echo of Butterflies: A response to Garth Clark

“ 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

[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

Bowls, anyone?

In his 1973 lecture to the Oriental Ceramic Society, 'The Development of Taste in Chinese Art in the West 1872 to 1972' [1], Basil Grey, the eminent scholar of Chinese ceramics, quoted the reactions of the British artist, critic and sometimes potter Roger Fry to the T'ang and Sung Dynasty Chinese ceramics that were being exhibited and collected in England in the early years of the twentieth century. This restrained and beautiful pottery was proving a revelation to Western connoisseurs, and Fry's enthusiasm was evident when in 1919 he wrote:

“‘Suppose we are looking at a Sung bowl; we apprehend gradually the shape of the outside contour, the perfect sequence of the curves, and the subtle modifications of a certain type of curve which it shows; we also feel the relation of the concave curves of the inside to the outside contour; we realise that the precise thickness of the wall is consistent with the particular kind of matter of which it is made, its appearance of density and resistance, and finally we recognise perhaps how satisfactory for the display of all their plastic qualities are the colour and the dull lustre of the glaze ...’ [2]”

This deceptively simple object, the bowl, has many cultural associations that might inform our understanding of contemporary ceramic practice. The English potter, Bernard Leach, posited Japan as being the society where hand-made ceramics were appreciated as nowhere else in the modern world. It is a direct result of Leach's interlocutions that a contemporary Australian potter would make a bowl designed for the consumption of powdered green tea, in a society that neither drinks this bitter brew or prepares it within the context of an arcane ritual which has never been successfully transferred beyond its originating culture. That there is a direct lineage, established through Leach via Japan, between a thousand year old Chinese Sung Dynasty Jian ware tea bowl [3] and the early twenty-first century production of a Australian potter is a testament to the enduring nature of this particular type of bowl. It vividly demonstrates the ongoing process of cultural transfer that has marked the history of ceramics.

Together with the plate and the cylinder, the bowl is one of the basic elements of the potter's vocabulary. These three basic forms might be combined, distorted or disguised, but the curved profile of the bowl represents one facet of the throwers art, the making of which can become an obsession, a meditation and a joy. In apprehension, the bowl falls between the extremes of shape represented by the plate and the vase. Viewed from a low angle, the emphasis is on the formal qualities of the curve and the relationship of foot to rim. Seen from above it is a disc, a ready surface for displaying the qualities of glaze or the skill of the decorator.

In use a bowl contains and proffers food, or houses the miscellany of objects which accompany everyday life; shells collected from the beach, car keys, a box of matches, letters or coins. The bowl invites the hand and the eye and alters its aspect with each new disposition. Octavio Paz, in his essay Seeing and Using: Art and Craftsmanship [4] writes of the hand-made pot:

“‘In its perpetual movement back and forth between beauty and utility, pleasure and service, the work of craftsmanship teaches us lessons in sociability.’ [5]”

This essay by Paz was given to me by Gay Bilson; writer, cook and appreciator of fine ceramics. It seems to me that is here, in the intersection of knowledge, use and taste, that the qualities of the bowl reside.

Damon Moon
Willunga 2006


[1] Basil Grey 'The development of taste in Chinese Art in the West 1872 — 1972' Inaugural George de Menasce Memorial Lecture in Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society Vol. 39 Oriental Ceramic Society 1974, pp. 19 – 41

[2] ibid p. 26, 27

[3] see Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere 'Defining Temmoku: Jian Ware Tea Bowls into Japan' Hare's Fur, Tortoiseshell and Partridge Feathers Robert D. Mowry (ed.)Harvard University Art Museum 1996

[4] Octavio Paz 'Seeing and using: Art and Craftsmanship' in Convergences: Essays on Art and LiteratureBloomsbury 1987, pp. 50 – 67

[5] ibid p. 60

In the beginning was the word : Bernard Leach and Australian studio pottery from 1940-1964

**Click here to download complete thesis**


The years between 1940 and 1964 constitute a significant period of growth of ceramics as part of the burgeoning Australian crafts movement. This phase is linked with Bernard Leach's influential text, A Potter's Book, where the author assesses the impact of this work on Australian ceramics.

The post-war years in Australia brought increased scope for leisure, work and education. Greater numbers of people than ever before became involved, as participants or audience, with activities in the cultural sphere. A notable feature of this time was a resurgence of interest in the manual arts. These traditional skills, reconfigured within contemporary society as creative hobbies or art related activities, became part of a movement known as the Crafts.

Nowhere was this more noticeable than with hand-made pottery in its transition from an essential trade to a redundant but nonetheless widely practiced craft and in the attendant social, aesthetic and theoretical shifts necessary to accommodate these changes in value, status and intent. Of all the activities coming within the ambit of the crafts, pottery garnered the most public interest. More people made pottery, more was written about pottery, more galleries exhibited pottery and more people bought pottery than any of the other crafts. Pottery was taught in almost every school and it often was the only hand-craft taught at a tertiary level. In examining the transformation of Australian ceramics during this time one can isolate many factors that played a part, but underpinning much of this activity was a remarkably influential book, Bernard Leach’s 1940 publication ‘A Potter’s Book’.

Building on a legacy of cross-cultural borrowings, Leach may be credited with establishing Japan as the site of craft authenticity in the imagination of countless potters. Added to this is the significance of ‘A Potter’s Book’ as an invaluable technical aid, at a time when there was little practical information specifically tailored to the needs of the studio potter.

The years between 1940 and 1964 constitute a significant period in the growth of ceramics as part of the burgeoning Australian Crafts Movement. By concentrating on this crucial phase of Australian pottery and linking it to what was the most influential text in the field, a framework is created to assess the depth and variety of practice.

Looking at Australian Pottery through the structures and arguments set forth in ‘A Potter’s Book’, an assessment of the impact of this important work on Australian ceramics can be made that extends beyond the anecdotal. Despite the importance of Leach’s text and the unprecedented vitality of Australian pottery at the time, no significant analysis of the degree of connectivity between the two exists. This thesis hopes to contribute to a fuller understanding of this area of Australian craft history.

Bobbing for Apples in Brisbane

“The lure of the big prizes does not mean we should abandon our craft.”

The apple occupies a curious place in our psyche. From an early appearance in the story of Adam and Eve to its poisonous allure in fairy tales, the promise of sweetness brings with it a darker side. Johnny Appleseed might have wandered the American backwoods, bringing civilisation and the gospel to an untamed wilderness, but the real life character of John Chapman gathered his pips from the Pennsylvania cider mills, and the apple doesn't grow true to type. You have to wait and see whether the fruit will be sweet or sour, and chances are that a fair number of New England homesteaders had some surprises along the way.

The Biggest Apple of them all is New York, and the occasion of Verge, the 11 th National Ceramics Conference held in Brisbane in July 2006, brought with it the opportunity to hear the New York based gallerists, writers and historians, Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio, deliver their assessment of contemporary ceramics. A recapitulation was heard in Auckland, where, according to the New Zealand based writers Moyra Elliott and Damian Skinner in their article Wishful Thinking [1], Clark delivered a cautionary tale to the ceramics community.

'Be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it'. [2]

Our Prime Minister, John Howard, used the same expression recently, when commenting on the readiness of some governments to distance themselves from the protective blanket of American foreign policy. He cautioned that the alternative didn't bear thinking about, a sentiment seemingly shared by Karen Weiss in 'Answered Prayers' [3], her report on Clark and Del Vecchio's visit to Brisbane, published in The Journal of Australian Ceramics.

These two articles from either side of 'the ditch' [4] make for interesting reading, proof that audiences will hear what they want to hear.

As Elliott and Skinner observe, Garth Clark '... has arguably done more than anyone else to enhance the prestige of ceramics in both a critical and financial sense ... [leading to] ... the transformation of ceramics into a verifiably high art.' [5] Yet his grim warning to the conference was that ' ... artists make better art than ceramists, who make great ceramics.' [6]

Part of this transformation involves contemporary ceramics taking its own history a little more seriously. Garth Clark has contributed greatly to this process by producing a Herculean quantity of books and articles examining twentieth century ceramics, an effort which rightly deserves the applause of not only the ceramics community but of all of those interested in material culture, or indeed in art. Long overdue, his oeuvre traces the strands of ceramics from the late nineteenth century to the present day, albeit with a fundamentally conservative emphasis which privileges the new; a linear perspective that mimics mainstream art history.

Clark's style is persuasive, his research is good, and he is a polished performer, but there is no getting around the fact that he is also a dealer, especially when he tag teams with Del Vecchio. There is no subterfuge in their message; on the contrary, it is refreshing to see such an open pairing of scholarship and commerce. Nonetheless, a critical audience is needed for a critical thinker, and, to be fair to Clark, this is what he demands.

Karen Weiss finds evidence in Clark's presentation that 'ceramic art is being accepted in the fine arts world not because it is ceramic, but because it is art.' [7] She cites instances of ceramic artists being taken seriously by the art world, noting 'recent triumphs' [8] in Grayson Perry winning the 2004 Turner Prize and Kathy Butterly's four-inch-high-cups being applauded by the critics at the Carnegie International Exhibition.

Although it might be pointed out that the Tate Gallery's Turner Prize is a little bit like the Archibald with installations, there is no doubting that it guarantees the winner their fifteen minutes of fame. But if one is to celebrate the entry of ceramics into the world of contemporary art — which, incidentally, I don't — it must also be noted that the other 99.99% of work in the big, international contemporary art shows are (is) not ceramics, even when anything else seems to allowed. [9]

One of the largest and best resourced exhibitions of contemporary art held in this country is Queensland's Asia-Pacific Triennial , now in its fifth incarnation in the newly established Modern Art Gallery in Brisbane. Although including every possible permutation of material and technique available to the contemporary artist, the only ceramics are found in an installation by Zhou Xiaohu, a Chinese artist who draws on the techniques of claymation, hence his use of clay. For ceramics to claim this as one of their own would surely be a long stretch, or should I say march? And when more traditional ceramics are included in these events, as a typical Gwyn Hanssen Piggot grouping of pots in Nick Waterlow's 2000 Biennale of Sydney, it somehow strikes a curious note. The fact that Hanssen Pigott's work is now either displayed with classic and ancient ceramics or with contemporary art, but seldom with the work of her peers or alongside the still-life paintings to which she owes so much, says a great deal about how curatorial processes can affect the life of the object.

As Elliott and Skinner note, 'the desire for the white cube, and the anointing of art discourse, ignores that this site is itself a specific historical entity, and one that is incredibly loaded.' [10] Elliot would of course be familiar with Brian O'Doherty's (a.k.a. Patrick Ireland) seminal text Inside the White Cube: the Ideology of the Gallery Space [11], first published in Artforum magazine in the mid 1970s and the subject of a recent revision, which traces the development of this twentieth century shrine to the new. As Elliott and Skinner write: 'Introduce ceramics into this space, and you might find that the discourse does not fit ... Introduce the ceramic object into the white cube, and you might find it becomes invisible ...' [12], a likely enough possibility given the current popularity of porcelain.

The real question is why one would want to enter into such an enterprise at all, but of course the answer is simple: it is a matter of status. According to Clark, the problem with ceramics' status 'was not to do with quality, or the practice itself, but the lack of resources that are necessary for an object to be canonised. ... This canon is the product of a system — makers, critics, historians and institutions working in concert. ... through the quality of its objects, and via the appropriate critical and historical discourses, ceramic objects will be taken seriously, and they will find a place in the canon.' [13] Why do I suddenly hear the sound of breaking crockery?

Some ceramic artists have already been canonised, with Clark contributing to this process in no small measure. For example, in another of his appearances at Verge he sought to question the apparent status of the American ceramist Peter Voulkos as the most important ceramic artist of the twentieth century, instead ranking him somewhere below Picasso and Fontana, at I believe around tenth position. (I didn't take notes.) Clark's talk was tongue in cheek, designed to spark debate as much as anything, but, while shifting Voulkos a little bit down the rankings, he was still reaffirming his status as a ceramic demi-god.

This process had been greatly aided by Rose Slivka in her 1961 essay for Craft Horizons 'The New Ceramic Presence' [14], so I found it curious that Clark sought to 'send up' Slivka's article — after all, without Slivka's hyperbole who knows where a whole generation of American abstract expressionist ceramists would be? I admire Clark's discrimination and connoisseurship regarding Voulkos' oeuvre, but a meatier question might be why Voulkos was considered good at all? He certainly couldn't make the transition from clay to sculpture, thus reinforcing Clark's point regarding ceramists making great ceramics but not great art - something upon which I agree – although paradoxically Clarks' top ten included many artists who seemingly could make great ceramics, and there again it was hard to argue with his choices.

Looking ahead, according to Karen Weiss, Mark Del Vecchio asserts that 'touchy-feely handcrafted and physical characteristics' [15] are not very twenty-first century. Rather, we must seek the intellectual weight of the vessel, how '... it is exploited to give another layer of meaning to the artists exploration of contemporary issues such as AIDS, globalism, consumerism, the factory and our preoccupation with technology.' [16] Quite a tall order for a vessel, I would have thought. Just what the artist would achieve by exploring globalism in a pot is beyond me, but I suspect it might have something to do with money - or was that the pot that dealt with consumerism?

Still, if according to Clark and del Vecchio the future direction of ceramics is unclear, at least there seems to be some agreement on the past, or as Weiss rather truculently put it, 'The craft movement is dead. Haven't you noticed?' [17] No wonder, when its most famous son, Bernard Leach, was 'narrow-minded, bigoted, uninformed and so fearful of the now ...' [that he] '... blunted us as artists.' [18]

Well, no he wasn't and no he didn't. Leach was open-minded enough to open himself up to the transformative potential of another culture, and he was not uninformed so much as perplexed by the radical shifts he saw occurring in ceramics. Why on earth, he would ask himself, would anyone want to make such things? He was very opinionated and passionately argued his case – a characteristic Clark shares – but to say Leach blunted a generation of ceramists as artists is simply silly. It might be the type of pronouncement that adds entertainment value to Clark's public appearances, but it is no more good scholarship than it is true, or even logical.

Elliott and Skinner finish their article by writing of the necessity to rediscover the value in ceramics' own long and complex traditions, and it would seem here that Clark would be in complete agreement. The need for 'an education that encompasses all these and can link them to contemporary art discourses so that clear boundaries are apparent' [19] thus allowing ceramists to 'take pride in there own practices without recurrent lusting [marvellous expression] for that white space and all it entails.' [20] By contrast, Weiss finishes her piece by promising to follow 'the Garth Clark/Mark Del Vecchio trail with an article on their pre-Verge seminar on marketing work, pricing, galleries, dealers and making it at home and abroad.' [21]

The Pennsylvanian artist, writer and orchardist Roger Yepsen, discussing the effect of marketing on the apple industry, wrote that:

' ... the symbol of the way we've come to grow and enjoy apples is Red Delicious. It was a marketer's dream. intensely red as the apple in Snow White, instantly recognizable, tall and wasp-waisted, and gorgeous even after the insides have gone to mush... Red Delicious has been called a victory of style over substance. ...' [22]

Contrary to popular opinion, I think that the first arrival in the late 1960s of West Coast American ceramics into this country had a destructive effect on Australian ceramics. My reasons for stating this are complex and are of necessity the subject for a much longer essay, but, despite the fact that this new message in 2006 originates from the East coast of America and not the West, I still would urge caution. Entrance to the ceramic world of Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio is restricted to a very, very few people, and that those who don't make the grade may find themselves with nowhere else to go. So, read the books, be amused by the anecdotes and admire the professionalism, but don't think it is the whole story, because it isn't.


[1] Moyra Elliott and Damian Skinner 'Wishful Thinking'

[2] ibid

[3] Karen Weiss 'Answered Prayers' The Journal of Australian Ceramics Vol. 45 # 3 2006

[4] Colloquial term for the Tasman Sea separating Australia and New Zealand

[5] Elliott and Skinner ibid

[6] ibid

[7] Weiss ibid

[8] ibid

[9] One of the many difficulties I have with the term 'ceramics' is that it is syntactically awkward. For example, a person may make ceramics, but you do not then compliment them by observing 'Oh, that is a nice ceramic.'

[10] Elliott and Skinner ibid

[11] Brian O'Doherty Inside the White Cube: the Ideology of the Gallery Space (expanded edition) University of California Press 2000

[12] Elliott and Skinner ibid

[13] ibid

[14] Rose Slivka 'The New Ceramic Presence' Craft Horizons July — August 1961

[15] Weiss ibid

[16] ibid

[17] ibid

[18] ibid

[19] Elliott and Skinner ibid

[20] ibid

[21] Weiss ibid

[22] Roger Yepsen Apples W.W. Norton 1994

Kirsten Coelho — Studio Potter

There have been many changes over the years in the terms used to describe those who find personal expression in the manipulation of clay. The November 2005 exhibition by Kirsten Coelho at the BMG Gallery in Adelaide provides a welcome opportunity to write about the work of someone who fits – quite precisely – a currently underused epithet, that of 'studio potter'.

In these days of ceramicists (a word, predictably enough, recognised by Microsoft Office 2000 spell-checker) ceramic artists (flesh and blood, really) designer-makers with a ceramics-based practice, and a dwindling number of potters, the term studio-potter is refreshingly transparent. We understand immediately an engagement with a discipline that constitutes one of the core traditions of 20th century craft; one which is, thankfully, still alive and well in the new millennium. Kirsten Coelho is an exponent of such an approach, where late-nineteenth century European sensibilities met a thousand years of North-Asian ceramics to create an idiom which whilst finding a home in craft, could reach out with one hand and touch art, and with the other the practical world of industry. None of this describes what Coelho’s pots are like, but it helps in understanding where they come from; what they are, and what they are not.

Vase and Bowl, 2005, porcelain, matt white glaze, with banded iron rim, reduction fired, bowl h.7.5cm, d.26cm, vase h.24cm. Photo: Grant Hancock
Vase and Bowl, 2005, porcelain, matt white glaze, with banded iron rim, reduction fired,
bowl h.7.5cm, d.26cm, vase h.24cm.
Photo: Grant Hancock

If one had to cite the antecedents of Coelho’s work the names would be unsurprising. There is an element of Lucie Rie, of Sung and T’ang pottery, even of Gwyn Hansen-Piggott, though without recourse to the device of still-life. She has chosen impeccable models, and in adding her own voice to this lineage of quietude, the message is carried forward, altered and enriched.

Coelho’s pottery is now recognisable, and in this exhibition these familiar themes are restated and refined. The straight-sided bowl, small cups and tapering vases, along with newer essays in form; a long-necked bottle and tall lidded-jar, both of which acknowledge their Chinese ancestry whilst living very much in the here and now. The clay is porcelain; the glazes variations of celadon, temmoku, copper-red, and an unctuous white which ranges in surface quality from silken-matt to being slightly glassy and reflective. It is mostly to this white glaze that Coelho has added touches of iron, just a spot or thin line, which lightly pulls at the waist or touches the lip. These marks address the form so intimately that I would hesitate to describe them as decoration; they are more a kind of visual punctuation, giving lift and cadence to the object.

Interestingly, Coelho often refers to these marks as coming from her observations of corroded metal, especially the ubiquitous galvanised-iron rainwater tank that, together with a Eureka lemon tree, was found in most Adelaide back yards before the heady days of gentrification and urban infill. Her home-studio in an old workers cottage is in an area of the city where industry has also left its share of detritus. This may seem an unexpected source of inspiration for the beauty of porcelain, yet the district’s history as a port adds a layer of complexity, as this fragile substance has a long history of trade.

Bowl, 2005, porcelain with porcelain glaze, banded iron rim, reduction fired, h.10cm, d.26cm. Photo: Jim DeGregorio
Bowl, 2005, porcelain with porcelain glaze, banded iron rim, reduction fired, h.10cm, d.26cm. Photo: Jim DeGregorio

Coelho has recently been awarded an Australia Council residency in London, a city where she has spent many years and to which she owes much of her ceramic development. It seems only fitting that she returns there periodically, as there is a sensibility about her work that is very English. Not the England of Cool Britannia & YBA’s, and certainly not the England of Grayson Perry, which, despite the noise and clamour for attention, is only a very small part of the whole. I suspect Coelho’s London touchstones are to be found in the Victoria and Albert, the Percival Pavid Foundation or Gallerie Besson, rather than in the Saatchi Collection or Tate Modern. And, away from the city, there are still many potters of note, who, like Richard Batterham, pursue their profession, making objects of simple beauty and unquestioned authority.

Bowl, 2005, porcelain with matt white glaze, bands of iron oxide, reduction fired, h.14.5cm, d.19cm. Photo: Jim DeGregorio
Bowl, 2005, porcelain with matt white glaze, bands of iron oxide, reduction fired, h.14.5cm, d.19cm.
Photo: Jim DeGregorio

This is not to say that this approach to ceramics is nostalgic or stultifying, or that it has failed to happily assimilate ideas, styles and techniques from many different places. It is more about the pace at which change takes place, and a healthy scepticism of change for changes sake. In the tradition of which Coelho partakes you only take a step forward when you are sure you understand the last. The past is not seen as something to be challenged and defeated; it is instructive, and therefore nurturing. The territory it occupies, between art and industry, is exactly where it wants to be, because it constructed, or at least redefined, this in-between place. Despite the odd revisionist declarations of a new breed of craft theorists, its engagement with multi-culturalism has often been marked by a degree of respect and sensitivity that the fine-arts can only dream about.

All of these things may be found to varying degrees in the best studio-pottery, and they are to be found in the work of Kirsten Coelho.

Damon Moon
Willunga 2006