Manly Art Gallery & Museum has been developing an important collection of Australian ceramics, which traces the development of styles and techniques in Australia since 1945.
Through an active acquisitions program and donations, the collection is evolving into one of Australia's most significant ceramic resources. As an important member of the Regional Galleries Association of New South Wales, this specialisation in ceramics is a key focus in the NSW network of public galleries.
The now over 330 works in the collection by over 140 artists represent the diversity of techniques, aesthetics and artistic practice within the broad field of ceramics - from traditional wood-fired, salt-glazed and oxide-treated works and pieces influenced by Japanese and Chinese ceramics, through to contemporary, post-modern works. Functional, decorative and sculptural styles of ceramics are represented.
Among the first works to enter the collection was a piece by Peter Rushforth titled Jug, a stoneware with salt glaze piece which was purchased from the 1968 Ceramics Exhibition. The ceramics collection includes works by many important Australian ceramic artists including Shona Wilson, Les Blakebrough, Angela Valamanesh, Amanda Shelsher, Melina Monks, Bill Samuels, Lex Dickson, Bill Kelly and Liz Williams, and overseas artists who spent time in Australia and contributed significantly to contemporary ceramics, such as Shigeo Shiga, Brian Truman, Shunichi Inoue, Mark Heidenreich, Harry Davis and Len Castle.
In 1985, the Manly Art Gallery & Museum's growing collection was put on display permanently in the Lady Askin Ceramics Room. The exhibition and display of these works was made possible through The Lady Askin Bequest some years earlier. Works from the collection are on changing display.
The Gallery hosts biennial exhibitions of contemporary Australian ceramics by members of the Australian Ceramics Association (formerly the Potters Society of Australia), from which the Gallery purchases works. The Gallery also receives donations from benefactors and artists which assist in further developing the collection.
The Development of Ceramics in Australia as reflected in the Manly Art Gallery & Museum Collection
From the report on the MAGAM collection by Gillian McCracken
The collection covers Australian ceramic practice from the 1940s to today. The period represented the most dates from 1975 to 1990 and reflects the influential impact on Australian studio pottery of the National Art School (East Sydney Technical College) and the Potters Society of Australia.
Hamada / Leach philosophy and aesthetics in pottery
The early works in the collection from the 1960s show the major influence of the Hamada and Leach philosophy and aesthetic which was championed by potters such as Peter Rushforth, Colin Levy, Ivan McMeekin, Harold Hughan and Les Blakebrough.
Potters Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach understood the artist potter to be part of the community, with respect for tradition and place, and honesty of materials. These ideas were very attractive to emerging potters such as Peter Rushforth in post-war Australia, and they stimulated the development of Australian stoneware clays, wood-fired kilns, reduction firing and the investigation of Australian feldspars, clays and igneous rocks for clay bodies and glazes.
This movement was based on the mingei folk-craft revival of Japan in the first decades of the 20th century, led by philosopher Soetsu Yanagi and with Shoji Hamada one of its leading potters. This revival in turn was inspired by the 19th century British Arts and Crafts movement which was documented by Bernard Leach in his 1940 publication ‘A Potters’ Book”. The decades long exchange of aestethics and ceramic traditions between Japan and Britain continued in spite of World War II.
The 1970s – 1980s
The Hamada / Leach philosophy and aesthetic owed also much to the glazing and firing traditions of China, Korean and other Asian countries. Thus, glazes such as tenmoku, celadon, chun, iron reds, copper reds, iron spots, teadust, hairfurs, shino and the firing effects of wood dominated. These glazes are still the techniques used by Peter Rushforth, Colin Levy, Bill Samuels, Janet Barriskill, Roswitha Wulff, Andrew Halford, Steve Harrison, Leonard Smith, Harry Davis, Owen Rye, Ian McKay, Pam Morse, Reg Preston, Phillip Douglas, Phillip McConnell, Janet Mansfield and others in the Manly Art Gallery & Museum collection.
Greg Daly uses these glazes as a basis for much of his extensive glaze exploration. Shigeo Shiga, a Japanese potter from the Hamada tradition, was one of a number of visitors to Australia in the 1970s and 80s, and the MAGAM collection contains examples of some of his decorative techniques and glazes which were so widely copied. Examples are the ‘chattering’ on pot C0017 and of pots with swelling bellies ‘cheek dipped’ into a contrast glaze with swirls of oxide such as bowl C0006 and pot C0015.
C0017, Shigeo Shiga Blossom Jar Stoneware with incised decoration 25 x 24 cm
Some particular forms stand out in this period of the 1970s and 80s. The blossom jar (usually a large sphere with a small opening), tall bottles, flat sided bottles, bottles with long narrow necks, open bowls, platters and lidded jars were popular. Works were often titled with their household names because of a peculiarity in the sales tax law: only a 5 % tax went on utility items such as ‘jar’ or ‘bottle’ while a hefty 35 % was levied on luxury items such as a vase. These forms were also suitable for experimenting with and exploiting the range of glazes and firing techniques.
This rather mundane naming of works is apparent in the MAGAM collection. While works classified as ‘works of art’ were sales tax exempt, it was unusual for potters to title their works metaphorically. Therefore, the tax department would query ‘work of art’ classifications with sometimes ludicrous results. Metaphorical titling is a recent phenomenon and even the most obviously functional ceramics are now titles as in Louise Boscacci’s incised bowl ‘Across the Line Again’ C0255.
C0255, Louise Boscacci Across the Line Again, 2000 Porcelain bowl 13 x 20 cm
A good contrast to this is Les Blakebrough’s large white sphere with sweeping cobalt brush work and red lacquer titled ‘large sphere’ C0141.
The Hamada / Leach philosophy was not the only aesthetic influence. Australian potters were eager to absorb traditional and contemporary practice influences from all continents and as a result of funding assistance from the newly established Australian Council in the 1970s, a steady stream of prominent international potters visited and worked in Australia. This resulted in greater diversification.
C0141, Les Blakebrough Large Sphere, 1986 - 87 Porcelain with blue and red decoration 34 x 35 x 35 cm
The developing ceramic practices of the USA, particularly California, influenced by the Abstract Expressionists and the politicisation of artists during the Vietnam War became a highly energised and potent force. It influenced Bernard Sahm, drawing him away from the traditional studio practice of Harry Davis to develop his ironic figurative works; and Peter Travis from functional ware to his abstracted, handbuilt minimalist forms packed with controlled patterning and colour.
Mitsuo Shoji, influenced by the radical, modernist Sodeisha movement of Japan, moved to California, and escaping the predominant tradition, developed his broad inventive practice in Australia.
Hiroe Swen also departed from tradition. She found there were few opportunities for women in Japanese ceramics although she had successfully exhibited her ceramics in the prestigious Nitten exhibition and formed the Women’s Ceramic Artists Group in 1958. She moved to Australia in 1968. Her practice reflects the early influence of Sodeisha and the discipline of her family textile design traditions through meticulous coil-built forms and rich surface decoration. The MAGAM collection includes three excellent works of her peak period and an early atypical thrown pot.
The arrival of Joan Grounds from the USA in 1968 further strengthened the interest in USA west-cost ceramic experimentation, in her case a reaction to male dominated Abstract Expressionism, and social comment. Australian potters would increasingly speak of broader social issues through their work as in Toni Warburton’s ‘Stage: Cold War Enigma’, ‘Male oriented series No.2’ by Kathryn McMiles, Vincent McGrath’s Settlement at Tennant Creek’ or Steve Harrison’s platter ‘The Military Industrial Complex’.
C0216, Steve Harrison The Military Industrial Complex, 1995 Stoneware with oxides 10 x 36 cm
Mollie Douglas was a colleague with Peter Rushforth, Ivan England and Ivan McMeekin and one of the four founders of The Potters Society of New South Wales in 1956 (later the Potters Society of Australia. However, she was not as committed to the Hamada / Leach tradition as the other three. Her primary influence in the 1940s was the Chinese ceramics collection at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which she combined with modernist European design, and function.
Alan Peascod and Martin Halstead exploited the lustre traditions and forms of Middle Eastern pottery. Diogenes Farri brought a new attitude to clay reflecting his family’s long tradition of village pottery in Chile. His forms and decoration were a complete departure.
Gillian Grigg encouraged an interest in English slipware and decoration, Derek Smith, Britian, introduced the coolness of hard edge design and matt glazes as seen in Scandinavian domestic ware and Penny Smith, Britain, blended California ‘funk’, Memphis style and a sound grounding in design in a surprising range of table ware. Hard edge design is also a characteristic of the work by Mark Sauvage and in particular the mannered construction by Dianne Peach of Queensland.
Apart from traditional Asian-influenced decoration, middle-eastern decorative aesthetics, southern European majolica patterning, English slipware, blue and white Ming (stoneware) and Delft (earthenware), there was little interest in surface decoration in the 1970s and 80s. However, two Victorian potters of this period stand out: Victoria Howlett used coloured slips and oxides in her outstanding floral surface decoration on both the face of her work and the under surface, and Sony Manning used similar materials as inlay in her highly mannered landscape images on plates and candlesticks. Dianne Peach and Sandra Black were also working on the surface of their work with low-fired colours.
The collection of Melanesian pottery by Margaret Tuckson for the Australian Museum increased the knowledge and interested in low temperature black firing. The MAGAM collection includes work by Beverley Dunphy, Christopher James, Barry Niland and Wendy Erickson. Raku firing, or low-fired earthenware, was extremely popular in part because simple kilns could be built in garbage bins or small brick kilns. The work was hand-manipulated from the kiln at approximately 800 to 900 degrees centigrade and plunged into a reducing agent such as leaves, sawdust or fuming lustre-producing oxides, to produce a range of surface effects. Despite its apparent simplicity, it could be used to attain highly sophisticated surface results. Joan Campbell of Western Australia and Jeff Mincham of South Australia are recognised as skilled exponents of this technique – the MAGAM collection includes strong examples of their work.
By the end of the 1980s the terms ceramic artist and ceramist (or ceramicist) were in common use and an increasing number of ‘potters’ including Lorraine Jenyns, Tasmania, and Jenny Orchard, New South Wales, had completely departed from the prevailing stoneware aesthetics and were producing sculptural forms, frequently figurative, with highly coloured, low fire glazes using electric kilns. Patsy Hely shared a studio with Orchard and used similar low glaze colours, but was more interested in pushing the possibilities of domestic ware, as in her tea set C0146.
C0146, Patsy Hely Teaset, 1987 Earthenware, slipcast underglaze colours and coloured slips clear glaze
The 1990s was a decade of decline for ceramics in spite of the quality of work of established potters who continued to practice, and a continuing but decreased flow of emerging potters. The general tertiary environment of art schools, the collapsing of ceramic departments into sculpture departments, and the decreased interest by the general public in studio production ware saw the numbers of potters decrease and sales slump.
An important external factor was the growing importation of well-designed and co-ordinated domestic pottery, appropriate for city apartment living. This cheap, functional ceramic ware made by works in third world countries inevitably dominated the market. Being cheap and thus not a major investment, it could be disposed of when a ‘new’ look was desired. The established economic studio production model of potters of the 1960s, 70s and 80s who generally developed a line of studio production ware to offset the cost of production of one-off pieces was not able to compete.
The New Millennium
By the end of 1990s a change was again visible. Potters such as Gwyn Hanssen-Piggott and Colin Levy plus a handful of others in all states were now attracting high prices through commercial art galleries. Sculptural ceramics are now increasingly well-conceived and resolved such as Liz Williams ‘China Doll’, 1993, Robin Lee’s ‘Little Evie’, Kris Coad’s ‘Free Falling’, Malina Monks’ ‘Continuum – Bodies’, and Amanda Shelsher’s ‘City Voyager’.
Potters are looking again at domestic ware not only for direct function but at the role of food and utensils in a broader social investigation of many cultural traditions, changing family structures and intimate interaction. Potters such as Anders Ousbach, Angela Valamanesh, Patsy Hely, Bill Kelly, Brigiat Maltese, Fiona Murphy, Janet DeBoos, Steve Davies, Merran Esson, Petra Svoboda and Louise Boscacci are notable examples.
Today, ceramic practice is a revitalised art medium and the Manly Art Gallery & Museum reflects this by adding appropriate works to its important ceramics collection.
C0256, Amanda Shelsher City voyager, (6 pieces), 2000 Stoneware, slips stains and oxides 45 x 56 x 35 cm
Copyright Manly Art Gallery & Museum 2009. Funded by Manly Council and the Gordon Darling
Foundation. Created by Banziger Hulme Fine Art.