Book Review – Cone Ten Down

A review by Grace Cochrane, independent, Australian based, curator and writer and formerly senior curator at The Powerhouse, Sydney for the international, peer reviewed, Journal of Modern Crafts that is edited by Glen Adamson, Tanya Harrod et al.  While there have been numerous reviews of the book, particularly since it was a finalist in the NZ Post Book Awards last year, it is good to have a wider perspective on our histories. The follow-up (1980 to the present) is under research at present for manuscript submission next year – hopefully.

The Journal of Modern Craft

Volume 4—Issue 2

July 2011

pp. 217–220

Cone Ten Down: Studio Pottery in New Zealand, 1945–1980 Moyra Elliott and Damian Skinner

Auckland, NZ: Bateman Press, 2009. 184 pages, 45 black and white/145 color images, endnotes, bibliography, index. NZ$49.99 (paperback). ISBN: 9781869537319

Reviewed by Grace Cochrane

Grace Cochrane is an independent curator and writer in Sydney, Australia.

While ConeTen Down is subtitled Studio Pottery in New Zealand 1945–1980, the introduction is headed “The Anglo- Oriental Pottery Movement in New Zealand.”As the authors say, “We began this book with a question: why did a British interpretation of a certain kind of Asian ceramics take off so vigorously in New Zealand?” (159). This question could, in fact, be asked of the simultaneous movement in a number of countries in the years that followed the publication of Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book in 1940.

In this well-designed, well-illustrated, and very readable publication, authors Moyra Elliott and Damian Skinner have unraveled the story of this local development of the Anglo- Oriental movement: from links with precursors working in earthenware from the 1920s to 1940s, through those key exponents who started their practice in the 1950s and 1960s, to the many adaptations and innovative breaks within the movement in the 1970s. Following their account is an essay by Damon Moon, writing about the same period in Australia; in “Across the Ditch,” he identifies similarities, differences and many connections between the two.

Cone Ten Down complements a number of recent publications that investigate aspects of ceramics history in New Zealand, including Upstarts: Knowledge and Change in Clay1 and Clay Economies2 as well as, in both Australia and New Zealand, a growing number of monographs and exhibition catalogs with critical and contextual essays. Significant also is writing associated with postgraduate research, such as Moon’s doctoral thesis on Leach’s influence in Australia.3

This is a scholarly, well-researched, and informative narrative, marked and linked with appropriate dates and milestones, and illustrated not only with pots, but also with some telling photographs of people and places. It is not a dictionary or catalog; there are no dates of birth and death in the text, or brief résumés at the end, although these would have provided a useful summary of individual careers. Instead, it is conversational and investigative rather than academic in tone, weaving key aspects of people’s lives and careers, the characteristics of their work, the influence of visitors and travel, and the effects of contributing issues, such as education policies and trade tariffs, into a broad, chronological context of change and development.

The authors, both well-known as writers and curators, researched private and public archives, accounts in NZ Potter (the journal of the New Zealand Society of Potters), archival films, newspapers, and catalogs, as well as a number of local and international publications on the theme. Significantly, however, they have elaborated on the information found there with material gleaned from interviews with nearly seventy people who have been part of the story. Those insights, anecdotes and retrospective analyses contribute to an unusually rich story, and include accounts of the pivotal visits to New Zealand of Bernard Leach in 1962 and Shoji Hamada in 1965, and the enterprising efforts of local potters in developing their own practices.

Did New Zealand potters simply adopt the Anglo-Oriental style and ideology as Leach presented it, or did they develop their own interpretation of it? As in other countries with “colonial” histories, New Zealand maintained strong social, political and economic links with the United Kingdom. Cultural influences such as the Arts and Crafts and Modern movements, both relevant to the development of studio pottery, were transferred as a matter of course. One question the authors addressed was whether the proximity with Asia may have had a particular influence in New Zealand.

In the postwar period, New Zealanders sought avenues for independent expression of their national identity, and also started to travel: many young people set out, by ship, on long-term working holidays. Among them were potters who visited and worked in places such as St. Ives and various schools of art in London. Significant were skilled migrants to New Zealand, as well as influential visitors. Important was New Zealand’s role in Jayforce, the postwar British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan, and the manner in which this contact contributed not only to economic links between the two countries but also cultural exchange, notably through educator and collector Ray Chapman-Taylor, who put Leach and Hamada in contact with one another again. From the early 1960s, New Zealand potters began to visit Japan.

Integrated into the story are accounts of innovative policies for teacher education: pottery was taught in teachers’ colleges, Adult Education departments ran summer schools, and potter Doreen Blumhardt was appointed as a national art advisor in 1942. Travelers started to amass influential collections of Japanese and British ceramics; dealers imported Leach standard ware, Scandinavian ware, and the Modernist works of Lucie Rie and Hans Coper; and key galleries mounted exhibitions of New Zealand pottery, supported by a vigorous domestic marketplace.

Well-documented in this story are the close networks that developed among potters in major cities and eventually in most regional areas. Significant individuals, groups, studios, galleries, and courses that emerged in one place soon became known elsewhere. Barry Brickell’s kiln-building excursions around the country, and the activities in the workshops of those such as Yvonne Rust and Helen Mason, are now legendary. While there is no list of potters in the book, other than as they are integrated into the index, the authors appear to have identified all the key figures in this period, discussing not only the work of each one and the ideology that lay behind it, but also the valuable infrastructure to which they contributed.

So, what conclusions can be drawn? These are well argued, and it is clear that in many ways the popularity of the Anglo-Oriental movement was a matter of timing: it offered the right ideas and strategies for what New Zealanders were seeking, at the right time (99). It wasn’t “a neat outcome of geography” (159) as Japan had so recently been an enemy to be feared rather than a friendly neighbor. But having itself grown out of the British Arts and Crafts movement, the moral ideology of the Japanese Mingei movement had already been adopted, so the Anglo- Oriental movement was not “foreign” (162). The characteristics of the style were also associated with inventiveness, autonomy and freedom, and in that sense it was considered an avant-garde practice. Combined with a self-perception of egalitarian resourcefulness and a postwar desire to lead more fulfilling lives, these elements also contributed to the idea of expressing a sense of national identity through the use of local raw materials and their associations with place and environment.

There remain innovative contemporary practices that have their origin in the Anglo- Oriental example. While the authors attribute a decline in the movement’s influence to the lifting of tariff protection in the 1980s, changes in customer preferences in interior design, and an inability for many potters to adjust, they also point to new influences and note that “studio ceramics had to become as multi-faceted as anywhere else in the world to survive” (158). They conclude:

An essential aspect of New Zealand culture is that we take other people’s ideas and apply them to our own circumstances. Our identity resides in what we select and what we exclude, and how we adapt what we select to our circumstances. (162)

I have a feeling that many in other countries who have experienced similar influences will recognize in Cone Ten Down the excitement and sense of fulfillment of this time.

Notes

1 Lucy Hammonds, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, and Jenny Robertson, Upstarts: Knowledge and Change in Clay

2 Richard Fahey, ed., Clay Economies (Auckland: Six Point Press for Objectspace, 2008).

3 Damon Moon,“In the Beginning Was the Word: Bernard Leach and the Development of Australian Studio Pottery from 1940 to 1964” (PhD dissertation, University of South Australia, 2006).


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