Yesterday, we lost a lovely man in the passing of Peter Stichbury, just five days after his 91st birthday. Last of those seen as pioneers from the late 1940s, Peter, along with Roy Cowan and Mirek Smisek, was unfailingly generous in his teaching and his sharing of accumulated knowledge. The highly regarded recipe for his mix of clays and other materials, trod with linked arms and bare feet then pugged and left to mature for as long as we could keep our hands off it, was de rigueur at most evening pottery classes and used by many of the domestic-ware makers of the day. It was an agreeably textural, responsively plastic, useful stoneware body that coloured nicely in reduction and took kindly to whatever glaze was applied. Like the man, it was well-mannered, moderate and temperate, and adaptable to almost any situation
Following war service, teacher and art specialist training, his first job was as Assistant Art lecturer at Ardmore Teacher’s College. It was while he was a student at Auckland Teachers Training College that he first learned something of clay when he learned of and attended evening classes at Avondale College. There he followed Pat Perrin and Len Castle as students to R.N. Field who introduced them to Bernard Leach’s, A Potter’s Book published in 1940 and which rapidly gained reputation as the ‘potters bible’ for its influential essay, ‘Towards a Standard’ and the useful practical information contained within its pages. Stichbury and Castle were part of a small group which included fellow student, Patrick Motley, a fettler at Crum Brick and Tile and who suggested they might slip some pieces into the pipe kilns there – at the time, salt glazed. They placed their work on top of the utility ware near the kiln’s crown where the pots received the best possible doses of industrial salting. It was an exciting time as information on salting clays was slowly acquired and disseminated among the seriously interested aspiring potters who oriented around the Avondale classes. Castle experimented with a silicaceous clay from Westmere Beach while Stichbury extracted clay from Pigeon Mountain at Pakuranga.
It was Peter Stichbury who was first, in 1957, to receive a fellowship from the Association of NZ Art Societies, precursor to Creative NZ, to study in Saint Ives, England. Taking Diane, his wife, he arrived in late September and where he learned many extra throwing skills from William Marshall who was in charge of the production wares for the catalogue and who was the most skilled thrower at Saint Ives. He did not stay the full time with Leach at Saint Ives, as I learned some years ago when I interviewed him for an English organisation working on information from former Leach apprentices. Not much enamoured of Leach himself he preferred to go with Diane to work for Michael Cardew, by then at Abuja in Nigeria. There he became Cardew’s first western student finding he was given more freedom to throw as he pleased. Cardew’s total dedication to setting up what was to be a new national industry and his charismatic personality helped cement Stichbury’s future direction. The articles he sent from Nigeria to Helen Mason, then editor of the NZ Potter magazine, which began life in 1958, were catalytic in increasing the knowledge and information available to readers and the fine pots – his own and those of Cardew and Ladi Kwali – which returned with him to this country, served as exemplars for the increasing numbers of students and budding potters.
He set up the pottery department at Ardmore to which he was appointed to a full lectureship and where he taught student teachers, many of whom, in the 60’s and 70’s became potters instead of teachers as soon as their two years of compulsory service was up. Stichbury stayed there his entire career as head of the department and made his fine tableware for much of that period. He also made signature large platters that he decorated on-glaze with Karekare iron-sand and for which he gained a considerable reputation.
In 1968 he invited Cardew to come and who followed Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada earlier in the decade. Cardew conducted workshops using the Stichbury clay recipe and the pots were fired, with help from Neil Grant at Ardmore. Many have entered institutional collections and sit there beside Peter’s.
He became, what was then a principal accolade – ‘full-time’ – in the late 60s and Diane joined him in 1970 with both caring for their three daughters, Phillipa, Rebecca and Catherine. However he never stopped teaching, giving frequent weekend workshops in his home studio set among the trees in their large garden down a long right-of-way off Great South Road in Manurewa. He also held regular classes for the ASP over a number of years and gave workshops throughout the country. He also served as an officer and President for the ASP and the NZ Society of Potters and remained an honorary member of both organisations.
Stan Jenkins chronicled his life on film along with one on Castle and on Smisek and these were made for the Department of Education and still available. He developed other interests and made superb musical instruments, cellos and violas, for his daughters and his pottery was included in a small collection gifted to Queen Elizabeth in 1974 when she visited here. There was an image of those pots in the NZ Potter magazine I recall, (Peter’s Len’s, Mirek’s, Margaret Milne’s, Graeme Storm’s…. more….) I wonder where she keeps them?
With the new century Peter slowed down for the first time and eventually hung up his turning tools some years ago when they sold their property after many good years and moved to smaller quarters, closer to town and family. He was awarded Member of the NZ Order of Merit in 2002 for services to pottery.
He will be missed, for his quiet but steadfast purpose and his intelligent perceptions on pots and on life, his love of his family which he always kept foremost and his generosity in everything he came to. Our sympathies must go to Diane and to his daughters and extended family. There is a private ceremony this week but a more public event will take place at a later time.