With the recent visit of Tanya Harrod I was moved to obtain her earlier book, The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century and, as for her book on Cardew, I am singularly impressed with the scholarship, the breadth and the voluminous, easy to read text that, within its lively pages examines the wider cultural context that shaped the development of the crafts movement from which we in New Zealand took so much leadership over the last century.
I haven’t yet read it all of course; there are nearly 500 pages and over 500 illustrations between the cloth-bound, large format covers. It’s so heavy that, like The Last Sane Man on Cardew , it is beyond bedtime reading unless well propped with pillows, sandwiches and a glass of milk and beyond popping into the bag for an in-flight read on a long plane trip. But again, like the Cardew book, it’s a ten year, tour de force for its erudition, research and good humour. She never loses a firm grip on the important threads running through the principal crafts like ceramics, jewellery, furniture and, for much of the century, weaving and textiles. But she also picks up on some very British craft practices that we simply do, and did, not have here except, occasionally, a lone practitioner here and there. Crafts like lettering, book-binding, wall-paper block printing , blacksmithing and tile murals for stations on underground services. There will be more once I sit to read in full, I’m sure.
There is much that has relevance for us such as images of Harry Davis at the wheel (which elegance I vividly recall) raising money here for his Peruvian venture. Then there are mentions of New Zealanders who had a part to play for British crafts, and ceramics in particular, like Kenneth Clark, who had interesting things to say on our art education, and lack of it, when visiting back here, and particularly the charismatic Central School teacher, William Newland, who gleefully opposed Leach’s dictums as leader of the ‘Picassettes’, and who kept a low profile when he visited ‘home’. The inception, rise and (almost) fall of the Crafts organisations are also thoroughly charted with timely information for where we ourselves are now. But Harrod’s fluid writing style never allows this to become a slog.
This is a monumental achievement, generous, scholarly and readable, a visual and textual treasure trove that raises good questions, tells good stories and celebrates great crafts. It deserves to be in every specialist library and costs only about $70 from Abe books.
There is another publication newly available, ‘One Hundred Vases for Helen’, and this accompanies an exhibition of the same name at Masterworks. This is no all-encompassing history but a paean to one of our mid-century generation of pioneer potters, the late Helen Mason who died a year ago at the grand age of 99 after a lifetime devoted to the studio pottery movement and all who went under that banner. Helen learned her pottery in the 1950’s and ‘60’s absorbing the Anglo-oriental, modifying that with our down-under ethos on locality of materials and aesthetic grounded in nature and landscape which indigenised our way with clay. She stayed with those principals of making for the rest of her days working with spontaneity and enthusiasm. Her generosity was legendary as was her infectious zest for life. The cover of this publication is a wonderful image, by Gil Hanly, that encapsulates all of these attributes.
Inside are two texts about her, one written by Barry Brickell who knew her well and appreciated her gifts, another by Brian Wood which chronicles some of her life in a less personal way but with assistance from Helen’s daughter, Julia. Both texts could have done with an editorial eye as Brickell’s includes ‘facts’ like Pat Perrin went to pottery classes in Hutt Valley with Mason. Not. And Wood writes of Helen’s use of tree stumps as display furniture as a change to the standard of the time – the white plinth. Again, not. The standard of the time was wooden planks supported on concrete blocks. The tree stumps were simply a part of those ‘natural’ mores. Just see any image from the period in old copies of the NZ Potter. White plinths took quite a bit longer and only came about accompanying the shift away from a steady diet of domestic ware toward ceramics being presented as ‘art’.
What is a fine aid, again with the help of Helen’s daughter, is a timeline which not only marks milestones in Helen’s life but forms a useful checklist here and there for ceramics events of note. Helen lived through a lot in those 99 years. While the book mainly covers ground already enclosed by Helen Mason’s own publication of some years back it draws together a variety of others’ views on her considerable contributions to clay culture and inter-cultural connections in New Zealand in the 20th Century. She was the essence of the think globally, act locally, ethos.
There are reminiscences on a variety of encounters with Helen from each of the 20 exhibitors of 100 Vases for Helen, some heartfelt and deeply private, others confessing she was known to them only by reputation until very recently, still others wrote more obliquely. It makes a revealing read.
Then there was the exhibition. One hundred vases. Well, nearly one hundred. Some interpretations of ‘vase’ were fairly broad. A couple of voluminous containers had small openings and lids. Others were unglazed earthenware so their water holding properties warrant testing. While there was a corner of chromatic and stylistic harmony from Ann Verdcourt, John Lawrence and Barbara Skelton offering some colourful lift, the overwhelming feel of the show is a revisit of the sixties (in some instances via pots actually from the era). For many present this was cause for celebration, for others, still in recovery from the sea of tenmoku, tessha and greyish, brownish gleam, reason to reach for the smelling salts. The display furniture, grey and vast and flat, did not work for this selection like it did in its earlier manifestation at Objectspace and the Uku Rere exhibition there. Exhibitions in the 1960s and ‘70s, with very similar exhibits to these, offered tighter spaces and there was lots of up and down-ing of different works on small individual box forms. Overwhelmingly, works were clustered, even crowded, together for mass effect rather than set out in separate splendour as today. This display failed to land in either camp but awkwardly straddled both.
Still, that was not what the exhibition was about. It was a great opening with faces not seen for a very long time having a wonderful time catching up, and a celebration of a fine and generous lady who was unstintingly supportive and positive, and whose joy in a long and productive life is encapsulated in the book’s cover image. Copies are available from Masterworks. $30.
Finally, thought you might enjoy this image, seen in a Californian branch of Toys r Us. What a clever girl that is! And all you need is 4x C batteries…