Pots of Gold
Art-loving New Zealanders have only recently begun to appreciate our home-grown ceramics. Pieces of pottery that were once the stuff of second-hand shops, garage sales and even the rubbish dump are now sought after works of art.
In the past few years at least four auction houses have introduced specialist auctions of New Zealand pottery.
Long before the rest of us woke up, Wellington collector Simon Manchester was buying the best examples of work by our top potters. His apartment is filled with organised and documented displays of pottery by ceramic artists including Len Castle, Roy Cowan, Patricia Perrin, Barry Brickell, Doreen Blumhardt, Jim Greig, Bruce and Estelle Martin, and Harry and May Davis.
The centrepiece of the collection is the work of Auckland potter Len Castle. Simon’s comprehensive collection is a continuing project as the potter enters his seventh decade at the wheel. (To see this pot click on the gallery link at top of page)
“I have a passion for his work, but I haven’t just collected pots I like,” explains Simon. “I have tried to illustrate my understanding of Len Castle’s career from 1947 to 2007. He’s an artist in a ceramic medium who lives his life with a total commitment to his creativity.”
Simon suggests that arguably the greatest New Zealand ceramicist was the late Jim Greig, who began his career as a student of Len Castle and died tragically in 1986 on the eve of an exhibition in Japan. The talent of Jim Greig made “Japanese jaws drop” at a time when the Japanese were the acknowledged masters of pottery.
Although some early studio potters were working in the 1930s – especially women, including Briar Gardner, Olive Jones and Elizabeth Matheson – the New Zealand studio ceramics movement really began after World War II and blossomed in the 50s, says Simon.
“Something wonderful happened with New Zealand ceramics at that time and we achieved work of a global standard. Our potters were recognised worldwide and masters from around the world came here to teach and learn,” he says.
“In the visual arts field, we never attracted Picasso or Mondrian or Warhol here, but in ceramics almost all of the top international potters of the 20th century came to New Zealand – Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, Michael Cardew and Peter Voulkos.”
On a personal level, Simon says his pottery collection has been a journey of discovery in his own culture.
“I have never been a traveller, never felt an affinity with another country, but when I grew up in New Zealand in the 60s and 70s there was still an argument going on as to whether New Zealand even had its own culture.
“I found my New Zealand culture through ceramics.”
Others have apparently made the same journey, with the result that prices for 20th century New Zealand ceramics have rocketed. Pots that sold for $50 a decade ago might now fetch $1000. Simon has paid up to $6000 for individual pieces, with no regrets.
In fact, he is such an avid auction-goer and self-taught expert about the subject that he is now employed as a ceramic consultant by Wellington auction house Dunbar Sloane
Story: Pam Neville
Photographs: Paul McCredie