Pottery and war

Private J F Blondahl, 2/18 Battalion AIF<br /> Australian War Memorial

This mug was made by Private J (Jim) F Blomdahl, of 2/18 Battalion, while he was a prisoner of war of the Japanese in Changi. It is now in the collection of the Australian War Memorial. It is a simple and well-made domestic object rendered poignant by its inscription: ‘NX610. BLONDAHL. J.F. / CHANGI. XMAS 1944.’ and ‘GOD BLESS / AND PROTECT / BILL / JIM / RONNIE / EDDIE / KENNY / AND DEAR MAUD’.

Anzac Day has reminded me that potters went to war, prisoners became potters through expedience, returned soldiers took up pottery as an occupation or for therapy and overseas potters displaced by war migrated to Australia.

War interrupted people’s lives but also gave them new opportunities to change direction and acquire new skills. Peter Rushforth worked as a typist at Fox Films before joining the army in 1940. He served in Darwin and Malaya, was interred in Changi and worked on the Burmese railway. He started training as a potter only after his return to Melbourne in 1946 His wartime experiences must have affected him profoundly but he does not see this as pertinant to his work as a potter (Peter Rushforth interviewed by Martin Thomas [sound recording], 2005).

Pottery was used as a form of therapy for disabled soldiers in both world wars and sometimes the skills developed were able to be exploited for commercial purposes. The Red Cross set up a Disabled Soldiers’ Pottery in Redfern in 1920 (Ford, Encyclopaedia of Australian Potter’s Marks, 82). Examples of the work produced by this pottery from 1920 to 1925 can be found in the Powerhouse Museum. Pieces also occasionally turn up on eBay or in estate auctions and are snapped up by collectors.

Bill Reid, Mug.

The blind potter Bill Reid lost his sight in Burma during WW2. He began potting in 1945 at Concord Repatriation Hospital in Sydney. This mug by Reid has a characteristic bark like texture. He was still working as a potter in the 1980s (Lengert, Leonie. Inventive potter [Bill Reid]. St Dunstan’s Review No. 727, March 1981, 4-5).

Peter Rushforth met his wife Bobby, a nurse, while teaching pottery at Concord Repatriation Hospital in 1950, just before taking up a teaching position at the National Art School (Weiss, Karen. From there to here : Australian studio potters/ceramic artists – postwar to postmillennium [thesis], 2005).

The Australian War Memorial has a picture of a Corporal G. Boyd “doing fine work on a clay sculpture” in the Australian Convalescent Depot at Ingleburn, NSW. The picture is dated 10 December 1945. Guy Boyd had been taught pottery by his father Merric Boyd at Murrumbeena and was one of the instructors at Ingleburn. Also teaching pottery at Ingleburn was the Dutch-trained potter Bernard Fiegal a Jewish immigrant whose family had fled Germany at the beginning of WW2. Both ended up establishing commercial potteries in Sydney after the war – the Martin Boyd Pottery and Terra Ceramics (Johnston, The People’s Potteries, 87-8). Guy later returned to Melbourne and set up another pottery there under his own name.

In 1956 Harold Hughan speculated that “the post-war influx to this country of large numbers of former European nationals with their own cultures, many of them fine craftsmen in their own media, will doubtless have its influence and make its own contributions to what in time may become a national idiom” (The Arts Festival of the Olympic Games Melburne, 1956, p.37).

Four decades later, Glenn Cooke questioned the impact of transplanted traditions and found no real evidence of the transference of skills or a shift in craft vocabulary (“Whither Olde Europe? Thoughts on cultural transference in Australia”, Object, No. 3, 1998, 49-53). In the work of four immigrant Queensland potters he found that they were simply “responsive to their location [and] perceptions of the marketplace and directed their work to the perceived demand”.

However, there does seem to be a change in the style of some of the commercial pottery produced during the 1950s and 1960s which e-Bay sellers distinguish from what came before through terms such as “mid-century”, “Eames Era” and “Retro”.

Ellis Ceramics. Jug

This jug inscribed ‘Ellis 70’was made by a Czechoslovakian couple, Dasa and Milda Kratochvil, who set up a pottery in the backyard of their home in Abbotsford, Melbourne, in 1949 (Ford, 89-90). They marketed their pottery under the name Ellis Ceramics, a brand that was to become ubiquitous in Victoria during the 1950s and 1960s.

The designs for the Ellis moulds are extensive and varied but they are characterised by an uncompromising sturdiness that seems to reflect a European folk tradition. Having said this, I don’t know what kind of training the Kratochvils had in their home country or what influences they brought with them to Australia.

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10 comments

  1. I was trying to track information on Bill Reid the blind potter. I was given a large vase with lid it is signed by Bill Reid 1980 Qld. The base has the rough bark texture and the stem and lid is smoothed glazed. Is his work popular and where can I find out more information about him.
    Ta Marty

  2. Hi Marty, Bill Reid’s work turns up from time to time on the secondary market and sells (if only to us) but not so far at very high prices. A large lidded vase might be more desirable to collectors, but you can only find out by testing the market or watching prices realised.

    The article in the St Dunstan’s Review that I’ve cited above is all I have found written about him so far. If you can’t get to a holding library, follow the link to buy a copy for $13.20 through the National Library’s Copies Direct service.

  3. Hi i have a lovely large detailed pottery owl by Bill Reid and date looks to be 1980. The owl is abot 50cm high and has lovely feathery detail to his body, he is a money box with a cork stopper on his back, he has bluey grey glazed over his feathers and body. Is this a valuable piece and is Bill Reid still alive today.
    thanks
    Bev

    1. Hi Bev,
      Bill was my Grandfather and he died in the late 80’s. I also have an owl that he made, they are really fantastic aren’t they! I hope you enjoy his pottery!
      Best wishes,
      Claire

  4. Hi Bev, I don’t know if Bill Reid is still alive today. The article in St Dunstan’s Review is all I have been able to find. I did another search of the databases available through the State Library of New South Wales today, but couldn’t find anything more. What I said above to Marty about his popularity still applies, but your piece sounds like a keeper.

  5. Dear Judith,
    I note you have pottery on display made by my great uncle Jim Blondahl (Blomdahl)
    It was great to find this information for my family, they knew the hardships he endured in Changi and the great love he had for his wife Maud. I hope to view his pottery in person one day soon.
    Regards Maree Reynolds.

  6. Hi Maree, I am so pleased that I have helped you find htis information The mug is in the collection of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. I am sure they would be happy to show it to a family member. There are two mugs listed in their catalogue. The other one is described here.

  7. What a great piece Judith. I’m not a serious collector but am increasingly drawn to and fascinated with the old pottery pieces and ceramics that turn up – on ebay or on the street! I just saved a crate of various ceramic pieces someone put out for this morning’s trash compactor. Terra Ceramics bits were amongst them. I googled & found your blog. It’s funny, I’ve always felt a kind of human connection to these local pottery pieces and thought guiltily I was kind of ‘projecting’ onto them – so I was really moved to read about the background history especially the impact of war. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and talents. I wish I’d tried to save more from the garbage !
    PS Can you clarify – did Bernard Fiegal and Guy Boyd set up Terra Ceramics together – or was it just Fiegal?

  8. Just to finish this story, Bernard Fiegl whom I have known for many years died of a heart attack, I think it was about the early 1970s. I then purchased the Moulds and equipment from the old factory in Greenacre and shiped the lot back to Auckland, New Zealand. Terra Ceramics continued to be produced from this new location for about another 10 years with many pieces being exported back to Australia. Just thought you might like to know Ernie Cooper

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