On 1-2 October this year Leonard Joel auctioned 1,000 items from Marvin Hurnall’s collection in a marathon two-day event. Hurnall is a well-known collector and dealer in Australiana based in Melbourne. This article in the Australian dated 19 September explains the background to the sale.
The auction included quantities of work by all the usual suspects, including Grace Seccombe, William Ricketts , Melrose and Remued. We weren’t able to go but I trawled through the catalogue looking for things of interest. This provided a fascinating insight into what might be considered contemporary Australiana and I have been meaning for some time to write up the results.
As expected, the Leach/Hamada tradition was not very well represented. There were just a few Harold Hughan pieces and a John Gilbert platter. While the work of master potters like Hughan may be included in Australiana auctions it would be hard to argue that they have a distinctly Australian style. By contrast there were numerous post-war works by David and Hermia Boyd, Klytie Pate and Carl Cooper, all potters seen as quintessentially Australian.
Decoration was a feature of most of the more recent pieces in the auction. The standout for us was a very large (56 cm diameter) charger by Stephen Bowers painted using polychrome underglaze colours with sulphur crested cockatoos (lot 786). This sold for a hammer price of $3,250. Bowers was a trainee at the Jam Factory in Adelaide in 1982 and is now its managing director. In his work he combines Australian motifs with allusions to earlier ceramic traditions.
There were also three pieces made in 1989 by Barbara Swarbrick, a potter based in Thornbury, Victoria, who decorates functional forms with richly coloured and dramatic images of Australian birds and foliage. Of these we liked best lot 186, a deep, wide-rimmed pedestal bowl with inside and outside surfaces completely covered in decoration.
The bird theme was continued in a terracotta vase dated around 1995 by the Hermannsburg potter Judith Inkamala (lot 788). This not only has birds painted on the surface of the pot but the lid is moulded in the form of two yellow and green parrots.
The Works by Bowers, Swarbrick and Inkamala can be firmly classed as Australiana because of their Australian subjects but there were also works in the auction by Deborah Halpern and Jenny Orchard that might be seen as exemplifying an Australian style. Both of these artists use clay as a sculptural medium, decorate their surfaces in bold, brash colours and use figurative motifs in their work.
Halpern is a Melbourne artist and daughter of the potters Artur and Sylvia Halpern. Her signature big face was seen in both the lots in the auction (571 and 953). Orchard is a Sydney artist born in Turkey and bought up in Zimbabwe. She creates highly idiosyncratic and quirky slip-cast functional forms and figural sculptures. Both streams of her work were represented at the auction. Lot 234 was a narrow cylindrical vase and lots 249 and 951 were both animal-like figures assembled in a haphazard way, like a child’s toy, from a variety of separately moulded pieces.
Three other Melburne artists using clay as a sculptural medium were represented in the auction. Lot 511 was a large, colourful and humorous coil-built figure of a camel and circus acrobat by Paula Frost, who trained as a fashion designer. There were four ceramic pieces by Greg Irvine, a painter who also creates expressionist human figures out of clay. Of these, we liked best lot 840, a male ballet dancer, with an attenuated form and a face like an ancient bronze mask. Lastly, there were a number of pieces by June Arnold, a sculptor in both clay and bronze who is best-known for the dolphin fountain in Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne, made in 1982.
In summary, it seems that Australian motifs, painterly decoration incorporating strong colour and figural motifs, quirky ceramic forms and figural sculpture are all characteristics of contemporary ceramics that would attract the eye of an Australiana collector.
It is hard with an auction like this to know what to bid on, particularly if you can’t be present, but we did in the end place four absentee bids. Of these only one was successful and we are now the slightly-bemused owners of the large (44 cm high) multi-necked June Arnold vase (lot 797) illustrated at the head of this entry.