Known potter #20: Ellis Ceramics

Ellis Ceramics. Pair of model 14 jugs

These two slipcast earthenware jugs both have bases inscribed ‘Ellis 14’.  ‘Ellis’ is Ellis Ceramics, a pottery set up by Dagmar and Miloslav Kratochvil in Abbotsford, Melbourne, in 1953. ’14’ is the mould number given to the shape. Interestingly, the two jugs are not  identical. The sgraffito one is slightly taller than the other and the handle is more refined.  This shape was sold well into the 1970s and more than one mould would have had to be made to continue the line.

Both jugs also look quite different. The sgraffito one has been brushed or sprayed with oxides, incised and then sprayed with white.  The other has a dark orange cadmium selenium glaze with bronze lip and handle.  This is a characteristic feature of Ellis work. Although their products are mostly made using the same template, each piece is hand-decorated, with often distinctive results.

The Kratochvils came to Australia from Czechoslovakia as assisted migrants in 1951. For the first two years they worked in Newcastle in labouring jobs assigned to them by the Government. As soon as they could, they moved to Melbourne, where they set up a tiny workshop in their backyard and started making pottery along commercial lines. In 1967, they were featured in the Port of Melbourne Quarterly as an example of a successful small business. By then they had moved the workshop to new premises at 86 Nicholson Street. With a staff of more than 15 people (including two art students), they were selling to department stores, exporting products to Japan and looking at penetrating the American market. One of the photographs in the article shows a workman cleaning and stacking the moulds, which look like ritualistic objects hiding the secret of their forms inside.

Ellic Ceramics. Bottle

I am not sure what drew us to start collecting Ellis but right from the beginning it stood out from much of the commercial pottery that we saw on eBay. Even the ubiquitous grey harvest ware is modernist in style, exhibiting a simplicity of colour, line and form that characterises a lot of work coming out of Europe, especially West Germany, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. In his immigration papers, Miloslav gives his occupation as “ceramic worker, chemist, photographer”.  Perhaps he had gained his pottery skills in displaced persons camps during the long years after the war, and had seen work there in the new style.

Ellis Ceramics. Cat

The Kratochvils were eclectic, developing, or borrowing and adapting, a wide range of forms to meet the burgeoning post-war demand for functional and decorative ware. In spite of the modernist style, there is something naive or primitive about much of their work. Some of the more muscular pieces with greyscale sgraffito decoration are not unlike the work of David and Hermia Boyd, while figurines like this tiny cat must be  related in some way to the work of Gus McLaren (who died late last month).

Ellis Ceramics. Model 89 Charger

While the Kratochvils tried out stoneware, they preferred the more brightly coloured glazes that could be achieved with earthenware. Miloslav, who had also worked as a chemist before coming to Australia, experimented with additives to obtain better finishes, and the results attracted interest from overseas. For us, the brighter colours are most successfully realised in pieces such as this model 89 charger.

Ellis was a variant of Dagmar’s maiden name. The product range was large with model numbers going into the 500s. A series inscribed MDK is sometimes said to be early work but, according to Ford, ran in parallel with the Ellis line. Some works are marked Ellis MD or Ellis EX. We also recently saw listed a cruet set in the Ellis style marked Krato. Other pieces clearly by Ellis are unmarked. These would have had only a paper sticker. Work marked Elke Australia is sometimes mistaken for Ellis but seems to me to be less interesting.

It is easy to see why collectors are attracted by the outputs of commercial potteries. The idea of collecting one of each model is seductive because it seems an obtainable goal. Another option that costs less, takes up less room and can be done collaboratively is to collect images as Peter Watson does for Remued. I would certainly be willing to contribute to such a resource for Ellis.

References

  • Department of Immigration, Victorian Branch. Kratochvil. Dagmar – Nationality:  Czechoslavakian – Arrived Melbourne per Fair Sea 24 April 1951 (National Archives of Australia, Series B78, 4275100).
  • Department of Immigration, Victorian Branch. Kratochvil. Miloslav – Nationality: Czechoslavakian – Arrived Melbourne per Fair Sea 24 April 1951 (National Archives of Australia, Series B78, 4275101).
  • John Darbyshire, “A will to succeed”, Port of Melbourne Quarterly, Oct-Dec 1967, pp. 20-24.
  • Geoff Ford, Encyclopaedia of Australian Potter’s Marks, 2nd Edition, 2002.
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18 comments

  1. Hello,

    I own an Eliis no 14 jug could you let me know the value of this piece please and how many may have been made

    Regards

    1. Hi Jenni, I don’t do valuations but you may be able to get an idea of prices realised by searching on completed listings in eBay. I don’t know how many were made, but presumably quite a lot given the numbers turning up on the secondary market.

  2. I used to work at ellis ceramics, it was my first job. Nicholson St Abbotsford in the back of an old red brick building, can’t believe people are now collecting it. I have quite a bit myself that i’ve picked up in op shops etc. when i left all the workers (including the boss and his wife) of which there were only about 12, signed a flower pot for me. It eventually cracked and went in the rubbish, wish I still had it.

    1. Dear Leah,
      Did you know my grandmother that worked at Ellis? Her name was Inge Margaletic nee Wettstein. I would love to talk to you if you did! She died before I could meet her.
      Thank you, Sylvie

  3. I have a couple of figural groups consisting of a woman resting her head on a man’s shoulder and a young boy with his arms around his mother and his head pressed into her body. Would you be able to tell me something about this piece. One has the incised Ellis mark and the other has Ellis Ceramics K42. Many thanks. They are approximately 36cm tall.Thanks for any help. Regards Monica

  4. One of the students who was mentioned in the 1967 Port of Melbourne Quarterly article has contacted me with a correction to my description of how these jugs were made. She says: “In 1967 everything was raw glazed, sprayed or brushed engobe of either Mgo, CuO or CoO, with FeO2 added to soften the hardness of the pure oxides. Work was either then wire brushed back or incised then the whole object sprayed with white. The interior was made up of reclaim glaze with rutile added.” She adds: “The red and orange cadium selenium glazes were introduced in 1966/67 and used on the very popular bull sculptures”. She also notes that what I call harvestware is actually three separate patterns – wheat, kangaroo paw and bamboo.

  5. My sister put me onto this email address. She has a small jug with Ellis on the bottom. When I looked further I realised I have a black flat matt ceramic ikebana type dish. We lived in Melbourne in the 60s & mum used to make ikebana floral arrangements in this dish/asymetrical bowl with the use of heavy metal spikey things. On looking at other pictures we also used to have a heavy green ceramic ashtray with the ellis signature on the bottom, but that has ling gone. The number on the bottom of the ikebano dish is 322.
    Do you know anything about the ikebano dishes.
    Thankyou
    Jill

    1. Hi Jill, Is your dish the same as the one numbered 322 in the List of Ellis Shapes? If so, this looks like an early version of a chip and dip plate, with a flat space for a small bowl. I can also imagine it being used for an ikebana floral arrangement.

  6. Hi Judith

    Great page 🙂 I have just found a really sweet Ellis goat. It’s signed and numbered 24. Have never seen another like it. I will be popping it on eBay tonight (16-Aug) if you wanted to have a look and add the pic to your impressive catalogue.

    Cheers
    Sharon

  7. Hopefully people with an interest in Ellis ceramics will read this, as previous replies are a few years old now.
    I am the daughter of Inge Margaletic, who worked for Ellis in the 60’s. I still have her reference from Ellis and my sister has a newspaper clipping from a demonstration our mother did in Myer, Melbourne. Both my sister and l have Ellis Collections.
    I am happy for any collectors to contact me for a chat.

    1. Hi Maja, thank you so much for getting in touch. I have a colleague who is researching Ellis who would be very interested in talking to you. I will send her your email address.

    2. Maja and Anna we were childhood friends. We lost contact after your Mum died. My Aunt and Uncle were Cathy and Peter Thomas and my parents were Mary and Gerry Dalton. Would love to see you both again.

      1. Hi Sandie!
        So lovely to hear from you after all this time. What a coincidence as l was only thinking of you and your parents as l was driving down Plymouth Rd in Croydon a few days ago.
        I would really like to catch up with you.
        My email is majazweck@bigpond.com.
        I am in the process of moving house with Settlement next Friday, and am moving to the Dandenong Ranges. So hopefully we can meet up soon.
        I hope all is well with you and looking forward to seeing you. Email anytime.
        Cheers,
        Maja

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