Dating Australian pottery

In our first season  as gallery owners, I used business card stationery for the labels. This gave me space to include details about marks, provenance and condition. These proved to be more of a hindrance than a help. Like Maggie Beer, who put ‘Lamb: see Mutton, Spring lamb’ in the index to her  cookbook to make a point dear to her heart but frustrating to users looking for her way of doing a roast, I was too close to the subject matter.

Our second season labels are half the size, with a larger font for people who don’t have their reading glasses with them. We have found that all visitors really need to know is who made a work and its price.  (Some are only interested in the price, but we were classed as an educational institution on our building permit and have a duty to perform!) What it is (a vase or bowl) and its size also helps to tie the label to the work in a group display.  Marks and provenance have gone and a simple ‘a/f’ for ‘as found’ describes any damage.

I have, however, added one new detail to all labels: a date or date range. We found that visitors don’t always realise that most of what we have on display is not current work.  The dates allow them to engage in the gallery experience knowing that they are seeing examples of  Australian pottery spanning the last fifty years.

Victor Greenaway. Mug. 1973-75

Adding dates hasn’t been easy. Some works are signed and dated. Some have a datable potter’s mark like the one on this mug, which was used by Victor Greenaway from 1973-1975. Some are in a style that can be tied to dated work or photographs of recent work in dated publications. But even for well-known potters with a strong presence in the journal literature and books written about them, the photographic record is not complete.

Production line items in particular can be hard to date. They are less likely than exhibition pieces to find their way into public collections, or to be illustrated in journals and books. Stylistic judgements can also be difficult to make when a potter has been active over many decades.

Broomhill Pottery. Demitasse cup and saucer. 1975-1993

The Broomhill Pottery mark on this set of demitasse cups and saucers was used from 1975-1993, but I haven’t yet been able to date the set more precisely.  Of course, I could (and will) ask Victor Greenaway, but we have the work of over a hundred potters on display in the gallery at the moment and not all are as easily contactable.

Nevertheless, I have been surprised by what I have been able to achieve with a little focus.  For works by known potters, I usually have a fair idea of when they received their training and the decades in which they were active. I have tried not to make guesses, and to be happy with as little detail as ‘after 1985’. With mystery potters, the mystique of the unknown can be extended to when it was made, if it is not possible to make a reasonable judgement based on clues provided by the style of the object itself.

I found this project rather daunting, but in the end I’m pleased to have made the effort. I sometimes wonder if David and I are like Darryl and Sal Kerrigan in the 1997 Australian film ‘The Castle‘, wrapped up in our collection and blissfully unaware of our lack of sophistication as gallery owners and curators.  Then I look at how useful our catalogue is becoming for anyone undertaking a similar exercise, and take heart again.

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