Artur Halpern

Known potter #21: Sylvia Halpern

Sylvia Halpern. Pinched vase. 1976

This small (10 cm high) handbuilt vase was made by Sylvia Halpern in 1976. It is ball-shaped with a trefoil pinched mouth. The inside is glazed a pale flesh colour. The exterior has been paddled, pitted, gouged, rubbed, painted and trail-glazed to create a heavily worked surface.

To tell you the truch, I have been having trouble liking it, which is why I have photographed it so carefully. If it had been very large, I might have been able to admire it as a ceramic sculpture, but it is domestic in size and form. The way the sides are pushed in makes me uneasy and the surface is also troubling. I feel myself falling into the error of thinking “a child of six could do this”.

David, by contrast, likes it a lot. When I ask why, he points out how finely worked the clay is at the top and how the delicacy of the glazed interior is exposed by the pinched mouth. This is the work of someone who has mastered the handbuilding process, not a beginner. What I see as misshapen he sees as deliberately made to have that shape. He indicates passages of colour and texture on the surface that he finds particularly interesting and shows how they are bound to the form.

The difference in opinion is revealing and I feel a little ashamed. It is easy to like beautifully shaped and finished pots and much harder to come to terms with a piece worked to reflect some inner compulsion. It may be wrong to judge a work by what we knew of its creator but 1976 was the year that Sylvia’s husband Artur (Artek) Halpern died.  This pot, and others made around the same time, may reflect some of what she was feeling at that time. Or perhaps it is just that, as a mature artist in her late fifties, she had reached a particular way of working with clay as an expressive medium. [In fact, I’ve found out since that she was separated from her husband at that time.]

Artur Halpern was one of the founding members of the Potters’ Cottage when it  opened in 1958 in a small miner’s hut near the Warrandyte bridge. The other founding members were Reg Preson, Phyl Dunn, Gus McLaren and Charles Wilton. Sylvia, with Kate Janeeba and Elsa Arden, joined the group in 1961 after the cottage was moved to a farmhouse at the corner of Jumping Creek and Ringwood-Warrandyte roads. The last member of the group was Peter Laycock, who joined in 1969.

SYLHA Ceramics Studio. Jug.

This often-cited sequence of events tends to give Artur more prominence in the history of Australian contemporary pottery than Sylvia but she was already a potter when they met. Born in Poland in 1908, Artur had trained as a civil engineer in Czechoslovakia. Then, his life having been interrupted by war and military service, he migrated to Australia in 1945 and began looking for a way of establishing himself in his new country. Sylvia’s work sparked his interest in the technical aspects of firing and in pottery as a marketable product. He learnt the techniques of mould making and slip casting from Costantino Bacchini, an Italian ceramic craftsman. In 1950, the couple set up a workshop at Huntingdale, Melbourne, employing a small team to make production wares like the jug opposite under the name SYLHA.

I suspect that in 1958,  while Artur was exploring new ways of exhibiting and selling their wares with the other founding members of the Potters’ Cottage, Sylvia was busy looking after their new daughter (the potter and mosaicist Deborah Halpern, born in 1957), running the pottery business and handling the move from Huntingdale to Warrandyte. Mike Kusnik, who worked briefly for the SYLHA Ceramic Studio in 1959, refers to it as “a successful giftware pottery run by Sylvia Halpern and her husband”. I am assuming from this that she had a considerable hand in its day-to-day operation.

Ann Geroe, writing about the Potters’ Cottage in 2004 says “Then there were the Halperns, Artek making abundant bonsai containers, Sylvia making more individual pots influenced by her birth in Japan” (p. 21).  Sylvia was born in 1918 but I haven’t been able to find anything else about her childhood in Japan. A brief biographical entry in Pottery in Australia, 3(3), 1964 says that she trained at the Melbourne Technical College and also reflects her status as a potter at that time. There is an iconic photograph on the McLaren Pottery website showing her in her garden at Warrandyte with pottery around her. Her work featured in the “Connections 4” exhibition held at the Potters’ Cottage (now the Potters’ Gallery) in October 2003 to celebrate 45 years of operation. At that time she was still living in Warrandyte. (She died in 2009.)

The Halperns both worked mainly in earthenware, although Artur experimented with stoneware towards the end of his life. He signed his wheel-thrown work HALPERN or AH. Sylvia made mostly hand-built and unglazed pieces, usually signed Sylvia Halpern. The production work is signed SYLHA. Artur’s younger brother Stanislav (Stasha), who lived in Australia from 1939-1951 and 1966-1969, also made pottery. His works are signed SHalpern. We have several of Stanislav’s pieces and they too take a little time to appreciate but reward further study.

References

  • “Biographies”, Pottery in Australia, 3(3), 1964.
  • Bouma, Monique, “Gallery’s 45 years end Sunday”, Manningham Leader, 31 March 2004.
  • Cole, Bill, “End of an era”, Pottery in Australia, 16(1), 1977, pp. 70-71.
  • Ford, Geoff, “Halpern, Artur”, “Halpern, Stanislav” and “Halpern, Sylvia”, Encyclopedia of Australian Potters’ Marks, 2nd ed. Wodonga, Vic. : Salt Glaze Press, c2002.
  • Geroe, Anne and and Jo Laurence, “Connection: Ann Geroe and Jo Laurence look back on forty five years of the Potters’ Cottage in Warrandyte, Victoria”, Journal of Australian Ceramics, 43(1), 2004, p. 21.
  • Hodge, Karen, “Pioneers at Potters fire up again”, Doncaster Templestowe News, 24 September 2003.
  • Kusnik, Mike,  “About Mike“, Armchair Potting (viewed 31 October, 2008).
  • Potters Cottage“, frame from mclaren-pottery.com (viewed 31 October, 2008).
  • Timms, Peter, “Halpern, Stanislaw (Stacha) (1919 – 1969)“, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, Melbourne University Press, 1996, p. 362.

More on sources

Ford, Geoff, Encyclopedia of Australian Potter's Marks, p.204 (detail)

Geoff Ford’s Encyclopedia of Australian Potter’s Marks documents potters and potteries active before 1975 but includes marks used after this period. I thought it might be useful to provide an index of entries in the encyclopedia for potters active in the 1960s-1970s and beyond. Having marks recorded for these potters provides a good start but collectors will need to go to a wide range of other directories to cover the field, and many marks are still unrecorded.

Alexander, Doug
Ardern, Elsa
Beck, Robert
Blakebrough, Les
Bovill, Gillian
Brereton, Kevin
Carnegie, Francis
Douglas, Molly
Dunn, Phyl
Englund, Ivan
Englund, Patricia
Garnsey, Wanda
Garrett, John
Gazzard, Marea
Gilbert, John
Greenaway, Victor
Halpern, Artur
Halpern, Stanislav
Halpern, Sylvia

Hick, William
Hughan, Harold
Juckert, Eric
Kemety, John
Keys, Eileen
Laycock, Helen
Laycock, Peter
Leckie, Alex
Le Grand, Henri
Levy, Colin
Lowe, Allan
Maddock, Beatrice
McConnell, Carl
McLaren, Gus
McLaren, Betty
McMeekin, Ivan
Memmott, Harry
Mitchell, Cynthia
Moon, Milton

Pate, Klytie
Peterkin, Les
Preston, Reg
Rushforth, Peter
Sadler, Ken
Sahm, Bernard
Sayers, Joan
Schulze, Robert A.
Shaw, Edward
Smith, Derek
Smith, Ian (SA)
Sprague, Ian
Taylor, David
Travis, Peter
Tuckson, Margaret
Warren, Peggy
Welch, Robin
Wilton, Charles

Known potter #3: Reg Preston

Reg Preston, Decorative bowl, 1956

This is a large bowl made by Reg Preston (1917-2000) for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games Exhibition. It is glazed a pale brown and decorated on the outside with hand painted and incised aboriginal-like motifs. On the base is incised “P Oct ’56”.

Also in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics Exhibition were works by Neville Bunning, Mollie Douglas, Dyson Studio Pottery, Ivan Englund, Pamela Hallandal, Harold Hughan, Graham Jones, Eileen Keys, John A. Barnard Knight, Henri Le Grand, Allan Lowe, Marguerite Mahood, Martin Boyd Pottery, Ivan McMeekin, Klytie Pate, Peter Rushforth, Edward Shaw, Dorothy Sutherland and Jeffery Wilkinson (The Arts Festival of the Olympic Games Melburne, 1966, pages 169-71).

This is a fascinating mixture of the old and the new. Allan Lowe, Marguerite Mahood and Klytie Pate, for example, were practicing potters in the pre-war period. Reg Preston, Ivan Englund, Harold Hughan and Peter Rushforth did their training during or just after the war.

The inclusion of two potteries in the exhibition is also interesting. The Martin Boyd Pottery was a company in Sydney operating under that name from 1948-1963. (The connection with the Boyd family was severed in 1950.) Dyson Studio was a semi-commercial pottery operating in Melbourne from 1945-1971.

It seems that the line between art and commerce was often blurred. Jack Knight taught pottery at Royal Melbourne Technical College from 1934-1971 but also produced a commercial line of pottery during the 1950s and 1960s under the name of “Janet Gray”.

Reg Preston, Mug. 1950s

Reg Preston started to train as a sculptor in England before the war but switched to pottery on coming back to Australia. He worked at Cooper and Cooke’s Pottery for two years in 1945-46 before taking the plunge to work full-time as a potter. To make a living he produced a range of domestic wares like this slip-decorated coffee mug, as well as larger decorative pieces like the exhibition bowl.

Reg Preston and Phil Dunn, Ceres Coffee Pot, 1960s

In 1958, Preston and his wife Phyl Dunn set up the Potters’ Cottage at Warrandyte, Victoria, with Gus McLaren, Charles Wilton and Artur Halpern. During the 1960s Preston and Dunn produced a line under the name “Ceres”. This coffee pot is an example of the quirky and bravura style developed for the line, possibly with the help of McLaren, who had worked as a cartoonist for the Melbourne Argus.

Artur Halpern also produced a commercial line under the name “Sylha”.

Preston went on to become an acknowledged master. He switched to stoneware in 1967 and worked well into the 1980s, producing often large pieces with rich glazes and bold abstract decoration.

Reg Preston, Bowl. Base with painted mark Preston.Reg Preston, Ramekin. Base with painted mark P.