Ellis Ceramics

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.

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.