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.
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.
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).
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.
- 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.