Gwyn Hanssen Pigott

Art or craft

Maryke Henderson. Family. 2006

This series of nine soda-glazed porcelain oil cans by Maryke Henderson was exhibited at the Canberra Potters’ Society annual exhibition under the title Family in 2006, where it won the Doug Alexander award for that year.

Henderson is a Canberra potter who graduated as a mature-age student from the Canberra School of Art in 2005 and was one of four 2005 ANU graduates to participate in the Emerging Artist Support Scheme (EASS 06). She was also one of the Canberra artists represented in Impact, an exhibition from Canberra and the region held in Brisbane from 8th to 18th July 2006 in association with Verge, the 11th National Ceramic Conference.

David and I both knew that we wanted to own Family as soon as we saw that it had not been sold and that the price was within our reach. We liked the quirky oil can forms and the way the soda-glazing technique had been used to clothe the porcelain bodies in soft and subtle patterns and tones. We also liked the way the taller oil cans seemed to herd their smaller brethren.

In group exhibitions works by the same artist are often arranged together for display. This accidental association creates a whole greater than its parts. The shared features of each piece contribute to a group ethos and it can be hard to select just one that encapsulates the quality of the whole. In this case Henderson saw characteristics of her own family in the grouping and made it an expression of a single work, thus releasing us from the burden of choice.

Recently $45,000 was achieved at a Deutscher and Hackett auction for a Gwyn Hanssen Pigott work entitled Shadow, a grouping of twelve crafted objects. Chris Sanders, reviewing a 2004 exhibition of similar groupings by Hanssen Pigott in Craft Culture, observes that together they create a “musical-like rhythm and harmony”. The origin of each piece as a crafted object is transcended, creating a tension between craft and art that gives the group the status of a fine art object.

I am not sure whether Henderson would have created Family without the precedent set by Hanssen Pigott or whether we would have responded so readily to it as a work but we are very pleased with it. The pieces are arrayed on a tall cupboard in our living room, somewhat crowded in their domestic setting but still together.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of it in future years and where it ends up when the time comes to put it up for re-sale. Will it be dismantled and sold as separate objects or will its integrity as a group be recognised and conserved? I guess that will depend on the market and on Henderson’s perceived status as a ceramic artist at that time.

Known potter #7: Gwyn Hanssen Pigott

Gwyn Hanssen Pigott. Creamer, sugar bowl and dish Gwyn Hanssen Pigott. Creamer. Mark

David and I went to the Shapiro Important Australian Art Pottery auction in Sydney on the weekend and we are now the owners of a small selection of works by Gwyn Hanssen Pigott. The creamer in this porcellaineous stoneware set is impressed with the potter’s “O” mark. It is similar to Andrew Halford’s Terrey Hill mark, only larger. The other two pieces are unmarked – so watch out for simple, perfectly-made bowls with fine edges and subtle glazes.

Hanssen Pigott has been a potter for over fifty years. She trained with Ivan McMeekin at Sturt Pottery from 1955-1958, then spent fifteen years working in England and France. On her return to Australia in 1973 she settled first in Tasmania, then spent a year at the Jam Factory in Adelaide, South Australia, before moving to Queensland in 1981.

These pieces date from Hanssen Pigott’s time as resident potter at the Kelvin Grove campus of the Queensland University of Technology. The linear design on the dish offset with strokes of gold was a form of decoration that she explored for a short time in the mid 1980s.

Jason Smith, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott: A Survey 1955-2005 is the best source for more information on this internationally renowned potter and some good articles can also be found online.

Describing pottery

Stoneware bottle Stoneware bottle. Mark

We bought this small stoneware oil bottle with celadon glaze, white wrapped cloth effect and wax resist decoration for 99 cents on eBay. It is marked with an impressed “O”. When it arrived I knew that it was a bargain – a well-made functional piece with care taken over its decoration.

Gwyn Hanssen Pigott uses “O” as a mark according to the published directories but I am more inclined to attribute this pot to Andrew Halford. Halford took over Shigeo Shiga’s workshop in Terrey Hill, Sydney, in 1979 after five years in Japan. He used an impressed “O” by itself for domestic ware and added “ah” to individual pieces.

Andrew Halford, Two teapots Andrew Halford, Teapot 1. Mark

These two stoneware teapots with identical design elements are both from Halford’s workshop. We bought the half-glazed brown one in the early 1980s at the Potters’ Place in Kingston. It just has the “O” mark. The one with herringbone inlay is a recent purchase. It dates from the mid 1980s and reflects Halford’s interest in inlaying patterns made using textured objects such as rope pressed into the wet clay. It has both marks.

I have just finished reading Peter Lane’s Ceramic Form: Design and Decoration (1988 and revised 1998). Lane, a British potter and teacher, takes the work of over 150 potters from the Western world and tries to discover what makes the work of each potter individual. He does this by explaining their working methods, the source of their ideas and their different approaches to design and decoration within the confines of two fundamental pottery forms, the bowl and the bottle.

For me, this raises interesting questions about what happens when a piece leaves its maker. Do I need to know who made a pot, what inspired the potter and what techniques were used before I can truly describe it? Certainly, it is much easier to write with confidence about the use of inlay in the herringbone teapot knowing from his Falls Gallery CV that Halford learnt this technique from the Japanese potter Shimoaka Tatsuzo. A pot without provenance must speak for itself. In particular, pieces like the oil bottle which rarely make it into books, galleries or museums can reward study as found objects.

I ask myself these questions when trying to describe a pot: Is the clay stoneware, earthenware, terracotta or porcelain? What colour is it and has it been grogged? Has the pot been wheel-thrown, coil- or slab-built, slip cast or press-moulded? What is its purpose (if any) and what form does it take? Has it been extended by other pieces or altered or carved? What is the nature of the surface decoration and of the firing?

Some things can’t be inferred and I am somewhat daunted by the technical vocabulary. I love the way words like “celadon” and “wax resist” both inform and lend a mystique to the description. I’ve developed a glossary for myself to aid in the process.

At this stage I can’t be certain that the oil bottle is a Halford workshop piece or even that it wasn’t made by Hanssen Pigott. I am not well-enough acquainted with her work. How I wished for a small display of marks in the retrospective exhibition Gwyn Hanssen Pigott: A Survey 1955-2005 at the Victorian National Gallery last year; or at least a few pictures in the printed catalogue.

Base of tin-glazed jug signed Gwyn Hanssen (inscribed).

As an aside, a while ago I was furious with myself for missing a small tin-glazed jug inscribed “Gwyn Hanssen” that was badly mis-listed on eBay. It went to another buyer. At least I was able to collect the mark.