Merric Boyd

Marking time with Martin Boyd

We have been living in Bemboka for seven months now, marking time in a rented house while our new house and gallery is being built. I say marking time but in practice the months are speeding by. We spend part of each day buying and cataloguing stock for the gallery and learning about Australian potters and their marks. To build up some extra capital, we have each taken on part-time consultancy work. This keeps us busy at the computer for a couple of days a week and takes us quite often on the road.

Blackberry

When we are at home, we visit the block almost every day. Seeing the house plans take three-dimensional form is fascinating. There are always decisions to be made and we are deep into plans for the garden as well. The block slopes down to the Bemboka river. On our side a backwater is separated from the main flow by an island choked with blackberry and honeysuckle. We have taken on the challenge of eradicating these interlopers and spend hours on the island armed with riggers’ gloves, fire rakes and secateurs.

When not engaged in more energetic activities, my favourite way of marking time is to sit on the north-facing back veranda of our rented house overlooking the mountains, with my feet up on a chair, reading. We are both catching up on Australian authors and our latest find has been Martin Boyd. I have just finished Lucinda Brayford , the Langton quartet (The Cardboard Crown, Outbreak of Love, A Difficult Young Man and A Blackbird Sings) and the Montforts.

Full of wit and poignancy, these novels deal with early Melbourne life, what it was to be a well-heeled Anglo-Australian in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the breakdown of authority during the first world war.  The scenes set in Heidelberg, Warrandyte and the Dandenongs evoke the raw beauty of the Australian landscape that has drawn us to Bemboka and me to my seat here on the veranda.

When Lucinda Brayford was published in 1946 Martin Boyd had been living in England for twenty-five years.  The novel was an immediate success there, and in the United States, but when he returned to Australia in 1948, he found that his nephews were better known. “In Sydney”, writes Brenda Niall, “Guy and David had established a business which, without consulting their uncle, they called the Martin Boyd Pottery. There were no accolades for Lucinda Brayford. Instead, Martin Boyd was asked how he found time for writing as well as pottery” (The Cardboard Crown, Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2004, p. viii).

The Langton Quartet and the Montforts each rework the story of the Boyd family in different ways. Martin’s older brother Merric inspired some aspects of the characters of Dominic and Jacko but Merric’s interest in pottery does not feature in any of the novels. This may have been because Martin did not continue the story of the Langtons beyond the end of the first world war. However, I think that he was also less interested in pottery than in painting or drawing as ways of manifesting the artistic impulse. In his 1965 autobiography, he describes Merric’s career as a potter in the following words:

…my sister-in-law spent forty years as the strength and stay of her husband and children, the former filled with creative passion, and desperately anxious to provide for his family, but with an unaccountable aversion to making any work of art when once he had been told that it was saleable. At least this is what dealers in Melbourne have told me. He was the first person in Australia to cast individual hand-made pottery and to bake it himself. He worked harder than any of my family, in fact harder than anyone I have known, sitting up all night attending to his kiln, with the added mental strain of anxiety as to the result of the burning, which finally injured his health; and for all this he had a negligible reward. In his obituary notice he was described as :the father of Australian pottery” (Day of my Delight, Melbourne: Lansdowne Press, 1974, p.50).

I was amused to read in the autobiography (p.241) that Martin Boyd also had problems with blackberry during the three years he spent in Australia at the Grange, Harkaway, his mother’s childhood home. He resorted to a spray but hated seeing “the beautiful young shoots not fallen to the axe, but hanging sick and poisoned”. Sixty years later, this plant “introduced in the early days to make Australia home-like” is as much a pest as ever and we feel no such distress wielding our spray guns.

Postscript

I read in a fact sheet produced by Bega Agricultural Services today that blackberry was actually imported from Germany to stablise erosion in gullies exposed by farmers as they cleared Gippsland’s open forests.

Dynasty

Arthur Merric Boyd Pottery. Pair of ramekins hand painted by John Perceval

It has taken me a while to sort out the various members of the Boyd family and their potting activities, even with the help of Geoff Ford’s Encyclopaedia of Australian Potter’s Marks. I’ll start with Merric Boyd (1888-1959), known as the father of Australian art pottery because of his tenuous forms inspired by Australian flora and fauna. He and his wife Doris (1883-1960) had a pottery at Murrumbeena where they led a sometimes precarious existence selling pottery to the Melbourne market. Merric began potting in 1912 and continued to make pots until his death in 1959.

Their five children, Lucy (1916-2009), Arthur (1920-1999), Guy (1923-1988), David (1924-2011) and Mary (1926-) all made pottery at some stage in their lives, as did Lucy’s husband Hatton Beck (1901-1994) , Arthur’s wife Yvonne (1920-2013), David’s wife Hermia (1931-2000) and Mary’s first husband John Perceval (1923-2000). Lucy’s son Robert Beck (1942-) and his wife Margot are also potters, as is Guy’s daughter Derry (1957-).

Robert and Margot Beck. Cheese plate

Robert and Margot Beck made this cheese dish with domed cover given to me by colleagues when I left work to go back to university in 1979. It illustrates the extent to which painting and pottery was closely intertwined in the Boyd family. Doris was a talented painter and decorated some of her husband’s pots. Their children learnt to make and decorate pottery at their parents’ knees and were able to use this skill as a way of making a living while they explored other areas of interest such as painting and sculpture. They married other artists and drew them into the family tradition. The second-world war interrupted their lives but also led them to new artistic associations.

Merric’s father Arthur Merric Boyd (1862-1940) was a painter, not a potter, but his name lives on in the Arthur Merric Boyd (AMB) Pottery set up by his grandson Arthur, John Perceval and Peter Herbst at Murrumbeena in 1944. (Actually, they bought Hatton Beck’s pottery when the Becks moved to Brisbane.) The pair of ramekins illustrated at the head of this entry were made at this pottery and hand painted by John Perceval. Arthur left Australia for England in 1958 and went on to become one of Australia’s most significant painters, but pieces with various AMB marks continued to be made until 1962.

Similarly, Merric’s younger brother Martin (1893-1972) was a writer not a potter, but his name lives on in the Sydney-based Martin Boyd Pottery set up by Guy with partners Norma and Leonard Flegg in 1946. Guy was training as a sculptor at the East Sydney Technical College (ESTC) after the war and needed an interim source of income. He returned to Melbourne in 1951 but the Fleggs continued to operate the Martin Boyd Pottery as a successful venture until overseas imports put it out of business in 1963 (Dorothy Johnston, The Peoples’ Potteries, pp. 87-91).

Ford (p. 43) records the year of Guy’s return to Melbourne as 1955. In fact, he transferred his interest in the pottery to Leonard’s brother Ronald in 1951. On his return to Melbourne, he set up a new pottery, the Guy Boyd Pottery, in 1952. He and his wife operated this until 1964, when he sold it to devote himself full-time to sculpture (Guide to the papers of Guy and Phyllis Boyd, MS 7551, National Library of Australia).

Guy’s brother David worked with him as a thrower in Sydney in the start-up post-war years. This is where he met Hermia, an art student at ESTC experimenting with decoration at the pottery in her spare time. They lived and worked in Australia, England and France before closing their last pottery in Murrumbeena in 1968 to concentrate on other interests – David on painting and Hermia on etchng and sculpture (John Vader, The Pottery of David and Hermia Boyd, Matthews/Hutchinson, 1977).

David and Hermia Boyd. Terracotta bowl

To my 1970s-trained eye, David and Hermia Boyd’s work is often quirky and unusual. Their style owes nothing to the Leach Hamada tradition. They used a range of techniques based on white earthenware or terracotta clay (as in this example), metallic lustres and washes, sgraffito drawing through tin or black glaze and underglaze or overglaze decoration. They were influenced by French provincial pottery and medieval imagery.

Their work was marketed as art pottery through exhibitions rather than stores. In 1960 they were guest exhibitors at the Potters’ Cottage in Warrandyte where it was reported that great interest was shown in the new techniques they had developed during their overseas travels and prices ranged as high as fifty guineas (Vader, p. 132) .

For collectors, enough Boyd pottery is listed on eBay to merit its own category under ‘Australian Pottery’. Here even small pieces of Merric’s work are priced outside our range. Arthur and Hermia Boyd also attract a lot of interest, as do the larger AMB pieces painted by John Perceval or Neil Douglas.

Martin Boyd Pottery. Ramekin

The majority of eBay listings are from the Martin Boyd Pottery which has its own strong following. Ramekins abound and no wonder because it was the pottery’s most popular production line and nearly a million were made (Johnston, p.90). Ramekins were also a mainstay of the Guy Boyd and AMB Potteries. This form was simple to throw and decorate. The handle also lends aplomb, particularly when incorporated seamlessly into the form and decoration. We haven’t been able to resist setting up a ramekin collecting sideline and now have quite a few excellent examples.