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.
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”.
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.