Tom Sanders

Known potter #44: Tom Sanders

Tom Sanders. Lidded pot. 1962

This lidded red earthenware jar was made in 1962 by the Melbourne potter and decorator Tom Sanders (1925-2008). It is a substantial piece – 30 cm high -and shows in its imagination and wit the influence of his friend David Boyd, whom he regarded as pioneering some of the best pottery made in Australia.  The sombre rounded form and  teal colouring is enlivened by Miro-like sgraffito drawings. The handles suggest a function perhaps lost in the mists of time.

Too late to appear in Australian art pottery 1900-1950, too early to appear in works like Nine artist potters, and in any case not a participant in the stoneware revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, Sanders’ position in post-war Australian art and craft has yet to be critically evaluated. Certainly when he published his memoir Spare the face gentlemen, please in 1993, he was bitter about the lack of recognition he had received from the art world. It is ironic that the book is probably valued more for its illustrations by Arthur Boyd than for its challenging stream-of-consciousness text. Nevertheless, it is a mine of information for anyone interested in Sanders’ work.

His long association with the Boyd family began in the mid-forties at the newly-set-up Arthur Merric Boyd (AMB) Pottery in Murrumbeena. Later, he was one of a number of Melbournians who turned up at the Boarding House in Neutral Bay, Sydney, where David Boyd was staying, and where Guy Boyd had set up a pottery in the backyard. While studying sculpture at the East Sydney Technical College, Sanders worked for a time with Guy as a decorator before joining David and his new wife Hermia in Paddington to help with their ‘Hermia’ ware.

Tom Sanders. Three Ramekins.

In 1949, having completed his studies, Sanders returned to Melbourne. He must have been busy because an advertisement in the Argus shows that, by the end of that year, he was already selling ceramic wares through Georges Department Store under the name ‘Dorian Sands’. He worked at the  Hoffmann pottery in East Brunswick, with John Barnard Knight in South Yarra. and with Arthur Boyd and John Perceval at the AMB pottery, before setting up  his own studio with his first wife Elizabeth in Eltham in 1954.

Eltham at that time was a popular retreat for artists, with a European-style colony at Montsalvat and Clifton Pugh’s Dunmoochin at nearby Cottles Bridge. Heide, home of the art patrons Sunday and John Reed, was just across the river at Bulleen. The Sanders pottery operated in a very similar way to the AMB Pottery, producing a range of commercial wares, with visiting potters, painters and friends, including Arthur and Guy Boyd, helping with the decoration.

In 1959, Sanders took his family to London, where he found himself one of a large group of expatriate artists riding a strong wave of interest in Australian art at the time. The three years he spent in London, Majorca and Normandy were memorable ones and he regretted not being able to establish himself in a way that would have supported a longer stay. He continued to work as a potter and, in Majorca, also made scale models for a series of larger ceramic sculptures but was not able to proceed with them.

Back in Australia, he worked on some of the ideas he had brought home from Europe, aided by a bequest that let him focus on exhibition work. Our pot was made around this time, and shows a new interest in playing with form. It is still a usable functional vessel but with an artistic intent.  A series of lidded vessels and jug forms made in 1964 was called ‘The Un-usables’, to make this explicit.  Also during this period, he made the set of ceramic sculptures inspired by anti-nuclear sentiments described by his son Christopher Sanders in the Pottery in Australia article cited below. These were exhibited in Melbourne and Sydney in 1963, and were mainly well received, but very few sold and, wearying of production-line pottery, he began to look elsewhere for a source of regular income.

Southland Shopping Centre. Mural. 1968

In 1956, he had collaborated with the painter and print maker Lawrence Daws on the first of a series of architectural ceramic murals. The mural form allowed him to design in two dimensions and on a large scale. During the second half of the 1960s and into the 70s he completed a number of commissions. The mural shown here from the City of Kingston image Gallery is one of six that he made for the Southland Shopping Centre in Cheltenham, Melbourne, in 1968. For a while commissions must have come in thick and fast. Also listed in Peter Timm’s Australian studio pottery & china painting are: the National Mutual Centre, Melbourne (1964-5), Dee Why Library, Sydney (1966), Woden Valley High School, ACT (1967), Tullamarine Airport, Melbourne (1969, 1970), Perth Concert Hall (1971) and University of Melbourne (1975).

In the early 1970s, he began to believe that he “could put a ceramic girdle – if not around the Earth, then around part of Australia” (Spare the face gentlemen, please, p. 31). The next few years destroyed this optimism. The Perth Concert Hall mural, which for Sanders was an artistic triumph, did not attract new solo commissions and he found himself with a ton of finished tiles in store. In 1971, he started an uncommissioned work with John Olsen, but fell ill towards the end of the year and required surgery. Luckily, a site for the mural was found at the University of Melbourne, and it was finally installed in 1975.

In the interim, faced with the need to vacate his factory premises, he embarked on a new project to have his designs produced in Japan in the form of tapestries. The tapestries were made, but not without financial difficulties that made it look for a time as though they would never leave Japan. Ultimately, with the help of a Crafts Board guarantee, they were brought to Australia for display in the Perth Concert Hall as part of the Festival of Perth in 1976, where they were exhibited with a set of Arthur Boyd tapestries produced in Portugal. The National Gallery of Australia, who already owned the Boyd tapestries, bought one of Sanders’ works but he and his Japanese collaborators struggled to find buyers for the remainder or investors for new commissions.

Tom Sanders, 'Sur la berge' jug. 1980

In 1978, now based in Port Melbourne, he returned to the making of ceramic tiles and, in the following year, applied unsuccessfully for a Visual Arts Board grant to set himself up again for the production of large scale ceramic murals.  Over the next three years, he returned to pottery, producing a series of hand-painted forms like this jug made in 1980, a muscular handbuilt piece with deeply scored sgraffito decoration in a painterly style. In the late 1960s, he had worked with the painters John Olsen, Fred Williams and Jan Senbergs on a series of decorative plates. In these late works, he is both potter, decorator and artist, covering surfaces with humorous, childlike images.

Many of the colleagues with whom Sanders had started his career as a potter and decorator just after the war moved on to gain recognition as painters or sculptors. He had hoped to break into this world through the public exhibition of his work and the move to forms more likely to be judged as Art with a capital ‘A’. In practice, he always seemed to be following in the shadow of his more famous friends, who nevertheless worked with him to nurture his ambitions. Barry Humphries opened an exhibition at Eltham and teased him about making a living from ashtrays. Fred Williams bought all the plates he made with Sanders although he could ill afford them at the time. The Arthur Boyd illustrations in the book reflect affection and sympathy for his friend’s misfortunes.

Luckily, many of the anti-nuclear sculptures are now in the Powerhouse Museum, together with pieces from the Un-usables series and the ceramic tiles he produced in the late 1970s. The National Gallery of Australia has the tapesty bought in 1977 and also a small number of ceramic works acquired in 2002 as part of the Ruth Komon bequest. The National Mutual Centre and Southlands Shopping Centre murals have been demolished, but the Perth Concert Hall and University of Melbourne murals are in safe-kept places. I am not sure what the National Gallery of Victoria or the Shepparton Art Gallery hold, but the opportunity certainly exists for a critical reappraisal of his work.


Additional images

The Ian Potter Museum of Art has kindly given me permission to publish this image of the mural at the University of Melbourne. This is not my image and all rights are reserved.

John Olsen and Tom Sanders. Eastern World. 1971 and 1975.


Olsen, John (Designer, 1928)
Sanders, Tom (Designer; Ceramicist, 1925)
Eastern World. 1971 and 1975
glazed ceramic tile mural
A: 325.0 x 915.8; B: 595.0 x 559.2
The University of Melbourne Art Collection.
Purchased with assistance from the National Bank of Australasia Ltd, the Visual Arts Board, Australia Council, the Myer Trust and the Charles Duplan Lloyd Trust 1975