The Mackay Collection of Australian Pottery

GSeccombeCultural objects may be valued for their creative design, historical associations and for the emotional response that they evoke. My collection of Australian ceramics is important for all three of these reasons. Individual pieces and their stories – whether my story, the story of the potter, or as wider historical narrative – are all part of a valuable whole; beautiful objects that have adorned the spaces where my family lives, but each of which has its own intrinsic merit.

In the period just before, and for decades following, Federation Australian iconography blossomed: literally and metaphorically. Buildings, furniture, graphic art and all manner of consumer durables; indeed everything from cradles to graves; boasted Australian flora and fauna. The wattle may have been the national floral emblem, but the world of ‘Arts and Crafts’, it was the gum leaf, usually with gumnuts that came to reign supreme. This was especially so in the inter-war years of the twentieth century, which heralded an age of exquisite studio pottery, nurtured by inspirational teachers and rendered in colourful majolica glazes.

Importantly for me, the works I have collected for more than thirty years are overtly and proudly Australian. The gum leaf is a prevailing motif, but there are also waratahs, flannel flowers, koalas, kangaroos, kookaburras, an insolent magpie and even a prancing emu. These images have strong association with the bush – and partially the Blue Mountains – an area of immense interest and joy; both recreationally and through my professional roles at Jenolan Caves and with the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area.

Merric Boyd and Lewis Harvey were highly accomplished, innovative potters themselves, but were also mentors for a following generation. Fine ribbing and translucent blue glaze of an elegant Phillipa James jug finds its antecedent in the organic sculptural form of a highly sculpted Boyd vase; glazed and coloured by Merric’s wife Doris. Sweeping forms in high gloss relief adorn the works of other Murrumbeena potters like Charles Drew and Frederick Cox (who signed his work ‘Jolliff’). Murrumbeena and the ‘Arthur Merric Boyd’ (AMB) pottery also hosted Neil Douglas whose painted plates are readily recognisable with characteristic hopping kangaroos, spiky grass bushes and gnarled gum trees.

Harvey’s renowned school nurtured a generation of Queensland potters, ranging between well-known artists and highly-accomplished amateurs. Harvey pieces are discernible for their glossy metallic glazes, hand-built forms – and because of the twenty exercises he set as part of each student’s program. (Collectors love such sequences – and the thrill of finding that last piece to complete the set). Mary MacDonald’s work is distinctive for its Asian feel and hand-built legs reveal its Harvey heritage. Quizzical kookaburras stare out from the sides of her piece in my collection. The example by Harvey himself is small, but exquisite – one of his trademark ‘miniatures’ adorned with finely crafted gumleaf, frog and Christmas beetle. But there are other lovely Harvey school works whose incised initials and glazing instructions reveal tantalising but often elusive clues to the identity of the maker.

My collection commenced, as most do, with a fortuitous happenstance; the gift of a beautiful John Campbell vase from my mother, and favourite Australian art historian, Dr Mary Mackay. Other decorated vases soon followed and the collection and my interest in Australian heritage grew in parallel. Moments of delight at rare ‘trash ’n’ treasure finds were counterbalanced by some hotly contested auctions. To this day I regret abandoning a stunning William Ricketts modelled gumleaf with Aboriginal child’s face, as the under-bidder at the auction of the Gora Singh Mann collection in 2001. Still; I did manage to nab an unusual Una Deerbon jug with applied robust gumleaves and gumnuts, instead of her usual grapes!

Merric Boyd Low Bowl

The purchase of my favourite Merric Boyd piece, (funded in lieu of a 40th birthday party by my generous family) and chancing a upon a Gladys Reynell vase replete with sgraffito gumnuts after a decade searching were both moments to savour. More recently, Mary Mackay presented me with a wonderful ‘eucalypt’ gilt painted vase by Mamie Venner – all the more poignant for the knowledge that many of her other precious works were destroyed by vandals during a break in.

Knowledge increases the meaning of the collection. As an avid reader, I am indebted to the painstaking work of Marjorie Graham, Peter Timms and, of course Kevin Fahey, John Freeland, Keith Free and Andy Simpson. Geoff Ford’s work on Australian pottery marks provided a crucial roadmap on my journey of ceramic discovery. However, by far the most importance influence was the late Marvin Hurnell. Ever-enthusiastic and deeply knowledgeable, Marvin attracted, documented and sold a wide array of splendid Australian pottery, over a very long time. He was always eager to discuss his lavishly-illustrated catalogues and latest offerings and came to know my foibles too – realising well in advance that the right piece of ceramic art, by a desired studio potter, almost guaranteed a sale. I am pleased that my collection boasts two items from the Hurnell collection: a Carl Cooper ‘kangaroo’ plate and a bulbous ‘Pamela’ jug with a luscious, fat, veined gumleaf (as Marvin would have described it).

Mamie VennerThe Australian decorative motifs are addictive. The Premier potteries at Preston, Victoria realised this and cleverly combined the notions of mass production and hand-craftsmanship, by applying separately fashioned gumleaves and other decorative elements to hand-thrown pots. In the mid to late twentieth century Australian pottery became even more available through slipware from potteries like Mashman, Diana or Pates. Melbourne’s Hoffman kilns produced the ‘Melrose’ range in a variety of vivid colours; the gumleaf used as their unifying motif. Diana produced at least three different gumleaf wall vases, to designs that were later copied by other potteries. Trent used both cast and hand-painted designs – the painted pots by Daisy Merton being by far their most elegant offering.

My approach to collecting is focused and quirky. My collection includes the well-known designs of Grace Seccombe, Eric Bryce Carter and John Castle Harris, but also rare examples of Australian iconography from Allan Lowe, Fred Mann, Marguerite Mahood and Klytie Pate. The quest for at least one example from every potter and studio that produced distinctively Australian designs could be never ending; it has been a passion and a pleasure, but the time has come to provide an opportunity for others to be inspired by these wonderful physical manifestations of Australian culture.

- Prof Richard Mackay, AM

March 2015

Auction | Sunday 22 March 12noon

Catalogue Online | view here