What follows is a press release from my colleague and noted Australian Pottery expert Gregory Hill. I am really excited by the prospect of another Australian Pottery exhibition and its accompanying catalogue.
The Melrose pottery exhibition is an example of how Australian industry was able to withstand the world wide depression of the 1930s. The giant Hoffman Brick, Tile and Pottery Company, established in 1862, had become the largest business of its type in the southern hemisphere, largely supplying the building industry with bricks, pipes, roofing tiles and sanitary ware, but when the depression hit, what merchandise do you think they looked to for survival? Flower vases! This incongruous choice of product meant the business kept functioning and key personnel were employed until better times arrived. The Hoffman company was probably the largest employer in the district and community life often revolved around it. Households set their clocks by the company’s ‘start and knock off’ sirens and a holiday was organized once a year with employees taken to some exotic location, cruises on the bay being a favourite, all at the expense of the company.
The flower vases were the range of Melrose pottery which today commands the attention of a new generation of admirers, but not because of its original domestic use. This pottery was all originally designed, heavily borrowing on images from a newly found Australian identity. All manner of vessels, such as vases, jugs and bowls were adorned with Australian gum leaves, gumnuts and native animals. Ironically, many of the workmen responsible for Melrose Ware were Englishmen, as England was still the primary source of trained potters for Australia – the huge pottery industries of the United Kingdom producing more tradesmen than they needed. They imparted a refined level of manufacture that became obvious in the quality of the Melrose range, elevating it to the best of its class in Australia in the 1930s.
The styling queues were largely of the world wide modernist movement and the prevailing tastes found in the Australian Arts and Crafts Societies. Several Australian born generations were now looking for their own identity, moving away from the maternal associations of the ‘mother country.’ Perhaps these United Kingdom immigrants had a sharper eye in discerning what it was that best identified Australia and thus reinforced their reasons for adopting a new country.
The exhibition and accompanying catalogue are the culmination of thirty-five years of primary research by Gregory Hill and rely heavily on interviews held in the mid 1980s with many Hoffman employees. This means that the text is full of personal references, giving a contemporary feel to their stories. These elderly potters were telling their tales in the present tense, as they experienced the events. That period was seventy-five years ago and the protagonists are long gone. Their reminiscences revolve around issues of rivalry, diffidence, bigotry, camaraderie and humour, all pertaining to their working environment. It is timely that this material is appearing now, given the angst caused by developers of the Hoffman company site in Dawson Street and the uncertain future of the kilns located there.
Despite this fascinating insight into the social history of the depression it is clearly the pots that are the centre of the exhibition. They were the centre of attention in the 1930s to the potters manufacturing them and today to the collectors of Australian pottery who seek to acquire them.
Significantly, most of the exhibits are from private collectors and few have been photographed before. Great efforts have been made to find examples of all the important decorated pieces. No exhibition before has been dedicated to this theme or been able to display such a complete range of Melrose Ware.
The catalogue is 100 pages of full colour with all 130 exhibits appearing. Included is the only known surviving Melrose catalogue, complete with illustrations.
The Melrose Ware Tour
La Trobe Regional Gallery
138 Commercial Rd., Morwell
11th February - 12th April - 2012
Bundoora Homestead Art Centre
7-27 Snake Gully Drive, Bundoora, Melb.
20 April - 1 July - 2012
Geelong Art Gallery
Little Malop St., Geelong
7th July – 7th Oct. - 2012
National Museum of Australian Pottery
76 Albury St. Holbrook, NSW
3 Nov. 2012 - 17 Feb. 2013