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craft nsw

104 george street . the rocks . sydney


p: 61 2 9241 5825

9.30 to 5.30 (5pm in the winter months)

open seven days, entrance is free

one woman's story . nell holden


During the Second World War, regulations in Australia restricted potters to making utilitarian wares. Nell Holden made Bankisa jugs, based on the characters created by her cousin May Giibbs. As the mould for her jugs had been made before the war, Miss Holden was able to use a loophole in these regulations to overcome the the restrictions and to continue to produce her pots. This speech, made by Nell Holden in 1972, is reproduced from our history book.



'Beginning in 1926, as others besides the members may be interested, when I first thought of making pottery, which was about 46 years ago, there was very little encouragement. I was told I would have to import clay from England as there was none available in Australia.


Later we did find we could buy clay at a commercial pottery, 'Fowlers' of Marrickville. It took some time before I was able to really start as so little was known of the craft in those early days, but always my first wish was to learn to make pottery.


An opportunity came in 1928 when we sold our home in Warrawee and moved to Edgecliff, which made it convenient to enrol at the East Sydney Technical College for pottery, clay modelling and design and china painting.


Mr. Peach was the teacher of china painting and pottery and Mrs. Shilitoe taught design. Mr. Peach knew more about china painting than pottery. He had been employed in a commercial capacity in England before coming to Australia.



I remember for gold, we had melted down a half sovereign on a tile for gold work - there was a small kiln where china painting was fired with fairly good results. There was very little original work being done there. We learnt to press the clay into moulds and pour 'slip' into others.


The slip is put into a big jug and poured to fill dry plaster of paris moulds which had to be securely tied by strips of rubber cut from old inner tubes, or string and wedges. The main thing was the mould must be securely tied together as the moulds were usually made of several pieces. When the desired thickness of clay has formed, found by testing with a fine point, the mould is then reversed over a bucket or bowl so that the surplus slip runs out, then the mould is left until the shape releases from the mould.


The shape must then be trimmed to remove any edge left by joins of the mould. At the college, moulds were mostly simple, jugs, vases etc. The method is now generally used in a commercial way.



At the college, we were soon tired of doing the same moulds as everyone else and were rather critical of seeing the Technical College mould shapes in the early Arts and Crafts Exhibitions and were determined to learn to throw our own shapes on the wheel. No one in the class used the wheel, as the college wheel was not in good order and did not run true. We asked if we could use it and were given clay that had been used in the modelling school and it contained matches and was very rough.


We did manage to throw a few shapes but there were many disappointments. Firing was only done once a year at the school so we decided we would leave and work on our own. First we visited 'Fowlers Pottery' and were allowed to watch some of the potters at work.We talked to a Mr. Guthrie who was an expert at throwing pots on the wheel. At the time he was throwing ink bottles. He showed us how a bread bin could be thrown


We told him of our difficulties and he offered to come to visit us and see what we were doing. He realised we were serious and offered to take us on as pupils. He taught us every Saturday morning for some months. At that stage he had a potters wheel made to Technical College plans. It was only useful when we were learning and later was modified to run by motor. Mr. Guthrie helped us fire our first kiln (which was built in my aunts garden at Kurraba Point) with wood and coke but to get the required heat we had to use coal, with disastrous result.The chimney smoked like a warship and there were complaints from the neighbours so we had to give up firing that



We next approached the North Shore Gas Company who were interested in trying to convert the kiln to the use of gas as there were no small kilns fired by gas in Australia. The kiln had not been built for gas and the attempt was a failure. The heat seeped out through the bricks and the burners could not withstand the heat.



Next we went to the Australian Gas Light Company to see if they had a suitable kiln. They had never been asked for a slow combustion kiln before and were very interested in what we were trying to do. At their invitation, we went to the Australian Gas Light Company at the Haymarket, at various times, with pots to be fired. However, none of the kilns they had there proved suitable for pottery. They blew the pots to pieces by bringing the heat up too quickly - one day one of the workmen opened a kiln too suddenly and the flames came out and burnt off his eyebrows. This gave us a scare and it was then realised that no kiln they had was suitable for pottery and they admitted it.


We had a chance to visit England in 1927 and we went armed with introductions from the Australian Gas Light Company in Sydnet to the Gas Company in London. A potter named 'Gyse' had just been experimenting with gas and the Gas Company had built the first gas fired pottery kiln.


We wanted to buy a kiln to be shipped to Australia but they said - the 'Gas companies are friends all over the world' and said they would send the plans out to the Australian Gas Light Company who built one for us, with some modifications due to climate. With this kiln a lot of our troubles were over.


We did see electric kilns in London. The manager advised against buying one. He spoke of the difficulty of renewal of wiring and parts which would not be available to Australia, having gained some knowledge visiting various art schools and potteries in England.



We set up a small pottery studio at the Chalet Warrawee and installed the kiln built for us by the Australian Gas Light Co. This small kiln with a 'muffle' size of 18' x 16' x 20' gave very good results but took too long to fire. It was not economical and was later modified to semi-muffle. It then fired satisfactoriy for many years.


As we became more experienced we experimented with local clay we dug and prepared ourselves. We also made pots of 'coils' which I believe were some of the first made and sold at the Arts and Crafts shop in Rowe Street, Sydney. We still imported most glazes, temperature cones, stilts etc. and colours from England.


I spent 46 years as a potter and some of the early time was spent in experimenting as you have seen. When my sister Win married in 1932 I was able to buy a commerical wheel with a 1 horse power motor which was good for any amount of clay. Just before the Second World War, I had asked the Australian Gas Light Co to design me a larger kiln, but this was held up until the war finished - 8 years later.


Anyone taking up pottery these days will not have the difficulties I had. Now there is good tuition and excellent books on the subject. Every potter works out his own style in the end. My specialty was 'slip' ware - white with blue slip colours - green also pink etc. - on white clay. White slip on brown clay pottery is an endless subject.


Every potter works out his own style in the end. My specialty was ' slip' ware - white with blue slip colour - green - also pink etc. on white clay.White slip on brown clay pottery is an endless subject.



This is a short account of my experiences as a potter and I hope it will inspire those just beginning. I enjoyed it all - in spite of our own frustrations at first. When the Second World War came, I was told by the authorities (as others like me were) I could make only utility ware. I did make endless cups and saucers, teapots etc. as these articles were not coming into Australia.


I did have visits to the Studio from American nurses and soldiers. I posted off many parcels of pottery to America from the special American Post Office in Kent Street. As the war continued, the Red Cross in Sydney started craft classes for returned convalescent soldiers. I gave what help I could when asked about the firing of their kilns and other problems


In 1950, there was a call for craft work lessons and the Society of Arts and Crafts organised a school at Woollahra and one at North Sydney. I taught the pottery class there and when it finally closed some of the pupils wanted to continue so I arranged to have ten pupils at my studio at Warrawee and I continued for about two years until I felt I neeeded more time for my own work


Other schools such as the East Sydney Technical School, began to function again in 1940 under Mr. Bunnning, Miss Beetson to 1950 and Peter Rushforth in 1950. The teaching became more modernised and the pupils had to take a full diploma course. A number who could not be accommodated left and formed the Ceramic Study Group with Peter Travis giving lectures.


The Potters Society was formed in 1956 and from then on many other pottery groups began in the outer suburbs, too many to mention them all.'



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