Nelson/ Tasman's ground-breaking pottery
There is some evidence that the use of clay may date back to early Māori settlement, but the history of clay use in the Nelson region is a European one. Brickfields were in existence as early as 1842 and many brickmakers and bricklayers were listed among the early immigrants. As building began, clay mining and brick making were widespread activities throughout the region.1
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While clay was used for bricks, insulators, tiles and flower pots, there was no clay suitable for throwing pots when Czech refugee, Mirek Smisek, arrived in Nelson in 1952.2 Smisek was the first fully professional studio potter in New Zealand, teaching pottery and producing his own work from 1956.3
To blend a suitable clay for potting, Smisek sought the help of Ian McPherson who, with his father William, had clay mining licences in Golden Bay and on the West Coast. McPherson experimented for a year to produce a suitable potting clay.4
The philosophy of English writer and potter, Bernard Leach, regarded as the father of British studio pottery, had considerable influence on Nelson's studio pottery scene, with Smisek being an admirer.5
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Cornish potters May and Harry Davis also incorporated Leach principles in their work.6 In 1962 they emigrated to Nelson, on hearing about the raw materials available for pottery, and established the Crewena Pottery at Wakapuaka. Soon their domestic ware was setting new standards in New Zealand's rapidly expanding pottery movement.7
Wood Collection, L9495 fr8
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Jack and Peggy Laird arrived from England in 1964, part of an influx of people from the northern hemisphere looking for a better life. They established Waimea Craft Pottery which employed 17 potters at its peak.
The Lairds set up a Labour Department-approved apprenticeship scheme which offered many potters training in a workshop environment. Well known Brightwater potter, Royce McGlashen served a five year apprenticeship at Waimea, during which he estimates he threw thousands of pots.9
Between 1956 and 1976, the number of studio potters multiplied nationwide, with Nelson eventually having the most potters per head of population and gaining an international reputation as a centre of excellence in studio pottery.10
The Nelson Provincial Museum, Geoffrey C Wood Collection, 6034 fr 5
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By the mid-1970s, pottery had become an important part of Nelson's economy. Tourists looking for unique gifts and souvenirs, as well as restrictions on imported pottery, meant many local potters were able to sell their work with ease.11
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Pottery was also a popular hobby. In 1954, Smisek taught five classes a week at the Nelson Technical School. In the 1970s, Waimea College provided funding for twelve classes in the Tasman region.12
In 1973, Craft Potters was established in a Hope orchard by a group of amateur enthusiasts.13 By 1975, Craft Potters had 140 members and was operating five fulltime classes. There were three pottery groups in Nelson city alone.14 Pottery clubs offered a creative outlet and became a focal point for a hobby that some turned into a job and a way of life.15
Nelson's pottery industry has been commercially viable from the earliest days.16 Cheap pottery imports have had an impact, but Nelson remains renowned for its pottery and ceramics, and pottery continues to grow as a vital and innovative, creative industry.17
Nelson pottery and clay industries - a timeline
Pre 1840 - Māori use of clay
Kokowai obtained from clays rich in iron and aluminium silicates, was highly prized by Māori; depending on chemical composition, reds, oranges, yellows and browns were produced. Onekaka and Parapara in Golden Bay were important resource areas. The clays were dried and ground, then mixed with oil for personal adornment and to decorate (and preserve) waka, buildings and tombs. The former died out soon after European settlement, perhaps because of Pakeha attitudes.
Shaped and fire-hardened clay objects have been found in Māori occupation sites, but only in the Auckland and Northland regions.
Post 1840: European settlement – clay and brick making
In the Nelson area European settlers started to mine and use the clay soils found in the region more intensively. Large quantities of bricks came over as ballast in settler ships, but with growing demand, brickfields were established as early as 1842 and many brickmakers and bricklayers were listed among the early immigrants. With an increase in building, clay mining and brickmaking were widespread activities throughout the region.
- 1842 - The clay industry was already established in Nelson. Four brickfields and a number of brickmakers were operating in the Nelson Province, for example in the Moutere Hills, Redwood Valley, Brightwater and Spring Grove. The industry grew through the remainder of the Century.
- 1884 - James Patching starts the first brickyard in Nelson, near Tipahi Street. It later becomes the Nelson Brick and Pipe/ Pottery Company.
- Early 1900s - William McPherson supplies clay from Puramahoi to the Nelson Brickworks and Onekaka Iron works. William’s son Ian is involved in the business from his early days and eventually took it over.
- 1920s - Thorn & Co mines clay beyond Tapawera – the Kaka Clay mine. This is subsequently purchased by Keith Polglaze in the 1920s and becomes the most reliable source of clay in the region. The clay was later used by Mac’s Mud Company and Potter’s Clay.
1950’s – the beginning of craft pottery
- 1952 - Mirek Smisek arrives in Nelson and starts making domestic pottery – a first for the region. Smisek was a Czech who had been working at Crown Lynn Pottery in Auckland. In 1953 he becomes manager of the Nelson Brick and Tile Company, and improves its products by using Puramahoi Clay – experimenting with Ian McPerson to produce clay suitable for potters, using a mix of local and North Island clays, at a plant in Mapua.
- 1952 - Barry Brickell, Len Castle and Terry Barrow also arrive in Nelson and start potting.
- 1953 - Bill Gibbons builds Bishopdale Potteries – to maintain supplies for the construction industry
- 1954 - Smisek is approached by the Nelson Technical School to teach pottery. He does this until 1959 when replaced by Nancy Barnicoat – the first female studio potter in Nelson.
- 1956 -1976 - the number of studio potters multiplied nationwide, with Nelson eventually having the most potters per head of population and gaining an international reputation as a centre of excellence in studio pottery.
- 1957 -Smisek makes pottery his full time occupation, with a studio behind Tahuna School.
- 1958 - Smisek starts teaching classes at Waimea College – they are very popular and the classes move to Brightwater, the property of Colin Bateup, where they stayed until 1968 when they moved back to Waimea College.
1960s – a growing community of potters
Chris and Sally Du Fresne of Mapua establish their studio. Other potters arriving in the area include: Christine Bell-Pearson, Christopher Vine, Dr Elsa Kidson, Howard and Diana Macmillan (followed by their sons Michael and Hugh) and Robert Wallace.
- 1962 - Harry and May Davis, English potters, move from Cornwall to Nelson. First setting up near Sherry River, before establishing Crewenna Potteries in Wakapuaka. Their daughter Nina also became a potter, and works with her parents at Crewenna.
- 1964 - Jack and Peggy Laird arrive from England in 1964. They establish Waimea Craft Pottery which employed 17 potters at its peak. The Lairds set up a Labour Department-approved apprenticeship scheme which offered many potters training in a workshop environment. Well known Brightwater potter, Royce McGlashen served a five year apprenticeship at Waimea, during which he estimates he threw thousands of pots.
Other names associated with Waimea Pottery include: Carl Vendelbosch, Yvonne Rust, Tony Morley, Stephen Carter, Paul White, Dave Cooper, John Crawford, Darryl Robertson, June Palmer, Jon Benge, Paul White, Adrian Bevis and Mike Perry.
- 1969 - Smisek moves to Levin. In 1990 he was made OBE. He died in 2013.
1970s – a boom time for pottery in Nelson
Strong links are forged with the Suter Art Gallery under Austin Davis. Waimea College provided funding for twelve pottery classes in the Tasman region (started 1958 by Smisek)
- 1972 – Bill and Nancy Malcolm start potting using a range of methods, before developing an innovative fast-firing kiln
- 1973 - Craft Potters is established in a Hope orchard by a group of amateur enthusiasts. By 1975, Craft Potters has 140 members and is operating five full-time classes. There were three pottery groups in Nelson City alone. Pottery clubs offered a creative outlet and became a focal point for a hobby that some turned into a job and a way of life.
John and Kathleen Ing start Koa Mahi pottery in Pokororo
- 1974 – Motueka Pottery workshop established
- 1975/6 - Gibbons purchases Nelson Brick and Pipe and soon closes it
- 1975 - Potters Clay starts in Parkers Road, Nelson, by a group of potters connected with Waimea Craft Pottery – Jack and Peggy Laird, Heaton Drake, Graham Kemble Welch and Ron Guthrie. Gilbert Russ was the first manager. The business expanded to Australia and the Pacific.
Peter Gibbs and Julie Warren start potting in Golden Bay before moving to Waimea West.
- 1976 – Nelson Community Potters and the Wakefield Pottery group is established.
Steve and Robin Fullmer start a pottery in Mahana
- 1977 - South Street Gallery is opened by Justin Gardner and Mike Rogers. The first dedicated outlet for pottery in the region.
Christine Boswijk starts potting in Nelson and tutoring at Nelson Polytechnic
- 1979 - Nelson Potters Association is established. Vic and Mersyna Evans start a pottery in Wakefield.
1980s – a period of consolidation
Potters who become established include: Meg Latham and Alan Ballard, Corrina Wanty, Doug Latham, David and Rugh Cook, Sue Newitt, Chris Hinkley, Suzie Moncrieff, Hans and Caroline Bauer, Bruce Hamlin, Rosie Little and Owen Bartlett.
- 1980 - Royce and Trudi McGlashen open their pottery in Brightwater
- 1981 - Ian McPherson sells the clay business to Winstones who subsequently amalgamate with Potter’s clay at a site in Quarantine Road. Winstones pulls out in
- 1986 – Ian McPherson and some of the Company’s staff members purchase the business. Potters Clay continues to operate in Stoke.
Nelson Polytechnic (which becomes NMIT) moves from hobby classes to training people for a profession in pottery.
Successful students who established themselves in the region include Mark James, Sue Dasler, Darryl Frost, Katie Gold, Melanie Drewery, Emma Moncrieff, Esther McNaughton
1990s/ 2000s – a mixed period
Imported ceramics have an impact, but pottery becomes an established feature of regional “craft tourism”.
- 1995 - McGlashens establish a commercial clay production operation in Brightwater – Mac’s Mud Company. A local mine is worked and clay from the district is also used. Clay is still being produced and marketed via a Company in the Waikato
- 1999 - Nina Davis (daughter of Harry and May) establishes her own studio in Teal Valley.
2000 and beyond
There are fewer new potters in the region, but well-established potters produce increasing amounts of non-functional work.
Key names include: Galit Zaidman-Maxwell, Stephen Robertson, Caroline Rosewood, Melissa Floyd, Rose Griffin, Akimi Hirai, Sue Scobie, Jacqui Westfall, Fiona Sutherland, Sophie Holt, Tracy Box.
- 2013 - the old Crewenna studio burns down
- 2016 – Terra Firma exhibition at the Refinery Gallery. A major exhibition of work by local potters.
(Added 2020 by the Prow)
Sources used in this story
- Clay: Celebrating the creative history of potters and pottery in Nelson, 26 May to 5 August 2007. [Retrieved 2009].
- Warren, J. (2007) Clay : the pottery industry: 165 years in Nelson (rev.ed.) [Richmond, N.Z.] : Nelson Potters' Association. pp.7-9
- Evans, V. (2007) Head, heart and hand : studio pottery in Nelson 1956-1976 [thesis]. Palmerston North, N.Z.: Massey University, p.28
- Warren, J. (1992) Clay : the pottery industry: 150 years in Nelson [Richmond, N.Z.] : Nelson Potters' Association. pp.7-8
- Evans (2007) p.16
- Evans (2007), p.16
- Crewenna Pottery (1964) New Zealand Potter.7(1), p.24
- Evans, pp.41,80; Warren, J (1992) pp.16,17
- McGlashen, R. (1981) Royce McGlashen - production. Potter. 23(1) pp.34-36; McGlashens secures Longfield's legacy (1985, May 25) Nelson Evening Mail, p.9 [historic Brightwater home]
- Evans, V. (2009) Studio Pottery in Nelson 1956 - 1976 [unpublished papers] [Nelson], p.2.
- Evans (2007). pp.66,75,110
- Warren (2007) p.13; Warren (1992) p.29
- Warren (1992) pp.32-33
- Evans (2007) pp.56-57; Gibbs, Peter (1987) Nelson community potters. Potter 29(1), p.6
- Evans (2007). p.65
- Warren (1992), p.32
- Clay: Celebrating the creative history of potters and pottery in Nelson, 26 May to 5 August 2007
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Further sources - Nelson Pottery
- Cape, P. & Rumsey, S. (1969) Artists and craftsmen in New Zealand. Auckland, N.Z. : Collins
- The clay connection : Suter Art Gallery, Nelson, July 10 - July 28, 1991, Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui, August 10 - September 29, 1991 (1991) Nelson [N.Z.] : Suter Art Gallery ; Wanganui : Sarjeant Gallery [held Nelson Public Libraries]
- Davis, M. (1987) The Potter's alternative. London: Methuen
- Davis, M. (1990) May. Nelson, N.Z. : M. Davis
- Evans, Vic.(2007) Head, heart and hand : studio pottery in Nelson 1956-1976. [thesis] Palmerston North, N.Z.: Massey University
- Warren, J. (2007) Clay : the pottery industry: 165 years in Nelson (rev.ed.) [Richmond, N.Z.] : Nelson Potters' Association
Warren, J. (2016) Clay : the pottery industry: 176 years in Nelson (2nd.ed.) [Nelson, New Zealand] : [Nelson Potters' Association]
- Alexander, Kelly (2006) Clay touched by Gold : Katie Gold. HER Business, n.68:p.81
- Bell-Pearson, Christine (1983) Brightly decorated earthenware. Potter 25(2), p.29
- Carlson, J. (1982) Clay clay and more clay. Potter. 24(2), p.20
- Conway, A. (1988, Dec/ 1989, Jan) CRAFTS : Timeless terracotta. New Zealand Home and Building, pp.23-25 [Peter Burrell]
- Conway, A. (1988, May) four corners: Baked earth. North & South, p. 15 [Peter Burrell]
- Crawford, J. (1991) Xenoliths 1991. Craft New Zealand.n.37, pp.20-21 [Christine Boswijk]
- Crewenna Pottery (1964) New Zealand Potter.7(1), p.24
- Crombie, Carol (1976) In Nelson : making pots in an orchard. Potter, 18 (2):p.19 [Craft Potters Nelson Inc.]
- Davis, May (1963) Crewenna pottery, New Zealand. New Zealand Potter. 6(1),pp.6-8
- Dunn, S. (2013, August 19) Fire ends legacy. Nelson Mail on Stuff:
http://www.stuff.co.nz/nelson-mail/lifestyle-entertainment/weekend/9058738/Fire-ends-legacy [destruction of Crewenna Pottery]
- Evans, Vic (1993) Paul Laird. Potter; v.35 n.3:pp.8-9
- Evans, V. (2009) Studio Pottery in Nelson 1956 - 1976 [unpublished papers] [Nelson] (held Nelson Public Libraries)
- Farraway, Peta (1989, Feb) Living in style : Clay days in the Neudorf Valley. North and South, pp. 110-114 [Jon Benge, Gill Gane, and children]
- Gane, Gill (1980) Gill Gane and Jon Benge. Potter. 22(2), pp.30-31
- Gibbs, Julie (1985) Craft Potters, Nelson. Potter 27(1), pp.16-17
- Gibbs, P. (1985) Lynne and David Griffith. Potter, 27(2), pp.28
- Gibbs, P. (1985) Thackwood Pottery, Nelson. Potter 27(1), pp.26-27
- Gibbs, P. (1986) Pitfiring without a pit. Potter, 1986 28(1), pp.32-33
- Gibbs, P. (1987) Vic Evans. Potter, 29(2), pp.37-38
- Gibbs, P. (1987) Nelson community potters. Potter 29(1), pp.6
- Gibbs, P. (1987, August 29) Arts : Spontaneity in clay. Listener, 118 (2480), p.66 [1987 Fletcher Challenge pottery award exhibition]
- Gibbs, P. (1987, Feb 28) Nelson's pot on the boil. Listener;115 (2453), pp.32-33
- Gibbs, P. (1991, Autumn) Nelson pots, Nelson crafts. New Zealand Crafts n.35, pp.16-17
- Gibbs, P. (2004) Jack and Peggy Laird. New Zealand ceramics magazine, 3(3), pp.18-20
- Gibbs, P. (2009, August 22) Master craftsman of the clay. The Nelson Mail, 14
- Harris, Margaret (1970) Nelson potters. Potter. 12(2), pp.4-17
- Harry Davis pug mill (1970) New Zealand Potter 12(2), p.39
- Into colour (1983) Potter 25(1), p.25 [Royce McGlashen]
- Jenkins, Stan (1995) Harry and May Davis. New Zealand Potter. 37(1), p.27
- Klein-Nixon, Kylie (2023, Jan 28) Nelson potter Royce McGlashen has been potting for 56 years, and the ideas still keep coming. Nelson Mail on Stuff
- Meadowcroft, Jill (1993) Burrell's beautiful terracotta. New Zealand Gardener 49(5),pp.30-31
- McCarthy, Stephen (1980) Stephen McCarthy. Potter. 22(2), pp.31
- Mcglashen, R. (1981) Royce McGlashen - production. Potter. 23(1):pp.34-36
- McLeod, Sue (1983) Vivid images. Potter. 25(1), p.16-17
- Malcolm, N. (1997) Katie Gold. New Zealand Potter 39(2),pp.32-33
- Malcolm, N. (1974) Raku makers. New Zealand Potter. 16(2):pp.18-20
- Malcolm, N. (1978) Kiln for fast-firing stoneware. Potter 20(2), pp.34-35
- Mason, H. (1986) Harry Davis. Potter. 28(3), p.18-19 Mason, H. (1988).
- Crewenna reactivated. Potter. 30(1),p.33
- Moore, Pauline (1989, October 18) A humorous approach to clay. Press, p. 26 [Steve Fullmer]
- Nelson minerals for the potter. (1963) New Zealand Potter. 6(2), p.24
- Potter's culture comes through creativity (2001, April) Kokiri Paetae, p.3214 [Eileen Webb]
- Potters promotion (1983, Feb) New Zealand Crafts; pp.6-7 [Julie Warren and Peter Gibbs]
- Quigley, Margaret (1990, November 10) A potter at Nelson. Press, p.27 [May Davis.]
- Rikihana, Q. (1992, August) Their dream come true. Next, n.18, pp.50-54 [Bruce Hamlin and Rosie Little]
- Robertson, D. (1989, April) Darryl Robertson : Bronte, Nelson. Potter. 31(1), pp.10-12
- Steve Fullmer (1984) Potter 26(1),pp.22-23
- Stucke, Liz (1980) Liz Stucke. Potter, 22(2), p.29
- Taylor, B.L. (1997) Down to earth in Nelson. New Zealand Gardener, 53(5), pp.70-75
- Taylor, B.L. (1942) Feldspathic clay, kaka, Nelson. Extracted from: New Zealand Journal of Science and technology (1941) 23 (2b) pp.33-43 [held Nelson Public Libraries]
- Warren, J. (1995, April) Obituary: May Davis. New Zealand Potter. 37 (1), pp.26-27
- Williams, H. (1992) Seville, Expo '92. Potter. 34(1), pp.19-23 [Boswijk, Fullmer, Robertson, Darryl] (Nelson)
- Zimmerman, C. (2003) Changing faces at Craft Habitat in Nelson. New Zealand ceramics magazine. 2(3), p.19
- Harry and May Davis, potters [video] (1987). [N.Z.] : Stan Jenkins
- The Lairds of Nelson: Waimea potteries [video] (1984) Wellington : Television New Zealand
- Mirek Smisek, potter [video] (1986). Wellington, N.Z. : Department of Education
- Laird, Jack and Peggy. Nelson Ceramics [sound recording] / interviewed by Karen Pattison. LS30.15
- Smisek, Mirek. 1984. Nelson Ceramics [sound recording] / interviewed by Karen Pattison. LS30
(both restricted from broadcasting, exhibition & copying without permission)
- Laird, Jack D. 1966-1988. Records. AG 408 LS36.18.A.3
include plans for pottery wares plus letters, brochures and articles].
- Nelson Potters' Association. [1979?-2007]. The Tourist guide to Nelson Potters. UMS 155
- Best of Nelson's potters and potteries, Retrieved 3 August 2009 from Best of New Zealand:
- Bayly, Janet. Passionate potter's work was subtle and refined. Obituary Mirek Smisek February 2,1925 - May19, 2013. Retrieved 10 June 2013
- Clay: Celebrating the creative history of potters and pottery in Nelson, 26 May to 5 August 2007, Retrieved from Nelson Provincial Museum 13 July 2009: removed from website - contact the Museum:
- Stories from Nelson's past through through clay (Nelson Provincial Museum). Nelson Mail on Stuff, Retrieved October 2022:
- Evans, V. (2007) Head, heart and hand : studio pottery in Nelson 1956-1976 : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in History at Massey University. Retrieved from Massey University:
- Gibbs, P. (2014, August 28) Potters character reflected in his work. Nelson Mail. [Life of Ross Richards]:
- Laird, Jack D. Collection | Ref # AG 408. Nelson Provincial Museum:
- Leach Pottery - studio and museum. Retrieved 3 August 2009, from:
- THE NELSON EXAMINER (1842, March 19) Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle I (2), p.6 [early reporting about brick works]
- Nelson Potters, Retrieved 3 August 2009:
- New Zealand Potter (Journal) Auckland [N.Z.] : NZ Potter Pub., 1958-1998:
- Pioneers creative drive. Obituary Mirek Smisek. Retrieved 28 May 2013:
I enjoyed this article. In the 1950's I and Michael Trumic owned "Several Arts" in Christchurch. We sold a lot of Mirek's pots and when in Nelson enjoyed his hospitality!
Posted by Joyce-Charlotte Brinkers, 12/04/2014 11:05pm (9 years ago)