Thursday, September 14, 2017

A tribute to Sir Tom Clark

Tom Clark has been on my mind lately - especially because his daughter Jackie has been talking about him on Facebook. 

So here is the story of how I came to interview him.

Below is my favourite photo of Tom, which appears in the introduction of my book Crown Lynn a New Zealand Icon. Wouldn't we all just love to find that vase he is holding!

I first met Sir Tom Clark around July 2004, when he was 88 years old.  I phoned him -  very nervously –  and told him I wanted to write a book about Crown Lynn.  “Are you asking for money?’ he said. Others had offered to write the Crown Lynn story if he paid for their time, but after I assured him I wouldn't do that, he was more than happy to see me.
Armed with a digital recorder and my copy of Gail Henry’s book New Zealand Pottery Commercial and Collectable, I drove to the house he shared with his wife Lady Patricia (Trish) near Kumeu.  The first time I saw him, he was pruning the roses in the winter sun.  Tom was a big, tall man and he was feeling his age, but he still had the energy to work around the house and garden. On his off days he taught himself how to use a computer.
For the next few months I visited Tom once a week or thereabouts.  I took boxes of Crown Lynn and asked him how, when and where the pieces were made. I usually had written questions as well, but it's true that our discussions lacked structure – we both digressed as the inclination arose. Hospitable Lady Trish put out tea-making materials and left us to talk for a couple of hours at a time. 
Unfortunately I never thought to get a photo of him and me at that time.  But here he is on the day he retired from the Comalco Board in 1993.

I recorded about 11 hours of interviews with Tom which I transcribed and used as the basis of my first book.   I learned an enormous amount, and though he was talking about events up to 70 years ago, there were very, very few errors in what he told me.

For the record, Tom Clark was 'Mr Crown Lynn.'  His family co-owned a West Auckland brick and pipe factory, and in the 1930s he got a company grant to set up an experimental workshop which soon grew into a factory in its own right, making domestic ware including vases and dinner sets. By 1963 Crown Lynn was turning out eight million pieces a year.  Sadly, things changed and the factory closed in 1989. 

Tom was a team player as well as a strong and forthright leader. Early on, he told me that Crown Lynn wasn't about Tom Clark, it was about the team. He gave me a list of about 20 other people to interview –  and they too proved a goldmine of information.

When I had a good draft of my first chapter I gave it to Tom to check. I became more and more concerned as the days passed and I didn’t hear from him. “He hates it,” I thought. “It must be way off beam, totally incorrect...” etc etc. 

Sadly, the truth was very different. Tom was in hospital and within a few days he died.  

Before he fell ill Tom had made notes on my draft, so the final version carries the benefit of his advice. Hearteningly for me, one of his sons told me that Tom believed I would do a good job with the book.  I am still sad that he didn’t see it published. I would have greatly valued Tom's input and I think he would have been happy to see his life’s work recognised in print.

Tom Clark was an energetic, intelligent and inspiring man with a good heart. He loved his family and in his later years he told me he regretted that his intense involvement in his work had taken him away from his children so much. 

To this day I am grateful that I had the honour – and the pleasure – of spending so much valuable time with him.  I was very fortunate that Tom agreed to tell me the Crown Lynn story personally.  

This last photo shows him at the helm of his beloved yacht Buccaneer. He was mad keen on sailing and was very instrumental in New Zealand's quest to win the Americas Cup - I hope that one day this story too gets the recognition it deserves.  

For more information see the introduction of my book, Crown Lynn a New Zealand Icon, pages 8 and 9.

Unfortunately both my Crown Lynn books are now out of print and unavailable unless you can find one second hand. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Hobby Ceramics - pitfalls for the collector

How often on TradeMe do we see a Crown Lynn shape with an unusual glaze, perhaps with transfers added. It is described as rare, collectable, 'a homer' or experimental - and often 'signed by the artist'.  All too frequently, inflated prices are asked. The selller - and sometimes the buyer - believe that they have a unique piece of Crown Lynn.

Unfortunately they usually don't.  Almost without exception these pieces are indeed Crown Lynn shapes but they have been decorated by an amateur at a Hobby Ceramics class.

So what is Hobby Ceramics?  Particularly in the 1980s and 1990s there was a very popular fad for ceramic decorating classes. The students were sold a selection of glazes and an undecorated bisque (fired) blank. The class was given a few pointers on how to decorate ceramics, and away they went!  The decorated pieces were fired in a kiln then made available for the students to collect.

The blanks came from a variety of sources.  Many moulds were imported direct from the United States.  Some mainstream manufacturers including Orzel, Terra Ceramics and Clay Craft made blanks from their commercial moulds.  Many of these still carry the manufacturer's mark, eg Clay Craft on the base.

To my knowledge Crown Lynn didn't hold Hobby Ceramics classes. The Crown Lynn blanks came mainly from moulds which were sold or 'acquired' when the factory closed in 1989.

The pic above shows a Crown Lynn Ceramica Greenstone vase on the right, and a similar vase in an interesting and unusual colourway on the left. Both have Crown Lynn numbers on the base, and both have the same leafy motif which is typical of Ceramica vases.  The vase on the left is from a Hobby Ceramics class, carefully painted. 

What makes me so sure the vase on the left is Hobby?  For a start the base carries the initials MW scratched into the clay.  Almost without exception Hobby Ceramics pieces have a name or intitials on the base. This is to identify the member of the class who decorated it.  Glazes change colour in the kiln and the class leader didn't want a squabble over who owned a particular piece! 

This pic below shows what a genuine Ceramica Greenstone vase base looks like.
The Hobby vase is also lighter in weight than I would expect from Crown Lynn. Hobby Ceramics pieces are usually made from a cheaper clay body, fired to a lower temperature. They are not designed to be durable. 
The little Crown Lynn dish below appears often as a Hobby Ceramics piece. It carries the Crown Lynn number 2142, but you find it with various unusual glazes and transfers.  The pale speckled glaze is common on hobby pieces - it must have been popular in the 1980s-1990s.  
To compare, here is the same shape decorated by Frank Carpay - that's the difference between a gifted artist and an amateur! 
Below is the base of the speckled dish.  As well as the Crown Lynn number, you see the initials of the decorator on the bottom left.  If you look closely at this picture below, you will see three little dots. These are stilt marks. Hobby ware was usually fired sitting on stilts – little triangular ceramic supports that stopped them sticking to the kiln shelves when they were fired. Professionally made ware most often has an unglazed foot on the base so it can be placed on the kiln shelf without sticking. See the pic of the round Ceramica Greenstone vase base above. 
Hobby ceramics was hugely popular in the 1980s and 1990s, and containerloads of clay, glazes, and moulds were imported for classes, mainly from the US.  There are many, many shapes which are specific to Hobby Ceramics but there is confusion because shapes from mainstream ceramics manufacturers turned up in Hobby classes. My collection includes Hobby shapes from Clay Craft, Crown Lynn, Terra Ceramics and Orzel. Many still carry their maker's mark or shape numbers. It would have been so very helpful for collectors if the Hobby moulds had the makers' marks removed, but alas they often didn't! 

The finished Hobby products varied wildly in quality.  Ceramic decoration is not a skill you learn overnight, and there are some truly hideous pieces around. I should not be unkind to the unknown artist, but I have to say the jug on the left below is breathtakingly awful.
Both these jugs are marked Clay Craft on the base, and both are the same shape.  The one on the right is authentic Clay Craft - the one on the left obviously is not! It has been decorated at a Hobby Ceramics class by N.R, whoever that may be. (Ignore the two green stickers - I use them to keep track of my collection.)

And here is another example, at first glance a lovely vase carrying the rare mark of Cameron Brown Potteries (Cameron Brown Snr owned Titian and Sherwood). But Cameron Brown and his wife Dorothy were skilled artistic ceramicists. There is no way they would have stuck clumsy lumps of clay on a vase like this person has done.  

At one stage the Brown family had a large Hobby Ceramics business and they used some of their moulds to create blanks for students to decorate.  A genuine Cameron Brown vase would be worth hundreds - this oddity is virtually valueless.

And  below is another from the Brown family.  The vase on the left is genuine Orzel, the one on the right is Hobby - carefully painted and quite pretty, but its odd decoration, light weight and the initials 'MW' scratched into the base make me certain it is the Hobby version of this shape. (I wonder if it is the same MW who painted the Crown Lynn Ceramica Greeenstone vase above...) If you look closely you will see there is a faint 'Aquila' moulded into the base.  Aquila is a brand name which was used by the Brown family at Orzel. 

I have accumulated quite a collection of Hobby pieces - 'for research purposes' and also because I am fascinated by the relationship between the genuine article and the Hobby version - I love to see what amateur decorators do.
Below we have two dolphins, identical in every way except for the glaze – and the weight.  The brown version is typical of Terra Ceramics, a commercial manufacturer in the 1980s.  The green version is lighter in weight and that particular green glaze is typical of Hobby.   Terra Ceramics branched out into Hobby Ceramics in the mid-1980s or thereabouts. 

EDITS - a reader Peter Crowe has reminded me that at one stage Terra made some imitation Blue Mountain ware. I am pretty confident my dolphin below is Hobby because it was slightly softer in shape and very light in weight compared with the brown version - BUT if you find heavier Terra shapes with an imitation Blue Mountain glaze, then it probably is authentic Terra. 

Above, I have featured my Hobby Ceramics ware which is derived from mainstream shapes, because that is where the confusion lies. However there are a lot of Hobby shapes which were supplied direct as well. These adorable little creatures are a good example.

They are both slightly clumsily hand painted and the duck has initials scratched into the base and the dog has the name Olivia painted along one side.

If you frequent opshops you will see more and more of these Hobby pieces - people who were given them in the Hobby Ceramics boom in the 1980s and 1990s are now begining to downsize.  Quite often Hobby pieces were made as gifts. You often see "Love to Nana' (or whatever) and a date painted on the base.  I couldn't resist the quirky message on this little plate, painted by Bonnie's friend Sarah. 

Some Hobby shapes are marked Arnel's.  This is the name of the mould maker and distributor. I believe they are American. There is whole series of Chinese figurines like this one below - again they are often in that slimy-looking green Hobby glaze! If you google 'Arnels pottery images' you will see some of the wide range of shapes they made. 
Here is the base. Again, please ignore my green sticker which is my collection reference number.
One last comment - not all Hobby Ceramics is amateurish. A friend of mine remembers competitions for the best pieces; some entries were of a very high standard.  I like this mug, for example.
And these toucans, though obviously not professional, show artistic merit - far beyond anything I could aspire to!
Ok, I think that is enough for this post. There is plenty more to add - next time I will discuss why not all Hobby pieces are light weight - and why there are a very few Crown Lynn pieces which are professionally decorated though not in Crown Lynn designs! 

Meanwhile, if this brief introduction alerts a few collectors to the pitfalls of buying 'rare' or 'unique' items, then my work is not in vain. Once again I repeat, in the style of Carpay’ does not mean by Carpay.  If there are no other bidders and others are rasing doubt through their questions, then think twice before you bid.   Sometimes sellers leave the questions unanswered – this is another clue that the item may not be as special as the listing suggests. 

EDITS - wonderful Ev Williams has added a whole lot more info to the New Zealand Pottery site.  Click here to see what she has to say! 

You will also find more examples of Hobby Ceramics on the NZ Pottery site here.  (I searched for Hobby on the site.)