Crown jewels

By Claire McCall

One of New Zealand's finest creations, Crown Lynn crockery, is being celebrated in a new exhibition. Viva meets some of its most passionate followers.

Alison Reid collects Crown Lynn 'Lolly ware'. Photo / Babiche Martens
Alison Reid collects Crown Lynn 'Lolly ware'. Photo / Babiche Martens

For a company that had its origins in fired-clay drainage pipes, Crown Lynn has risen from its boggy beginnings to a status that allows it to be lauded by high artists and the everyman alike. Now a major exhibition showcases the work of several original Crown Lynn designers through the eyes of today's collectors and admirers.

ALISON REID

As a child visiting her step-grandmother, Alison Reid has a vivid recollection of the queasy feeling in her tummy as she ate her lunch from a plate with a strong yellow finish.

"It was Crown Lynn's lemon glaze and I actually felt sick eating off it."

Ironically, what once turned her stomach now heralds butterflies of excitement. Reid has become a voracious collector of the cheerfully coloured china she affectionately terms "Lolly ware". Myriad plates, cups and saucers occupy every available surface of her home (including under beds) and many pieces are, yes, a happy shade of lemon.

It was several years back while touring with The Vagina Monologues theatrical production that the first inklings of a future fixation began. The company played small halls in provincial towns in the North and South Island.

"Actor Danielle Cormack and I would head into every op shop we could, much to the disgust of the lighting guys, who complained there was no more room in the cars," Reid laughs.

One of her responsibilities, aside from publicity, was to make tea for the audience at interval time. She'd fling open the kitchen cupboard doors in community halls across the country only to be greeted by the same sight: rows and rows of colour-glazed cups and saucers.

"When I got home, I asked Mum, 'what could that china be?' And she said, 'Crown Lynn, of course'." Reid immediately set herself the task of recreating the lively line-up in those cupboards.

Her mission (and she is sure to accomplish it) is to collect entire sets of crockery comprising dinner, lunch, side, soup, dessert plates, plus cups and saucers, in the basic colour range of 18 shades that Crown Lynn issued. (Glazes 19-27 are considered more unusual.)

She admits her passion has slipped almost imperceptibly into an obsession. "I was in denial for a long time but now I am all right to say, 'hello, my name is Alison and I am a collector'."

Reid confesses to love waking up to these colourful cohorts every day. "They look so beautiful in bulk."

She finds joy in the simplistic form of the tulip-shaped cups. "And, even though they were designed in the 1960s, the colours are timeless."

Last year, a byproduct of this ardent hunt, allowed Reid to open a vintage store, called Aunty Mavis, in the St Kevin's Arcade on K Rd. Five years of collectomania meant she had an instant shop.

"It's hard sometimes to see a piece I know the history of walk out the door, but I have a focus now."

Reid spends much of her spare time tracking down the elusive elements she needs to complete her sets. "There's no magical utopia where you can go and get everything." Instead, she haunts school fairs, Trade Me and second-hand shops. There was even a time she remembers dry retching because the plate she had found and wanted came blighted with some crusty dried egg. "I felt sorry for that beautiful plate. I wanted to take it home and rescue it."

For Reid, the ultimate prize in her pursuit of her "Lolly ware" is any piece with a grey finish. "Grey is like gold in the colour-glaze world," she explains. "I just have to trust that it is going to come to me."

JOHN PARKER

In his "journey towards white", ceramic artist John Parker credits Crown Lynn designer Ernest Shufflebotham with inspiring his move to the light side.

"I admired his perfect white glaze finish," says Parker.

Known for his pristine vessels, Parker's first encounter with a handmade piece of Crown Lynn (in 1969) was a tactile awakening. "I picked it up and I could feel the throwing ridges even though it was severely finished and more European in style."

In those days, anything industrial and sterile from Crown Lynn was anathema to the New Zealand pottery fraternity obsessed with an Anglo-Oriental handmade truth-to-materials aesthetic. "So knowing I could appreciate a factory-produced china item appealed to me in a bloody-minded sense."

Shufflebotham, who trained under New Zealand-born architect and designer Keith Murray at Wedgwood, came to work as a thrower and turner for Crown Lynn in 1948. While Parker never met him, he says he had an instinct that, at one Easter Show of his childhood, he almost did. He stood in rapt attention as a potter squashed and transformed a lump of clay. "What I was watching was like magic, a conjuring trick with a sleight of hand. I have a feeling it may have been Ernie."

Parker's enduring passion for ceramics is anchored in his sense of total responsibility for the outcome. "I alone am the author of my success - and failures."

At one drunken party in 1992, he boldly declared he was henceforth devoting himself to work solely in white. "I woke up in the morning and thought 'how many people did I tell?' I was worried I'd paint myself into a corner very quickly."

All these years later, Parker is still shaping vessels in shades of pale or, as he puts it, "paring away the inessentials".

"It's like [mime artist] Marcel Marceau's white face - it can be anything."

At the same time, this chosen path offers no room for error. "You need to be anal in your cleanliness. One dirty fingerprint and you don't get a second chance."

From his studio in Oratia, Parker produces his serene, fluid objects, in a hillside house that is essentially a white box. "I work in white because I like colour so much," he explains.

For the exhibition in Wellington, he's making a series of three elongated orbs that, he says, is a distillation of the Shufflebotham style. "His work was an exploration of a theme. He'd use the same shape but different weights of clay, from smaller to bigger."

Plus he's made a bowl that completes a time-spanned trio when teamed with similar early ones by Murray and Shufflebotham.

It's this eternal and dogged pursuit of the "end of an idea" that drives Parker. "I want to put a full stop behind it. Rule it off."

Apart from that near encounter at the Easter Show, there is one other time Parker thinks he nearly met his guru - on a factory tour of Crown Lynn in the 70s. "I wish I'd rushed back in and asked 'who is that man?"'

But he didn't, so Shufflebotham remains in perpetuity a mentor removed: "I'm sure that up there in ceramic heaven, he knows he's appreciated."

TRISH CLARK

One of the few times Trish Clark saw her father devastated was when a fire in 1967 razed the Crown Lynn pottery and his archival chinaware collection, gathered since the birth of the company in the late 1930s, was obliterated. "After that he never tried to collect it. He saw no point in reprising what he had lost."

Thomas Edwin Clark II started the business with a £5000 grant from his father, T.E. Clark I, managing director of Amalgamated Brick & Pipe, in 1938, when imports of china came to a virtual halt. He occupied some of the company's land in New Lynn and gave the fledgling enterprise a name with a sense of place and that harked back to the English pottery he admired. "At the beginning it was really only him and he virtually learnt on the job," explains Clark, one of her father's nine children to three wives.

His aunt, studio pottery pioneer Briar Gardner, helped educate the young Tom on pottery glazes and kilns. "In the early days he'd sleep all night alongside it to keep it stoked so the temperature didn't drop."

When Crown Lynn won the contract to make the crockery for New Zealand Rail, he couldn't work out how to get the handles to stay on the cups. "That's why they came without handles for a while."

Many Saturdays of her childhood, Clark would head to the factory with her dad. "I just loved it. The women would let me play with clay and the handpainting - his staff were very loyal, they stayed with him for decades."

Her first holiday job was to break any rejects into a huge bin to be recycled.

From grass-roots beginnings to iconic status was just a leap of the imagination for Clark. "He was a big-picture person. He wanted to grow something."

That included the fine china end of the business and bringing in the likes of Ernest Shufflebotham, Frank Carpay and Dorothy Thorpe, was one way of doing it. "Every time we went to a restaurant, it was part of his ritual to tap the dinner plates with a knife - he could tell from the sound of the china if they were quality or not."

But his ideas were too avant-garde and the sophisticated pieces these designers created went largely unnoticed.

"Dad was dispirited that New Zealanders wouldn't buy high-end locally made crockery. Instead, everything high-end had to be imported."

There's nothing to indicate what a young Queen Elizabeth II might have thought of the gift he had made especially for her visit in the summer of 1953. It's a fine dinner service complete with vegetable dishes and soup tureens. "The idea was very sweet and naive," says Clark, "like taking coals to Newcastle". Two sets were made - one for the queen and one for Tom's mother. It's banded in plum with a gilded edge and includes a fine decorative pattern that is vaguely reminiscent of a koru. "He was very mindful of Maori culture and utilised it not in a commercial way but in a way that understood its value."

A born entrepreneur, Tom was equally at home up to his elbows in clay or dining with royalty on the yacht Britannia. In his later years, he observed the rise of Crown Lynn in terms of collectability with eyes wide open. "He was pleased people finally recognised the quality of the work he had been trying to produce but he didn't particularly care. For him, that was looking back."

* See Alison Reid's collection of "Lolly ware", John Parker's ceramics, items from the Thomas Edwin Clark dinner service presented to Queen Elizabeth II and much more at the Crown Lynn: Crockery of Distinction exhibition at the City Gallery, Wellington from January 29 to April 24.

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