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Margaret Lawrence – The Inquisitive Collector

Margaret Lawrence was passionate about ceramics. Every bit of available space in her apartment was given over to the display of her extensive collection. Custom-built shelves housing her works covered the walls of every room, including the kitchen and bathroom. Over time, possessions such as books were jettisoned to make way for ceramics. When space got really tight, even the oven was commandeered as exhibition space.  

As a collector, Margaret Lawrence had expansive tastes and interests. Her acquisitions were of diverse artists, aesthetics, periods and styles. The first work to enter her collection was a ceramic vase decorated with grapes and vine leaves by the influential Australian potter William Merric Boyd, bought from an exhibition held in the basement of the Melbourne Town Hall around 1945. Over the next sixty years, until her death in 2005 aged ninety, she built a wonderfully idiosyncratic collection. Numbering more than six hundred works, Margaret Lawrence’s collection is one of Australia’s most extensive, representing examples of many significant lineages of contemporary and historical Australian ceramic practice.  

Work by early ceramic studio artists, such as Arthur Merric Boyd, William Merric Boyd, Harold Hughan, Peter Rushforth, Reg Preston, Gladys Reynell and Klytie Pate sit in her collection, alongside works by contemporary Australian artists such as Bern Emmerichs, Greg Daly, David Ray, Prue Venables, Alan Peascod, Stephen Benwell and Deborah Halpern. As well as works by highly distinguished artists, Lawrence also acquired works by lesser-known (or now-unknown) potters and works created by small mass-production potteries. While her collection consists overwhelmingly of work by Australian artists, there are international inclusions that were often acquired by Lawrence on her overseas travels. 

Lawrence was also a very diligent and knowledgeable collector. She kept voluminous notes about each of the works in her collection, carefully recording key details about the piece and augmenting them with sketches to facilitate identification of the works. These notes were carefully maintained, kept in alphabetical order and rigorously updated. Towards the end of her life, when Lawrence was forced to move out of her apartment and into care, these folders became particularly precious, enabling her to connect to the pieces that she was forced to leave at home. 

While Margaret’s knowledge and interest were diverse, she was especially passionate about a few works, which journeyed with her to her room at Montclaire Aged Care. One piece that inspired her enduring passion and was held very dear was an elegantly shaped and luminously blue vase by Greg Daly, which is pictured above. 

Margaret Lawrence’s ceramics collection was bequeathed to the Victorian College of the Arts and to the VCA Margaret Lawrence Gallery. There is a permanent rotating display of Margaret Lawrence’s collection in the VCA Lenton Parr Music, Visual and Performing Arts Library at Southbank.


Remembering Margaret Lawrence and her collection
Anna Maas

It was a cold afternoon in the middle of 2002 when Margaret Lawrence arrived at the gallery wearing an emerald green jacket and carrying a navy blue shoulder bag. She stood at the door and greeted me with a polite “Hello” and asked in her distinctive voice, “How long have you been here?” and “Why haven’t I known about you earlier?” She was immediately distracted by the collection of ceramic works surrounding her, and I watched as she made her way through the display cabinets. She was obviously delighted at what she had just discovered. I wondered if I should go up to her and start a conversation, but I felt I should not bother her, as she had probably come in for a short while to get out of the cold. Little did I know that I had just met a person who shared my interest, curiosity and passion for ceramics. That afternoon, Margaret and I spent two hours chatting about ceramics over a cup of coffee and came to an arrangement that I would personally deliver her ceramic purchases to her home in Balaclava.

The deliveries were an exciting event for Margaret. On arrival I would ring her intercom and she would descend the three flights of stairs to greet me and open the security gate. Once inside her flat, I would unpack the boxes and place the ceramics on the sofa, which had been cleared of papers and books. As each new piece was unwrapped, Margaret and I discussed the particular qualities and background of the artist. Margaret not only enjoyed these conversations, but also found them very useful for her comprehensive catalogue, which consisted of information about more than two thousand pieces of Australian ceramics. Each piece was catalogued in alphabetical order, with title, artist’s name, and date and place of purchase. Margaret also included her own accurate coloured drawing of each piece for easy identification. The catalogue, consisting of four or five folders, was very precious to her, and she always kept it close at hand to help her keep track of her vast collection. 

Margaret’s ceramics dominated her home. Every vacant shelf in every room was used to display her collection. One day she rang me and asked whether I could find a home for a series of books on Japanese art. “They need to go,” she said. “The shelves could be used to display more ceramics.”

Margaret had particular favourites in her collection. Like many of us, Margaret loved and responded to colour, particularly blue. This may have been because she spent a considerable part of her life living by the sea. She also loved to “gently touch” some of her works – the sensation of texture delighted her. Her wicked sense of humour also led her to thoroughly enjoy the quirky and whimsical.

The works of Stephen Bowers, Gerry Wedd, Stephen Benwell, Barbara Swarbrick and Joe Szirer especially struck a chord with Margaret, not only for their skillful artistry, but also for their narrative and humour.

The soda-glazed stoneware pieces by Gail Nichols were a joy for her to touch, as were the varying textures of the works by Owen Rye and Alan Peascod, two long-standing friends and masters of complex textural surfaces and glazes.

Margaret adored the works of Bill Samuels and Koji Hoashi for their strong responses to their environments through form, colour and glaze. This response is also evident in the pot by the legendary Peter Rushforth. Peter studied at RMIT after World War II before moving to the Sydney Technical College and establishing in 1962, with fellow potter Mollie Douglas, the first Certificate Course in Ceramics in Australia. Margaret’s collection also features work by the late Allan Lowe, who inspired Peter to pursue pottery as a career.

The raw energy of the pieces by Deborah Halpern, Amanda Shelsher and David Ray always brought a smile to Margaret’s face. The intrinsic harmony of the pieces by Sony Manning, Pippin Drysdale, Neville French and Sophie Thomas appealed strongly to her. While the skillfulness of the work by Les Blakebrough, Sandra Black, Andrew Halford, Klytie Pate, Anne Mercer, Garry Bish and Jenny John provoked curiosity about the techniques used, the works of Shiga Shigeo and Ann Geroe, with their mastery of oriental glazes, subtle texture and simplicity of form, suggested purity and tranquility to Margaret.

It was, however, a porcelain spherical bottle with a soft cobalt blue glaze by Greg Daly that took Margaret to another place. She would close her eyes and quietly sigh every time we discussed it.   

Anna Maas
Director, Skepsi on Swanston Gallery

This text was first published in 2008 as a catalogue essay accompanying an exhibition of Margaret Lawrence’s ceramics in the Lenton Parr Library at the Victoria College of the Arts. Margaret Lawrence bequeathed her collection to The Victorian College of the Arts. 


Recollections on Margaret Lawrence
Shannon McCarthy 

I first heard of Margaret Lawrence in the late 1990s, when she purchased works by two of my fellow ceramics students at RMIT. When I recently bumped into my ex-colleagues and mentioned that I had an opportunity to work with the Margaret Lawrence Australian Ceramic Collection, they both remembered Margaret with fondness, describing her as a “lovely lady”. Margaret was an enthusiastic supporter of the arts and, although she passed away in 2005, her legacy continues through the Margaret Lawrence Bequest.

Australian ceramics were Margaret’s passion. Her taste was eclectic, and her collection includes examples both of the sublime and of the charmingly ridiculous. Works by now-unknown craft potters and by small mass-production potteries from the 1920s onwards rub shoulders with works by not only the most seminal figures in Australian studio ceramics but also emerging ceramic artists such as my friends. The diversity of the collection suggests that Margaret was far more interested in delighting in the versatility of the medium than in pursuing any rigidly defined aesthetic. Margaret’s catholic approach to collecting enabled her to acquire examples of many significant themes in Australian ceramics from the 1920s until the time of her death.

From the 1920s until the 1940s, small potteries became prolific throughout Australia, catering to a burgeoning market for souvenirs. The liberal use of gumnut and kangaroo imagery proclaimed the Australian-ness of this work; however, there were other less literal characteristics that also made the work distinctive. Una Deerbon’s pots, with their chunky, slightly asymmetrical forms and loosely applied glaze, are typical of work produced in Australia at this time. Not all Australian ceramicists in the 1930s, however, worked with Deerbon’s abandoned fluidity. Some, like Klytie Pate, adapted Australian flora and fauna to the more stylised visual language of art deco.

In the 1950s, many Australian ceramicists became interested in the Anglo-Oriental aesthetic developed by British potter Bernard Leach in the early 1920s. This aesthetic privileged the production of functional pottery for everyday use and displayed the skills and knowledge of the ‘unknown’ folk potters of Japan, Korea and England. Harold Hughan and Peter Rushworth were significant Australian studio potters who were influenced by Leach’s approach. Japanese ceramicists such as Kiyoshi Ino, who migrated to Australia in the 1960s, also helped to actively foster an interest in Japanese ceramic techniques.

In recent years there has been debate about whether Leach and his associates had a genuinely strong knowledge of the craft traditions they promoted; however, there can be no doubt about the extent of their influence. Even today, many Australian ceramicists work with wood-fire kiln techniques that originated in Japan, and with traditional Japanese and Korean glazes such as shino and celadon.

In Margaret’s collection there are a number of works that use these two glazes. Shino is a style of white satin glaze that is sometimes combined with oxides brushed under or over the glaze. The resulting surface can be any colour from milky white to apricot, orange, and grey. Effects like pitting, beading, and crawling are deliberately cultivated to enhance textural interest.

Celadon tends to have a more refined, jade-like appearance, ranging in colour from pale to mid-range green, grey, and blue. These colours are reliant on the presence of a small amount of iron oxide (sometimes in the actual clay body rather than in the glaze itself), and on the glaze being fired in a wood or gas kiln with reduced amounts of oxygen.

Japanese influence on Australian ceramics extends well beyond Anglo-Orientalism and wood-fired glazes. Contemporary ceramicist Kevin White studied in Japan from the late 1970s until the early 1980s, and is well known for his use of vivid, Japanese-inspired on-glaze decoration (enamel-like colour fired at low temperatures). Similarly, David Pottinger has adapted the Japanese technique of neriage (cutting, layering, and combining of different coloured clays).

In the 1970s, Australians began to investigate ceramic movements and traditions from outside Japan. Alan Peascod travelled through the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and parts of Europe to develop his knowledge of Islamic ceramic traditions, becoming proficient in lustres (metallic and iridescent glaze effects). His bulbous-bellied wheel-thrown forms stand out from the more sedate Asian-inspired forms of the 1950s and 1960s. He was also a skilled ceramic sculptor who became well known for his soft, whimsical figures in porcelain.  

The 1980s brought about a new interest in pushing the edges of how potters thought about “the pot”. David Potter thrived in this environment, deliberately cultivating a non-precious, highly experimental and often physically performative approach to his work. Rules about materials were gleefully broken, and huge, hapless pots were regularly subjected to blowtorches and gouging. Margaret’s collection contains some of Potter’s more subdued early works.

David Ray and Koji Hoashi are from a more recent generation of ceramicists. Their work is extremely different and yet, looking at their pots, their debt to their predecessors is clear.

The Margaret Lawrence Australian Ceramic Collection is not the largest collection of Australian ceramics; however, it reminds us that within the constraint of working with a single medium, there is a multitude of ways of interpreting surface and form. Margaret Lawrence loved ceramic art so much that she wanted to ensure that after her death the public would be able to freely access the ceramic artworks that had given her so much pleasure.

Shannon McCarthy

Shannon McCarthy studied Ceramics at RMIT before undertaking a Masters of Art, Museums and Curatorship at The University of Melbourne, during which she also worked on the Margaret Lawrence Australian Ceramic Collection.

This text was first published in 2008 as a catalogue essay accompanying an exhibition of Margaret Lawrence’s ceramics in the Lenton Parr Library at the Victoria College of the Arts. Margaret Lawrence bequeathed her collection to The Victorian College of the Arts.