Vale Les Blakebrough (1930-2022): a Tasmanian Perspective
Written by Grace Cochrane AM
Many people are recalling and writing about their memories of knowing and working with ceramic legend, Les Blakebrough AM (1930-2022), and regretting his passing on 2nd December this year. Les spent 74 of his 92 years in Australia, having left England and jumped ship as a cabin boy in Queensland at age 18, with nearly 30 years of that time in Tasmania, before moving to Coledale in NSW, in 2012.
He started his exemplary ceramics career in Sydney in the mid-1950s, having been happily side-tracked from painting by some who were aware of the thriving ceramics program at East Sydney Technical College (National Art School), where he studied with Peter Rushforth and Mollie Douglas, and met many others who became colleagues and luminaries in the field. He was made a Fellow of the NAS in 2021, to acknowledge his role over these many years. Following the prevalent Anglo-Oriental influence, in 1957 he went to work as an apprentice with Ivan McMeekin at the Sturt workshops in Mittagong, NSW, continuing from late 1959 as manager of the pottery, working with Takeichi Kawai in Japan in 1963, and from 1964-1972 as director of Sturt.
Blakebrough was also part of many developments in the infrastructure that supported the arts. He was soon involved in the Potters Society, established in 1956, and from 1964, the Craft Association of NSW (now Australian Design Centre, ADC). These organisations were interested in sharing information, organising events and exhibitions, publishing newsletters and magazines and encouraging travel and exchange to and from Australia. Overseas, this movement was driven by the World Crafts Council (WCC), and Blakebrough was asked to represent Australia at the 1970 WCC conference in Dublin.
By this time, anticipating that there could be a special board for the crafts in the revised funding body, the Australia Council for the Arts, the Craft Association was recruiting other states to set up state associations so that they could form a national body and be eligible for funding, and in 1971 the Craft Council of Australia (CCA) was established. The inclusion of a Crafts Board in the Australia Council in 1973 was largely the result of this strong lobby, which by then had ten years of state involvement behind it. Until the gradual development of state funding bodies in the 1970s and the increasing investment in the area by art schools and galleries, in most cases the Crafts Board was the sole funding support for both individuals and organisations. Blakebrough was a member of the first Board, and recalls: ‘Can you imagine what it was like, coming from Sturt where I’d started with £1 a week and my keep, having spent all those years driving up and down to meetings, to be sitting round that table on the first board with nearly a million dollars to spend? We wanted to do everything at once.’(1)
This development coincided with Blakebrough’s move to Tasmania in late 1972, where he took up a position as head of the ceramics workshop at the Tasmanian School of Art in its new location as part of the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education on Mt Nelson, later becoming part of the University of Tasmania. He started the program there in early 1973, bringing his experiences from Sturt to this new environment and, with students and staff including former associate at Sturt, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, researched clays and glazes on what they called ‘geology excursions’. Names given to some of the materials used, such as Coles Bay blue glaze and South Mt Cameron glaze, give some clues as to where they dug out clay or picked up rocks.
He also initiated a glass-blowing studio at the School. In the early years of the Crafts Board, the Crafts Enquiry (1973-75) identified limited studio glass activity, and funding was put towards a mobile glass studio that was developed with Crown Corning. This toured a number of states in 1974 with American artist Bill Boysen working with Australian assistants. Richard Marquis, also from the United States, followed later in the year, teaching and setting up small glass-blowing facilities, and visiting Tasmania as part of his program. With support from the School, the Crafts Board and the TAAB, Blakebrough invited him back for a year in 1976. They set up a glass workshop at the School of Art, which continued until 1982.
Les Blakebrough established his own pottery studio at Mount Nelson, and was a foundation member of the newly formed Tasmanian Arts Advisory Board (TAAB) from 1974-1977. From 1978 to 1988 he also ran the Pot Company as a production pottery. Here he took apprentices, some now funded in part by the Crafts Board and the TAAB. He stepped back as head of the ceramics department in 1981, to teach part-time and concentrate on his work as a potter. However, Director Geoff Parr was keen to encourage innovative projects as part of the University’s research program and Blakebrough was later persuaded to return to work towards this idea. He was made an Associate Professor and Reader in ceramics from 1989-1998 and, in 1998, a Principal Research Fellow. From 1990 he became involved in trialling a postgraduate course in production ceramics, and worked with Penny Smith and a number of honours graduates to establish a separate Ceramics Research Unit. In 1991, he was successful in gaining a large ARC grant to investigate high-temperature kiln development, which resulted in a flexible format kiln, on which he worked with Ben Richardson.
A Churchill Fellowship took him to Scandinavia and the UK in 1993, to focus on researching industrial processes in the factories of Royal Copenhagen, Denmark, Arabia, Finland and the Royal Worcester Porcelain Factory, UK, to envisage how to transform their production systems to a smaller but challenging experimental workshop. In 1994 and 1996, Blakebrough worked jointly with Penny Smith who had also researched industrial processes overseas, and they were successful in receiving two further large 3-year ARC grants to look at industrial processes as they might interface with crafts-based industries. At an early stage, with Australia Council assistance, they brought out Hilkka Hiltunen, product manager at the Arabia factory, in Finland, and later, some associates. A key purpose of the project was to develop a flexible roller-head machine, that was capable of producing runs of domestic wares of between 1000 and 10,000 items, a rotating drier, and clay-cutting and glazing machines. While Blakebrough had retired from teaching in 1995 he remained involved in these projects, and in 1997-98 received an Australia Council Creative Arts Fellowship.
In 2005 Blakebrough completed a commission in the Ceramic Research Unit for a special collection of dinnerware for the Vice-Chancellor of the University, in storage cabinets made by Peter Costello, as part of an agreement for using the studio for his own work. He also started to develop the Flora Tasmanica set of 6 plates in limited editions of 100, commissioning botanical decal artist, Lauren Black, to work with him; the final edition was in 2005 and some had also Tasmania’s wedding gift to Tasmanian, Mary Donaldson, and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark.
Parallel research saw the development between 1995-1999 of a special porcelain clay that would suit his making purposes. A small ARC grant in 1995 started it off, and further grants in 1996 and 1999 continued the project, with workshop assistance from Ben Richardson, Lynne Logan and Jane Bamford, and by 1998-99 this formula was finalised as Southern Ice Porcelain, initially a UTAS company, and which is now manufactured in Victoria. Strong, white and translucent, the clay can be thrown, cast, carved and sponged to allow variations of translucency and opacity, matt exterior surfaces and clear interior glazes catch and transmit light in different ways. Blakebrough then used it exclusively: ‘No porcelain is easy to use, but this is more user-friendly than most. It is impeccable, sophisticated, wonderfully pristine, whiter than any other, anywhere.’ (2)
Blakebrough was known for his variations over time on a number of thrown, cast and altered vessel forms such as cylinders, spheres, bowls, plates and platters. For many years he worked with multiples, making fine production wares, while at the same time also working on a large scale, making huge spheres, cylinders and platters in stoneware and porcelain. These forms gave him the opportunity to decorate the large surfaces in often loose, gestural marks. Following glazed surface decoration on stoneware, in later years he often applied brushed metal salts and lustres to the porcelain surfaces, and deep-etching. In 2007 he had the opportunity to work for six months in the studio of British ceramic artist Kate Malone. He devised a process of pouring casting slip to create thin sheets of porcelain for hand-building. Of this new work, he explained: ‘I can control thickness by applying the porcelain in layers. Then it is easy to play with translucency by using deep-etching processes such as embedding muslin in the layers, and removing it as the clay is drying.’ (3)
Constant themes in recent years have been the patterns of ripples on water and of leaves and grasses on the ground. Series titles such as Forest Floor (with leaf patterns), Derwent (with river ripples) and In the Long Grass with Claudia Rose (his grand-daughter), have deep-etched translucent patterns on the matt exteriors where layers of clay have been progressively washed away. These reflect his awareness of the details of the world around him, and of the interplay of light with these elements of the natural environment – dappling, rippling, glancing. From 2010, in his Fortescue Bay Kelp Forest series, Blakebrough continued to explore the translucency of Southern Ice porcelain through constructing bowls using layers of ribbons cut from thin sheets of clay formed by pouring casting slip. They were inspired by the floating presence of the threatened giant kelp forests that grow in the sea on the east coast of Tasmania.
Les Blakebrough is represented in all major museums and galleries in Australia, and awards include a gold medal from the International Exhibition of Ceramic Art, in Faenza, Italy in 1975; Senior Tasmanian of the Year in 2008; and an AM in the Queen’s Birthday 2013 Honours List. Among his many solo and group exhibitions, The Tasmanian School of Art mounted Les Blakebrough: a retrospective, touring in 1989, and in 2005 The Australian Design Centre in Sydney launched the exhibition and publication Les Blakebrough: Ceramics as their first Living Treasures: Masters of Australian Craft recipient, organised by former student Brian Parkes, (now CEO of JamFactory). Both catalogues, written by his former colleague Jonathan Holmes, contain very detailed accounts of Blakebrough’s life and work. Many dealer galleries support his work: in 2010 the Bett Gallery in Hobart produced the Les Blakebrough: Ceramics exhibition and monograph of recent examples, and in 2020 Sabbia Gallery in Sydney showed Moving forward, Looking back.
And finally, achieving what so many of us promise to do, but don’t manage to carry out, in 2021 Les published Les Blakebrough: a Memoir – an enchanting story told in nine chapter/decades, and launched at the Sturt Gallery as part of its 80th anniversary! Those in Tasmania who knew Les Blakebrough over much of this time, join with colleagues and friends elsewhere to send sympathy to his partner Anne Ferran, daughter Cybelle and son Ben, and brother Brian, and to acknowledge our memories of his very significant contribution to Tasmania and the wider ceramics world.
Grace Cochrane AM
Curator, historian and writer, based in Sydney. She has a long experience of the Australian crafts movement and lived in Tasmania in the 1970s and 80s. This article draws on interviews with Les Blakebrough and some of her previous publications, including The Crafts Movement in Australia: a history (1992) and ‘Residencies and research’ in Les Blakebrough, Bett Gallery, 2010.
- Les Blakebrough, in Cochrane 1992, p 250.
- Les Blakebrough, interview with author, June 2010.
Image credit: courtesy of Grace Cochrane AM