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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Feet of Clay

A Richard Quinn Story

- - in which I meet a man, am wary of him, grow to like, admire, and then love him. He gets ill, he dies. I miss him then and I miss him now.

In the late 1980s I developed an interest in New Zealand’s Crown Lynn Pottery founded by the Clark family in 1929. The products of this company, once the largest pottery in the Southern Hemisphere are everywhere in New Zealand and yet at the time there was little published about it and nothing in print. I decided to resolve this and began an odyssey that so far has taken almost quarter of a century.

I began by tracking down and taking notes from every published source I could find. A limited number of Crown Lynn products had cast off the shackles of mediocrity that typified their output and were collected by people with an interest in design - The Bohemia ware range, the Keith Murray-influenced thrown and turned range designed by the man then known as Ernest Shufflebottom and the Hand Werk range by Frank Carpay. People I knew through my job on the fringes of the art scene had a few pieces of Crown Lynn. Others had examples of the early multicoloured experimental running glaze works. And of course virtually every house in the country had Crown Lynn products in their cupboards. In that period every op shop had shelves of the pottery and many catering companies used or rented out Crown Lynn. It was ubiquitous and perhaps is more so now. Along with its iconic status and a growing if erratic secondhand market a mythology is building up around it – where there’s brass there’s muck.

I drafted a timeline compiled from my notes and sent it to Linda Tyler a lecturer at Unitec who I’d known through Wellington’s small art gallery openings party scene. Linda complimented my research and suggested drafting an exhibition proposal. She also gave me a list of potential sources for more information. There was an acrimonious dispute going on at the time over pottery stored at the Ambrico kiln site in New Lynn. Lynda wrote that the person saying the collection is his is Richard Quinn an amateur researcher from Avondale. She gave me his address as well as Trish Clark’s and that of another ex-Wellingtonian who was working at the Auckland Institute and War Memorial Museum. I also sent a copy of the timeline to my uncle John who was a friend of Tom Clark’s. I was hoping to arrange to meet Tom and discuss my plan to write about the company. I had the impression my uncle was quite protective of him and besides by that time Tom had little involvement in the day to day running of the company. I also felt that my uncle didn’t want Tom to be bothered by more approaches by under-informed inquisitors and certainly didn’t want to be responsible himself for introducing an additional irritant into Tom’s life as he was by then often ill.

I decided to go with the Richard Quinn option despite or perhaps because of what I saw as Linda’s implication that there was something a bit off about him. I wrote a letter to him enclosing a copy of the timeline and asked for his comments on it and his advice on how to proceed with writing on Crown Lynn for publication. And so began a deluge of comments and advice that still resonates through my life eighteen months after Richard died.

When I worked at proto-Te Papa Tim Walker curator of New Zealand Art had done his thesis on Major-General Robley or Te Ropere. Robley was a fascinating man who had left a number of descendants in New Zealand when he returned to England. Tim describes him as having spent his last days living in cramped accommodation surrounded by his collection of mokomokai, preserved heads and writing obsessively about them and his adventures in New Zealand.

I worry now that I sit Robley-like in my cramped study surrounded by books, papers, pottery and Quinniana obsessing about getting reliable information out to as wide a readership as possible. My wife wonders why I’m cluttering up the spare room with junk and my daughters can’t understand how they’ve lost control of the playroom. We had to get them a laptop as daddy's not so good with sharing.

There has recently been an exhibition of Crown Lynn at Wellington’s City Gallery. The core of the show was pieces from the research collection Richard had amassed over quarter of a century. He’d told me that when he and his family moved from Wellington to Auckland he’d noticed on the drive up that the appearance of buildings changed significantly. There was a point where brick became the dominant building material and he wondered why. Noticing and wondering and asking “Why?” are some of the characteristics that drove the Richard Quinn I grew to respect, admire and love.

When I heard that the Wellington Crown Lynn exhibition is going to show at the end of the year in Auckland’s Gus Fisher Gallery which is administered by Linda Tyler I felt that a circuit was being completed, a homecoming for Richard’s collection and a way for me to unshackle myself from the pile of stuff, baggage I’ve accumulated through my interest in fired clay. Richard had given me architects drawings for Broadcast House the home of the gallery. He'd salvaged them from Crown Lynn - possibly Amalgamated Brick and Pipe supplied some or perhaps all of the bricks for the building. I quickly passed the drawings on to Auckland University as that seemed their most natural home.

I’m in contact with Richard’s family and so far have the encouragement of two of them to write about him. I intend to have something ready to post by September 11th 2011 the second anniversary of his death. I also have a mountain of drafts and Word docs of his book(s) that remind me that intentions, tears and hard work are not enough to get something in print. His history of fired clay in New Zealand eventually became a biography of the odious Samuel Marsden.

Richard regarded much of what was appearing online about Crown Lynn as apalling - poorly researched, unsupported by primary or even secondary sources and in some glaring instances just plain wrong. Such is internet life. I hope to provide an alternative and work with a fine bunch of people doing this here.

In the meantime listen to this - one of Richard's poems set to music by the son of one of an online group he contributed to as the benevolent elder he was becoming as cancer overtook him. The song and its genesis reveal another Richard Quinn story. There are many.


Sean Shadbolt said...

Did you know there has been a book published on Crown lynn in 2008?
It was published by penguin books and written by Valerie Ringer Monk. I don't know how the research stacks up but it seems quite comprehensive as regards the history.

Fresh Local said...

Thanks Sean - I know the book - it is a significant contribution to the publically available information on Crown Lynn. Friends who've heard Val Monk speak say she does a great job of making the pottery come alive.

dwing said...

My sister was taught by Linda Tyler at UNITEC, we saw her just a while ago at the Gus Fisher for the Parker/Storm/O'Connor exhibition.

Fresh Local said...

Thanks Tim - Linda's done some excellent work across a range of design fields. She's also a lot of fun and very good company. Back in the day she used to be able to... - actually we were all a lot younger then.