by potter Kay Scott, former student, tutor and co-director of Potters School, 1969–1981
“When the student is ready the teacher comes.”
The teacher I was about to encounter was Peter Laycock.
On a Sunday drive through Warrandyte, Victoria, in February 1969, by chance I spotted a small hand-painted sign by the entrance to the famed ‘Potters Cottage’; in Jumping Creek Road. It said: “Pottery School opening soon – students welcome – apply within”. So I did. My senses thrilled at the smell of wet clay. I looked about. I was ‘home’ I enrolled at once without asking many questions and my life changed at that moment.
My tutors would be Reg Preston, Elsa Ardern, Peter Laycock and Gus McLaren. Their pasts and visions for the Potters Cottage complex was yet unknown to me. Incidentally, I would love to see the whole history of this huge part of Australian pottery history documented in this magazine one day. It must be written.
They taught us week about for a full day a week, ten in the morning until four in the afternoon, and it was not until the third week of my initiation into the world of pottery that I met Peter Laycock. He ambled in through the door of the school – a huge dark shape, blocking out the light as he came; lanky-limbed, long greasy black hair, headband askew, tatty jeans with holes at the knees, string belt and thongs. Bluebeard or Rasputin came to mind.
At the first lesson he made it clear that we could ask as many questions as we liked, anytime, except if he was out in his old car listening to a horse race. His favourite accessory was a clay-covered transistor radio that he clamped to his ear eagerly hoping for a win. Strangely to me, a then correct housewife and mother of three, he was to be the tutor to whom I most related. His love of clay, raw materials, geology and kiln-firing was palpable. He explained these mysteries in simple terms with passion. The sight of him demonstrating throwing on a kick-wheel, the long hairy foot with thong going apace, was an awe inspiring sight. Poetry in motion.
He made beautiful honest pots, large and small (often studded with bits of feldspar), and great rugged shapes simply glazed with wood ash-based glazes and fired to stoneware temperatures in his wood-fired kiln, which flashed wonderful orange blushes onto the exterior surfaces.
He was generous, kind and encouraging if he thought you were serious about the craft. I always used the kick-wheel instead of the electric ones when he was teaching as I got a lot of attention for “doing it the hard way”.
Peter took us on field trips to the clay pits at Axedale to dig clay which was considered to be the best in the world. We also dug red clay from the intended site of the yet-to-be-built Maroondah Hospital in Ringwood. We had to make up our own clay in those days which was tough but satisfying. He and Elsa Ardern introduced us to raku kiln building and firing. There were brown paper bags full of white and red raw lead lying about on a trestle table and we happily delved into them as we made up our Raku glazes. Also on the table were flagons of red wine, glasses and food platters. All, no doubt, faintly powdered with lead dust. (Oh for the days before Work Health and Safety inhibited potters!)
United States legend potter Paul Soldner gave a two day brilliant master class at the school and I have a small black and white photo of Peter assisting him. Paul left a few bisqued pots he had made and they were there for years gathering dust. They’d be worth a fortune now, even unglazed.
There were many stories of Peter Laycock, most of them untellable. He and wife Helen would sell pots in the gully at Dunmoochin artists colony. If you purchased a pot it was filled for free with rough red wine from a barrel strapped to the back of his vehicle. This delightful practice stopped when he was dobbed in.
He also accidently over-fired a kiln that reached horrendously high temperatures. It was assumed that another tutor would turn it off while he went to the races. It got to the white hot stage and potters, students and technical people such as Geoff Walker (founder of Walker Ceramics) came to see what had happened to refractory materials etc. under such conditions. Peter was appalled, but fascinated like everyone else. It was days before the kiln was cool enough to open. Most pots were warped, cracked, slumped or totally melted to a pool. Shelves bent and refractory bricks had shrunk alarmingly on their inner hot face. But on some fragments of iron-glazed pottery was the most beautiful peach-bloom effects you would ever see.
I kept up with Peter from time to time, always telling him he was my favourite teacher. I hope he believed me. I could never afford his larger pots but I treasure those I have including several he gave me, such as the little hand-built, salt-glazed jewel box and a little bottle in the Bizen style.
Peter was a great potter, a great character, a man of simple needs who called himself a “potter”. He made “pots, not ceramics”. He hated pretension and he could communicate his passion for fire and clay to those of us fortunate to have him as teacher and friend.
He was celebrated and buried befitting the pioneer potter and man that he was, from the Castlemaine Art Gallery on 3 November, Melbourne Cup Day, 2009.
“Knowing the secret ways of the winds and the rain, he dug deep into the earth and found the rocks and learnt their histories. With precision he came to blow upon the flames and thus transformed his fragments of hillside into jars and bowls for the delight and use of man …”
xiv century Chinese
Quote from “Fire and Clay”, a book on the art of Helen and Peter Laycock; published by Heinemann, 1970; photos by Sue Ford.