The Whole Man – The Life and Work of Peter Rushforth By Jan Howlin

The Whole Man – The Life and Work of Peter Rushforth by Jan Howlin

Peter Rushforth emerges from Le Var, the rustic Blue Mountains house where he and his wife Bobby have lived for more than 30 years, and approaches with an open hand and a warm, gentle greeting.

No No doubt many have been welcomed into the Rushforth’s realm in this way – a household of genuine congeniality set in an environment of dramatic natural beauty, the whole experience heightened by the presence of his studio, kilns and pottery. Widely regarded as the father of studio pottery in Australia, Rushforth has been celebrated over many years for the exemplary life he has led as a potter and teacher, and for the inspiration he has been to many in the ceramic field, demonstrating through his work, his person and his lifestyle the firmly-held philosophy that has sustained him.

Rushforth’s work is represented in many private collections and major galleries around Australia and internationally; and his considerable contribution to the ceramic field and to the community has been acknowledged through his appointment to the Order of Australia in 1985, by a retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria (also in 1985), an Australia Council Emeritus Fellowship in 1993, a Fellowship of the National Art School in 2003, and an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Art from RMIT in 2010.

{jb_sound}Listen: “In August 2011, Jan Howlin visited Peter Rushforth at his home and studio, ‘Le Var’, in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. The interview is accompanied by images of his home, studio, kilns and work taken by photographer, Anthony Browell.
Length: 14:27 minutes{/jb_sound}


Rushforth came to pottery after World War II – possibly because of it. Born in Manly, Sydney, in 1920, he always liked to make things with his hands. Both his parents died when he was quite young and he developed a penchant for self-sufficiency. While serving in the armed forces, he became a Japanese prisoner-of-war in Burma and in Changi where, since the contents of Singapore Library had been made available to prisoners, he read about art and philosophy. Here Rushforth learnt of the ideas of Dr Soetsu Yanagi, who, along with Shoji Hamada and Kanjiro Kawai, had developed the Japanese folk art movement, Mingei.

Like countless others returning to civilian life after the end of World War II, Rushforth was searching for a future that would be meaningful and productive. He studied art for four years at The Melbourne Technical College (MTC, later RMIT) under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. During this time, he says, “I met Allan Lowe, who was one of the early pioneer potters before the war, and that’s what really influenced me in becoming a full-time potter.” At Lowe’s Ferntree Gully pottery Rushforth witnessed the kind of constructive, self-sufficient way of life he was looking for. “Although I had wanted to do art, I hadn’t focused my direction, and his work, rather his lifestyle, influenced me.”

At MTC Rushforth applied himself to pottery full-time. He was taught by John Knight and Jeffery Wilkinson, and completed his studies in 1949. At that time, he recalls, pottery made in Australia was largely influenced by the decorative style of the manufactured wares of Stoke-on-Trent. Almost everyone worked in earthenware, while Rushforth was strongly drawn to stoneware. He had been greatly impressed by the H. W. Kent Collection of Oriental ceramics held at the National Gallery of Victoria, which afforded him first hand experience of Song dynasty stoneware with its chun and celadon glazes. The Kent collection had also influenced Lowe, along with Harold Hughan, who was the first studio potter in Australia to build a stoneware kiln.1 Rushforth visited Hughan at his Glen Iris pottery several times and attended lectures on stoneware glazes given by his son, Robert.2 “I really wanted to go in that direction,” says Rushforth, “but we had very little knowledge of how to achieve those techniques.”

The information Rushforth did have – ideas that made a powerful impact on him – came from Bernard Leach’s iconic work, A Potter’s Book, which was published in 1940. Having studied with Hamada in Japan (1920–1923), Leach articulated the Mingei folk-art ethic, and in an attempt to bridge Eastern and Western cultures he championed the making of functional stoneware with an Oriental aesthetic based on the natural qualities of the ceramic materials. Leach’s philosophy and ideas found great resonance with Western potters and the Anglo-Oriental influence quickly came to dominate post-war Australian ceramics.3 In 1950 East Sydney Technical College (ESTC) advertised a position teaching pottery and in appointing Rushforth to the role he became it’s chief protagonist.4

Relocating to Sydney, Rushforth and Bobby first moved to Beecroft, then to Church Point and later to Shipley in the Blue Mountains. Along the way they had three daughters. At each home, Rushforth built a studio and a wood-firing kiln or two and maintained his pottery practice alongside his teaching commitments. His fascination for stoneware was shared by his fellow-teacher at ESTC, Mollie Douglas, who had laid the foundations of the pottery course there.5 In 1952, Ivan McMeekin returned to Australia after working with Michael Cardew in England and established Sturt Pottery in Mittagong, NSW. McMeekin brought with him a selection of pots by Cardew, Leach and others, and he and Rushforth began meeting regularly with Douglas and Ivan Englund to examine the pots and share information. “We were keen to start more research into high temperature work, but also to exhibit as a group,” says Rushforth and it was from these meetings that, in 1956, the Potters’ Society of Australia was established, with Rushforth its first president from its inception until 1961. The group was committed to creating functional stoneware pottery that exploited the natural qualities of their materials to expressive ends. As Rushforth wrote at the time, “The challenge of producing high temperature glazes with comparable aesthetic qualities to the beautiful classical glazes of the East was a goal of many of us.”6

The 1950s saw what Noris Ioannou has called an “explosion of studio pottery”7, which was inspired by the Leach Anglo-Oriental influence, and which expanded in the sixties and continued into the seventies. As Kenneth Hood from the National Gallery of Victoria described it, William Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement had heralded a revival of interest in the crafts in England since the 1920s when Leach first returned from Japan, but it took until the 1960s for Australia to see an awakening of interest in the crafts, with pottery as its primary focus.8

I think there was a worldwide interest in people using their hands and working creatively,” says Rushforth, “and pottery, out of the craft movement, probably dominated the numbers.” In 1962, Wanda Garnsey, a very active member of the Potters’ Society,, established Pottery in Australia, now The Journal of Australian Ceramics, which became a vital communication tool for the growing field. “There were so many potters emerging that the Potters’ Society expanded very quickly … we were able to liaise with potters in New Zealand and England and eventually with many of the Japanese potters, who were invited to Australia by the Potters’ Society.”

Lots of Australian potters also went to study in Japan, including Rushforth, who spent five months there in 1963. He visited Koishiwarra, a village of traditional potters in Kyushu; studied in Mashiko with Shimaoka, a pupil of Hamada’s; and worked in a studio at Kyoto Art University. Here he related intuitively to the Japanese aesthetic and the appreciation of beauty as found in nature and expressed in the tea ceremony. He wrote in an article he called The Good Pot, how he had become aware of the vast diversity that existed within the Japanese tradition. He appreciated the tendency to asymmetry; noted cultural concepts such as ‘jaku’, ‘sabi’ and ‘shibusa’ which are much appreciated by the Japanese, and absorbed the notion that, “for the Zen masters, art is never decoration, embellishment; instead it is a work of enlightenment, illumination, salvation. Art is a technique for acquiring liberty.” 9 While his early pots had exhibited “a classic simplicity and purity of shape”10, Rushforth’s trip to Japan led him to a greater spontaneity in his work.11 He found a new appreciation for imperfections, for the natural flaws in the materials that the firing can bring out, and continued his investigation of the local materials that would emulate the classic Japanese glazes with a deeper understanding of their creative uses.

When Rushforth began teaching at ESTC, he became the first full-time pottery teacher on staff. Initially, pottery was taught part-time as a component in a design diploma, but by 1960 Rushforth had created a full-time ceramics course. By 1963, he was Head Teacher of Ceramics, and in 1967 a Churchill Fellowship enabled him to travel to Europe and the USA to study educational methods and training. In 1972 he became Senior Head Teacher, a position that, ”he held with distinction until his retirement in 1979.”12 As Kenneth Hood writes, “He was always a committed and inspiring teacher.” Rushforth’s teaching principles were modelled on the advice of a Zen teacher, who advocated that you should first “develop an infallible technique, and then leave yourself open to inspiration”.13

Rushforth gathered around him at ESTC a talented group of teachers who helped shape the course of ceramics in Australia. Along with Mollie Douglas were Col Levy, Bernard Sahm, Derek Smith, Peter Travis, Gillian Griggs, Shigeo Shiga, Sandra Taylor, Joan Grounds and others.14 Many other renowned potters were invited to talk and work with students, among them Takeichi Kawai, Tatsuzo Shamaoka, Robert Hughan, Shoji Hamada, Mitsuo Shoji, Yu Fujiwara, Paul Soldner, Harry Davis, Michael Cardew, Douglas Laurie and Fred Olsen.15 Bernard Leach also came to Sydney briefly in 1962.

Under Rushforth’s direction the pottery course at ESTC became the most respected in Australia, with more than 200 students applying each year for only 18 available places16, and many of these students went on to become the ensuing generation’s prominent ceramic practitioners – Marea Gazzard, Wanda Garnsey, Margaret Tuckson, Peter Travis, Bernard Sahm and Janet Mansfield were among them. Grace Cochrane confirms the extent of Rushforth’s influence and the extremely high regard in which he is held: “Throughout his long – and continuing – career, Rushforth has been an outstanding practitioner, researcher, thinker, teacher and mentor” and he remains “an exemplary figure in the post-war ceramic movement.”17

While fulfilling his teaching responsibilities, Rushforth also pursued his studio work, with the same ideas and principles fuelling both endeavours. A belief in the humanising capacity of craft lies at the heart of his philosophy. “I think it is human instinct to make and create,” he says. Bernard Leach described craft as “good works proceeding from the whole man. Heart, head and hand in proper balance,” and Rushforth acknowledges that in his “earlier work, the writings of Bernard Leach were a great source of inspiration”. The idea that expressive hand-made work could counter the de-humanising influences of the technological age was a powerful part of the impetus that motivated him, and many others, in the studio pottery movement.

My motivation for choosing pottery as my life-long work … was the attraction of the lifestyle, and the great pleasure of being involved in a constructive activity,” Rushforth wrote in 1985, “yet there are values that transcend the activity of making objects, such as the search for beauty and the validity of one’s work in relation to the community in which one lives.” He found that validity in creating useful pottery – plates, jugs, teapots and bowls – that in stark contrast to machine-made products powerfully express the humanity intrinsic to their making. He also makes forms such as tea-bowls and blossom jars that echo Japanese counterparts and reflect his interest in the Japanese aesthetic.


Rushforth’s search for beauty and aesthetic expression derived from his materials has resulted, according to Ian McKay, in a body of work that is largely concerned with understatement and a fugitive aesthetic.18 “The transcendent values universally acknowledged in all the great pottery traditions have been one of Peter Rushforth’s life-long preoccupations”19, he writes. But while admiring the long and unbroken tradition of Japanese ceramics, the Japanese concept of beauty, and “the marvellous glazes developed by the Chinese over millennia,” Rushforth is adamant that “we don’t want to just simulate a culture. We have to establish work and ideals that are relevant to our own society.” He believes we should use our insights into Oriental pottery traditions and values to produce new glazes from our local materials and develop our own philosophy to produce work that is valid to the Australian environment.20 Kenneth Hood sees Rushforth’s success in this quest as one of his great achievements: “There is something endemically Australian about his work: its roughness, vigour and feeling for natural forms.”

At Rushforth’s home, the Australianness of the Blue Mountains landscape is both undeniable and dramatic. Modest timber structures are generously spaced amongst gardens tended by Bobby and between tall stands of trees, with the Kanimbla Valley stretching out to the far distance. We walk between them as Rushforth shows us the small timber gallery where his work is displayed. We pass the area where he prepares his clay, find in his long-time studio, pots at various stages of completion, which sit beside buckets of glaze awaiting their next application, and finally arrive at his wood-firing kilns – an anagama and a single chamber kiln with a firebox attached. The whole place is one of atmospheric beauty and intensely felt weather. It is an environment subject to mists and storms, snow and searing heat, and the occasional bushfire, and in between it is idyllically agreeable. While Rushforth has developed his own versions of the classic Japanese glazes and finishes over the years – Chun, Tenmoku, Celadons, Shino and ash glazes, and has also used natural ash and the flame effects achieved through firing – it is the Chun glaze, originally from Song dynasty China, that has most captured his imagination. He says this is partly because the blue is rich and atmospheric. It is not the result of a blue pigment, such as cobalt, but is created as light is diffused through minute bubbles within the glaze. “I like the opalescence of the Chun glaze, and blue is a mysterious colour. It also evokes a feeling of the environment up here – the mountains, the mists and the snow,” he says.

Rushforth wrote about this connection for an exhibition in 1988: “While Chun-blue glazes can be produced in a variety of kilns, the pots in this exhibition have developed special qualities from the manner in which they have been fired in a woodfired kiln … in Shipley in the Blue Mountains. In many ways the beautiful environment surrounding the workshop – the vistas of valleys, bushland and mountain escarpments – is expressed in these pots, each one being a unique statement in form, glaze and texture.”21 But those statements could never have been made had Rushforth not drawn together the qualities of his materials and the beauty of his environment through the utterly human intervention of his head, heart and hands.

Rushforth expects to conduct his last firing at Le Var in 2012.

1 Hood, Kenneth, Peter Rushforth Retrospective Exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 1985, p3
2 ibid.
3 Menzies, Jackie, The Asian Interface, Australian Artists and the Far East, Art Gallery of New South Wales 1983, Introduction
4 ibid.
5 Hood, Kenneth, Peter Rushforth Retrospective Exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 1985, p4
6 Rushforth, Peter, Pottery in Australia, Vol 6, No 1, May 1967
7 Ioannou, Noris, Pottery in Australia, ‘200 Years of Australian Clay Culture’, Vol 27, No 2, May 1988, p72
8 Hood, Kenneth, Pottery in Australia, ‘Canberra Exhibition’ Vol 1, No 2, 1962, p2
9 Rushforth, Peter, ‘The Good Pot’, Pottery in Australia, Vol 18 No 1, 1979 pp3-5
10 Hood, Kenneth, Peter Rushforth Retrospective Exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 1985, p10
11 ibid.
12 Hood, Kenneth, Peter Rushforth Retrospective Exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 1985, p4
13 Rushforth, Peter, ‘The Good Pot’, Pottery in Australia, Vol 18, No 1, 1979, p3
14 ibid.
15 ibid. p7
16 ibid. p4
17 Cochrane, Grace, Letter of support for Peter Rushforth (prior to his being awarded an Honorary Doctor of Fine Art, RMIT), held amongst Peter Rushforth’s private papers
18 McKay Ian, ‘Peter Rushforth, The Art of The Potter’, Pottery in Australia, Vol 27, No 1, Feb 1988, p4
19 ibid.
20 Rushforth, Peter, ‘The Good Pot’, Pottery in Australia, Vol 18 No1, 1979 p5
21 McKay Ian, ‘Peter Rushforth, The Art of The Potter’, Pottery in Australia, Vol 27, No 1, Feb 1988, p6


{jb_blackbox}PETER RUSHFORTH AM 

1920 Born in Manly, Sydney1939–1945 Served in the armed forces becoming a prisoner of war in Changi and in Burma.
1946–1949 Studied drawing, painting, sculpture and then pottery at RMIT, under the Commonwealth Reconstruction training Scheme. 
1946 A visit to Allan Lowe’s Ferntree Gully pottery studio inspired him to pursue a life in pottery.
1949 Visited Melbourne potter Harold Hughan who had built the first studio pottery stoneware kiln in Australia.
1950 Moved to Sydney and took up a position at East Sydney Technical College (ESTC), later becoming the first full-time ceramics teacher. 
1956 Founded the Potters’ Society of Australia, together with Mollie Douglas, Ivan Englund and Ivan McMeekin. Awarded a Diploma of Honour for work exhibited in the First World Congress of the international Academy of Ceramics, Cannes.
1956–1961 President of the Potters’ Society1960Under his guidance the first full-time ceramics course was offered at ESTC.
1962 Bernard Leach visited Australia.1963Appointed Head Teacher of Ceramics at ESTC; spent five months in Japan. 
1965 Exhibited in 10th International Exhibition of Ceramic Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington.
1967 Travelled on a Churchill Fellowship to Europe and USA.
1969 Moved home and studio to Church Point. 1972Senior Head Teacher of Ceramics, ESTC
1974 Exhibited at Faenza’s International Contemporary Ceramic Art Competition.
1975 Exhibited in Tokyo, the first solo show of Australian pottery to be shown in Japan.
1978 Retired from teaching at the National Art School and moved to Blackheath. Won the Warringah Art Prize, Open Craft section. Heart, Head and Hand, a documentary of his life and work, was directed by Peter Weir and produced by Craft Australia.
1985 Appointed to the Order of Australia (AM) for service to the ceramic arts, particularly pottery. Retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria
1993 Awarded an Australia Council Emeritus Fellowship199750 years as a potter celebrated at The Powerhouse Museum
2003 Awarded a Fellowship of the National Art School2010Awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Art, RMIT. A documentary of his life, Playing with Clay, was made by Christina Wilcox. {/jb_blackbox}

Author: Australian Ceramics

In 1956, The Potters Society of Australia was formed to encourage and foster the development, appreciation and recognition of potters and pottery. It was the first ceramics organisation in Australia. In 2006, our name was changed to The Australian Ceramics Association to more fully reflect the scope of practice of the members. We are a national, not-for-profit organisation representing the interests of practising potters and ceramicists, students of ceramics and all those interested in Australian ceramics. We actively support and promote quality, specialist ceramics education nationally. T: 1300 720 124

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