Inside the Collection

Vale Peter Rushforth, a great Australian ceramicist

Stoneware bowl made by Peter Rushforth, Sydney, NSW, c.1964. Gift of Garry Anderson, 1991. 92/1555
Stoneware bowl made by Peter Rushforth, Sydney, c 1964, MAAS collection 92/1555

Peter Rushforth was one of Australia’s great ceramicists. Along with a number of his contemporaries, including his early mentor Allan Lowe, Rushforth shared an abiding interest in Asian, especially Chinese and Japanese ceramic aesthetics, philosophies and traditions. The New South Wales potter and pottery teacher passed away in Katoomba on 22 July. We’re saddened by this news at the Museum; we have a number of connections with Rushforth and works created by him in our collection.

Peter Rushforth in his studio in 2014, photograph courtesy of Grace Cochrane
Peter Rushforth in his studio in 2014, photograph courtesy of Grace Cochrane

WWII Experience

Born in Manly 1920, Rushforth survived more than 3 years as a Japanese prisoner-of-war at Changi from 1942 until the end of WWII. It was a life-changing event. Fortunately Rushforth discovered the library at Changi and spent as much time as possible reading about art and philosophy. This left a lasting impression.

Returning to Australia, he enrolled in the arts course at Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT) under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. He moved to Sydney in 1951, setting up studios at Beecroft then Church Point, then from 1978 at Shipley on the Blue Mountains escarpment near Blackheath. My uncle Remy also lived on this rather remote mountain ridge, and I recall him telling me how he, Peter Rushforth and Peter’s wife Bobbie would occasionally catch up for a drink and a chat.

Stoneware jar made by Peter Rushforth at Blackheath, 1990, MAAS collection 90/1038
Stoneware jar made by Peter Rushforth at Blackheath, 1990, MAAS collection 90/1038

Lasting Legacy

When he initially moved to Sydney, Rushforth was enrolled in the sculpture course at East Sydney Technical College (ESTC) but he quickly went on to become their first full time Teacher of Ceramics in 1951. In 1963, he travelled to Japan, where he spent 5 months working alongside potters at Koishiwarra on Kyushu, exhibiting his work in Kyoto on Honshu. Along with his contemporaries, he helped introduce, foster, interpret and sustain these aesthetics and traditions in an Australian context in the immediate post-WWII period, especially from the 1950s on.

The ESTC ceramics department was run by Rushforth until he retired in 1978. It became one of the most respected ceramics courses in Australia. There Peter taught alongside other revered potters including Mollie Douglas, Col Levy, Bernard Sahm and Shigeo Shiga. In 1956, a number of potters established the Potters’ Society of Australia. Rushforth was one of these founding members and also the Society’s first president.

Woodfired stoneware jar made by Peter Rushforth in New South Wales,1996, MAAS collection 97/7/1
Woodfired stoneware jar made by Peter Rushforth in New South Wales,1996, MAAS collection 97/7/1

Connection with MAAS

A wood fired stoneware jar with jun glaze (above) is an exceptional example by Rushforth. It was acquired to remember Bill Roberts, a colleague at the Museum with a special interest in ceramics who passed away in 1996 at the age of 40. As a key and major work, this vessel represents a lifetime of personal dedication and commitment to form, process, ideals, aesthetics and experimentation. These elements characterised Bill Roberts’s own approach to his work in our Registration Department where he spent much of his time researching and cataloguing the ceramics collection.

Why Chinese jun glazes?

The Chinese jun (previously called chun) glaze was developed in the Song (previously Sung) period. It comprises felspar, magnesium, bone ash and rice straw ash (mainly silica). When asked why he had a continuing interest in jun glazes, Rushforth responded:

“I like its opalescence, and blue is a mysterious colour; it is peaceful and tranquil too. I like the way it contrasts with the red glazes – it is vibrant. The variables in woodfiring can produce many nuances of colour. It also evokes a feeling of the landscape, particularly my own environment up here – the mountains, the mists and snow; but at the same time I don’t want to go beyond what comes out of the materials and processes by superimposing a decoration that isn’t relevant. It must be integrated, and come out of the materials and processes themselves.” (Cochrane, November 1996)

Rushforth was awarded an Order of Australia (OA) in 1985, an Australia Council Emeritus Award in 1993, a Fellowship of the National Art School in 2003, and an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Art from RMIT in 2010. His works are held in many public and private collections. Talented, inspiring and affable, Rushforth will be greatly missed by his friends and colleagues. He is survived by his wife Bobbie, their 3 daughters and their families.

For more, read about the most recent retrospective exhibition of Rushforth’s work at Sydney’s S.H. Erwin Gallery in 2013.

Post by Anne-Marie Van de Ven, Curator

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