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Cottage Pottery: An ancient art on Norfolk Island

Cottage Pottery: An ancient art on Norfolk Island

Steve and Alison Ryves’ Cottage Pottery can be found near the end of Anson Bay Road at the far north of the island. It is quite a ‘country drive’ by Norfolk Island standards, but well worth the outing. As you head down the drive, you’ll be greeted by an old outdoor wood-fired kiln. Then, nestled among the trees, you will come across an unpretentious but welcoming low-set building. Inside you will discover an Aladdin’s Cave – colourful pots of all shapes and sizes, stunning paintings, photographs, beautiful jewellery and many other treasures.

The Cottage Pottery story begins with the arrival of the Ryves family to the island in 1964. For a few years, Steve and his father John were busy installing refrigeration as electricity was starting to reach many areas of the island. One day, Steve’s mother June was out walking and discovered clay on the side of the road. Her suggestion that “someone ought to do something with this” sparked Steve’s imagination, and that of family friends who arranged for Steve to undertake a week of tuition with a potter in Sydney’s Kings Cross. Armed with this somewhat limited experience and tuition – but pot-loads of enthusiasm – he returned to the island and established ‘Cottage Pottery’.

“From the very start,” says Steve, “I knew this was what I wanted to do”. It was a steep learning curve, but the Norfolkers were encouraging. In a short time, many an island household had pieces of local pottery proudly displayed on the kitchen shelf or sideboard. Tour operators also showed great support – as they do to this day – delighted to showcase a genuine local handcrafted product.

One highlight of these early years was in 1974 when the Cottage Pottery was commissioned to produce a gift to present to Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips during their visit to Norfolk Island. Mindful of the royal couple’s equestrian interests, they produced a lovely stoneware saddle flask, which was gratefully accepted by Anne and Mark.

By the mid-seventies, the Pottery had relocated to its present site on family land at Anson Bay, where Steve had built a home. There was a workshop, and an adjacent showroom/gallery from which visitors could view the potters at work. The rural setting in a picturesque part of Norfolk added to the ambience.

As time went by, a number of local people were able to gain skills and experience at the Pottery. Then, in 1982, Alison arrived on the island. Originating from Canada, she had been holidaying in Australia when friends pointed out an advertisement for a potter on Norfolk Island. With a degree in fine arts and ceramics behind her, she decided she was ready for a change, and joined the Norfolk team. Thus began a lifelong partnership, successful on many levels – for Steve and Alison fell in love, married, and had two children; Jamie and Emily. Meanwhile, Alison’s experience and considerable artistic talents enabled them to develop new lines and styles in their product.

The buildings have expanded a little over the years, but retain their homely and rustic charm. Today the local clay is still used, but mainly for glazing, where the high iron content produces a lovely terracotta effect. The Ryves’ explain that the imported clay is better suited to the high temperature firing needed to produce a quality durable pot. An eclectic collection of kilns are in use at the Pottery today, beginning with the old outdoor wood-fired kiln which is now nearing the end of its life. There is also a gas kiln, and a smaller electric one used by Alison for dichroic glass products. The main work engine, however, is an enormous kiln, designed from scratch by Steve himself, and fuelled by aviation kerosene! Steve is very proud of this kiln, which is unlike any other he has seen. It can hold around 1000 items at a time, and has truly proved itself in over 250 firings.

Alison and Steve are true artisans. Although they share many of the tasks, Steve’s particular passion is the wonderful shapes he can produce with his hands at his potter’s wheel. Alison’s forte is the beautiful surface decoration and glowing colours. However, both agree that a creative spirit is only a part of the equation for success. One needs to give careful attention to technical details, such as the measuring, managing and monitoring of glaze mixtures and firing temperatures, if one is to produce consistent and satisfying results.

The Ryves’ note that many long established potteries on the mainland have closed down. One reason, they feel, is that there are too few young people willing to make a career in arts and crafts. Pottery is a particularly difficult skill to master, but for those who persevere the satisfaction is enormous. Many pottery producers have not moved beyond the chunky or funky era, though Steve and Alison believe it is important to continually experiment, innovate and evolve, and to keep up with tastes and trends.

The success of this philosophy is obvious. Visitors and clients comment on the fact that their products are light and functional, as well as aesthetically pleasing. Particularly attractive and popular are the porcelain items, with their metallic lustre glazes – both rich and delicate at the same time. Alison enjoys working with dichroic glass, using precious and semi-precious metals and minerals, as the resulting colours are dazzling and each piece is unique. She also works with silk, producing stunning paintings and sunprints, which feature symbols of the Norfolk way of life and heritage, as well as the island’s plants, birds, shells and fish. She says it is important that their creations tell the story of Norfolk Island, its culture and environment. Additionally, cards, sarongs and scarves are available, adding variety to the range of items in the Pottery. Daughter Emily has joined the Pottery team, specialising in pieces of cobalt blue on white background; a fascinating link with those pieces of porcelain rescued from the wells, privies and gardens of Norfolk’s earlier settlers. Emily’s mugs, decorated with the faces of the island’s iconic cows, are especially popular items. She has also teamed up with partner Zac to present Norfolk’s birdlife and marine environment in an incredible series of photographs. From his surfboard, Zac captures the lively beauty of a wave in a way that landlovers will never see it.

It is said that pottery is able to tell the story of the lives and times of a people. With that concept in mind, The Ryves’ have been telling the Norfolk Island story with passion and sensitivity for four decades. “I will never tire of it,” says Steve, explaining that there are still many shapes and ideas to explore and develop. Alison tells us that producing something beautiful with your hands completely absorbs you, like meditation. They say they cannot imagine doing anything else other than what they are doing.

The Cottage Pottery will be diversifying and expanding in a somewhat unusual way in the near future, as Emily is importing a herd of goats. Her goal is to produce a quality goat’s milk cheese, which can be enjoyed by both locals and visitors. The paddock next to the Pottery has been fenced in readiness.

A recent trip to South-east Asia greatly inspired the couple, and they wished they were able to bring home some beautiful old bowls and vases. Steve dreams of one day visiting Japan, where the ancient art of pottery is highly valued, and where a master potter is considered a national treasure. Western civilisation may not recognise master potters in the same regard, though the beautiful creations available in the Cottage Pottery are indeed Norfolk Island treasures.


Image Credit: Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 02 Issue 04, 2012. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.



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