Plaque, with eucalyptus tree in bush setting, silky oak, pokerwork by Olive Hughes, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1999
Poker work or the method of burning designs into timber has been a method of artistic expression for thousands of years. Sometimes termed pyrography many cultures throughout the world have used this method to decorate ceremonial items as well as ornaments and functional household items.
Poker work was a popular art form in Australia in the period prior to World War 2. It appeared as a decorative form of design on a variety of household items made from wood such as vases, spoons, coat hangers, bowls, egg cups, coasters, doily covers and trays. The quality of the work appeared to vary greatly, from that done by amateur hobbyists to professional artists. So great was its popularity that companies specialising in its production supplied major department stores of the time including Anthony Horderns, David Jones, Grace Bros, Farmers and Mark Foys. In recent years the art has had something of a revival.
Popular designs found on Australian poker work of this period include Australian flora and fauna. Most notably these include gum leaves and blossom, waratahs, wattle and poinsettia flowers. Fauna also figured highly and included mainly koalas and kookaburras as well as other types of birds.
Although poker work was such a popular art form and many pieces were commercially produced, most examples of poker work remain anonymous. Poker work production during the years of the Great Depression was a way household income could be supplemented. It is rare that particular artists can be identified such as is possible with this piece. This collection of poker work is also significant for its family connections of the artists involved and the first-hand accounts available of working life in a commercial poker work factory during the first half of the 1930s.
Multi-talented artist Louise Tufnell worked in Sydney in a variety of art forms including painting and drawing, jewellery making, embroidery, crochet and poker work. Her daughter, Olive Hughes also had great talent as an artist and won a three year scholarship after attending Sydney Girls High. In 1929 accompanying her mother on a trip to England, Olive Hughes discovered poker work after her mother bought a small poker work tool called the Pyro, two examples of which are in the museum's collection. Developing her skills on the six week voyage, Olive Hughes arrived back in Australia in December 1929.
As the Great Depression gripped Australia her mother's dress shop was forced to close and Olive and her mother resorted to poker work to earn a living. In 1930 at the age of seventeen Olive was successful in obtaining a job as a poker work artist at the firm Heilman & Co. in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, where she continued for the next four and a half years. Living in Bondi and working in the city six days a week, her usual work day at the factory started at about 8.15 am until 5.30pm with a half hour lunch break. This provided a weekly wage of one pound per week. The cost of a platinum needle for the pyrograph machine cost two pounds so was a significant investment if a needle had to be replaced, especially if work was also done at home using small domestic machines.
Conditions in the factory were less sympathetic to workers than they are today. The building, Solar House, was an early concrete construction which was extremely cold in winter without any heating, so much so that the 16 girls had to get wooden packing boxes to put their feet on to keep them off the cold floor. If workers were sick they were docked pay. At each table the girls worked in groups with two groups doing poker work and the other two groups doing colouring. Items used for poker work were supplied to the company from the wood turning company Adair and Son in Abercrombie Street, Sydney.
Orders for poker work came directly from stores wanting particular items. The secretary/manager of Heilman's, Frank Rowan, would mark in pencil on each piece letters indicating the kind of decoration that the order required, such as gum blossom and leaves, waratahs etc. A basic training system was in place at the firm when Olive Hughes began there. Initially working with a senior artist (Mrs Merton) she would learn how to do backgrounds on items such as breadboards. As she gained experience she would work on more complex tasks with other senior staff doing both poker work and drawing and colouring. As all the girls had art training they were fast workers. Olive Hughes did all her work freehand without the use of stencils or drawing the images first.
By about 1936 Olive Hughes had left the poker work factory and was working in the art department of the US firm Aladdin Industries in Sydney and had moved on from poker work to other art forms. During the 1940s she and her mother made jewellery supplying a local shop. In a life in which she prodigiously painted, did sculptures and also enamel work her creative talents also lead her to have several exhibitions and a career teaching art throughout New South Wales and on P&O cruise ships.
It was not until the 1990s that Olive returned to poker work with the encouragement of the Hornsby Wood Turners Guild, creating fresh designs on hand crafted timber. This piece is an example of her later work and differs greatly from her earlier pieces both in the use of poker work and the flora depicted. It also leaves the natural timber exposed rather than completely covered as in earlier examples.
Jennifer Isaacs; The Gentle Arts (Ure Smith, Sydney, 1991).
Joan Kerr (ed); Heritage: The National Women's Art Book, (Art & Australia/Craftsman House Artists, Sydney, 1995).
Michael Lea; notes from a meeting and conversations with Olive Hughes, April/May 2008.
Terry Martin; "Rekindling An Art" in Australian Wood Review, Issue 23, June 1999, pp.62-63.
Kathleen Menendez; "Pyrograffiti in WWWoodcarver Online Magazine, Vol. 4 Issue 6, November 2000.
Helena Walsh; Australian Pokerwork A Guide (Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 1992).
Curator, Design, History & Society