Author Archives: Paul Donnelly

Happy Birthday to our Sydney Opera House

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Photographic print of the Sydney Opera House under construction, photograph by Max Dupain, Sydney 1958-1973, MAAS collection, 2006/25/1

On this day in 1973, Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the Sydney Opera House. The ABC beamed the occasion by satellite to an appreciative world. Closer to home there were sighs of relief from the politicians, architects and engineers who had, to that time, weathered one controversy after another. The brave decision in January 1957 that saw the four judges (architects Cobden Parkes, Eero Saarinen, Ingham Ashworth and Leslie Martin) choose Jorn Utzon’s design out of 700 entries was just the beginning of a long journey befitting one of the world’s most challenging and famous buildings. Continue reading

The Marchinbar find – Medieval travels to Australia from Africa?

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: Australian Geographic covered the Past Masters' expedition to Marchinbar in their Jan-Feb 2014 issue

: Australian Geographic covered the Past Masters’ expedition to Marchinbar in their Jan-Feb 2014 issue

In 1944 when Morry Isenberg discovered nine coins lying in the sand on the island of Marchinbar in the Northern Territory, little would he have imagined they would lead to explosive claims about Australia’s early global connections and, nearly 70 years after this chance encounter, provide the motivation for an international expedition.

The group of coins were donated to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) in the 1980s after which they were displayed at the Sydney Mint Museum, then part of MAAS. The coins divide into two distinct groups with four of the nine identified as reasonably prosaic Dutch East India (VOC) coins from the 17th-18th centuries, and the other five of much more remarkable origins to distant Africa. Originating from the small but powerful East African island sultanate of Kilwa Kisiwani, they were minted some 500 years prior to Captain Cook’s arrival, and still more than 300 years before the Dutchman Willem Janszoon’s landfall. While a multitude of specimens have been found around East Africa and more distant Oman, by far the furthest found afield are these examples from Australia.
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International Museum Day – where musuem collections make connections

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Sculptural figures (4), 'Tahrir Square souvenirs', porcelain, made by Penny Byrne, Australia, 2011. Repurposed sculptural figures painted in red, black, yellow and green, the colours of the Egyptian flag. The three male and one female figures hold musical instruments featuring the corporate logo of the social networking site, Facebook.  2012/7/1

Sculptural figures (4), 2012/7/1. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Each year since 1977 International Museums Day (18 May) has celebrated and explored an aspect of Museum work. The multiple connections inherent in these figures make them ideal ambassadors for this year’s theme – ‘Museum collections make connections!

This group of porcelain ‘souvenirs’, re-purposed by Melbourne artist Penny Byrne from kitsch sentimental figurines, generically represent the intangible connectivity of Facebook, and the ability of social media to empower populations sufficiently enough to topple governments. More specifically these figures also connect us across the world to the political turmoil of the ‘Arab Spring’ events of 2011.

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Gwyn Hanssen Pigott (1935-2013)

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2002/79/1 Ceramic group, 'Still life with yellow bowls', teapots (2), bottles (4), beakers (3), bowls (2), wheelthrown and slipcast in Limoges porcelain and Southern Ice porcelain, made by Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, Ipswich, Queensland, Australia, 2002

2002/79/1 Ceramic group, ‘Still life with yellow bowls’, teapots (2), bottles (4), beakers (3), bowls (2), wheelthrown and slipcast in Limoges porcelain and Southern Ice porcelain, made by Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, Ipswich, Queensland, Australia, 2002. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Gwyn Hanssen Pigott was one of Australia’s most illustrious studio ceramicists whose fine skill and cerebral approach to her art will be greatly missed. After a 1960s to 70s repertoire of stone ware, from the 1980s Gwyn became famous for her fine and translucent porcelain forms – bottles, bowls and teapots – deceptively simple but actually requiring great technical skill and firing control. Continue reading

Archaeology Week – the Powerhouse Museum in Greece

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The author, Paul Donnelly collecting pottery on the survey,  November 2012. Photo Meg Danes

The author, Paul Donnelly collecting pottery on the survey,
November 2012. Photo:Meg Danes

Archaeology and the Powerhouse Museum go back a long way. The most obvious examples are exhibitions focussing on archaeological material including ‘1000 Years of the Olympic Games‘, ‘The Great Wall of China‘, and the recent, ‘Spirit of Jang-in‘ from Korea. Less well known is the Museum’s participation and support of archaeological excavations over the past four decades, with the most recent being the revived excavations at Zagora, on the island of Andros in Greece.

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Archaeology Week- ‘Pompeii of the north’ in Powerhouse’s Guildhall Collection

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A3161 Earthenware oil lamp, 1st-2nd century AD

A3161 Earthenware oil lamp, 1st-2nd century AD
Collection: Powerhouse Museum

There is currently great excitement in London as evidence of Roman lives – wonderfully preserved in the London mud – are being extracted by archaeologists. Among the material are hundreds of Roman shoes, jewellery, waxed wooden writing tablets with their writing styli, jewellery, cosmetic tools, part of the Temple of Mithras and of course, pottery galore.
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Olympic efforts – ancient Greek athletes

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Interior of the Kylxi (drinking cup) : collection: Powerhouse Museum

Interior of the Kylix: (drinking cup) collection: Powerhouse Museum

In addition to being beautiful, decorated ancient Greek pots are ‘windows to the past’. Their painted designs could vary from everyday scenes of people at work and play, to gods and heroes playing out the myths that provided lessons on how to conduct a righteous life . . . and what happened if you didn’t.

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Thancoupie (Thanakupi) the Potter (1937-2011)

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Pots, stoneware, hand built, carved, oxide decoration, gas fired, reduced, with an ash glaze, Thancoupie, Trinity Bay, Queensland, Australia, 1984. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Dr. Thancoupie Gloria Fletcher AO, has sadly died after a long illness, aged 74, at Weipa Base Hospital on Cape York. Thancoupie (Thanakupi), as she was best known, was born in the small mission town of Napranum, near Weipa where she experienced a traditional childhood of hunting and travelling with her family in time with the seasons. As part of her upbringing, her female elders taught her traditional stories and symbols that they drew in the sand. It was these symbols and stories that Thancoupie would later modify for her work in textiles and clay.


A 10978 Ceramic form, Love magic pot, 'Prethem, (Long neck turtle)', handbuilt stoneware, carved, oxide decoration, reduction/ gas fired with ash glaze, Thancoupie (Gloria Fletcher), Trinity Bay, Queensland, Australia, 1984. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

In 1971, Thancoupie travelled to Sydney to enrol in a graphic arts course at East Sydney Technical College. Here, after overcoming initial qualms associated with the sacred nature of clay in her homeland, she began her training under the guidance of Peter Rushforth, Bernard Sahm, Shiga Shigeo, Joan Grounds and Peter Travis. She became the first Indigenous person to study ceramics at a tertiary level.

Thancoupie held her first solo exhibition in the backyard of her friend, Jennifer Isaacs, and through this received an invitation in 1983 to attend an international ceramics conference in Mexico. In 2001, eighty works spanning her entire career were presented in a survey exhibition at the Brisbane City Gallery and she is represented in the collections of the Powerhouse Museum, the National Gallery of Australia as well as State art galleries and museums in Queensland, South Australia and Victoria.

In addition to continuing her art practice, Thancoupie spent much of the last 30 years mentoring aspiring artists from communities in Far North Queensland, Arnhemland, the Desert and the Tiwi Islands as well as holding art and professional development courses for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Thancoupie helped to found the Weipa Festival on Cape York and ran holiday programs to teach bush knowledge and art to younger generations. As a community elder Thancoupie educated Indigenous children in their traditional culture and ran art education programs during school holidays.

As recently noted by Adrian Newstead, Thancoupie’s creative and philosophical motivation is best expressed in her own words.

You are here in a lifetime to help, to understand… that is intelligence. And only intelligent people have strong friendships. I wish we all have that.

(ABC Message Stick: 2004).

References: Adrian Newstead, ‘Passing of Thancoupie’

A covering uncovered

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Copper sheeting from St James Church, Sydney (1819-24)


H4731, Copper sheathing of around 1822 taken from the 1894 repair of St James Church Spire, Sydney Collection: Powerhouse Museum


H4732 Circular hand-beaten copper coping of around 1822 taken from the 1894 repair of St James Church Spire, Sydney Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Occasionally we happen upon the previous lives of objects in our collection. Two pieces of roofing copper have been in the Powerhouse Museum’s collection since 1946. They are recorded as having come from the steeple of St James Church in Macquarie Street, Sydney, designed by Francis Greenway and completed in 1824. The copper had been given by a Mrs Watson of Gladswood House, Double Bay in 1946 and the steeple had been last renovated by Wunderlich Limited in 1894. Until recently this was all we knew.


(A7437-31/2/22/22) St James Church 1894 spire restoration (on right side of page) from 'The Wunderlich Manufactures 1912 catalogue 'Section IV Metal Roofing and Exterior Decoration, Wunderlich Limited, Redfern, New South Wales Collection:Powerhouse Museum

One of the Museum pieces is a roofing sheet or tile, and the other a circular portal. Through the green patina of each can be seen ‘convict’ broad arrows stamped into the metal by the Board of Ordnance. These symbols effectively identified the material to be government property and would have made them more easily recognisable had they been stolen (and recovered prior to melting down!). Over the last couple of years the steeple has been undergoing its first renovation since 1894. Research was undertaken by the architects and archaeologists to make the current work as authentic to the original 1820s as possible. Suddenly the Powerhouse’s intriguing but otherwise unremarkable roof pieces were important and informative survivors of use to the architects. In return for our help, one of the researchers, Dr Rose Annable, gave the Powerhouse some copies of information from the St James archives. This included a cutting of a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald written around 1930 by Frederick William Watson, who we now know to have been the custodian of the copper pieces prior to his death in 1945, and their donation in 1946.


H 4732 Broad arrow symbol on edge of portal Collecton: Powerhouse Museum

In his letter Frederick Watson laments the potential loss of many of Sydney’s colonial buildings, and he describes how his thoughts were prompted by the presence of the two objects now in the Powerhouse Museum,

Certainly some features [of St James] were changed about 40 years ago. As I write there hang in front of me a large sheet of copper and a moulded copper porthole (so to speak), covered with broad arrows to prevent theft. These form part of the old roof and one of sixteen holes in the steeple, removed [he wrongly speculates] because exception was taken to broad arrows on the roof of the church.

Frederick Watson (1878-1945) was a medical doctor and historian of note – editing the initial volumes of the Historical Records of Australia. Expecting to be appointed government archivist, Watson moved to the Canberra district in 1927 where he contemplated these copper pieces from St James that spurred his letter to the Sydney Morning Herald. Thankfully buildings such as the Mint and Hyde Park Barracks that he feared would be lost to development have survived, and so too have his pieces of St James church …

Wunderlich Limited catalogue pages, 1899, 1901, 1904, 1912. (A7437-31/2/3/79; A7437-31/2/5/104; A7437-31/2/7/89; A7437-31/2/22/22)

Ann M. Mitchell, ‘Watson, James Frederick William (1878 – 1945)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, Melbourne University Press, 1990, pp 398-399.

Bernard Sahm (1926-2011)

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Sculpture, `Art Machine No. III', stoneware, Sydney, Bernard Sahm, Australia, 1976 Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Bernard Sahm was a greatly respected potter whose work is represented in all the major galleries of Australia. He trained and practiced as an industrial draughtsman which gave him skills he was to use in his distinctive ceramic output that frequently included drawn and applied detail. Sahm’s intellectual and frequently original approach to his art took up the counter-cultural spirit of the times – especially from the 1970s – but even as early as 1963 James Gleeson in the Sydney Morning Herald noted Sahm was ‘was never dull or conventional’.

Sahm’s work was tremendously varied with only the columnar ‘pipe’ shape in many works maintaining a thread of kinship from the 1960s through to the 2000s.


'Art Machine No III' detail, Collection: Powerhouse Museum

After working briefly in the 1940s with the Forestry Commission in country NSW he began studying painting and sculpture, and eventually ceramics, at the National Art School, Sydney (1945-52). During his time there he also worked as a decorator at the Martin Boyd Pottery (1949) and, showing his flexibility, also submitted paintings in the 1948, 1949 and 1950 Sulman Prize and the 1951 Wynne, and Blake Prizes.

Sahm married Pam in 1955 and their travels in Europe saw Bernard gain more experience in commercial potteries including six months in ‘Gutenhalde Ceramics’ in Stuttgart, a year at the Crowan Pottery in Cornwall, UK and also visits to potteries in Italy and Greece. In 1959 Sahm established his own pottery at Mosman, in 1961 he began teaching at the National Art School in 1961 and in 1977 became the inaugural Head of Ceramics, Sydney College of the Arts. During his tenure there he succeeded in introducing a cross-disciplinary approach that reflected his own expansive attitude to materials and technique.

At the same time as he was teaching Sahm industriously continued producing bodies of work that were shown at numerous galleries and institutions. Over time the nature of his output increasingly blurred the distinction between ceramics and sculpture while at the same time critiquing society and specifically the art world. His ‘Art Machine No. III’ at the Powerhouse Museum criticises art as a consumable item able to be distilled to a liquid. Part of a large series first presented at the Watters Gallery, Sydney in 1976, such sentiments shocked the sensibilities of the time. After his retirement to a bushland setting in 1984, Sahm turned to nature for his inspiration – but still often large scale and never predictable.

With thanks to the catalogue entry by Gillian McCracken, ‘Wit and Wonder: The ceramic sculptures of Bernard Sahm’, Mosman Art Gallery (10 June – 16 July 2006) pp10-21