Author Archives: Paul Donnelly

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

Shiga Shigeo (1928-2011)

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Stoneware sphere, by Shiga Shigeo (1928-2011). Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Stoneware sphere, by Shiga Shigeo (1928-2011). Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

We note with sadness the passing last week of Shiga Shigeo, a great ceramic artist and teacher whose profound influence will doubtless survive through his students to future generations of Australian potters. In the 1960s studio potters in Australia, while already indirectly influenced in the Anglo-Oriental tradition, started to forge their own direct links with Japan. Les Blakebrough, for example, invited Takeichi Kawai (1964) and Shiga Shigeo (1966) to Australia after experiencing the exhilaration of a year potting in Japan in 1963.

Upon arrival in Australia Shigeo envisaged staying a couple of years but as can happen when things go well, instead remained in Australia for thirteen years. He was teaching and making at Sturt until 1968, and then Sydney from where he returned to Japan in 1979. During his time in Australia many students and potters including influential people such as Les Blakebrough, Peter Rushforth, Bernard Sahm and Janet Mansfield benefitted from his extraordinary quality and variety of output which was underpinned by an insightful synthesis of Japanese tradition and philosophical response to his new Australian environment.

There were other less-joyful stimuli too. In 1975 when Shigeo made the serenely beautiful vessel now in the Powerhouse collection he had suffered the death of a close relative. Of the vessels he made at that time he said in 1979:

I was creating various pieces with no colour other than white, I was actually going through a very sad part of my life . . . and those sad days made me search, even deeper, for the meaning of what human life is all about. And it was with that feeling of searching that the colour white emerged. That was my expression of the state of life I was experiencing at that time.

From 1979 Shigeo went back to his earlier influences of tea ceremony and Zen Buddhism, spending the rest of his career making pottery in a Zen temple in Machida city, near Tokyo. However, his experience in Australia and continued contact with his Australian friends enabled him to return to live in Sydney in 2009. Examples of Shiga Shigeo’s work are in the collections of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, The Art Gallery of NSW, and the Newcastle Gallery.

Jutta Malnic, ‘Shiga the potter’, Sydney, John Ferguson P/L, 1982
Grace Cochrane, ‘The crafts movement in Australian: a history’, Sydney, NSW Press, 1992
Pottery in Australia, Oct/Nov 1979, Vol 18 No. 2, pp 3-5
Freeland Gallery website

In Roman times: Colchester pottery

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Collection: Powerhouse Museum

This collection of Roman-British pottery was presented to the Sydney Technological Museum (as we were called at the time) in 1907 by the city of Colchester, England. I encountered it 103 years later when Paul Donnelly asked me to research some additional information for the museum’s database. As a second-year archaeology student at Sydney University, I found the collection particularly fascinating as an example of how artefacts can acquire a double history – first in their use in ancient times, and then as part of the modern relationship between Australia and Britain.


Collection: Powerhouse Museum

In Roman times, Colchester was a centre for the production of bricks, wine, coins, and pottery – it was the only part of the Roman province of Britannia to produce Samian/terra sigillata ware (albeit only briefly). Most of the objects in the Powerhouse’s Colchester collection are of forms discovered in the more than 30 kilns discovered in the area, while others are distinctively of Gaulish origin; the fragments grouped under registration number A688 bear the markings MOXIVSF[ECIT] (“Moxius made this”) and [OF]PRIMI (“workshop of Primus”), which can be traced to potters’ workshops in Lezoux and La Graufesenque respectively. The locally-produced objects are generally for domestic use, and include cups, flagons, bowls, cooking-pots, drinking-cups, vases, and an oil lamp.


Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The artefacts’ second history began in 1906, when Richard T. Baker, the curator of the Sydney Technological Museum, received a miniature reproduction by W.H. Goss of the ‘Colchester Vase’, the original of which was excavated in Colchester in 1848 and depicts four gladiators and a hunting scene. Having corresponded with the curator of the museum at Colchester Castle (Arthur G. Wright) regarding the details of the original vase, it seems that Baker was alerted to the dearth of Roman antiquities in the museum in Sydney. In 1907 he wrote to Wright again, asking if he could spare some artefacts from Colchester’s extensive collection since there was “not a single specimen of old Roman or Saxon pottery” at the Sydney Technological Museum. The committee of the Colchester Museum “at once agreed to present a series of Roman antiquities” to Sydney, and the 37 items (catalogue numbers A664-A700) arrived in August 1907; the Sydney Technological Museum’s annual report for that year recorded that “The Borough of Colchester Corporation Museum presented a very valuable collection of Roman and British pottery … dating back to the 1st century, A.D.”.


Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Colchester itself has a long and illustrious history: as Camulodunon (“Fortress of Camulos”, the Celtic war god) it was the capital of the Trinovantes tribe, whose request for Roman assistance against the rival Catuvellauni tribe gave Julius Caesar the opportunity to invade Britain in 55 and 54 BC; as the Latinised ‘Camulodunum’, Pliny the Elder mentioned it in AD 77 in the earliest historical reference to a town in Britain; as Colonia Victricensis, it was the first Roman town in Britain, and then the first capital of the Roman province; in AD 61, it was razed to the ground by Boudicca and the Iceni, as it had no defences and only 200 soldiers, and the Romans moved their provincial capital to Londinium. The town was rebuilt quickly, this time with a 2.4m thick, 6m high and 2800m long stone wall, but never quite regained its earlier importance.

MRS 4 Letterbooks, Vol 23, 1906/323
MRS 4 Letterbooks, Vol 25, 1907/270
Department of Public Instruction, Technical Education Branch. Technological Museums: Annual Report, 1907.
Hawkes, CRC & Hull, MR 1947. Camulodunum: first report on the excavations at Colchester, 1930-1939. Oxford: Society of Antiquaries.
Hull, MR 1963. The Roman potters’ kilns of Colchester. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Harrison Jones (intern with P. Donnelly), November 2010.

What is significant?

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Photography by Marinco Kojdanovski. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

From the imposing Boulton and Watt steam engine to a delicate snuff box, all objects in the Museum’s collection are allocated a significance category. All objects in the Powerhouse Museum’s collection are cared for in ways that are designed to ensure they are preserved in optimum conditions for future generations. However, while the care in storage and processing of objects demonstrates an equitable approach to the collection, each object or collection is assigned a significance category of A (being the most important), B, or C. Added to these is an S for state significance.

Currently there are just over 3000 combined A category objects and collections and nearly 2000 B objects and collections (both of which also include S objects), leaving the majority of the collection as C. This is of course more a reflection of the lofty criteria applied to determine A, B, or S objects rather than a reflection on the relative quality of the C objects in the collection.

A common misconception is that these categories allow the Museum to prioritise saving the collection in the event of a disaster such as a fire. To be sure, the categories would help in preparing for an impending flood or other predictable cataclysmic event but on a day-today basis the determination of significance is designed to help Museum staff better manage the allocation of resources to the vast collection.
Importantly in these days of web access, the application of a category allows the Museum to prioritise the backlog of documentation including indexing, statements of significance, photography and condition reports – a continuous retrospective task that is inevitable in a 130-year-old collection.

However, while some objects of obvious international significance such as the Boulton and Watt steam engine or Sir Charles Babbage’s ‘Difference Engine’ are clear candidates for an A category, some objects are harder to determine. The default category is C. Here are some examples of the different categories:

A collection
Assigned to an object that is part of a collection that is of national or international cultural significance.


Sample of wool circa 1800s. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The wool collection comprises thousands of wool samples collected between 1804 and 2003. The statement of significance for the samples notes ‘The different fleeces reflect the breeding programs and environmental conditions under which the fleeces were grown and, as such, they provide a valuable history of the areas of Australia in which sheep were grazed.’ Once considered moribund, the wool has been given new significance by the advent of DNA testing.

A object
Objects of national or international cultural significance. Objects in this category will be irreplaceable and deemed by their intrinsic value, historic association, spiritual significance or rarity to be Australian or international treasures.


Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

At opposite ends of the spectrum in this category we have the Catalina flying boat, which in 1951 was the first aircraft to traverse the South Pacific between Australia and Chile, and a tiny snuffbox made from shell and gold . This is one of the earliest dated examples of decorative metalwork fully-crafted in Australia and is also the first known use of the kangaroo motif in Australian decorative arts.

B collection
Assigned to an individual object that is part of a collection which is of great importance to Australia and/or to the state of NSW.


Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

The stunningly beautiful and varied Henry collection of Japanese combs is an important collection to Australia because it is exceptional as a comprehensive representation of Japanese lacquer and gilding techniques. However, because there are other examples in the world it is a B collection and not an A.

B object
Objects of great cultural significance. Objects in this category are likely to be irreplaceable and deemed by their intrinsic value, historic association, spiritual significance or rarity to be of great importance to Australia and/or to the state of NSW.


Photography by Kate Pollard. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The Rolls Royce Twenty is a rare survivor of this type of car. Ordered new in 1925 and fitted with a local body, it had only one owner and still has its original paperwork. Given to the Museum in 1959, the Rolls remains in original condition and this combined with its detailed provenance, gives the car its special significance.

State collection / State object
For any object that is of particular significance to the whole of NSW and/or to the people of NSW.


Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Loco No 1 is, as the first locomotive to pull a passenger train in NSW in 1855, an ideal example of an object with enormous state significance. In addition it is also a rare survivor of an early British locomotive type, so consolidating its already easily-won A! Sticking to railways there is also the eternally popular Central Station indicator board, currently on display in the Transport gallery, which stood on the assembly platform of Sydney Terminal Station for 76 years. Legend tells us it was the witness to many a Sydney rendezvous.

C object


Collection: Powerhouse Museum

One of the many treasures in this category is the Enigma cipher machine, used by the Germans in World War II. Though the machine has great historical significance, it is not unique and is therefore a C object.

Thanks to Alison Brennan and Mandy Crook for their comments on the first draft of this article