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.
Since the 1990s and up until her death Gwyn had focussed on arranging numbers of these vessels as carefully considered ‘still life’ groups. Gywn’s extensive and illustrious output of ceramics born of sixty decades experience are well represented in the Powerhouse Museum’s collection. In 1954 Gwyn Hanssen Pigott (at that time Gwyn John) was studying for a fine arts degree at the University of Melbourne. She was intrigued by the Chinese and Korean pottery in the National Gallery of Victoria and had read Bernard Leach’s ‘A Potters Book’. Her thesis required her to collect information from significant practising potters in Victoria and New South Wales, including Ivan McMeekin at the influential Sturt workshops, in Mittagong, New South Wales. She was eventually apprenticed to McMeekin for three years and considers him her most important influence.
Gwyn moved to England and worked with key studio potters of the time, including Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew: ‘Here I was witness to the daily commitment to quality, the constant curiosity and change, the personal involvements with the history of the craft and the obsessive reading for deeper insights’. Many of her experiences in those years were still contributing, years later, to her later work. She said of Hans Coper’s modernist work in England in 1965: ‘I walked down …into a place so still; held, not immediately by the pots themselves, but by a sense that the spaces between the pots were recognised forms too: negatives.’ Later, attracted by the freshness and vigour of traditional wood fired French stoneware, she set up a pottery in rural France, where she worked on refining glazes and wood firing processes to make more subtle effects in her own work.
Gwyn returned to Australia in 1973, setting up a workshop near Hobart, in Tasmania, and focused on using Tasmanian clay and glaze materials to make hand thrown wood-fired domestic stonewares. By the late 1980s, after living in Adelaide, South Australia, and then moving to northern Queensland, she had: ‘started to look more closely at how pots, perfectly contained within themselves, sit with each other, changing each other. I was interested to find what could hold the pots together in a bonding that … could only be discovered after the firing when everything came into play: lushness, coolness, colour, weight, line. (quotes above from Gwyn Hanssen Pigott ‘Autobiographical Notes’ The Studio Potter 20/ 1 Dec 1991 p46). She started to make groupings of pots, calling them ‘inseparable’, or ‘still life’ groups, because she wanted them to be considered in a way that ‘might raise a question, lengthen a glance . . . I have learned a few things, about the arrangements. I have to be in neutral when I place the pots together, and alert to tensions and havens of spacing.’ Collated by Dr Paul Donnelly from interviews and notes written Dr Grace Cochrane during her time as Senior Curator at the Powerhouse Museum.