The house of 2000 pots

Last updated 05:00 14/05/2012

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If Simon Manchester's apartment doesn't take your breath away, no living space ever will. It's not that it's an interior designer's dream, but that it is home to about 2000 pots.

There are a few chairs to sit on, and a dining table that could be used for dining, if Owen Bartlett's big, pierced ceramic vessels were shifted. They rarely are.

There's a kitchen, festooned with serious ceramics in the way other kitchens are sometimes festooned with knick-knacks. And space to get from one area to another, just.

When the sunlight streams in to light up two big, beautiful citrus-coloured bowls made by Len Castle last year, in the months before he died, it also glows on a sprinkling of dust.

On one hand it's all a bit excessive - Manchester admits "I'm a bit mad" - and on the other it's one of the country's most magnificent private ceramics collections.

A few of Manchester's pots are on loan to The Dowse for Clay Fire and Glazes, which opens today as a tribute to Castle. An earlier Dowse exhibition of his ceramics, Making the Molecules Dance, was the catalyst for Manchester's collection-within-a- collection. His 250 Castle pots - the earliest from 1948 - are grouped together in a "quiet tribute" to the potter who was an Arts Foundation Icon award winner in 2003. Manchester came to know him very well, so that the two would mull together over Castle pots for sale in one auction or another and it was often Manchester who knew their history best, "though he'd always have the last word on the glaze and form and how it felt. He was quite a good critic of his own work."

Manchester is always editing his collection, to keep it vital, but he has yet to discard a Castle pot.

"You learn and grow and your taste evolves and changes. Some things become irrelevant and some desirable. Len has never disappointed me. I've never outgrown him. I don't believe I could, he's so good."

Crammed into the apartment are pots by Roy Cowan, Muriel Moodie, Chester Nealie, Richard Stratton, John Parker, Katherine Smyth, Doreen Blumhardt, Jim Greig, Barry Brickell, Paul Maseyk, Raewyn Atkinson - and everyone else who is anyone in the New Zealand world of pots. Such a huge number of pots en-masse barely gives individual pieces room to breathe.

"I think there is diminishing impact if they're altogether, particularly for visitors, not for me. I know each piece and there's something about the . . . accumulation and richness that sustains me. For me it's how it has to be. For people coming in it's a problem, a kind of organised clutter I find nourishing. I like having it here. It feeds me . . . This would drive a lot of people mad, to live here. We each do what works for us."

Manchester's interest in pottery surfaced in 1987, when he was given a couple of boxes containing 15 pieces of Crown Lynn pottery as a sort of surety for a loan to a mate who couldn't pay his drink-drive fine. "I put them in my bedroom and I got to love them. Then I wanted to know what hand- potted meant."

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Pottery shows, he found, were "a very exciting world when I was kind of a snotty- nosed punk in black leather. It's like you open a door and look in and there's a whole world you didn't know existed. That's what pots were to me. It was a doorway to New Zealand history and culture."

At a New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts exhibition he bought a pot which, he told an elderly woman nearby, he found very sensuous. The woman was Doreen Blumhardt, then in her 70s, and the pot was hers. "She giggled like a little girl."

The two became friends and he often visited her Northland house where, if he was lucky, he was given tea in a cup by famous British potter Lucie Rie.

Manchester says his collection of pots is full of stories. He has, for example, a chipped bowl that Castle gave to Brickell in the 1960s and took back crossly when he saw Brickell was using it for slurry.

In cupboards behind his displays Manchester has hundreds of books and catalogues on New Zealand art and craft, and world art. But the pottery is what he cares for most. "I love the three- dimensional physicality and presence of pots. I love art as well, but pots move me more."

Clay, Fire and Glazes: Dowse Pays Tribute to Len Castle, is on until August 19.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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