Remembering a pottery pioneer

In a continuation of the occasional series with Marlborough Museum chief executive Steve Austin, we profile pioneer potter Elizabeth Lissaman.

Elizabeth Hazel Lissaman was New Zealand's first studio potter.

She was born in Blenheim on October 11, 1901, the second of six children of Helen Eva Bligh, and Henri Lissaman, a sheepfarmer. She was brought up on her father's sheep station, Waireka, near Seddon.

At school, she had a strong desire to make pottery, and this persisted, even though she had no contact with anyone else interested in making pots.

She later wrote that "it was almost impossible to obtain any information even about how to begin.

"There were no books to be had from the libraries and, of course, no supplies – even if I had known what I wanted."

In 1921, Lissaman went to stay with her grandmother in Sydney, Australia.

She was able to acquire the knowledge she needed from libraries, brickworks, and isolated beginner potters, some of whom were willing to share the expertise they had gained by trial and error.

She learnt a great deal about clay preparation, choice of clays, potters' wheels, how to throw, elementary techniques for glazing and decorating, and building and firing simple kilns.

She took the opportunity to build her first little kiln and managed to fire it with "quite a measure of success".

On her return to Marlborough, she set up her studio on her parents' farm. What she described as a very good terracotta clay, was located at the elevation just south-west of Picton.

She dug and bagged her clay there, transported it by train to Seddon.

Elizabeth needed an essential potter's wheel, but none could be bought in New Zealand.

Her family rallied together and devised a unique machine using a bicycle chain mounted on a vertical wheel-shaft, a fly-wheel, and a plaster-of-Paris wheel head.

When in the mid-1920s, electricity was installed at the farm, she gave up coal firing, imported an oil-fired kiln, and fitted an electric drive to her wheel. This consisted of a simple leather belt driven with a clutch, of the type used on commercial sewing machines.

This equipment was used by Elizabeth Lissaman for the rest of her potting career.

In 1927, at the Winter Show in Christchurch, she staged her first exhibition.

She devised an unusual way of marking, and dating her work. Using the nine letters of "Elizabeth" to represent the numbers one to nine, she applied the first and last letters, EH (representing the number 19), to prefix each work. Thus, pots made in 1935 were marked EHIA.

On August 20 1930, at Waireka, Elizabeth Lissaman married an English farm hand, Henry Francis Hall. Elizabeth continued to use her maiden name for her pottery.

Around 1966, the Halls retired from farming and moved to Morrinsville on the Hauraki Plains where Lissaman had a custom-built studio with an electric kiln.

In 1990, after nearly 70 years of potting, and 11 changes in location, she was to make her last wheel-thrown pots at Crathie Rest Home, in Tauranga.

She had kept notes of everything she had done, and detailed records of her various kilns.

Elizabeth Lissaman was always helpful to aspiring potters, giving lessons, and weekend schools.

Her book, Pottery for Pleasure in Australia and New Zealand, was published in 1969.

She was accorded honorary life membership of the New Zealand Society of Potters in 1965, and was appointed an OBE in 1982 for her services to pottery.

She died at Maurvern Rest Home, Cambridge, on February 1991.

The Marlborough Express