Oswold Stephens

Oswold Stephens

Slip Caster

Oswold Stephens was born in Dunedin in 1896. After leaving school he went to Canterbury Agricultural College (1916 – 1918), where he was awarded a gold medal as a top student. He continued his studies at the University of Otago, leaving in 1923 with first-class honours (MSc) in organic chemistry. He then spent a short time teaching in Hastings.

In 1924 he gained an appointment as technical chemist at New Zealand Insulators Limited in Temuka (manufacturers of tiles, pipes, bricks, and insulators since 1868). Here he would have probably gained knowledge of mould making, casting and other technical skills. Unfortunately, he lost this job due to the depression, so he and his family returned to Dunedin where they built a studio and laboratory on their property. Then in 1933 Oswold took a science teaching position at King Edward Technical College Dunedin and continued to teach there until 1961.

Oswold had been fascinated by the effect of heat treatment on clays but it was not until 1936 that he built a potter’s wheel from a sewing machine and a gramophone turn-table. He and his wife Ailsa set up Handcraft Pottery at their home in Clyde Street, Dunedin making mainly slipcast works fired in an electric kiln. Family members also helped them in the studio.

Oswold fired works for university extension courses and for other potters. He was generous with his knowledge and in 1957 organized the first New Zealand Potters’ Exhibition. A year later he helped establish the New Zealand Potter magazine. He was a founder member of the Otago Potters’ Group, and in 1963 a co-founder of the New Zealand Society of Potters. He was made a life member at its first AGM.

In the early 1960’s, Oswold changed from making slip cast earthenware to working with thrown stoneware and using subdued glazes. This was the fashion of the day, following the Anglo-Oriental influences which had become prevalent.
The collection on show celebrates his slip cast works which made his style different from all our pioneer potters. Oswold’s works are held in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Otago Museum, and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. In 1948 he was commissioned to make a set of six urns for Government House.
Oswold died in 1980.

Rick Rudd