These three women were some of the early studio potters of Aotearoa New Zealand. None of them married. They each came to clay between the ages of 37 and 46; and clay became the major focus in their lives.
They developed their individual styles before the Anglo-Oriental influences became dominant in studio ceramics, and their works are now iconic of their time.
For these women the knowledge of making techniques and the firing processes were gleaned from limited sources or learned by trial and error.
Briar was born in Hobsonville, Auckland in 1879. In 1902 she moved to New Lynn to housekeep for three of her brothers when they established Gardner Brothers Brickworks. She also undertook book-keeping and secretarial work for them, and in her spare time was involved with craft organisations and exhibited embroidery.
In 1925 William Speer, a potter from Royal Doulton in England joined Gardner Brothers. Briar was allowed to use his wheel before he began work in the morning, from 5.30 to 7.30am. It took Briar five years to come to terms with throwing, kiln building, and firing. She discovered the English company Wengers produced commercial glaze supplies. She obtained these and used them in her work.
It was 1930 before she exhibited at the Auckland Society of Arts and she continued to exhibit and gave demonstrations for charitable fundraising. She also taught servicemen who had been disabled during WW2.
Her work was sold in Auckland Department stores and exported to Australia. Briar stopped making pots in 1950 due to difficulties with arthritis. She then trained in speech and drama in Australia and taught both for the next ten years after returning to Aotearoa New Zealand in 1953.
Briar died in 1968.
Elizabeth was born in Eketahuna in 1890. In 1903 she was sent to London with her brother Graham for their education, staying until she completed teacher training. She returned to Wellington in 1911 to become a kindergarten teacher. She had also been making metal and woodwork as a past-time and in the early 1920’s she gave up teaching to become a self-employed craftsperson.
In 1930, Elizabeth returned to London spending 13 days at the Central School of Arts and Crafts to learn the basics of throwing pots on the wheel and loading and firing a kiln with Dora Billington. After a very short stay in England, she came back to Aotearoa New Zealand and spent ten days with Elizabeth Lissaman in Seddon for more tuition.
In 1931 she moved to Havelock North, experimenting with clays and improving her skills with the help of Huelin Fulford of Te Mata Potteries. By 1933, Elizabeth was beginning to be known for her pottery and by 1938 she was making a living from it. For six months in 1939 and 1940, Elizabeth and Olive Jones ran a stall in the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington. After this she remained in Wellington, exhibiting with the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts and regularly giving demonstrations.
In 1965 she was made a Life Member of the New Zealand Society of Potters and in 1972 was awarded the British Empire Medal.
Elizabeth made pots until 1975 and died in 1978.
Olive was born in Auckland in 1893. In 1930 she went to Perth, Australia where she first encountered studio pottery, and in 1932 she followed her sister to England where she attended classes at the Central and later, Camberwell Schools of Arts and Crafts. She studied under Dora Billington before spending a term at Burslem School, Stoke-on-Trent.
In 1934 Olive returned to Aotearoa New Zealand with a secondhand wheel, plans for a kiln and glaze materials from Wengers. On her return she met Briar Gardner, joined the Auckland Society of Arts and had a small solo exhibition of works bought back from England.
Olive set up a workshop, experimented with her pottery and began selling her work from the workshop. By the outbreak of the Second World War, she was teaching classes at the Auckland Society of Arts.
For six months in 1939 and 1940, Olive and Elizabeth Matheson had a stall for six months at the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington. In 1957 Olive was one of 15 invited exhibitors in the first New Zealand Studio Potters Exhibition, organised by Oswold Stephens in Dunedin. In 1962 she was asked to set up a discussion group for some Auckland potters and this grew to become the ’12 Potters’ cooperative in Mt Albert Auckland.
In 1965 Olive was made a Life Member of the New Zealand Society of Potters and continued making pots until not long before she died in 1983.