Decorative Arts


The showroon at John Campbell Potteries, Launceston, in 1952 (AOT, AB713/1/1463)

Tasmania's geography, natural environment, history and the origins of its colonial occupiers have shaped the products of craftspeople, designers and manufacturers since European occupation began in 1803. The contribution of Tasmania's Aboriginal peoples to its cultural development and identity has been largely ignored until the last twenty years.

The earliest attempts at producing decorative arts were in pottery and furniture. The manufacture of pottery commenced in Hobart, with an earthenware kiln (or kilns) in 1816 in Potters' Hill in New Town. The fledging settlement needed locally made items to supplement imported wares. Pottery, primarily earthenwares, was made at convict potteries of Maria Island (182528) and Port Arthur (shortly after its opening in 1833); and the private enterprises of James Sherwin at Lenah Valley (c 183054), Charles Tibb's Goulburn Street Pottery (184850), Henry Yeates at Longford (184951), Alexander Worbey at Lenah Valley (c 188090) and James Price at Port Arthur (late 1880s1912). These potteries were mainly located in the south, but in the 1880s Launceston became the focus of ceramic production, with the Tasmanian market dominated by the potteries of John Campbell (18811976) and James McHugh (18791961), which manufactured both industrial and finer domestic wares.

A more prosperous economic environment from the 1820s, and the availability of suitable endemic timbers, stimulated the establishment of furniture workshops in Hobart, Launceston and regional centres. Less skilled makers produced furniture from found timbers or in a 'making do' tradition of improvised construction from other objects. Regional styles evolved, the best known being the stick or 'Jimmy Possum' style chairs of the Deloraine district.

Prevailing British influences overlaid with responses to newly available timbers formed the distinctive identity of early Tasmanian furniture. Use of endemic timbers, and innovative combinations of different species in individual items, distinguish Tasmanian furniture. The unique patterns of Tasmanian timbers were maximised to highlight their visual or graphic potential also a feature of contemporary Tasmanian furniture. Furniture was manufactured by free tradesmen and by convicts at penal settlements, predominantly in Hobart, Macquarie Harbour and Port Arthur.

Tasmania's remoteness meant that it needed to look beyond its shores for markets. Its ambitions could be considered disproportionate to its size, but suggest a confidence in its products and its cultured society. From 1851 amateur and professional craftspeople contributed to many international and inter-colonial exhibitions. Furniture initially made an important contribution, but this declined in the later nineteenth century when its design became less distinctive. This reflected the market desire for British and European styles, and the need for local manufacturers to be competitive against imported furniture.

From the mid-nineteenth century, floral embroideries depicting Tasmania's endemic flowers were sent from Tasmania to inter-colonial and international exhibitions. Catalogue descriptions suggest a number were impressive works, perhaps influenced by the art and embroidery of Louisa Ann Meredith. These embroiderers were the forerunners of increased use of Tasmanian endemic flora in the decorative arts. Involvement in exhibitions tapered off in the later nineteenth century.

Motifs and imagery based on Tasmania's flora and fauna were applied particularly to object-based production from the 1850s. This was strengthened by a growing sense of nationalism from the 1880s. The Arts and Crafts Society of Tasmania, founded in Hobart in 1903 on the principles of the English Arts and Crafts Movement, influenced the development, particularly among the furniture makers, wood carvers and metalsmiths, of a distinctive regional style through encouraging the design potential of Tasmanian native plants and animals and the use of endemic timbers.

Many members of the Arts and Crafts Societies (a second Society was founded in Launceston in 1906) were women, such as Sarah Squire Todd and Ellen Nora Payne, who excelled in woodcarving. The Hobart and Launceston Technical Colleges held applied arts classes from the 1890s. However, from the early twentieth century design education became more technical and trade-skills orientated. Arts and Crafts Societies in Hobart and Launceston provided opportunities for members to participate in exhibitions and have their work promoted to a wider audience. Although these societies declined by the 1920s, stylistically their influence continued, and the ideals were reflected in the later craft revival.

Studio pottery has its origins at Ratho in Bothwell with the establishment of Tasmania's first studio pottery by Maude Poynter in 1918. Poynter had studied in England and was aware of international trends in the decorative arts. Violet Mace, Poynter's cousin, joined her in 1920. Both were role models for future potters who established studio potteries in Tasmania.

The 1950s saw revived interest in studio craft-based practices, initially with pottery, then in furniture, woodcrafts and textiles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Part of a national movement in craft-based practice, as a lifestyle choice and an alternative means of production, this was facilitated by the development of organisational and funding structures, such as the Craft Association of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Arts Advisory Board (now Arts Tasmania). The establishment of commercial galleries in the early 1970s provided support through exhibitions and the promotion of Tasmanian craft and design. Tertiary programmes in the applied arts, introduced in University of Tasmania art schools in Hobart and Launceston, also created new training opportunities, further extended through statewide TAFE courses.

Since 1970 studio-based practice has developed significantly, predominantly in furniture and woodcrafts, ceramics and textiles, and also glass, metal and leather. The development of contemporary craft-based collecting at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston, with its state-first Curator of Craft in 1979, and at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, combined with exhibitions that provided public access to contemporary developments in craft and design, further raised the profile of studio-based practice. Collections such as the Tasmanian Wood Design Collection promote this area of contemporary practice.

Tasmania's Aboriginal craftspeople now have recognition of their contemporary cultural and art practices, particularly the continuing tradition of making shell necklaces and basketry. Their work is collected by national institutions, and is represented in exhibitions and dedicated galleries, such as the 'Strings across Time Tasmanian Aboriginal Shell Necklaces' at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

Tasmania's unique flora, fauna and dramatic landscapes continue to be powerful sources for the development of forms, motifs and imagery applied to object-based production, although more often in abstracted than representational design references. With its thriving but compact cultural scene, Tasmania aims to position itself as an active participant in a national and international design and decorative arts community.

Further reading: G Cochrane, The crafts movement in Australia, Sydney, 1992; K Fahy et al, Nineteenth century Australian furniture, Sydney, 1985; G King, 'Studio Pottery in Tasmania', in K Fahy et al (eds), Australian art pottery, 19001950, Sydney, 2004; C Miley, Beautiful & useful, Launceston, 1987.

Glenda King