The 1851 Great Exhibition, held in London, initiated a series of international exhibitions around the world. Aotearoa soon followed suit with its own exhibitions, displaying craft alongside technology and manufactured goods.

Also on display was another aspect of craft: the skilled interactions between materials and maker. As the history of New Zealand studio pottery illustrates, the performance of craft continued to be on show into the 21st century.

By Rigel Sorzano

Craft on display

The 1851 Great Exhibition was the first of its kind, a magnificent spectacle that brought together works of art, craft, science and technology from many different nations in a vast glass pavilion, known as the 'Crystal Palace'. Britain's show of prowess was bolstered by displays from its colonies, New Zealand's modest exhibits included hats, baskets, and a table-top "composed of 19 specimens of Taranaki woods".[1] The success of the Great Exhibition led to a series of similar events around the world, and Aotearoa soon followed the trend, hosting international exhibitions in 1865, 1882, 1889, 1906 and 1925.[2]

Colour lithograph, by J. McNeven, showing the interior of the Great Exhibition, 1851.

© CCBY The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Nearly two million people attended the New Zealand International Exhibition of Arts and Industries in Christchurch, which ran for a year (1906-7). The New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition in Dunedin in 1925-6 was even more successful, attracting more than three million visitors.[4] The buildings occupied some 16 acres, and attractions included a fernery with streams and a waterfall, and an amusement park, complete with scenic railway. A notable feature of the exhibition was the women's court, where "the arts and crafts of the British Empire's women were on display", including spinning, weaving, lace-making, and pottery.[5] As well as craft displays, there were 'working exhibits', in which women took turns at demonstrating their craft; amongst those taking part was Mrs. A.L. Edwards, throwing pottery on the wheel.[6] These working exhibits ran throughout the duration of the exhibition, and, as reported in the Exhibition Official Record, "were always great centres of attraction."[7]

Potting in public

For the pioneer studio potters of the early 20th century, giving demonstrations at exhibitions, fairs and other public events was an important way of drawing attention to their work, and promoting sales. Elizabeth Lissaman began selling her pottery through the D.I.C. department store chain in the late 1920s, and gave demonstrations in the china section of D.I.C.'s Christchurch branch from 6th to 12th November 1929. It was no picnic: twice-daily sessions, from 10 am to 12.30 pm and 2 pm to 5 pm, with an additional two-hour evening session on Friday.[8] At the 1939-40 New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in Wellington, Olive Jones and Elizabeth Matheson took on an even more intense schedule. They held a continuous pottery demonstration and display, one throwing at the exhibition while the other stayed in the studio, producing more pots to replace those that sold. Their joint exhibit was an enormous success, and the demonstrations were described as "entrancing to watch".[9]

Jovan (Jova) Rancich immigrated to New Zealand in the 1920s, setting up as a potter in West Auckland the early 1930s, and giving public demonstrations at the Auckland Winter Shows to promote his work. Rancich was a skilled thrower, and fascinated the crowd with his ability to manipulate clay into any shape or size. His studio became a popular attraction, with tourist buses regularly stopping there on their way to the scenic West Coast and Waitakere Ranges.[10] According to Rancich's daughter Branca, "The tourists seldom left without making a purchase."[11]

Jovan Rancich, vase, (c.1932-1942) Rancich worked at his studio in West Auckland from 1932 until his death in 1942, producing a large range of vividly glazed jugs, vases and bowls, and also supplying unglazed pots to local decorators.

© CCBY Auckland Museum, 2013.15.7

Look and learn

Putting on a show was important for sales, but it benefitted the growth and health of New Zealand studio pottery in other ways. Olive Jones' demonstrations at events like the Auckland Easter Show, and her exhibit with Matheson at the 1940 Centennial Exhibition, "gave modern pottery a high profile and inspired others to take up the craft".[12]

Olive Jones and Elizabeth Matheson at their display in the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, 1939-40.

© All Rights Reserved Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-0765-03-02

As studio pottery networks began to develop from the 1950s, the exchange of information and knowledge about clay became easier, but the opportunity to learn about clay by watching others at work remained invaluable. Workshops and demonstrations featuring international potters became more frequent, and important visitors included Bernard Leach, and Shoji Hamada, among others. Hamada held a throwing and decorating workshop, and "worked steadily at making pots in Yvonne Rust's studio whenever the time could be found".[13] Legendary American potter Peter Voulkos gave a memorable performance at a Rotorua conference in 1985, "swaggering" onto the stage to "sway and reel and wrestle" with enormous mounds of clay.[14]

American potter Peter Voulkos throwing clay at the CLAYAZART Conference in Rotorua in 1985. (Image originally published in New Zealand Potter Vol 27 No 3, pages 22-24.)

© All Rights Reserved, Howard Williams.

Playing with fire

The transformation of a lump of wet clay into a vase, bowl or jug takes place partly in the hands and partly in the kiln, where the pot is changed forever by its encounter with fire. The encounter itself is often invisible, with the pot hidden in the kiln for hours, even days; but potters delight in playing with fire, and find ways of bringing it out into the open. In raku firings, for example, the pot is taken hot from the kiln and plunged into sawdust or other combustible material, burning away the oxygen to create a distinctive surface finish. These are popular community events, even though the "definite presence of fire and heat is not for those of an anxious disposition," as Vivienne Bailey reported after attending the Otaki Pottery Club's annual raku firing in 2014.[15]

Public Share: Last Run – Raku Firing event held on 18 February 2017 at Te Toi Uku - Crown Lynn & Clayworks Museum. For HEAT, 3rd Oceanic Performance Biennial.

© All Rights Reserved, Public Share

Auckland Studio Potters (ASP) have taken this even further, building experimental performance kilns which may actually fire pots, but "mostly provide a brief and fiery spectacle" for the public.[16] Over the years ASP members have constructed kilns from a filing cabinet, potatoes and pumpkin, phonebooks, a motor car, and even ice. The Ice Kiln created for Guy Fawkes Night in 2006 survived for over forty minutes, and successfully fired one small pot, the roaring flame inside clearly visible through the ice. Fireworks were let off inside the kiln, and metal salts were added for an even more spectacular effect.[17]

Such fiery experiments seem worlds apart from Elizabeth Lissaman's demonstrations in the D.I.C. china department. Yet underneath it all, what's on show is essentially the same: creative energy, skill and knowledge, hard work and a passion for clay.

Header image: One of many "performance kilns" built by members of Auckland Studio Potters over the years, the Ice Kiln survived for over 40 minutes, successfully firing one small pot. All Rights Reserved © Duncan Shearer

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

Buy now


Sorzano. Rigel. 'On Show', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11 11 2019


[1] Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition 1851. W. Clowes and Sons, Printers, London, 1851, Volume 2, Part 4, 1001-1002.

[2] These were, respectively, the New Zealand Exhibition, Dunedin, 1865; the New Zealand Industrial Exhibition, Wellington, 1885; the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition, Dunedin, 1889-90; the New Zealand International Exhibition of Arts and Industries, Christchurch, 1906-7; and the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition, Dunedin, 1925-6: Jock Phillips, "Exhibitions and world’s fairs." Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 6 October 2019).

[3] James Cowan, Official record of the New Zealand international exhibition of arts and industries, held at Christchurch 1906-7: a descriptive and historical account. Wellington N.Z.: Govt. Printer, 1910.

[4] Jock Phillips, "Exhibitions and world’s fairs - New Zealand exhibitions, 1900 onwards." Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 6 October 2019). In both cases, these numbers were around double the population of New Zealand at the time.

[5] Phillips, "New Zealand exhibitions, 1900 onwards." (accessed 8 October 2019).

[6] Elliott, "Leading Ladies", n.p.; Jane Vial with Steve Austin, Elizabeth Lissaman: New Zealand's Pioneer Studio Potter. Auckland: Rim Books, 2018, 39. According to Vial, Edwards "had left New Zealand with her husband in about 1897 and studied pottery in England, and returned only, it seems, for the Dunedin exhibition."

[7] George Edward Thompson, Official record of the New Zealand and South Seas international exhibition, Dunedin 1925-26. Dunedin: Coulls Somerville Wilkie Ltd., 1926, quoted in Moyra Elliott, "Leading Ladies". Exhibition text for Leading Ladies exhibition, curated by Moyra Elliott, Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, 7 October 2017 – 29 January 2018.

[8] Vial and Austin, Elizabeth Lissaman, 39.

[9] Elliott, "Leading Ladies", n.p.

[10] Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins and Tanya Wilkinson, Jovan Rancich and Wally Silva: Pioneer Potters. Waitakere City, N.Z.: Corban Estate Arts Centre, c2003.

[11] Branca Rancich, 2003, quoted in Lloyd Jenkins, Jovan Rancich and Wally Silva.

[12] Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Lucy Hammonds, "Crafts and applied arts - Old and new aesthetics, 1930s and 1940s." Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 7 October 2019).

[13] Helen Mason, "Ten Years of Pottery in New Zealand." New Zealand Potter (Special Issue), Wellington: New Zealand Potter, c1967, 18. Hamada visited New Zealand in 1965.

[14] Chloe King, "CLAYZART Conference – Rotorua – 1985." New Zealand Potter Vol 27 No 3, 1985, 22-24. The conference was sponsored by the Northern Arizona University Art Gallery in co-operation with Rotorua Potters.

[15] Vivienne Bailey, "Raku firing draws the crowds." Otaki Mail, December 2014,

[16] Auckland Studio Potters, "Strange Kilns", in Playing with Fire: Auckland Studio Potters Turns 50. Auckland: Centre for New Zealand Art Research and Discovery, National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries at The University of Auckland, 2011, 243.

[17] Duncan Shearer, "Ice Kilns".; Auckland Studio Potters, Playing with Fire, flyleaf.