Getting a handle on it, Paula Morris

Crown Lynn: A New Zealand Icon
Valerie Ringer Monk
Penguin, $45.00,
ISBN 0143020633 

Crown Lynn, Valerie Ringer Monk’s articulate account of New Zealand’s favourite pottery, serves many functions, from appealing coffee-table book to collectors’ guide to a 50-year local history of the West Auckland business that closed in 1989. It’s also the story of Sir Tom Clark, who started working in his family’s brick and pipe works at the age of 14 and became the driving force behind the new company, as well as many of the people – chemists, designers, factory-floor workers – who brought us the products and designs now considered iconically New Zealand.

Crown Lynn at its height employed 500 people and manufactured 15 million pieces of china in one year, but its early days are a little-engine-that-could tale of opportunism, experimentation, luck and determination.

Clark was a dogged, blunt workaholic who took his chances: when the Depression hit the family business, he expanded into porcelain components for household goods, so when WWII prevented the importation of crockery from England, the little factory in New Lynn was “the only possible domestic manufacturer”. The US army placed a huge order for thousands of bowls and  mugs, and Crown Lynn – technically inept, not set up for mass productions, relying on books rather than experience – had to rise to the challenge, with often mixed results.

The first cups made for the New Zealand government (which needed crockery for hospitals, the railways and the armed forces) didn’t have handles, because Crown Lynn didn’t know how to make handles or how to stick them on. It was creative chaos: nobody in the growing company could visit England and “see how things were done” until after the war, and any staff member “who showed an interest was allowed to model small items and put them through the kiln.”

After the war, Clark responded to the era of increased demand and reduced austerity with new machinery and expansion: by 1948, Crown Lynn was the largest pottery in the southern hemisphere. Abroad was the source of more than equipment. Clark poached numerous employees from the English potteries – like John Cowdery, Royal Grafton’s expert mould-maker; designer Ernie Shufflebottom, Keith Murray’s protégé at Wedgwood; and Harry Jones, a Royal Doulton ceramicist – and hired numerous talented foreign-born potters, like Mirek Smisek, Frank Carpay and Daniel Steenstra.

British, however, remained best in the eyes of most New Zealand households, one of Crown Lynn’s major perception problems until the late 1960s. The canny Clark overcame this obstacle by mislabelling products as British – including one line cheekily dubbed “Covent Garden British”. But the question of British-influenced taste – for twee rosebuds, for example – was harder to change. Clark recalls showing some of potter Frank Carpay’s bold, contemporary pieces to Smith and Caughey’s buyers, lamenting that “you would see them shuddering, because it wasn’t British”.

Crown Lynn’s rise, fall and survival were all products of economic conditions rather than simply winning over the public with unique designs and enhanced quality. Import restrictions enabled Crown Lynn to dominate the local market, expand overseas and even, in the late 60s, to buy Royal Grafton in England. But by its 50th birthday celebrations in 1979, Crown Lynn’s future was as uncertain as the New Zealand economy’s. When Roger Douglas removed import controls, Crown Lynn’s parent company, the unwieldy, over-extended Ceramco, was in trouble. Unable to compete with cheap Asian imports, its designs no longer innovative because of the pressure to sell larger volume, its empire stretched too far and too thin, Crown Lynn couldn’t survive.

Yet it lives on, as Monk points out, in our kitchen cupboards, on sites like TradeMe, and in the memory of every New Zealander. Spotting the picture of a “Topaz”-design teapot, I recognised the Crown Lynn service my family used every day for years; and one of the first items pictured, a 1940s-era kiwi, sat on my grandparents’ sideboard, in service as a pen holder. What we once derided as inferior to British-made is now seriously collectable, and collectors will find the illustrated table of backstamps here particularly useful.

My minor frustrations with Crown Lynn – a desire for more photographs of key players, more newspaper ads, more pictorial examples of everything – probably reflect the author’s own. So much documentation has been destroyed, and she’s had to rely on personal records and accounts rather than an organised company archive. Certainly, Monk has done a great deal here through interviews and painstaking detective work, and the book is well-designed and beautifully photographed.

Collectors of whiteware (like me) may long for a definitive list of every piece manufactured, but comprehensive information from such a prolific maker as Crown Lynn, beset by fires and other archive-destroying calamities, is unlikely. Many products, as Monk points out, don’t even bear a backstamp.

In her final chapter, on collecting Crown Lynn, Monk urges readers to enjoy whatever they choose to collect, to “appreciate its form and design. Find out about its history. And take a moment to remember with respect the people who made it.” This book is a fine tribute to those people; it’s also a lively local history and an up-to-date guide for collectors, as useful, attractive and free of pretension as Crown Lynn itself.


Paula Morris is the author of three novels and a forthcoming collection of short stories.


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Posted in Art, History, Non-fiction, Review
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