Peter Rushforth has died, and with his death an era comes to a close. Peter was the last surviving founder of The Potters Society of Australia.
The passing of Peter probably also brings to a close, the influence of the Leach Tradition in Australia. Peter never worked or studied with Leach, although he used Leach’s ‘A Potters Book’ to guide his self-taught experiments into the techniques of stoneware pottery. Stoneware is taken for granted today, but in the post war period it was more or less unknown here and was seen as being so exotic and seemingly unattainable. Peter did visit Leach at St Ives in Cornwall, back in the 60’s on his Churchill Fellowship and Leach visited Australia and spoke and demonstrated at East Sydney Tech.
Peter more or less single-handedly brought into existence the full-time, Vocational Ceramics course in Sydney at the old East Sydney Tech (now known as the National Art School) by shear force of will and persistent, determined, tenacity. He was later joined by Bernd Sahm and Mollie Douglas as the core staff.
Peter Rushforth was a true gentleman in both senses of the word. He was greatly admired for his ceramic skills and his teaching abilities as well as his support for young artists. He had great sensitivity and empathy when dealing with students. He was well known for his cheeky, impish sense of humour. I remember one day he ‘liberated’ a bicycle from outside the ceramics Dept. and rode it around the throwing room, between the wedging benches and the wheels calling out instructions to the students as he passed by. “Don’t let that form get too wide or you’ll lose it” and “don’t open that lump of clay up yet, it isn’t fully centred”! On another occasion he prevailed upon the teaching staff of the food-school at the Tech to make a large dish of sponge cake mix and we fired it in the big gas kiln for morning tea. This wasn’t a huge success, being slightly soggy on the bottom and a bit charred on top, but we all dutifully ate our share of the sponge-like layer between the char and the sog!
Even though he became quite famous, he never lost his genuinely humble disregard for all the accolades that came his way. In his later life, he would say, ”why don’t they give these awards to a younger person, who is raising a family and paying a mortgage, someone who really needs it?”
One of the great enigmas that surrounded Peter was the fact that he had been a prisoner of war in Changi and on the Burma/Thailand railway. Yet when he returned to Australia, after the war, he embraced the Japanese ceramic aesthetic and later toured there on study trips. He became very close friends of Shiga Shigeo and Tatsuo Shimaoka and others. Everyone knew that he had been in the war, but he never spoke about it publicly. He just wouldn’t discuss it.
What isn’t fully known is that although he was very badly treated on the Burma Railway, as were all the prisoners, there were other, small, but significant moments, that touched him and that, perhaps guided his life forever after. Gestures that he never forgot. At one time on the construction of the rail line. He was so very emaciated and ill, such that he felt he couldn’t work any more. He collapsed, lay down and waited for the beating that was certain to come – or worse. A Japanese guard came up to him and as he waited for the ‘thump’ and ‘bang’ the guard, bent down and offered him some of the medicine that he had in his own shirt pocket. He gave Peter some of the tablets and then the whole packet and said, “so sorry, so sorry!” This was clearly a very deep and touching moment for him, and one that he never forgot.
Perhaps it was this memory of generosity and self-sacrifice that he retained and carried with him, that gave him the faith in humanity and gracious generosity to others that he exhibited all his life, and in particular, an ability to see the beauty and sensitivity of the Japanese culture, particularly in regard to their ceramics?
I was one very lucky recipient of Peters generosity. I was invited to be his workshop assistant one day a week when he lived and worked at ChurchPoint. Later, when I had written the first draught of my Laid Back Wood Firing book, and showed it to Peter for comment. He asked “ So what are you going to do with it”? I said that I thought that I’d like to get it printed as a booklet. But it was a bit beyond me financially, as I didn’t have the $500 that it would cost back in 1976. When I returned after lunch, there was $500 sitting waiting for me. He told me to pay him back some time, when I could. I sold the first 500 copies @ $2 each, in a little over two weeks, such was the demand for a small book of this kind. I was able to repay the loan and get a second printing done. This was a very deep and touching moment for me, and one that I have never forgotten!
We were regular visitors to ‘Le-Var’ over the 45 or so years of our association. Janine and I went up to ‘Le-Var’ and lived with them for a couple of weeks while we built his 2 chamber wood fired kiln in the late seventies. Later returning to share the first firing together. We had just finished the firing and clammed the firebox door, when it started to snow, turning everything white. It was so quiet and peaceful after the hot, hectic final hours of the firing. A very beautiful idyl, not to be forgotten.
A few years ago when we were up visiting them, we went for a walkntalk out to the lookout, as we often did after a long lunch. We passed a fallen tree in the garden that had blown over in a storm and I asked Peter, “What are you going to do with that dead tree. It appears to be a Japanese cedar from the look of the bark. It’ll be a very nice nice piece of timber in there”. He replied that I could have it if I wanted it. I said that I did indeed want it and returned the next day with my truck and chain saws to mill it up into planks.
After seasoning for a few years, I made both Peter and Bobbie a chair each out of the wood. It was soft, light-weight and beautiful to work with and the timber has a lovely grain. I has been made into a few beautiful chairs and I still have quite a bit of it left for other projects. The gift of the chairs was my way of saying thank you for everything, not just the opportunity to forestall waste and to be creative with this windfall tree. I am grateful to Peter and Bobbie for all the years of friendship and support. They have been endlessly supportive and generous over the years, not just to me, but to everyone in their circle. They have led exemplary lives and are an inspiration to us.
Peter and Bobbie called in to visit us at our home on the morning of our son Geordie’s home-birth. A surprise visit and a very touching one.
We were planning to go up and visit Peter and Bobbie in hospital last Friday, but couldn’t get there because of the snow. Janine spoke to Bobbie on the phone and she said to come sooner rather than later, as he might not last the week. We drove up to visit them on the Tuesday and Peter died the next morning. I’m so glad that we managed to get there in time.
We spent the day up there in the mountains with them.
Peter appeared weak, but OK. He gave us a smile but he was struggling to get his breath. He was very tired.
When I sat with him in the sun and held his hand. He said that he apologised because he couldn’t “entertain me today, because I’m not at all well”.
He reminisced about “the good things, the pots, and the good times that we had shared“ and that he “often thought of us”.
He nodded in and out of sleep, sitting there in his chair in the sun.
Janine had taken him up some of her soft baked almond biscuits. He liked those.
We’ll all miss him. His dry, cheeky, mischievous, often naughty, wry, sense of humour.
His self-effacing humility, his simpatico, his nurturing, caring humanity.
I consider myself so lucky to have been a friend and to have been mentored by him.
So many touching moments that I will never forget.