I love a sunburnt counrty: The Boyds of Murrumbeena

Lilianna Milgrom Ceramics Art + Perception 106 2017 Art + Perception Home

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror -
The wide brown land for me!
Dorothea Mackellar
Second stanza, My Country, circa 1908

Australia at the turn of the 20th century was a sparsely populated, mostly barren, self-governing colony of the British Empire. This vast, sweeping land was home to distinctive flora and fauna, an island continent geographically isolated by the daunting distance between it and its nearest neighbor, let alone from the shores of England and Europe where the majority of its immigrant population hailed from.

Melbourne, on Australia’s southeastern tip, was growing rapidly and encroaching steadily into the untamed Australian bushland that surrounded it. On the face of it, the modest, ramshackle home in the suburb of Murrumbeena on the city’s outskirts would not have been an obvious setting for the intellectual and artistic hub that would inspire and nurture Australia’s most famous artistic dynasty – the Boyds – and their extended family.

In the exhibition Open Country: The Murrumbeena Boyds at the Glen Eira City Council Gallery in Melbourne, curator Diane Soumilas explores ‘the creativity, influences and significance of the Boyds, one of Australia’s most extraordinary and talented artistic families and their important contribution to 20th century Australian art.’ Although the exhibit features a wide variety of ceramics, paintings, watercolors and sculptures by three generations of Boyds from 1913 through to 1964, a spiritual sensitivity and a deep connection to nature weaves its way through the exhibition, creating a vibrant dialogue between the diverse individual styles, infusing the works with a unique Australian character.

Merric Boyd was born in Melbourne in 1888 to accomplished painters Arthur Merric and Emma Minnie Boyd. Like his siblings, Merric displayed early artistic promise though he explored theology and farming before finally deciding on art as a career. While studying classical figurative sculpture and drawing, it was a serendipitous visit to a local commercial pottery that turned Merric’s full attention to the potential of clay and would eventually lead him on the path to becoming the uncontested pioneer of studio pottery in Australia.

In 1913, Merric Boyd’s parents bought him a semi-rural property in Murrumbeena that he christened Open Country. It was here that Merric built a modest pottery studio and home where, over the next half century, his aesthetics and love of the land would influence some of the most prominent Australian artists of the 20th century.

Murrumbeena ... would not have been an obvious setting for the intellectual and artistic hub that would inspire and nurture Australia’s most famous artistic dynasty.

Merric immersed himself in his pottery, utilizing all his self-proclaimed skills – machinery, handiwork, invention, research, chemistry, sculpting and painting. He sourced his clay from Open Country, built his own equipment and relentlessly experimented with glazes that mirrored the tones of the landscape – his main source of inspiration. One legendary story has it that he stumbled upon the trick to a successful sang de boeuf glaze after throwing some mothballs into the kiln.

Although Merric’s early ceramic wares were mostly humble, domestic vessels, they were marked by an innocently eccentric style that attracted a following from the start. His marriage to artist and poet Doris Gough in 1915 had a significant impact on his work. In Doris, he found not only a soul mate but an artistic collaborator who worked by his side decorating many of his pots with her refined landscapes. His military deployment shortly thereafter was a major turning point in his career. Before returning from Europe at the end of World War I, Merric took advantage of his time in England to visit established potteries in Stoke-on-Trent. There he learned invaluable technical skills that he implemented back home.

As he further honed his skills, he infused his simple, functional pots with spiritual overtures to Mother Nature in the form of painted, embossed or hand-built embellishments. His work was an extension of his fundamental reverence for nature – it was said that he could not even bear to kill an insect. His jugs and pots were decorated with grapevines and wattle tree sprigs; windswept tree branches substituted as handles, and koala bears perched on organic forms. Gnarled tree trunks formed the base of lamps while a teapot evoked the untamed countryside harnessed by ceramic fences. Collectors began to sit up and take notice.

In her gallery talk, art historian Victoria Hammond suggested that aside from Merric’s inclination to see Life, Art and Nature as one and the same, his stylistic direction may also have been influenced by the two artistic trends popular at the time – the Arts and Crafts movement, and French Art Nouveau with its emphasis on patterns that mimicked natural forms.

By the time Australia entered the dark Depression years of the 1930s, Merric and Doris had five children in tow. They continued to eke out a living by producing bread-and-butter utilitarian ware. During this period, Merric was forced to produce fewer of his ‘special’ pots (as he called them). Though the world may have been roiling in turmoil, Open Country provided an almost insular, magical haven not only for the family but for the circle of artists and writers that turned the Boyd family home into a pseudo art salon/colony. The centre of life at Open Country was the now legendary ‘Brown Room’ where family, friends and visitors would gather to discuss art, literature and philosophy, read scripture, play music, draw and generally enrich each other’s world view. Curator Soumilas describes the Brown Room as the heart and universe of their lives, a room that ‘inspired creativity’.

Merric was in constant motion – sculpting, working on the wheel, and later in life, drawing his surroundings at every opportunity. The Boyd children were free to roam barefooted within the boundaries of the property. “… Everything grew wild, and in this respect we were part of the garden, free to play in our Eden without the restraint placed on children in well-tended gardens,” recalls Merric’s son David, in his book An Open House, Recollections of my early life, 2012. The children thrived in this stimulating bohemian environment and, not surprisingly, all five would establish themselves in the arts, some more notably than others. Arthur, the eldest boy, would become one of Australia’s most important artists to date.

Examples of Arthur’s ceramic works included in Open Country: The Murrumbeena Boyds were predominantly created after World War II. Although the Boyds were pacifists, the family felt a strong sense of duty to their country and all three of Merric’s sons – Arthur, Guy and David – enlisted in the armed forces. Despite having avoided active combat they could not escape the realities of the post-World War II world order. Open Country began to attract an expanding circle of influential artists like European refugee Yosel Bergner who discussed expressionist and surrealist concepts that Arthur was quick to incorporate into his art.

One of the most striking installations of the exhibit was the wall featuring a number of painted tiles from a series of one hundred that Arthur completed between 1949 and 1953. The powerful drawings on the large earthenware squares tackle religious and mythological themes as well as the devastation caused by World War II. The paintings pulsate with scenes of conflict and inner struggle applied with energetic strokes of colored slips offset by thick black outlines. With this spectacular series, Arthur Boyd found his voice and it resonated with ‘imagined motifs, such as moths, cripples, flowers, entwined lovers and hybrid creatures, which formed the origin of his personal and ongoing iconography’ (Outer Circle: The Boyds and the Murrumbeena Artists, David Hurlston and Alisa Bunbury, October 2014).
Although he was to make his mark upon the history of Australian art by further developing this style in his paintings, Arthur Boyd never really abandoned his roots in pottery. His charming, boldly decorated tea set on exhibit is a prime example of the ceramic ware produced at the AMB Pottery that he established in Murrumbeena in 1944. In keeping with the almost incestuous creative overlap within the Boyd family, the pottery produced domestic ware by Arthur Boyd in collaboration with several of his friends. Included amongst them was another of Australia’s rising stars at the time, artist John Perceval, who would ultimately marry Arthur’s younger sister Mary Boyd.

Perceval’s dun-colored plates and bowls on exhibit sport spontaneously rendered kangaroos and wallabies skipping across a desolate landscape dotted with local flora – a clear indication of the influence that living at Open Country with Mary wielded on his work. Instead of following the popular Bernard Leach tradition of earthy, Asian-inspired pots that highlighted the vagaries of glaze and the beauty of raw clay, the works produced at AMB Pottery through 1958 pay homage to Merric Boyd’s ode to decoration while celebrating the unique Australian landscape.

The most readily recognizable sculpture in this exhibition was Arthur Boyd’s seminal David and Saul, c. 1952. This remarkably powerful work was Arthur’s first ceramic sculpture, a crudely modeled interpretation of the conflicted relationship between these two biblical heroes. It stands as a testament to the artist’s enormous talent and distinctive style.

To the great detriment of Australia’s cultural heritage, Open Country no longer exists. The Boyd family property in Murrumbeena was razed and replaced in 1964 by a featureless block of flats.

Also on show – and to further confound the viewer – were some fine examples of ceramics produced by Arthur’s older sister, Lucy Boyd, and her husband, Hatton Beck, a former student of Merric’s. Not to be overlooked, the remaining two Boyd brothers, Guy and David, also have ceramic works in this exhibition. David Boyd followed the Boyd tradition of keeping things in the family by marrying artist Hermia Lloyd-Jones. Together they forged a successful career in ceramics, starting out at Open Country and then moving to Europe where their work was well received. Their collaborative pieces on display depict biblical figures and are characterized by a sea-green matt glaze incised with sgraffito and inlaid oxides.

Guy Boyd’s commercial ramekins with their contrasting interior and exterior glazes are the exception to the rule in this exhibition. They are devoid of decorative features, relying instead on a surprisingly contemporary rainbow of pastel glazes. Guy would later move to Canada where he was met with great acclaim as a sculptor.

Keeping track of the Boyd family tree may be a tad confusing, but what does emerge very clearly in this exhibition is the undeniable centrality of clay in the lives of the extended Boyd family. Perhaps this fact is best illustrated in Lucy Boyd’s own words when recollecting her childhood at: “We were always down in the pottery with Merric. He would give us clay. I remember I did a little thing that I called A little doggie behind a bush. It was probably a lump of clay and another bigger lump of clay. It was up on the mantelpiece for a long time.”

To the great detriment of Australia’s cultural heritage, Open Country no longer exists. The Boyd family property in Murrumbeena was razed and replaced in 1964 by a featureless block of flats. However, the Boyd dynasty’s legacy of creativity and generosity lives on at the Bundanon Trust, a retreat in New South Wales gifted to Australia by Arthur Boyd and his wife Yvonne in 1993. Apart from providing innovative artistic programming, the Bundanon Trust also offers artist-in-residence opportunities. Bundanon owes its existence to Arthur Boyd’s deep-seated awe of the remarkable Australian landscape and the inspiration he drew from it.

Image Captions

Merric Boyd’s pottery and kiln, 1934, Arthur Boyd, Oil on canvas mounted on composition board, 50.6 x 40.8 cm Image credit: courtesy of National Gallery of Australia, Canberra The Arthur Boyd gift, 1975.
Arthur Merric Boyd Pottery, Murrumbeena, Melbourne (manufacturer); Arthur Boyd (potter and decorator) Tea service 1948 earthenware (a-b) 22.6 x 24.6 x 15.2 cm (overall) (teapot) (c) 9.5 x 12.8 x 9.2 cm (jug) (d) 4.8 x 10.1 cm diameter (bowl) (e-f) 7.7. x 13.9 cm diameter (overall) (cup and saucer) (g-h) 8.1 x 13.5 cm diameter (overall) (cup and saucer) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased from Admission Funds, 1983 © Arthur Boyd’s work reproduced with the permission of Bundanon Trust, https://www.bundanon.com.au
Merric Boyd Vase 1931 Earthenware 18.3 x 24.3 x 23.2 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne The Joseph Brown Collection. Presented through the NGV Foundation by Dr Joseph Brown AO OBE Honorary Life Benefactor, 2004 @ Courtesy of the artist’s estate.
David and Saul, c. 1952, Arthur Boyd, earthenware 72.5 x 49.5 x 41.5 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased, 1954 . Image credit: © National Gallery of Victoria

by Lilianna Milgrom

Lilianne Milgrom is a French-born artist who lives for extended periods in Australia, Milgrom is a graduate of the University of Melbourne, the Avni Art Institute in Tel Aviv, Israel and the Academy of Art, San Francisco, USA.