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’.

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