A Problem with Clay?

There seems to be some consternation around problems with current clay bodies available. I don’t know, but here’s John Lawrence’s assessment….

In 1963 Ann Verdcourt and I were senior lecturers in ceramics on the 5th floor of Luton Art School, England. We were struggling with about 300 students per week, anaemic clay and commercial colours and Russia threatening to eliminate us. We read an article on NZ pottery by Helen Mason and within months were winging our way to NZ with two small children.

We had been told that the school had a pottery department but all there was was a hut with no water or tables. We ordered a pile of Crum clay and waited for our first class of students – mostly ladies. Whatever their expectations they were confronted with the task of wedging a mass of dry materials into the wet Crum…they loved it!

Later after reasonable success with this, a young geological student turned up with a box of dry white materials. I tested this but I had no experience of clay in the raw and was not impressed until I saw the line of potters waiting to dig the clay on a nearby hill side. With an auger of some 8 meters I bored into the hill from the bottom of a 2 metre pit….the white clay went on and on.

From then on things moved fast, within a month or so there was a registered company entitled ‘Taruaru (Tararua?) Minerals’. . A lot more could be said about the progress of the company, some very amusing. It does not exist today.

However, most of the potters using the clay had piles of cracked bisquit behind their sheds showing that something was needed. With the help of Michael Cardew’s book ‘Pioneer Pottery’ this was worked out.

Now in my 86th year I have not returned to the hill for some 20 years, it is today a dairy farm sitting on top of millions of tonnes of the nicest clay I have ever used. There are several large deposits of the same clay in the North Island.

Ann recently bought 3 large amounts of ‘paperclay’. All the OZ ‘paperclay’ has different labels but it is all similar, = crap! I know what the problem is as we were some of the first to make it here. It is very easy to make.

The first two she discarded together with1 tonne of other PZ clay. She is now ‘trying’ to use the 3rd lot. What the hell do we do with it? I have not got the strength now to do too much. I think the ‘paperclay’ could work if mixed equal with non ‘paper’ clay I will try that.

If I was not 80+ years old I would be back in the hills of Pahiatua digging some of the 8 million tonnes of near white clay and making it into paperclay. I made a small amount last week and it was very good. We used that Pahiatua clay for everything for 10 years as did a lot of NZ potters.

With great respect Paul (Pepworth) is not a clay man I tried to get him interested in some of my recipes, he is brilliant otherwise, and there are a lot of people that could help; who know more than I do. Pahiatua Clay have just been refused funding.

John Lawrence.


Now John did not explain further about the funding failure so I’m not sure what that part is about but if anyone has any comments please add here and if you have something more to say maybe write to John – he has the knowledge and is always happy to be helpful if he can.

We’ll await with bated breath to see if more can develop from all this. The Lawrence/Verdcourt household would be most interested as would many others as clay seems to be a hot topic these days.





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7 responses to “A Problem with Clay?

  1. Caroline Earley

    Hi Moyra,
    Does John need help with alternate paperclay or does he need a big strong reliable intern? I always have students who want to come to New Zealand, but would only send the good ones. Or is he thinking that there is a good business opportunity out there for someone?

    I used to use Nelson White paperclay, which I really liked and last August used the Primo white stoneware paperclay from Wellington Potters Supplies in Keneperu, which I threw on the wheel with success. They are expensive but both have finer paper fibers and better working propertied than the Bmix paperclay I currently use in the States.

    • Moyra

      Hi Caroline, I shall pass on your comments to John by email as he probably does not see my blog. We’re lucky that at 86 he is thoroughly competent with emails! I’ll also pass on your email to him and if you guys settle on an intern or something useful like that – do let me know!
      Brilliant idea! Hope you get to do something. Someone like John would have great things to pass on to a youthful, strong assistant. Great gifts both ways.

    • I did ask John if he’d like help but he said he has not the facilities to host or look after someone and considering his and Ann’s ages I guess that’s fair enough. Pity though – hope someone could use a strapping and keen young American helper! Will keep eyes open and also maybe someone might respond to you on this.

  2. Raewyn Atkinson

    Paul Melsor and Ross Mitchell Anyon have both extensively used Pahiatua clay.

    • Yeah, I have heard that although was not sure it was that exact clay that John is talking about. Wonder why one of the clay suppliers is not onto this source and utilising it for product? Importing from Oz must add to costs immensely.

  3. Moyra

    Anyone else like to host an Idaho intern (student assistant ….. usually undergrad or even post grad) to help you make the work in exchange for a bed and board and some lessons in producing work to some end purpose…maybe an exhibition or a Christmas sale or a market opportunity or…?? for a few weeks? I’m sure Caroline would, as she says, only send a good one. Might be a productive exchange and we should look on this as a great opportunity…

  4. John’s comments from July 2016 still resonate in 2018. Studio potters continue to struggle with the quality (and cost) of clay available in New Zealand – this year Waikato Ceramics’ Macs Mud White has been problematical for many potters. The problem is that because we are a small market and processing plant is expensive, there are too few clay manufacturers. Further, many potters (me included) are far removed from the practice of going and finding our own clay, and then refining it for our specific needs. Having seen Tatyanna Meharry’s work on ceramic resources in the South Island (Necessary Traditions Conference, Christchurch, 8-17 November 2018) it looks like we should all pick up our shovels and sacks and start fossicking.

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