With the recent death of Len Castle, New Zealand has lost one of its greatest potters who developed a long and innovative approach to clay that can be bound up in the search for national identity.
Castle began working with clay from 1947 experimenting with commercial clays and Westmere beach sand. He was a natural, understanding both its composition and plasticity. Recognition from Auckland Society of Arts and Auckland Art Gallery came during this time. His forms reflected broad influences – a leaning towards modernism through Crown Lynn and Scandinavian design, otherwise Bernard Leach’s Anglo-Oriental vision where oriental glazes and English slip ware were both experimented.
From the late 1960’s, Castle began to reach beyond the Anglo-Oriental and create new unglazed forms that reflected his fascination for the inner qualities of clay. He talked about the process of rolling, folding, stretching and compressing clay that brought strong textural qualities which, at the time, Castle maintained were interpreted wrongly by others to suggest an association with natural forms. Hanging Vases and Bottles for Grasses characterised these new pieces. They sat well in the contemporary domestic setting of the 1960’s and 70’s.
It was in Treasures of the Underworld, Expo 92 that Castle’s interest in New Zealand’s geomorphic forms actually took off. Castle was one of fourteen artists invited by James Mack through Museum of New Zealand, to create a body of work that reflected the earthly experiences in New Zealand. Castle responded with the twenty-one part series: the magma flows, the magma cools on its way to the ocean.
I was involved in researching the registration details of the Treasures works in 2008 and I was interested in the way he translated the volcanic crustiness and vibrant colours of lava in each individual work.
After 1992, Castle continued to investigate the natural world, including the foreshore that resulted in ceramics like Sea Secrets and Sea Fossils. More recently, his Sulphurous Bowl series continued his geothermal interests, one recent example of which was acquired through Castle by Te Papa last year. My visit to Castle on that occasion was based around the acquisition of eight pieces from the mid- 1960’s through to 2010 (see them on Collections Online shortly). Despite his health problems, Castle’s gentleness and keen commitment to capturing natural forms in his ceramics came through during conversation. We were privileged to have this opportunity.
Justine Olsen, Curator of Decorative Art and Design (Contemporary)
kiaora I’m a student at Waiariki institute of technology and I am at present doing a paper on pottery. I have the pleasure of studing Len Castle and to my amazement did not know how prescious or how in touch he was with his love of clay, glazes and even sand. His knowledge of clay is outstanding and I feel blessed to have this opportunity to study one of New Zealands most sort after work. The Potter of all Potters. Thank you Len
One of my favourite Castle collectables has been the spice pots. The most common seem to be the ones with a two tone spotty cream upper and deep red brown lower section. But I have seen other colours and other pot styles. Including a set of triangular spice pots. A curious thing about them is they always came in different sizes, regardless of what was on the label. So you could get a large bay leaves or a small one. Some of the largest ones I have seen have no text on them, and recently a coffee jar has turned up in the same spice jar style. Not many of them were made. Be on the look out for one with the ANGELICA label.
Whilst we have largely non-functional work by Castle, we have recently acquired a bowl circa 1950 which shows his considerable ability in throwing at such an early stage in his practice. This will appear on Collections-Online in the future. We are keen to develop and represent a wider range of his work.
As a child my mother regularly visited Rotorua where we always visited the Eric Scholes Gallery. It was there that my mother assembled an extensive set of spice and herb pots that Len Castle had made. Month after month she purchased them. They were not cheap (37 to 45 shillings each).
Later in his life, Len did not often refer to this aspect of his ceramic work. Yet, like Bernard Leech, domestic ware was his bread and butter source of income.
I still have this amazing collection. Oddly, no Museum seems to represent this aspect of his art.