Growing up in a Pottery, a brief and skewed history of Liebermann Pottery

When I was very young my mother worked in the “Old Pottery”. The Old Pottery was where Liebermann Pottery started in 1954 but by the time I was born in 1969 it had already migrated to Kramerville, where it had taken over the kilns of Silwood Ceramics, begun by Sir Thomas Cullinan.

The Old Pottery had become a redundant and dusty part of our home in Kelvin. It was full of the remnants of pottery making, slip baths and fuel fired kilns, places one could climb in and out of. My mother, Mary, went back to it so that she could be near me, but not with me… if I needed her I could turn the handle on the side of the old black dial telephone, it had an exchange that would ring through to the Old Pottery. Or I could make my way down there by myself. The windows were very dusty and it would take some time to find my mother in the half light, usually engrossed in some sculptural clay work. She would reach out her one hand to touch me reassuringly on the head while the other hand stayed busy with her work.

It wasn’t long before the demands of Liebermann Pottery drew her away and the Old Pottery once more became a simply abandoned space where I would look for, but not find my mother. I begged her to stay home. She was not like other mothers. One day I saw that the kitchen oven was on. I thought, Ah, she is baking, she is becoming a normal mother. But when the oven was opened there were no cakes or cookies, only small clay mice she had been drying in a hurry.

My mother took me with to Kramerville. She was busy in the tile department and so she asked one of the African workers, Grace, to sit outside on the grass with me. Grace was a magnificent woman with an extra large Afro who worked in the store room. She would emerge smiling from between towering shelves of hand thrown tableware. She and my father had a great rapport! My Virgo father ran an impeccable dispatch department and was fastidious about records and tidiness which also made him wonderfully scientific with his glaze formulations.

I resented my parents complete and utter involvement with the Pottery. I was a ‘laat lammetjie’, my four much older siblings all otherwise preoccupied. I looked forward to holidays when we could go to the sea. But when we did there were always Potteries to visit along the way. I remember going to Esias Bosch and to Hyme Rabinowitz among nameless others.

I remember carrying my own peculiar brand of expertise and indifference as I marched into these diversions to the destination. “I know everything about Pottery”, I would state blandly; and then emphatically, “But I will never be a Potter!“

The tile department in the seventies was a hub of creative energy. It was the era in which my mother developed a very popular range of silk-screened tiles. Her colleagues consisted of a colourful cosmopolitan range of characters. There was Michel, a gay French silk-screener; Magda, a Polish scraffito artist who told fortunes with playing cards; Annemarie Maresch, whose German husband was an architect and a great promoter of the tiles. My English mother was a fine draftswoman and drew on her interest in classical mythology for much of her subject matter. My Jewish father had been had been a Greek and Latin scholar and so between the lot of them it was quite a cultural melting pot.

I hung around the tile department in my former years and occasionally was drawn into the action. Such as the day when I became a model for the new catalogue and was asked to stand in the bath, a set up in the studio shop. I tentatively submit this photo of myself from the catalogue…

The Pottery boomed in the seventies and eighties. I think international sanctions helped all the craft industries. The markets were full of locally made handcrafts, maybe there wasn’t much else to buy. The pottery expanded from Kramerville to Wynberg. There were about 150 people working for the Pottery in 1984. I was recruited to help with orders on the weekends.

My father Sammy died suddenly in 1984. He became intractably depressed following a motorcycle accident which ended my brothers life and subsequently his own. Sammy was gregarious, outgoing and enthusiastic about teaching, esp about training people on the wheel. Many throwers can trace their linage back to him. His tableware range became iconic. It was hard to lose him the way we did. For six years, the pottery, amid political upheaval and shifting values was run intermittently by family members and the book keeper until it was decided by my mother that my cousin Adriaan Turgel would be the best man for the job.

During the nineties the Wynberg factory became un-affordable and Adriaan moved the Pottery again. Retail became consolidated at the Gas works in Auckland park and the manufacturing unit was downsized to Marlboro East. In the same spirit of adventure that first brought my parents to clay and glaze Adriaan has toured the globe collecting exciting vessels from the East.

Mary passed on in 2007 in Plettenberg Bay where I worked as a Potter while raising my children. She was not much of a house wife or of a business woman but she was the most prolific tile maker and sculptor ever, or so it seems to me. In every old colonial suburb of South Africa, her tiles grace the walls of the houses.

I have always been involved in the Pottery business in one way or another, although I’ve tried to get away from it. In the early days I would lie on the floor in the tile department and play with the zodiac tiles and read the inscriptions on the back. Then I would watch as Magda, covered in glaze dust would shift her cards around the table. Eventually I drew some strong parallels between the Potters wheel and the Zodiac wheel and the passage of time and my love of astrology was born.

Adriaan has opened a branch of Liebermann Pottery in Kommetjie in the Cape. I work on my own in Orange Grove and am currently designing a range of Zodiac Porcelain Pendants to send around the world.

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