John CASTLE-HARRIS, Vase Enlarge 1 /1


Waratah, New South Wales, Australia 1893 – Wahroonga, New South Wales, Australia 1967


13 May, 1893 – 7 April, 1967

Vase c.1940 Description: Vase with entwined fish motif with green, blue and orange glazes on buff body.
Place made: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: ceramics, vases, earthenware, modelled hand-modelled earthenware, glazed

Primary Insc: incised on base: 'Castle Harris'
Dimensions: 23.6 h x 21.9 w x 25.8 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1981
Accession No: NGA 81.1443

The tradition of ceramics decorated with reptiles, particularly frogs, lizards and snakes, is an ancient one. The greatest exponent of pottery decorated in this manner was Bernard Palissy who, in 16th-century France, decorated his work with fish, frogs, snakes, lizards, shells and foliage cast from life and coloured as naturalistically as possible, with lead glazes in ochres, browns, blues and greens. The ware met with such success that Palissy was copied by his successors and numerous imitators. In Great Britain in the 1880s and 1890s, there was a revival of Palissy-style ceramics and majolica glazes, partly as a response to the influence of Liberty’s, the fashionable store, and the popularity of Asian art.

In Australia, the fashion for the romantic imagery of the Arts and Crafts Movement continued into the 1930s. Plaques, masks, pot-pourri containers, candle-jars and ornaments, as well as more useful objects such as plates and vases, were often decorated with mythical creatures, mermaids and dragons being the most popular. Potters such as Castle-Harris, Allan Lowe, Marguerite Mahood and Klytie Pate all made pots employing these motifs.

Castle-Harris is best known for his bowls and vases elaborately decorated with dragons and lizards. Fish, a table ornament meant to be viewed in the round, is an outstanding example of Castle-Harris’s skill as a potter. Vigorously modelled and brilliantly coloured, it possesses a vitality rare in Australian ceramics. The colours are those of Italian majolica, and its leaping, gasping fish has a realism that reminds one both of Palissy and the carp of Asian culture where they are symbolic of good fortune and prosperity.

John Castle-Harris studied pottery in Melbourne with Una Deerbon in the 1930s and established his studio at Lawson in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, where he worked until his death.

John McPhee 20021

1 Edited text from John McPhee, Australian Decorative Arts in the Australian National Gallery, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1982, pp.78–79.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002