Page 1: Biography
Blumhardt, Vera Doreen
Educator, potter, arts administrator
This biography, written by Marion McLeod, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2018.
Doreen Blumhardt was the one of the most important figures in New Zealand’s arts and crafts world in the second half of the twentieth century. Her twin passions, for education and for the arts, were to help revolutionise the teaching of crafts in New Zealand schools, and she was widely recognised for her commitment to studio pottery.
Vera Doreen Blumhardt was born at Huanui, just north of Whangarei, on 7 March 1914. She was the third and last child of German-born David Blumhardt and his wife Wilhelmina Elisabeth Magdalene (Minna) Hartdegen. David and Minna owned a small farm on the side of Mt Parakiore, 10 kilometres from Whangarei.
David Blumhardt was a keen amateur botanist who collected, dried and pressed specimens. Doreen would become a passionate gardener. David also played the violin, and Doreen followed his example. Minna, who played the zither and loved opera, sang in the cowshed and, in working boots, taught her barefoot children to waltz.
German was Doreen’s first language, and she learned English only when she started school. She attended the 15-pupil Whareora School, where a fiercely anti-German teacher set out to ostracise the Blumhardt children. The school was open only half the week, and Doreen and her siblings spent the other days helping on the family farm. This early regimen underpinned the balance of practice and theory which was the heart of Doreen Blumhardt’s educational philosophy, and of her life.
The Blumhardt farm was sold during the Depression to pay the mortgages, and the family moved in with two of Minna’s sisters in Whangarei. This meant the children could attend Whangarei High School, where Doreen became a prefect. She played violin in the school orchestra and developed a strong interest in drawing and watercolours, winning several prizes.
Art college and teacher training college
Doreen decided at an early age that she wanted to be a teacher, but when she left school the teacher training colleges were closed due to the Depression. She decided to develop her artistic talents at the Canterbury College of Art, and moved in with an aunt in Christchurch. Two years full-time at the college were followed by five part-time years. Her teachers included Evelyn Page, Louise Henderson, Rata Lovell-Smith and Francis Shurrock. Doreen attributed her lifelong faith and optimism to the tenets of Christian Science, a faith which she adopted with her aunt’s encouragement during her Christchurch years.
In 1937 Doreen finally began her training at Christchurch Teachers’ Training College, along with studies in education and German at Canterbury University College. At the end of the two-year course she graduated top equal. During her training she was strongly influenced by educational thinkers who stressed the ‘the central role that art should play in the education of all children’.1 In 1939 Doreen added another year to her degree, focused specifically on arts and crafts education. She relished opportunities to work with clay, experiment on spinning wheels and looms, and go on botany field trips.
The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 brought a period of anxiety to the Blumhardt family. Shortly afterwards, Doreen’s parents woke at 4 one morning to find army personnel carrying rifles with fixed bayonets on their doorstep. David Blumhardt was taken away and interned at Pahiatua and later on Somes Island in Wellington Harbour. Doreen and her brother Eberhard were interrogated by the authorities, who made ‘all sorts of unanswerable and untrue statements about our father’s influence on us’. Doreen was deeply affected by the episode, finding it ‘quite incredible that this would happen in New Zealand’.2 Eberhard lost his job, but Doreen was allowed to continue teaching.
Doreen worked initially as an art teacher at Nelson Central School (1940–1). In 1941 she was recalled to Christchurch Teachers’ Training College to replace the head of the art department while he was on active service. In her spare time she joined the Red Cross transport division, gaining a heavy traffic and ambulance driving licence. She also spent many evenings teaching crafts to returned servicemen.
In 1942 Doreen met Director of Education Clarence Beeby, who was looking for someone to implement an arts and crafts programme for primary schools throughout the country. Up to that time, art education had been considered peripheral to the curriculum, and there were few trained teachers or resources available. Beeby liked what Doreen was doing at the Training College, and invited her to take up a new position in Wellington and develop a nationwide arts and crafts education programme.
Developing art and craft education
Doreen took up the position of National Adviser in Art and Craft in 1942. Based at Waterloo School in Lower Hutt, she was given access to the Education Department offices and left to decide how best to approach the task. She used Waterloo School to experiment with a national arts and crafts curriculum. It was wartime and materials were meagre, so Doreen improvised with what was available. She designed trays to hold paints, found supplies of paper and crayons, wool and clay, and conducted week-long courses for local primary schoolteachers in painting, clay modelling, weaving, simple book-craft, and puppetry.
Beeby and Minister of Education Peter Fraser visited Doreen at Waterloo School at the end of her first year, and asked her to develop the school's programme into a national teacher training course. She conducted training courses around the country. Teachers, headmasters, and school inspectors all spent a week with the materials their pupils would use. ‘They lost their inhibitions quickly enough and knuckled down to it’, Doreen recalled.3
Post-war Wellington was exciting. Bill Sutch, Gwen and Crawford Somerset, Joan and Fred Wood, Clarence and Beatrice Beeby, and Reg Waghorn, principal of Wellington Teachers’ College, were among those exploring new educational ideas. Doreen was a very early supporter of Wellington’s Chamber Music Society and played in a string quartet. She was also involved in the Architectural Centre, and served with Sutch on the committee of the Centre Gallery.
In 1948 Doreen requested a break from the training work, and Beeby approved a year’s leave to allow her to travel to England and Europe to gain new knowledge and experience. She spent three months at the Brighton College of Art. Beeby asked Doreen and Professor James Shelley to represent New Zealand at a UNESCO arts and crafts education conference in Paris, and Doreen also participated in an international exhibition of children’s art in Mannheim, West Germany.
Doreen returned to New Zealand early in 1951 and was appointed head of the art department at Wellington Teachers’ College. It was rare for a woman to hold such a position of responsibility, and she eagerly experimented with new ideas and new equipment, enthusing students, many of whom had never had an opportunity to be creative. She held this position for 21 years.
Doreen bought a steep section in Harbour View Rd in the Wellington suburb of Northland. Architect Anthony Treadwell designed an avant-garde, open-plan house, and in 1955 Doreen and her friend Freda Anderson, a librarian at the National Library, moved in.
Move into ceramics
Despite her intense involvement with her students, Doreen was determined to carry on with her own art: ‘I believe that a person who is working herself is a much better teacher.’4 She had a long interest in watercolours, screen printing, and weaving, but from the early 1950s ceramics became her main creative outlet. In 1952 she purchased a small electric kiln for the college, and in 1957 Barry Brickell and Helen Mason helped her build the college’s first stoneware kiln.
Throughout her career as a college lecturer, Doreen would rush home after a day’s teaching, change into her potting gear and work for several hours. The pots she made were fired in the college kiln until Roy Cowan designed and built a kiln for her at her home in the late 1950s. There were 69 steps from Harbour View Rd down to her house, and the potting shed and kiln were a further 40 steps down. Doreen experimented with a variety of glazes and potting methods, sharing tips and methods with other potters.
The late 1950s saw a burgeoning of interest in pottery in New Zealand. Evening classes sprang up everywhere. Regular pottery exhibitions soon commenced, and import licensing restrictions helped foster a market for locally-made pottery. Doreen co-founded the magazine New Zealand Potter in 1958, and was a prominent member of the New Zealand Society of Potters, which was founded in 1963.
Doreen also pursued connections with potters in other countries. In 1962 British potter Bernard Leach stayed with her for three weeks while he gave demonstrations, and the following year she took five months’ leave to travel around Japan. In 1969 John Marshall appointed her to the advisory panel for the New Zealand pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan.
In 1972, aged 58, Doreen took early retirement. She travelled widely and became deeply involved in arts administration, including helping to establish the Crafts Council of New Zealand. Most importantly, she had more time for her own work and her career as a potter took off. She held her first solo exhibition at the Dowse Gallery in Lower Hutt in 1976. Her major commissions from these years included three ceramic fountains, a dinner set for an overseas consul, and a ceramic wall for the Christian Science church in Willis St, Wellington – which involved designing and making 400 eight-inch tiles. She enjoyed working on this project with the architect Ian Athfield.
Doreen branched out into writing in the 1970s. In 1975 she was invited to write a book illustrated by Brian Brake: New Zealand potters: their work and words (1976) was published by A.H. & A.W. Reed. A second collaboration with Brake produced Craft New Zealand (1982), the co-winner of the Watties Book Award in 1982.
Doreen also extended her working space, in 1979 buying a second house at 70 Harbour View Rd, above number 35, which became her studio for seven years. In 1986 she sold number 35 and moved into number 70, which had drive-on access. She made many large pots, despite the difficulty of transporting them up and down her steps.
The New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts mounted a retrospective exhibition of Doreen’s work in 1991. A booklet, Doreen Blumhardt: teacher & potter, was published to accompany the exhibition. It includes a foreword by Clarence Beeby, a biographical essay by Marion McLeod, and photographs of Doreen and her work.
In 2002 Doreen donated her collection (both her own work and other pieces purchased locally and internationally) to the Dowse Gallery. The following year she established the Doreen Blumhardt Foundation ‘to ensure that New Zealand’s rich tradition of decorative art is celebrated, cherished and nourished’.5
Doreen’s work, both as potter and art educator, were recognised through a series of honours. She was made a CBE in 1981, became a DCNZM in 2003 and was appointed to the ONZ in 2007 – making her Dame Doreen. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in London in 1981, and awarded an honorary doctorate in literature by Victoria University of Wellington in 1991. The New Zealand Society of Potters, the Wellington Potters’ Association, the Crafts Council of New Zealand and the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts all awarded Doreen life memberships.
Doreen Blumhardt died at Churtonleigh Hospital, Wellington, on 17 October 2009, aged 95. For Doreen, teaching and pottery were always intertwined, but she thought of herself as first and foremost an educator. Thousands of New Zealanders have benefited, albeit indirectly, from her determination and her hard work, and the foundation she established continues that legacy by funding the potters and ceramicists of the future.