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Laird, Jack Denis

by Kate Jordan

Biography

Jack and Peggy Laird founded and operated the innovative Waimea Pottery craft studio, a juggernaut of New Zealand pottery during the 1960s and 1970s, as well as Richmond Pottery and Ceramics and Craft Habitat. Jack was a potter, arts educator, and innovator, while Peggy was a businesswoman and mentor to the many potters who trained with them. They had an indelible effect on the New Zealand pottery scene and a generation of potters.

Early life and wartime

Jack Denis Laird was born in Watford, England, on 29 August 1920, the son of Edith Jones and her husband, engineer William Laird. As a child he played in a nearby disused brickworks, making items out of leftover clay and baking them in his mother’s oven. Watford was then on the outskirts of London, and Jack grew up seeing the advantages of urban and rural environments and wanted to live in both.

Peggy Marjorie Biggerstaff was born in Harlesden, London, on 26 September 1923, the daughter of Rose Keen and her husband, railway employee Harry Biggerstaff. She was the youngest of six children and very intelligent, winning a place at a grammar school in Brondesbury.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Jack had just started at the Chelsea School of Art. He served in the Royal Armoured Corps for four years, primarily training troops at Royal Military College, Sandhurst after suffering a knee injury. During the war Peggy worked as an assistant in a laboratory developing penicillin and trained as a librarian. It is not known when Jack and Peggy met, but they married on 4 September 1943 in Watford. Peggy gave birth to a daughter, Helen, in 1946, and became a stay-at-home mother.

Jack’s education and the young family

After the war Jack received a serviceman’s grant and studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts until the Chelsea School of Art recovered after the war. He majored in graphic design, but became so enthralled with pottery that he skipped other lectures to practice throwing. He then completed a year-long postgraduate teaching diploma at the London Institute of Education while continuing to study pottery part-time.

Jack taught at a grammar school in London, potting in his spare time, before the family moved to Abingdon, Oxfordshire, where he worked in a country pottery. Required to produce the same object repeatedly, he learnt to throw quickly and accurately. His time in Oxfordshire, though short, was influential when he sent up his own pottery later. The couple’s second child, Nick, was born in Abingdon in 1950.

The family could not live on Jack’s income from pottery, so they returned to London. Jack freelanced, mostly in graphic design, and Peggy gave birth to a third child, Paul. In 1952 the family moved to Jersey in the Channel Islands, where Jack taught in the art department at Hautlieu School, a new boys’ grammar school, and Peggy taught French and English at another school. The family remained in Jersey for seven years, but Jack and Peggy felt opportunities were limited on the small island.

A new life in New Zealand

Looking for new opportunities, Jack attained a job to establish an extramural art department at Victoria University College’s new Palmerston North campus. One of Jack’s art school friends, New Zealander William Newland, had spoken highly of his home country, and Jack thought it sounded like a good place for a new start. The family emigrated to New Zealand in 1959.

When the Lairds arrived, New Zealand craft pottery was just beginning. There were very few full-time professional potters, few opportunities to learn or develop pottery skills, little craft pottery available through mainstream retailers, and few exhibitions of pottery as artwork. Reviewing the Third New Zealand Potters’ Exhibition shortly after his arrival, Jack wrote that it showed ‘New Zealand pottery at an interesting stage. At its best – excellent; a great deal of mediocre, some quite poor’.1 He bemoaned the lack of experimentation and local flavour, and proposed that standards be improved through training, better equipment, and potters working in country potteries. He wanted to see ‘the first generation of studio potters earning their living at their craft, and their students working with them’.2 This review both summed up the current situation and foretold Jack’s work in New Zealand.

The job description for Jack’s new role was vague and he was initially puzzled about what was expected of him. He surveyed the needs of the Victoria University district (the lower North Island and upper South Island) and concluded that the new programme needed funds, premises and organisation. He established a pottery on the new campus and offered part-time courses and intensive special schools during weekends and holidays for adult students. Over time, the job involved more administrative work and less teaching and creating.

Jack also engaged in public debate about craft in New Zealand and assumed a leadership role in the pottery field. He wrote technical articles for New Zealand Potter to share his expertise and ideas; organised a conference in Palmerston North on the status and future of crafts in New Zealand; and was a founding member of the New Zealand Society of Potters. He helped organise the Sixth Exhibition of New Zealand pottery in Palmerston North in 1962. This, along with his university teaching, stimulated a flourishing local pottery scene.

Despite his achievements in Palmerston North, Jack was frustrated by the bureaucratic, siloed nature of the education system and the limited resources with which he was expected to cover such a large area. He was also dissatisfied with what could be achieved through part-time and intensive courses: ‘people were coming to learn for too short a time, and then going away to make bad pots’.3 Jack asked Peggy what she thought of cashing in their pensions and using their savings to start a craft pottery; according to Jack, she replied, ‘Well, you’re pretty impossible to live with in your present mood, so we better try it’.4

Waimea Pottery

The Lairds’ move into pottery production came at an opportune moment, as the government’s import controls increased the price of foreign pottery and created an opening for enterprising local potters. Jack, with his usual thoroughness, researched the market and wrote a business plan for the new pottery. He and Peggy chose Nelson as their new base, impressed by the local pottery materials, climate and artistic community, and the support of the local business community. They moved to Richmond and opened Waimea Pottery in 1964.

Waimea Pottery was different from other New Zealand potteries of the era. It drew on Jack’s experience at the country pottery at Abingdon and Bernard Leach’s suggestions for workshop operations. Rather than an individual potter working on an object from beginning to end, several craftspeople formed a production line. Jack designed the objects, then assistants and apprentices threw them. Shapes continued to evolve from the original design, sometimes taking months to settle into their final form. A team of semi-skilled part-time workers prepared clay, loaded and unloaded kilns, and packed orders. The system ensured apprentices and assistants developed sound and efficient throwing skills and enabled Waimea to produce goods economically.

Peggy managed Waimea’s accounting and administration. The import restrictions meant demand for New Zealand-made wares was high and Peggy had the large task of managing orders and running the showroom. She also liaised with the local union about wage rates and job descriptions, was the first point of contact for apprentices and staff and hosted international guests such as Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada. Her son Paul later described her as the backbone of Waimea, the glue that held it together.

Jack’s aim, based on William Morris’s philosophy, was to produce beautiful objects that people could afford and use daily. Waimea sold its products in craft shops and was the first country pottery to supply department stores: James Smith in Wellington and Ballantynes in Christchurch. A salesman who imported foreign pottery helped them grow their domestic market. Waimea also supplied the Myer department stores in Australia. By 1970, the firm employed 17 staff and had 40 shapes in production, all hand-thrown and -turned. Demand was high and continued to grow, but Jack thought the workshop had reached its optimum size.

Training new potters was a large part of Waimea’s operations. Jack designed a five-year apprenticeship which was more structured than other arts-based training and was approved by the Department of Labour. Although only two potters completed the full programme, many other apprentices worked at Waimea for long periods. Everyday throwing honed their skills, but Jack believed that ‘everyone working in the pottery has the right, and the responsibility, to develop his own work’, and set aside space for personal projects.5

While Jack taught and trained the apprentices and staff, Peggy cared for them, and inspired them to believe anything creative was worthwhile. Former trainees remembered Waimea’s family atmosphere, with trainees and staff given skills, strength, love and support. Many who worked and trained at Waimea went on to set up their own potteries in the Nelson area. Jack and Peggy’s son, Paul, trained at Waimea from 1973 and worked with his parents for many years.

Temuka, Richmond Pottery and Ceramics, and other ventures

In 1969, Jack adapted some of the old hand-operated machines to make dinner sets, which were fiddly and uneconomical to throw by hand. To distinguish the machine-made tableware from the hand-thrown Waimea products, it was sold as Mapua Tableware and produced in a different building. In 1977 it became its own entity, Richmond Pottery and Ceramics, and the following year Jack and Peggy reduced their involvement, although Jack stayed on as designer until 1981. From the early 1970s Jack also served as designer and consultant for domestic ware produced by Temuka Pottery, an industrial pottery near Timaru. His designs included the iconic Riverstone stoneware series, which sold millions of pieces and became a well-known feature of many New Zealand homes.

In 1974, Jack and Peggy spent several weeks in Scandinavia and Germany, touring studio and industrial potteries. He took note of the sophistication of modern kilns in Europe and rebuilt the Waimea kilns after his return to New Zealand. Peggy continued to develop her business skills, gaining a Diploma in Personnel Management from Massey University in 1978.

Changing government policies began adversely affecting Jack and Peggy’s business ventures from the late 1970s. The government proposed extending sales tax to handcrafts, but after an outcry from craftspeople it defined ‘handcraft’ as a process where one person was responsible for the entire object and exempted ‘handcraft objects’ from tax. As Waimea Pottery’s objects were produced by a collective, they were subject to the new tax, reducing the business’s profitability. Jack, Peggy and Paul made the difficult decision to wind down the team workshop system and set up as individual practitioners working in a shared facility. Jack, Paul and potter John Clift formed a new business, Waimea Potters, to explore their own interests, while Peggy continued to run the small gallery. Many retailers continued to sell their work and the business operated within the limits imposed by the taxation system.

While Waimea was restructuring, Richmond Pottery and Ceramics was booming. Under pressure to expand, Jack and Peggy sold their majority share in the company to Teal Ceramics and leased the land and the premises to Teal. In 1984, however, Teal Ceramics folded and the buildings were left empty. The Lairds then developed a village of eight studios, run by various craftspeople, under the name Craft Habitat. Peggy ran the operation and mentored young people starting their own craft businesses, providing practical advice and a sounding board. Craft Habitat became an important tourist destination and fostered many of Nelson’s art and craft businesses.

Jack contributed to the evolving practice of New Zealand pottery. He wrote articles for the New Zealand Pottery and New Zealand Listener magazines, and served on the executive of the Crafts Council and as deputy chairman of the Industrial Design Council. In addition to his functional pots and dinnerware, throughout his career Jack produced more decorative and whimsical pieces that are now held in museums and galleries throughout New Zealand.

Jack was made an OBE for services to pottery in 1984. Two years later he fell off a roof and severely damaged his right arm and wrist, which prevented him from handling big lumps of clay. He shifted his artistic focus to decorating commercial tiles. When he and Peggy sold the Craft Habitat complex in 2002, he set up a small studio at their home. Peggy worked almost full-time in Paul’s gallery well into her eighties, helping customers and tourists with her in-depth knowledge of pottery and art.

Jack died on 7 August 2009, aged 88, at Nelson Hospital. Peggy had a stroke in 2012, and was cared for by Paul and his wife until her death on 7 April 2013, aged 89. Over their five decades in the New Zealand pottery scene, the couple had helped develop a generation of potters and played an important role in the Nelson region’s art and craft industry.

Footnotes
  1. Laird, Jack. ‘Third New Zealand Potters’ Exhibition – A critical appraisal by a new New Zealander’. New Zealand Potter (December 1959): 40. Back
  2. Laird, ‘Third New Zealand Potters’ Exhibition’: 41. Back
  3. Cape, Peter. Artist craftsmen in New Zealand. Auckland, 1969: 50. Back
  4. Laird, Jack. ‘Family ties: men of clay’. North and South (December 1995): 12. Back
  5. Laird, Jack. ‘The Waimea Potteries’, New Zealand Potter (August 1996): 33. Back

Links and sources

Bibliography


How to cite this page:

Kate Jordan. 'Laird, Jack Denis', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2022. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6l6/laird-jack-and-peggy (accessed 8 August 2022)