Maria Louisa Gardner was born at Hobsonville, Auckland, on 29 July 1879, one of nine children of Louisa Clark and her husband, John Gardner, a farmer. Later known as Briar, she was educated by a private tutor at Mataia estate, the family farm at Glorit on the Kaipara Harbour, and by her maternal grandfather, a former teacher. When Araparera (later Glorit) School opened in 1893 she had two years of formal schooling.
Briar Gardner’s family had long been involved in the pottery industry. As a child she loved watching the kilns being fired at Hobsonville’s Amalgamated Brick and Pipe Company, which was owned by her uncles. When three of her brothers established a brickworks at New Lynn in 1902, she went with them as their housekeeper. Several years later, on the completion of a large home, the remainder of the family arrived and Briar’s younger sisters assumed some of her domestic responsibilities. She carried out secretarial work for her brothers, managed the local post office and helped care for her nieces and nephews. Interested in embroidery, tapestry and drawing, she spent some time developing these skills in Australia, and in 1920 exhibited decorative needlework in Auckland.
By 1922 the family firm, Gardner Brothers and Parker, had installed a pottery wheel at their New Lynn brickworks, and for a short period they employed an expert English potter, William Speer, to operate it. Although discouraged by Speer, Briar was fascinated by the wheel and spent ‘many happy and bemused hours’ teaching herself to throw pots, often working at dawn before the factory opened. She experimented with different firing and glazing techniques. Her early pieces were frequently over- or under-fired, and many were decorated with barbola, paint and gold lacquer. Technical problems caused by firing her work in the brick kiln were partially overcome when a small coal-fired kiln was built for her at the factory. In the absence of training manuals or classes, she read widely on the history of European pottery. She also attended William Wright’s sculpture classes at Elam School of Art and learned about Maori design from artist Trevor Lloyd. When the brickworks closed during the 1930s depression, Briar continued to work at the vacated premises. During this time she considerably improved her throwing, firing and glazing techniques.
In 1930, under the auspices of the Auckland Society of Arts, Briar Gardner held what was believed to be the first exhibition of Auckland-made pottery, and following this she exhibited regularly. In a 1936 exhibition with the painter Winifred Bodle, she was praised for the marked development in her work, particularly her use of ‘soft harmonious colourings’, ‘flowing glazes’ and Maori and indigenous plant motifs. The following year Gardner and four women artists, including Bodle and Connie Lloyd, held a successful exhibition with the Waikato Society of Arts in Hamilton. Gardner gave pottery demonstrations at Auckland’s annual winter shows, drawing attention to her work by throwing novel items such as egg cups and arum lilies on her wheel. She also demonstrated and lectured on pottery at women’s institute and YWCA meetings.
She helped care for her elderly mother until the latter’s death in 1938, when Gardner established a pottery studio at the family home. A kiln and a large shed for her wheel were built, and the existing dairy and storerooms were converted into drying and packing sheds. She continued to experiment with different shapes, colours and glazing techniques, and held a solo exhibition in Auckland in 1941. During and after the Second World War she provided pottery training for disabled servicemen.
Briar Gardner produced a considerable amount of pottery during the 1940s. The demand for her work had increased, partly because ceramics were in short supply through wartime restrictions. Her main retail outlets were the Milne and Choyce and Smith and Caughey stores in Auckland, but her work was sold elsewhere in New Zealand and some exported to Australia. Her pottery had become stronger in form and less elaborately decorated, but continued to include distinctive glazing effects.
By 1950, having arthritic hands, Gardner was no longer able to work as a potter. Instead she turned to speech therapy. Training in Sydney, she was admitted as an LTCL in the theory and practice of speech in 1951. After two years occasional work in radio and film in Sydney, she returned to Auckland, where she taught speech and drama for some years. Briar Gardner, who had never married, died in Auckland on 20 October 1968. The Auckland Museum has a collection of her pottery as well as film of her at work.