Page 1: Biography
Lissaman, Elizabeth Hazel
This biography, written by Doreen Blumhardt, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998, and updated in August, 2011.
Elizabeth Hazel Lissaman was born in Blenheim on 11 October 1901, the second of six children of Helen Eva Bligh and her husband, Henri Lissaman, a sheepfarmer. She was brought up on her father's sheep station, Waireka, near Seddon. At school she had a strong desire to make pottery, and this persisted even though she had no contact with anyone else interested in making pots. She later wrote that 'It was almost impossible to obtain any information even about how to begin. There were no books to be had from the libraries and, of course, no supplies – even if I had known what I wanted.'
In 1921 Lissaman went to stay with her grandmother in Sydney, Australia. Here she was able to acquire the knowledge she needed from libraries, brickworks and isolated beginner potters, some of whom were willing to share the expertise they had gained by hard work, trial and error. She learnt a great deal about clay preparation, choice of clays, potters' wheels, how to throw, elementary techniques for glazing and decorating, and building and firing simple kilns. At Balmoral beach, Sydney, she built her 'first little kiln and managed to fire it with quite a measure of success'. The glaze had to be altered considerably to suit clays and temperatures both there and in New Zealand on her return in 1922.
Elizabeth Lissaman set up her studio on her parents' farm. A very good terracotta clay was located at The Elevation just south-west of Picton. She dug and bagged her clay there, transported it by train to Seddon, then took it about 10 miles to her studio. Next she needed a potter's wheel, but none could be bought in New Zealand. Her father, brothers and friends devised a unique machine using a bicycle chain mounted on a vertical wheel-shaft, a fly-wheel and a plaster-of-Paris wheel head. The design took account of her permanently injured leg, the result of a childhood accident, and it was operated by a pedal from a standing position. Using a Wengers catalogue from England, she ordered her ceramic materials, and had to wait months before shipments arrived.
When in the mid 1920s electricity was installed at the farm, she gave up coal firing, imported an oil-fired kiln, and fitted an electric drive to her wheel. This consisted of a simple leather belt driven with a clutch, of the type used on commercial sewing machines. Except for one replacement of a quarter horse-power motor, this equipment was used by Elizabeth Lissaman for the rest of her potting career.
In 1927 at the Winter Show in Christchurch she staged her first exhibition. Lissaman devised an unusual way of marking and dating her work. Using the nine letters of 'Elizabeth' to represent the numbers one to nine, she applied the first and last letters, EH (representing the number 19), to prefix each work, with the first 'E' only in upper-case. Thus, pots made in 1935 were marked EHIA, in 1939 EHIH and in 1971 EHeE. With years ending in 0, she used S, so 1970 was EHeS. Few potters have ever dated their work so efficiently.
On 20 August 1930 at Waireka Elizabeth Lissaman married an English farm hand, Henry Francis Hall. They were to have three children. The couple first lived in Canvastown, west of Havelock. Elizabeth continued to use her maiden name for her pottery, and sales of her work helped ease the financial hardship caused by the depression. However, their lives improved when the family moved to a farm near Levin in the North Island. For two years Elizabeth's newly imported Brayshaw kiln stood at the railway station while her pottery shed was built. In 1954 the family moved to Tahuna, near Morrinsville, to farm.
Elizabeth Lissaman made all kinds of domestic ware: mugs, jugs, bowls, plates, ashtrays, condiment sets and honey jars. Much of her work was utilitarian, but her most elaborately decorated pieces were intended as objects in their own right. Her designs are similar to low-temperature majolica ware, but she had established her own style long before she travelled in Europe in 1958.
Around 1966 the Halls finally retired from farming and moved into Morrinsville, where Elizabeth Lissaman had a custom-built studio with an electric kiln. In 1990, after nearly 70 years of potting and 11 changes in location, she was to make her last wheel-thrown pots at Crathie Rest Home in Tauranga. She had kept notes of everything she had done, and detailed records of her various kilns.
Elizabeth Lissaman was always helpful to aspiring potters, giving lessons and weekend schools. Her book, Pottery for pleasure in Australia and New Zealand, was published in 1969. She was accorded honorary life membership of the New Zealand Society of Potters in 1965 and was appointed an OBE in 1982 for her services to pottery. She died at Maurvern Rest Home, Cambridge, on 18 February 1991, survived by her three sons. Henry had died in 1980.