Page 1: Biography
Jones, Olive Emily
This biography, written by John Parker, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Olive Emily Jones was born in Onehunga, Auckland, on 20 June 1893. Her parents, Emily Mary Rout and Adam Jones, an English-born builder, had married in 1888. Olive attended Onehunga School, Auckland Girls’ Grammar School and then Elam School of Art. In 1919 the family moved to a large house designed and built by her father at 52 Seacliff Road, Onehunga. She trained as a girls’ work secretary at the Auckland YWCA in 1922 and worked with its Girl Citizen youth programme there and in Palmerston North. While visiting Australia with a YWCA group in 1930 she saw her first studio pottery, and in 1932 she followed her sister Gwenda to England.
Jones enrolled at the London County Council’s Central School of Arts and Crafts and took evening classes at the Camberwell school under Dora Billington. She gained a wide experience of electric kilns and firing temperatures, and tested New Zealand clay samples. She also met up with the New Zealand potter and artist Robert Field, who was then studying at Camberwell. After two years in London, she spent the last term at the Wedgwood Institute, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, where she saw serious production-throwing, as opposed to student work, and bought a second-hand industrial potter’s wheel, kiln plans and parts. In 1934 she returned to Auckland, where she soon met Briar Gardner, the only other studio potter in the city. In the same year she was accepted as a member of the Auckland Society of Arts and held a small solo show of pieces brought from England.
Olive Jones set up a workshop in the family cart-shed and had an oil-fired muffle kiln built. Using her industrial wheel, self-made tools and glaze materials from Britain, she overcame the problems of locally dug clays and began selling work to shops and from her studio. The Second World War increased the demand for locally made goods and a bigger oil-fired kiln was built. She later tutored evening classes at the Society of Arts, firing the student work in her new kiln.
In 1939–40 Jones and Elizabeth Matheson demonstrated and sold work at the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition in Wellington for six months, taking turns to produce more pieces in their home studios. She continued to work and in November 1957, when Oswold Stephens organised the first exhibition of New Zealand studio potters at the Otago Museum, she exhibited both earthenware and stoneware. She ordered a three-cubic-foot Grafton electric kiln from England that year, and all her subsequent work was with Bristol-type glazes fired to 1,220°C.
While studying under Billington in London, Olive Jones had begun experimenting with lustres produced by the reduction of low-fired copper earthenware glazes. She now resumed this, introducing cigar-shaped parcels of sawdust and mothballs through the small spy holes. The unpredictable results became highly sought after as collector’s pieces. Her pottery was always largely functional: bowls, vases (often with Maori rock-drawing decoration or moulded kowhai flower relief), generous mugs and jugs, and bookends based on a stylised Maori canoe prow.
In 1962, with Mavis Robinson, Paula King, Tony Valintine and others, Jones started the first New Zealand pottery co-operative, the 12 Potters Shop, in Mount Albert Road. She continued supplying work until the mid 1980s, after the co-operative moved to Remuera. As part of their 1979 annual exhibition, the Auckland Studio Potters honoured her with a retrospective exhibition.
A much-loved pioneer potter, Olive Jones was slight in stature and did not suffer fools. She was not religious and was described as a free thinker. She never married, and lived with her sister in the family’s Onehunga home until her death on 26 December 1982 at Green Lane Hospital, Epsom. At her funeral service the coffin was surrounded by her pots, brought by friends; she was cremated at Purewa cemetery.
From the 1930s Olive Jones helped establish a sympathetic climate for pottery in New Zealand through her teaching, demonstrations and inspiration, providing a solid base for the craft revival of the 1960s. She was always generous with help and encouragement over more than half a century as a potter. After her sudden death, at the age of 89, there were still some leather-hard pieces, wrapped in plastic, waiting on her wheel to be turned and finished for the next firing.