Story: Stephens, Oswold Counsell

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Stephens, Oswold Counsell

1896–1980

Teacher, chemist, potter

This biography was written by Kate Coolahan and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Oswold Counsell Stephens was the proprietor of the Handcraft Pottery workshop in Dunedin, which made a major contribution to the studio pottery movement in New Zealand. The son of Mary Duke and her husband, John Jefferson Counsell Stephens, a solicitor, he was born on 11 December 1896 at Mornington, Dunedin. He attended Mornington School (1902–9) and Otago Boys’ High School (1910–11). Health problems caused him to take a year off, but he resumed his education at Waitaki Boys’ High School (1913–15) and then went on to Canterbury Agricultural College (1916–18), where he received a gold medal as top student. He graduated MSc from the University of Otago with first-class honours in organic chemistry in 1923, and started work as agricultural science master at Hastings Technical High School. On 30 December 1924 he married Kathleen Ailsa Ewing, a teacher, at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, New Plymouth. They were to have a son and a daughter.

It was at university that Stephens first became interested in the heat treatment of clays, which led to an appointment in 1924 as technical chemist at New Zealand Insulators Limited in Temuka. When he lost this job during the depression, he returned to Dunedin and built a two-storeyed studio and laboratory in his backyard. In 1933 he was appointed science master at King Edward Technical College, Dunedin, where he was to teach until 1961.

Drawn to pottery by his fascination for clays and glazes, in 1936 Stephens constructed a potter’s wheel from a sewing machine and a gramophone turntable. He also made a small ball-mill to process the Nelson clays, which he used in combination with imported material. With his wife, Ailsa, he established Handcraft Pottery, a small semi-commercial workshop behind his home in Clyde Street, Dunedin. Most of his production was slip-cast, in large quantities, using the labour of family and friends. A nephew who lived with the family while studying medicine remembered filling in pin-holes in the casts – Stephens destroyed any pot with the slightest blemish. In the late 1930s he imported an electric kiln, which he modified (using locally designed switch gear) so that the temperature could be raised without a transformer, giving greater control of glazes in large firings. Later he designed and built a larger kiln, enabling him to fire both earthenware and stoneware.

The contemporary English enthusiasm for Chinese shapes and glazes, promoted by the interior design fashion house Liberty and Company, reached New Zealand via magazines and books. Stephens emulated the simple shapes that displayed to advantage the distinctive glazes – crushed strawberry, apple and lime green, pale greyish pinks and full yellow – of the Ming and Qing (Ch’ing) dynasties.

By the 1940s he was firing for university extension courses and the Roxburgh Children’s Health Camp, as well as for individual potters. He passed on his knowledge freely, and later published his glaze recipes in the New Zealand Potter , a magazine he helped establish in 1958. Several one-man shows were held, and among his commissions was a set of six urns produced for Government House in 1948. Many private buyers collected his work, as did the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Otago Museum and New Zealand House in London; the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa holds 14 pieces.

Stephens was a founder and life member of the Otago Potters’ Group and exhibited regularly with the Otago Art Society. In November 1957 he organised, for the Visual Arts Society of Dunedin, the first exhibition of New Zealand potters. He was also a co-founder of the New Zealand Society of Potters in 1963, and was elected a life member in 1965, along with Elizabeth Matheson and Olive Jones.

Of medium height, with dapper good looks, Oswold Stephens was persuasive and quietly efficient. He died in Dunedin on 8 May 1980, survived by Ailsa and his children. Although he developed a wide range of pottery skills, he generally avoided aesthetic debates and preferred to be assessed as a glaze chemist. He developed over 2,200 earthenware and 180 stoneware glazes, and his work is still held in high esteem.