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image icon 'Emu beaker', 1917

'Emu beaker', 1917
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This is a beaker made in 1917 from earthenware clay by Gladys Reynell (1881-1956), which measures 10.0 cm (height) x 8.7 cm (diameter). A very simple, tapered cylindrical form, it is primarily red-brown in colour. The shine that can be seen on the lip of the beaker indicates that the surface has been sealed (and therefore waterproofed) with a clear glaze. For such a small item, it incorporates bold decoration in the form of the emu designs that run in a frieze-like sequence around most of the outer face of the beaker. The emu forms are shown in red-brown silhouette against a light-cream background.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a work by Gladys Reynell (1881-1956) who was one of Australia's first studio potters - Reynell was the most significant potter working in South Australia during the first half of the 20th century, and was among a number of Australian artists to extend their training overseas; she travelled to England in 1912 with fellow Adelaide artist Margaret Preston (1875-1963), where they both studied and produced pottery; they also taught pottery to shell-shocked soldiers; on her return to Adelaide in 1919, she set up Reynella Pottery, south of Adelaide, and began using local clay for her pots; some years after her marriage to George Osborne, Reynell moved with him to Ballarat, Victoria, where they set up Osrey Pottery; from 1934 onwards, Reynell concentrated on her work as a painter and printmaker
  • shows the decoration and technique that is characteristic of much of Reynell's use of earthenware clay for tableware - the surfaces of these items were frequently decorated in sgraffito using Australian subjects, such as kangaroos and emus; sgraffito (meaning 'scratched') is a term in ceramics that refers to the technique of applying one or more layers of a clay slip (liquid clay) to an existing clay item such as a platter or beaker; when dry, this overlay is selectively cut away to create patterns and shapes; in the case of 'Emu beaker', the beaker was first made in an off-white earthenware clay; it was then dipped into red-brown slip (watery clay with added colour pigment), which was gradually scraped away until the emu shapes appeared; it was then bisque fired and glazed
  • expresses, through its simplicity of construction and design, a philosophy that Reynell shared with other artists and designers working in ceramics in the earlier part of the 20th century - by avoiding any technical and mechanical virtuosity in favour of a handmade appearance, Reynell’s work reflects the design ideals of the Omega Workshops in London (1913-19); these workshops were founded in 1913 by the art critic Roger Fry (1866-1934); Omega involved artists collaborating with craftspeople in the use of a diversity of media in pottery, fabrics and furniture design
  • is one of a rare number of ceramic pieces made by Reynell while overseas - Reynell and Preston studied pottery at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in London during late 1916 and 1917; 'Emu beaker' was possibly one of the first ceramics Reynell made, as the inscription on the base reads 'Jan/17'
  • reflects the widespread interest within early-20th-century Australian arts and crafts in using distinctly Australian motifs (plant and creatures) as primary sources for designs and decoration
  • shows creative imagination with the use of positive (the emu shapes) and negative (background) elements to add visual interest to a plain object.