Squirreled away in a beautiful home overlooking Scott’s Landing is a collection of New Zealand ceramic art that’s jaw-dropping in scale. Patrick O’Connor has amassed what may be the largest private collection in the country of the work of renowned potter, Len Castle.
Len Castle began as a science teacher but became one of New Zealand’s most distinguished artists. Pottery was his life for over 60 years, and he lived and worked in both Titirangi and Warkworth. A true pioneer in ceramic art, he won multiple awards for his work, including an Arts Foundation Icon Award in 2003 and Distinguished Companion of the NZ Order of Merit in 2004. His work has been collected by galleries around the world. Len Castle died in 2011, aged 86.
Former Prime Minister Helen Clark wrote: “His explorations of geomorphic and geothermal shapes, textures and colours, and his remarkable ability to capture the ‘wairua’ [spirit] of the land, have brought him and his art to a … richly deserved international prominence.”
Pat first started collecting ceramics when he was about eight, with a piece of Royal Doulton. “I guess it is a slightly unusual thing for a kid to be interested in, but it seemed completely normal to me. I was just influenced by the era I guess – the 70s and 80s were big on pottery! Also by my mother, who was constantly creative.”
He loves his art too, and has put together an impressive collection a few of the big New Zealand painters. But his heart is in ceramics. “It’s hard to explain really – it’s a gut thing. Maybe the energy is stronger because it comes from the earth, maybe it’s just that you can hold the pieces – 3D versus 2D. Also, as you collect, you feel you really get to know the artist and their work.”
The many huge pieces on the floor all round the edges of the living areas grab the attention as you arrive – slab-form, Japanese-influenced blossom vases feature highly (at $15K a pop) – but soon there’s a dawning realisation that there’s Len Castle pottery everywhere you look. On every sideboard (mid-century Danish), in every cupboard – even the exposed rafters feature lines of ceramic wine bottles. “These used to be used as table carafes at the Deerstalker Inn on Ponsonby Rd. They were slung around, quite a few were broken.”
Pat also has a couple of waka-shaped ‘inverted volcanoes’; many strangely beautiful, fossil-like ‘hanging forms’; at least 30 ‘pin dishes’ (lovely little glazed and often figurative dishes) and many others stacked away in storage. But the pièce de resistance is a cabinet stuffed with of Len’s earliest pieces – from between 1951 to 1959. Here there are a number of rare and valuable works that other collectors would gnash their teeth over.
Pat has collected from auctions, TradeMe, by trading with other collectors, and occasionally, from op shops. It makes its way to him by other means, too: when a friend asked him to take a load of rubbish away Pat found a grubby ceramic dish in there which – yes! –had the magical LC mark on the underside. He uses it now as his dog’s water bowl.
His favourite piece? Hard to say. He’d find it very hard to part with his big blossom vases and the rare, incised blue vases from 1952. And a couple of modest bowls – special because they were in the last firing Len made in Warkworth would be high on the list, too.
He’s always keen for more, however. “I still don’t have a sulphur bowl,” he says (a classic bowl with a bright yellow crackled glaze). “I’m always on the lookout.” A collection like this is never finished.