Partners in Craft: Influential Couples in Australian Mid-Century Pottery  

Modern Design. Leonard Joel Auctions
Modern Design. Leonard Joel Auctions
Iris Galbraith pottery horse, c 1960s | Sold for $1,875

There are few greater ways to escape the pressures of daily life or simply to express oneself artistically than through craft. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, pottery was a craft that artists could focus on to make an income and gain wider recognition for their skills. At the time, creative couples would often adopt a working relationship, allowing them to pursue their discipline in unison. The most popular mid-century Australian couple working with ceramics would no doubt be Betty & Gus McLaren.

Based in Warrandyte, the McLarens started creating works after Gus purchased a book on pottery and dug up some clay from the side of the road. With the help of other local potters, Gus and Betty began to create fanciful earthenware animals under the name of Regus, which later became Yarraridge Pottery.

After moulds of their animal designs were made, Betty learned how to slip cast which allowed them to produce their most recognised pieces in larger numbers. With Betty focusing on the production of their animals, Gus would work on unique stoneware ceramics, which were abstract, brutal, and textural. The one-off stoneware pieces of Gus were displayed in exhibitions all over Australia, with some at the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

Betty McLaren, two bowls, 1960s (part) | Sold for $312

In her own time, Betty would also design and produce pieces which she supplied to Victorian galleries and sold at markets. Betty focused on bowls and dishes which she often decorated with colourfully glazed animals like fish, owls, and chickens. 

Another couple that produced pottery during the same period were Iris & Victor (Vic) Galbraith. Based near Cessnock in New South Wales and heavily inspired by their children, the pair made highly figurative and sculptural works which often resembled animals. Iris and Vic initially sold many of their works through an old Church gallery in Pokolbin, but their works have since developed a following and can now be found across Australia.

With the help of her children and her husband Vic, Iris would produce her slip-clay pieces by hand or via the use of wheel-throwing techniques. Before being fired in their home built oil-fired kiln, the Galbraiths would finish their works in an experimental fashion, using multiple glazes and different clays. Their pieces bear interesting textures and patterns, which would become synonymous with their style. Most of the pieces produced by Iris were signed with her name or impressed with an ‘IG’, however Victor, and the couple’s children, would also produce pieces individually, with their own styles.

Gus working on stoneware pieces for exhibition
Image courtesy: McLaren Pottery

The beauty and value of the works of the McLarens and the Galbraiths has not been lost to time, with enthusiasts scouring auction houses, country town markets, and
second-hand selling platforms to find another piece to add to their collection. Collectors are drawn to the whimsical qualities of Iris’s works, and the earthy and natural qualities seen in Gus’ most impressive pieces. Some of Iris and Vic’s children have created platforms for enthusiasts to affectionately post images of their pieces and have open discussions with fellow collectors. 

The works of Gus and Betty McLaren sell for as little as $20 to as much as $1,000, with a few exceptional pieces selling for well above that amount. Their works regularly appear at auction houses and are typically signed or stamped. Their pieces can be a fun and accessible gateway into collecting Australian mid-century pottery.

The influence that the McLarens, Galbraiths, and others of the same period have had on the potters of today cannot be underestimated. The works of both the McLarens and the Galbraiths are joyous and dramatic, and could find a suitable space to live in any home.

PAUL NICOL / Modern Design Assistant

Banner Image: Gus McLaren horse | Sold for $1,250

February 2023