A name to remember – Una Deerbon

As an accidental collector, with a bit of an eye but no real academic knowledge about much of what I collect, every now and then I come across something that just smacks me and tells me to find out more about the artist behind it. I recently came across a photo of a vase that did just this to me… a vase by a potter by the name of Una Deerbon.

This was the vase that created such a stir inside me that it led to me franticly googling this long-gone Australian potter, and searching for more examples of her work and the history of her creations. It is currently for sale on ebay for $895 and is such a beautiful piece, but nothing compared to what I found when I started to look around. Her work is nothing less than extraordinary!

A week ago this amazing Una Deerbon platter appeared for sale on ebay. I immediately put it on my ‘watch’ list and every day I waited to see what would happen with it. The owner put the starting bid at just 99 cents. I had a feeling that it would eventually sell for around the $300 mark, but was interested to see what others would value this piece at. On the final morning the auction bids were sitting on just $25, with 14 hours left to go. I got incredibly excited, thinking to myself, that maybe I might have a chance at this one! I set my alarm, giving me a bit over an hour before the auction finished, so that I could watch where it was going and maybe put my bid in at the last minute. Then it all started to happen! It jumped from $25.98 to $110, then to $158.90, then to $188.90, and up and up to $244, then with literally one second to go, the bidding reached $246.50 and was done! Personally, when it first went up on ebay, I had decided that I would go to $150 if I had the chance, but once it was over, I almost felt like kicking myself for not just giving myself over to what I thought it was worth and putting my highest bid forward at $300. If I had, maybe this lovely example of Una Deerbon’s work would be coming to my place… oh well… I’ll just have to put this one down as the one that got away. But one thing this has given me, is a new keen interest in the work of Una Deerbon.

I did a bit of research on the woman behind this amazing platter and found so many examples of her incredibly imaginative pottery and her life. So who was Una Deerbon? I found the following article from the Sydney Morning Herald, on an exhibition of her work back in 2011 –

Forgotten potters in vogue

The resurgence of Australia’s studio potters and ceramic artists of the 1930s and 1940s continues to amaze. The work of Grace Seccombe, Marguerite Mahood and Klytie Pate, among others, has already boomed on the secondary market and now a major collection by Una Deerbon is expected to follow in the same direction.

Marvin Hurnall from Hurnall’s Decorative Arts Gallery in Melbourne has assembled about 60 pieces by Deerbon and her cousin (and pupil) John Castle Harris for a selling exhibition starting next Monday.

Hurnall says this is the first time the work of these two artists has been featured in large quantities since the 1940s.

Hurnall has also researched the colourful life of Una Deerbon, born in Woollahra in 1882. She studied at the Sydney Art School under Julian Ashton then married businessman Richard Darlow. While married, she designed clothes for the David Jones department store, opened a design school and illustrated humorous postcards under the name Una Darlow.

When the marriage collapsed she moved to Brisbane, where she first began working as a potter. Here she met Czech economist Karel Jelinek and they married in 1922.

They had two children but this marriage also failed and she found herself a single mother. She made money by teaching pottery and one of her students was Castle Harris.

It’s thought that Una Deerbon first exhibited her own work in 1931 at the Society of Arts and Crafts of New South Wales’s annual exhibition.

In 1933 she displayed more than 200 of her own pieces, predominantly earthenware jugs and plates, at Anthony Hordern’s department store in Sydney. She identified her work using her maiden name Deerbon, inscribed in capital letters.

The Sydney Morning Herald art critic debated her “manual skill” but said it was “impossible not to admire the fecundity and liveliness of her imagination”. Others have since described her style as spontaneous and whimsical.

Surviving pieces from this period are now held by major galleries and museums, including the Powerhouse. Her style directly influenced the work of Castle Harris, who would also become a professional potter in the 1930s.

He freelanced for Premier Pottery (manufacturers of Remued ware) at Preston in Melbourne.

His work was usually included anonymously as part of the Remued catalogue but on at least one piece he signed his name alongside Alan James, the founder of the pottery, and his work now sells for up to $20,000 for exhibition-quality pieces.

Hurnall is in the fortunate position of having virtually cornered the market in these rediscovered ceramic artists. These once-forgotten potters, if not exactly dismissed at the time, tended to be regarded as lesser beings by the critics. Not any more. – From the Sydney Morning Herald

Some of the pieces from the exhibition of Una Deerbon’s work mentioned in the above article have since gone to auction with Leonard Joel auction house, fetching as much as $1000. But even 10 years ago, in other auctions, her work was already reaching price estimates of upwards of $1500.

Una passed away in 1972 and probably would have had no idea that her rather whimsical and decorative works would be eventually clamoured over by collectors around the world! I haven’t so far managed to find out a lot about Una Deerbon, but I am sure that as I keep searching, more information on this extraordinary artist will come to light. She must have sold her pottery through Myers, as one of her pieces sold at auction a few years ago, carried a Myer sticker… many of the 1930’s and 1940’s Australian potters did sell through the major department stores such as Myer and David Jones.

Una Deerbon is most definitely a name to remember…

Nicqui – The Accidental Collector

You can have a look at some more examples of Una Deerbon’s work below…

These two rather different vases of Una Deerbon’s from ‘The Murray Walker Collection’ sold at auction in 2013 for $600 each.

This Una Deerbon ‘double satyr plate with grape and vine leaf boarder’ even with hairline cracks, sold at auction for $500 and the lamp base, with its original ‘Myer’ sticker on it, reached $950.


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