Neil Douglas: Kangaroo platter

In 1944 Arthur Boyd, John Perceval and Peter Herbst purchased Hatton Beck’s pottery, Altamira, in Murrumbeena, Victoria, and renamed it the Arthur Merric Boyd (AMB) Pottery. These three artists, as well as many others and students, worked in the pottery, where the mark AMB was used. When Herbst left in 1950 to continue an academic career, his share in the partnership was taken up by Neil Douglas, who had been working at AMB for some time. While the pottery was essentially a production studio, its artists always maintained a high level of creativity, with many works being one-off sculptural pieces.

Douglas introduced a quirky depiction of the environment to the earthenware produced at AMB. Using a direct, tempera-style technique – applying the underglaze colour onto the leather-hard clay surface before the application of a clear overglaze and subsequent firing – he created idiosyncratic pieces that combined a feathery but skilful painting style with simple thrown forms.

Kangaroo platter, c.1950, is an excellent example of Douglas’s practice of this time. It is wheel-thrown glazed earthenware with a painted underglaze image of kangaroos in a bush setting composed with grass trees and eucalypts. The form, a simple plaque, and the scene, deftly painted but poetic, are characteristic of Douglas’s style. Formerly in the collection of Gora Singh Mann, Sydney, Kangaroo platter was recently acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria, along with three other fine pieces by Douglas, from a prominent Melbourne collector.

Douglas moved to Kangaroo Ground, Victoria, in the early 1960s following the closure of AMB. He continued to make pottery until about 1964, at which time he resumed painting, which had been the major part of his creative practice before the mid 1940s. In later life Douglas moved to Nhill, in western Victoria, where he continued to paint, often spending extended times in the bush.

During his lifetime, Douglas was highly regarded as both a potter and painter. He was also recognised as a passionate conservationist and a charismatic and eccentric individual. In 1975 he was awarded an MBE in recognition of his services to conservation and the arts. The occasion was described by Philip Jones in an obituary that appeared in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald after Douglas’s death in 2003:

On October 1, 1975, 63 distinguished citizens of the State of Victoria foregathered, each to receive an imperial honour … The male recipients, mostly sportsmen – including footballer Keith Grieg and cricketer Ian Redpath – donned neat blue suits … The odd man out was Neil Douglas. This much loved environmental artist wore a hessian suit he had woven, dyed, and tailored himself. To add insult to injury he was shoeless. His hair (which, he claimed, had not been cut for 20 years) and his beard almost obscured his quizzical, rosy, bony face … His contribution to our Australian civilisation was, arguably, greater than any other of the Queen’s chosen few at Government house that day.

David Hurlston, Curator, Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2013).