JOHN CASTLE HARRIS: A Gift From Australia

Dragon bowl (1930s), John CASTLE HARRIS - Photo by The Estate of John Castle Harris | National Gallery of Victoria

John Castle Harris was initially a printer and a volunteer soldier before pursuing pottery as his passion. John Castle Harris had an ideology of pottery and the work of art that was quite different from what was held in his time and it made his works stand out. Known for the gift-item-like craft, he made sculptural ceramics that showed strong oriental influence with its animal features and other patterns that made them unique.

Early Life

John Castle (Jack) Harris was born on 13 May 1893 at North Waratah, New South Wales, as the fourth child of Harry William Harris, a printer, and his wife Lucy Lillian (née Smith) from England. Jack, as he was called, enrolled in the volunteer cadets where he served 6 years, and farmed at Mayfield before he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 19th February 1916. He was later promoted to sergeant in August and served with the 36th Battalion on the Western Front. After sustaining a gunshot wound on his right thigh on 13th March 1917, he was declared medically unfit and sent back to England. He then returned to Australia in November on 21 December.

John Castle Harris vase – Photo by John Furphy Pty. Ltd. | Antiques Reporter

Castle Harris, in the 1920s, was known to have sold punched and embossed leather table tablecloths as a means of livelihood. His tablecloth designs were often decorated with Australian floral motifs. He got married to a fellow artist named Alice Rochford, who incidentally is also sister to Neville William Cayley, on 31 December 1923.

The early 1930s found Harris developing his skills by attending clay modelling lessons with Una Deerbon. When he visited Melbourne in 1935, he worked informally at the Deerbon Pottery School as well as the Premier Pottery at Preston. This may be where he learnt his animal motif designs, as there were a number of ceramics decorated with dragons, fishes, and lizards, and with the signatures of both Castle Harris and Alan James, the chief thrower of the pottery’s ware.

The Harris Pottery Studios

John Castle Harris (1893-1967) Studio Pottery vase – Photo by John Furphy Pty. Ltd. | Antiques Reporter

Harris established a studio in Hunter Street, Sidney in 1939. Another one was also set up in Toongabbie in the mid-1940s. John Castle Harris did not like the contemporary handcraft ideals of the time and believed that handcrafted objects should not necessarily be useful items and because of this, was not part of the Society of Arts and crafts in South Wales. He designed his wares more for gift shops. He made sculptural items that were largely decorated with a strong oriental influence and various Australian animals.

By 1946, Harris had shifted his gaze and moved the pottery of Castle Harris to Blue Mountains and set up a studio at the Wentworth Falls, his work continued to improve. He soon moved to Lawson to continue his work after the death of his wife. He was known to have lived at 251 Great Western Highway, Lawson. He died on April 7, 1967, and was cremated.

Important Events

April 1923

Mr. J.Castle Harris, son of Mr. H. Harris, and brother of Captain Kilroy Harris, intended to take a trip up the north coast this weekend several years ago. He is accompanied by Mr. J. Packer, of Fassifern. Mr. Harris who has recently finished touring with J. C. Williamson’s comic opera company, now intends to take a pleasure trip, combining business with pleasure, to also check on exhibitions of suede and artwork from A. Carley’s studio( as reported by Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW) Fri 20 Apr 1923 Page 3 ).

Vase by John Castle (Jack) Harris – Photo by Artnet Worldwide Corporation

In 1924 : “Mrs., J. Castle; Harris, wife of John Castle Harris and daughter of the late Mr. Neville Cayley, the popular bird painter, is holding an exhibition of her paintings and suede work in Grafton. Mrs. Castle Harris is a native of Yamba, where her parents resided for many years. She, like her brother ;( Mr. N. V. Cayley) inherits much of her father’s great gift. As she visits Grafton, Mrs. Castle Harris will be accompanied by her husband, who is a member of the Melba Grand Opera Co at present.” – (Daily Examiner (Grafton, NSW) Tue 3 Jun 1924 Page 4)

In 1925, this article was published in the Newcastle Sun (NSW) on Fri 30 Oct 1925 Page 6:

“Fassifern Singer.

Mr. Jack Castle Harris, who is a son to Mr. and Mrs. Harris, of Fassifern, who is also a member of J. C. Williamson’s Comic Opera Company, now plays in Melbourne, and will be broadcast on Sunday night from 3LO, Melbourne. Mr. Harris was broadcast last Sunday night and his success was so evident that he has been requested to sing again. His numbers will Include “Macushla” and “Melisande in the Wood.” Mr. Harris is engaged by Broadcasting Company, Pty… Ltd.”

In 1934:

As at the previous year, Mr. Castle-Harris had no idea of his gift. But having produced some pieces of pottery, that have astonishing art circles. His particular flair and interest is in portraying snakes, lizards, gum nuts, and weird dragons in his work.

His genius is evidenced by the crafts that graced every possible corner of the stonework of his house at Killara (Sydney) as well as in brass and leather work, which added to the building’s unusual yet aesthetic appearance.

This young potter amazingly does this with his wife of Neville Cayley, who is the bird artist —”

John Castle Harris Small Low Bowl, underside incised ‘Castle Harris’- Photo by Shapiro Auctioneers | LOT 465

In 1942, this was the advert posted in Newcastle Morning Herald in the SCOTT’S GLORIOUS CHINA AND GLASSWARE DEPT. Glorious may seem so extravagant term to be used in this instance, but it’s deservedly so since it barely conveys an adequate interpretation of the beauty abounding in this section of Castle Harris’s work. For example, you’ll find an amazing display of completely individual Pottery from the master hand of “CASTLE HARRIS.” These can be said to be exquisitely delicate both in shade and design. Each piece in the collection is alive, yet quite exclusively different, since the Artist never -creates any two pieces to exactly look alike.

In 1945 May, this advert also appeared in the SMH: WANTED. Cottage, home-lovers. Castle-Hill district preferred. Reply Castle Harris. Cornelia Rd, Seven Hills.

–Newcastle Morning Herald