Ian Sprague

Ian Broun Sprague (1920-1994) was an Australian twentieth-century studio potter, ceramic sculptor and graphic artist. Delayed by the Second World War and a false start in architecture, he spent (broadly) his forties adapting Australian domestic pottery to a Japanese aesthetic of contemplative use; his fifties as a sculptor in two- and three-dimensional pottery; his sixties and seventies making landscape works on paper.

Sprague was born in Geelong, Victoria, Australia, in 1920. He was the sixth and last child of Leslie Sprague, a wealthy grazier and Marion Broun, Armidale-born descendant of the Scottish Broun baronets. He was educated at Geelong Grammar.Trained as an architectural draughtsman, Sprague spent the Second World War in the AIF in New Guinea as a signals officer. After the war he went to the University of Melbourne and completed an architecture degree in 1950. But he found the next ten years in architects’ offices in Melbourne and London tedious and unsatisfying.
Sprague was 6 ft. 1 in. tall with fair hair and blue eyes. He appeared at Government House parties and as best man at fashionable weddings, but he never married. On a driving holiday in Scotland in 1957, he had a car accident that put him in hospital for five months. One knee was permanently damaged and a frequent source of pain. His surgeon suggested he restore the strength of his arms by taking up a craft.

Sprague attended the London Central School of Arts and Crafts from 1958 to 1960. He spent two months at the David Leach pottery in Devon. He returned to Australia in February 1962, planning to make ethical pots in the Anglo-Japanese tradition founded by Bernard Leach, David’s father. Sprague bought a 15-acre estate in Upper Beaconsfield, Victoria.

On the estate he set up a pottery, designed and built a new house nearby and renovated an existing five-room cottage. From England he had imported a Homer kiln capable of the high temperatures needed to make stoneware and porcelain rather than earthenware, and a Boulton’s cone-driven wheel and pugmill. The equipment was on a commercial scale but devoted to studio work. The pottery was called Mungeribar: “red clay” in the local Aboriginal (Woiwurrung) language.

The Mungeribar Pottery’s mark is a Macdonald’s em impressed; Sprague’s personal mark is a capital I over a horizontal separator and the Morse code for S—three dots. Some pots are signed “IanS”. Drawings and paintings are signed “Ian Sprague”; work signed simply “Sprague” is generally by his nephew Leslie.

Sprague had met and liked the potter and Slade School technician Robin Welch (b. 1936) in England. He paid for Welch and his family to come to Mungeribar in 1962 so Welch could help him set up a fully professional pottery. The Welches returned to England in 1965. In the October 1965 issue of Pottery in Australia, Sprague described their successes and failures in setting up the pottery. The description and plans are so detailed as to amount to a specification for would-be imitators. Sprague produced a full range of functional domestic pottery from 1964 to 1980.

In 1964 he established the Craft Centre in South Yarra, “a display centre and exhibition gallery for Australia’s highest standard craft work”. Sprague thus had control of every step of production from mixing the clay to passing wrapped pots over the counter. The Centre was owned and stocked entirely by him, and he travelled all over Australia in search of the best pottery, textiles, glassware, woodwork and jewellery. The opening exhibition showed the pottery of Robin Welch. Sprague sold the Centre in 1967, but soon started a campaign for a government funded centre, eventually established as the Meat Market Craft Centre in North Melbourne.
In 1971 Sprague became president of the recently established Craft Association of Victoria. Dismayed by the quality of teaching in art schools and technical colleges, he ran many workshops around the country on the textural treatment of clay.

On one view, Sprague never produced great quantities of work himself; he was a self-effacing craftsman, not inclined to promote or exhibit his work. Yet he fired about 1,500 domestic pots of his own each year and scores of them are now in public collections.

Victor Greenaway was his apprentice 1969-73. (Greenaway’s mark in his Mungeribar years was an impressed capital G.) Greenaway eventually became Sprague’s friend and occasional manager. He considered Sprague

In 1973 Sprague excised two acres of Mungeribar to provide Greenaway with land for a house of his own. The other apprentices at Mungeribar were Grattan Burley (for six months), Christopher Sanders (1976-78), who became a lifelong friend, and Trevor Hanby (1978-80). After 14 years of hands-on pottery making, Sprague ceded to Hanby the job of developing a full range of pots to be sold under the Mungeribar mark.

In 1965 the famous Japanese potter Shoji Hamada had made a range of pots at Mungeribar; they are now in the Hamilton Gallery. The Japanese potter Tatsuzo Shimaoka worked at Mungeribar in 1972. Throughout the 1970s such international masters as Harry Davis, Ian Auld, Fujiwara Yu and Michael Cardew visited.

In the mid-1970s Sprague, following Robin Welch, produced a series of sculptures by adding anthropomorphic features to spindly thrown pots. Bearing such names as Critic, Totem and Warrior, they look like excavated chthonic mannikins.

Ovoid forms originated on the wheel but were beaten and scraped into expressive asymmetry and ornamented with clay disks and straps. A large group of these was shown at Leveson Street Gallery, North Melbourne, in December 1980.

From 1973 at the latest he specialised in fireclay panels for architectural use as wall plaques or free-standing sculptures (Littlemore’s Nine Artist Potters first edition of 1973 has photos of six of them). Later examples have a spine of coloured glass in clay wells.

Generally the panels were in groups of three, but installations of 8 panels (two by four), 42 (seven by six) or 27 (three by nine) were made, notably for the Modernist Beaumaris house of sculptor and portrait painter Shirley Hannan. Hannan was one of many clients who became admiring friends.

Single panels were sometimes glazed bas-relief sculptures.

Sprague laid out a design of 20,000 ceramic tiles in the Fitzroy Gardens, Melbourne, in 1979 to form a “people’s pathway”. Four years later he contributed a “cave seat” to another community art-work, the Terracotta Mural Garden at Benalla, Victoria.

By 1981 Mungeribar was too onerous and too cold for Sprague’s health. He sold the Upper Beaconsfield estate and moved to a house and studio he had bought at Mooney Mooney on the Hawkesbury River. Mungeribar was consumed by a firestorm on Ash Wednesday 1983. Sprague made pots and sculptures in a small pottery as well as works on paper. These include lithographs and monoprints. There are many drawings of the river, boats, the rocky escarpments. Other drawings are of his whippet Sprint. In 1992 he moved to a smaller house and studio at Sunshine Beach north of Noosa, Queensland. He died there two years later.

Ian Sprague: studio potter 1920-1994, a retrospective exhibition curated by Relton Leaver, was held at the Victorian State Craft Collection Gallery in 1995. The review in The Age, headed “Master potter hailed”, wrote of his “legendary contribution to contemporary ceramics”.
Examples of Sprague’s work are held by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the National Gallery of Victoria; the Victorian Ceramic Group; the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney; the Ian Potter Museum of Art.

A photo of Sprague by Mark Strizic in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria is available online as Ian B. Sprague (1960s). It provides a rare glimpse of him working on a ceramic sculpture.

A photo by Kraig Carlstrom in Nine Artist Potters shows Sprague at Mungeribar in the late 1970s wearing a zippered turtleneck jumper over blue denim flares.