Time On Our Side — Bendigo Pottery


Jardan has been working with Bendigo Pottery for their Nelly and Heath lighting ranges. Handmade in a factory with a 163 year history, Bendigo Pottery is proof that world class craftsmanship and manufacturing is possible in our backyard.

In another, non-pandemic world, hanging out with Rod Thomson and getting him to talk about his ‘real’ passion, the small and incredibly pretty 1960s Datsun 2000 Sports is where you’d want to be. This wonderfully packaged little roadster built to compete with and pay homage to the English drop tops of the time, is the perfect Japanese expression of the moment, a time when the country was searching for an identity and inadvertently created its own. Like an Austin Healey, MG or Triumph, they were small, fun and an endless supply of fussing and fixing, something to get lost in; all that minutiae and small, period correct details. An engineer’s dream and trainspotters’ grail.

That is to say, Rod is a fastidious guy and just the person you want in charge of your factory.

Rod and his wife Sally own Bendigo Pottery, one of Australia’s oldest, continuously running businesses. Established in 1858 and operating on the same site since 1863, Bendigo Pottery supplied the goldfields with ginger beer bottles and acid containers. The deep history means there’s plenty of legacy work to do and the story of the business is crucial to its continued existence, but perhaps the real trick of Bendigo Pottery is its modernity.

As Rod explains the construction of Jardan’s Nelly lights - from the Living Forms collection, the engineer in him switches on; a no-nonsense, pride in knowing and experience tone takes over and you’re compelled to listen.

"They [the Jardan team] come to us with a drawing and we work out what can and can’t be done. Not everything that you draw on paper can be made in ceramic," Thomson adds matter-of-factly. "Sometimes it takes 3 or 4 times to get approved."

The Nelly, and in particular the tall table lamp version is simple geometry like a piece of pipe perfectly bent in half to finish back, parallel to where it started. Its form absolutely belies its complexity. Ceramics of this kind rely on sound engineering and structural integrity. These aren’t pinch pots or pencil holders for Mother’s Day at first glance you assume a clay cylinder has been rolled out and bent into shape, but that can’t be, how is it so perfect? What’s the secret?

"We have our own recipe for our clay," Rod tells me, before putting an end to any special story, "it’s no great secret, it’s a recipe we’ve been using [for a long time] for uniformity." Rod’s a bit of a straight shooter.

"[When making the Nelly] we started with a model of the lamp which is 15% larger than the finished product to allow for shrinkage of the clay when fired to make a plaster mould. Liquid clay is poured into a slip casting mould. When the piece is removed, the seams are trimmed and holes cut before being dried then bisque fired. Following the first firing the piece is strong enough to handle but still porous to absorb the glaze. After glazing the piece is fired again on a sacrificial plate so the lamp stays round and the smooth, glossy surface is the result."

The Nelly is finished with a hand-blown glass sphere and while its simplicity is anything but, the result is calm assurance. The fact it’s handmade in Victoria only adds to the composure, a wholly Australian company working with another is affirmation of the possibilities.

Covid brought new challenges for a place that only ever closed for one day of the year, but an increase in sales of packaged clay, a spike in craft and hobbies and interest in locally made products kept things ticking over for the small Bendigo factory

"The biggest silver lining has been an increase in Australian made," says Rod proudly.

"We’ve developed some new glazes for Jardan for some new products," he adds, dropping a hint on further collaborations.

Bendigo Pottery has managed over 150 years of business because they’ve always adapted to the prevailing winds. What may have been clay bottles and acid containers for the goldfields became pipes and roof tiles.

Port crocks went out of trend and were replaced by olive oil bottles. It’s no good selling an abacus when computers are available, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to count anymore. You adapt and you move on.

"I just make sure everyone has everything they need," he says without a hint of modesty and as a man who probably knows when a kiln is running a single degree too high or low.

It’s fitting that Rod restores vintage cars. We’re all just custodians of our time, but if we’re lucky our legacy will live on. Jardan may be a hundred or so years behind Bendigo Pottery, but with continued investment in locality and a desire to keep telling our story there’s still a lot left to say.