Location: 4316 Fraser Street, Vancouver, B.C.; 2nd location: 2910 West Broadway, Vancouver, B.C.5
Production Dates: 1945-1971 [Vancouver] 1972-1979 [Sardis, BC]
Types of Work: Functional
Preferred Kiln Type and Firing Process: oil fired and electric kilns
Preferred Clay: early stoneware, later earthenware, Mostly BC clays, some china clay.
Signature/Mark/Chop: The signature and marks below are divided into two sections: Works by David Lambert and Lambert Potteries Ltd. The Lambert Pottery Ltd. marks, stamps and signatures show a variety of formats over the years.
When I talked with David Lambert in 1981 I felt I was interviewing a not only a potter, but also an engineer, an entrepreneur and animateur. His thoughts and words ranged from the aesthetic, to the technical, to the pragmatic and to the commercial. Although there was pride he was unaffected. He talked as of a life story, not of some grand conquest.
Called sometimes the “Father” ³ or “Godfather” 4 of British Columbia ceramics today he is spoken of and written about with a certain reverence.
In our interview he said he was born “around 1906” in Sapperton, BC, just east of Vancouver.¹
At first he did not at first want to be a potter, rather a photographer, but he could not find the level of “what he wanted” in Northern Ontario, Toronto and Vancouver.¹
Lambert served in the Royal Canadian Engineers in Europe during World War II. This provided the opportunity to develop his skills as something of a “Jack of all trades” ¹ that were to prove useful in his later life.
With the end of conflict in the European theatre he and his family moved to Vancouver in June, 1945. He expected to be sent to the still ongoing Pacific War theatre but when that conflict ended he immediately obtained his discharge and set about earning a living in Vancouver.¹ In his words he had
“developed a taste for living and eating.” ¹
As a “jack of all trades” most of his early experience in pottery was in repairing bake ovens and cooking stoves ¹. He worked making bricks and found he enjoyed working with fire clay and kilns. Ever the learner he started studying chemistry and kiln operations.¹
“And so a further period in which ‘I learned that to be a potter in modern times you have to be a ditchdigger, a mason. a glasscutter, a roofer, a plumber. an electrician, a jack of all trades before you get to potting.”’ ²
While talking with him I did not get the sense he was formally educated; rather, self taught through travelling, reading, and trial and error. His style was to “just go ahead and do it.”
At the time, British Columbia and Vancouver did not have an Indigenous or studio pottery heritage but did have a healthy clay industry using fire clays and refractories to produce bricks and pipes. Lambert was to exploit these materials and contacts in his early years.
He did not claim to be the first to try and set up a studio pottery industry in BC and acknowledged earlier pioneers. For example:
“Reg Fry came from the lumber business. He toyed around with the idea of setting up a pottery for about 40 years. And bringing in in skilled craftsmen from Europe. Apparently there was no market due to competition from the Japanese and British.” ¹
Lambert also learned pottery and firing tips and techniques in Vernon, BC, from Axel Ebring:
“In the old days you had to go to the [pottery] person in he country and work with him.” ¹
He found Ebring secretive but technically aware. Lambert visited him in Vernon a number of times taking the night train from Vancouver.¹
I asked him why he stayed in Vancouver. He replied felt BC was ideal, Vancouver a port to the whole world, “the ideal place where things could be gotten and sold”. and that he would have no trouble selling his pottery. Already he was thinking of an export business. The War had cut off pre-War sources of pottery from such places as Britain, Japan, Germany and Italy. Lambert saw an opportunity to create a new domestic and international market.¹
As mentioned, immediately upon his discharge from the army he set himself up in business and started digging and pouring the foundations for the Fraser Street shop on October 9, 1945, producing pottery a year later.¹ In the interview he chuckled as he recalled the help from his military friends, ex-army engineers, some of whom were themselves now Vancouver city inspectors, in building the shop.¹
He would use this location as a base of operations, later moving to Ryder Lake near Sardis, BC, just outside of Vancouver.5 A 1974 photograph shows Lambert in his home and studio, which also seemed to be a storage and packing area.
Lambert was not thinking small. He spoke with an engineer’s pride as he started out with a:
“130 cubic foot oil-burning kiln using the Denver fire Clay muffle with Bunker C oil, heated and put out under pressure and air from a compressor at 800 cu. ft. at 29 oz Mercury per min … It could hold 12,000 seven inch plates at a time and worked beautifully.” ¹
Initially Lambert tried fire clay refractories and making high-temperature alumina products. Unfortunately, this clay proved unpopular in those early days.¹ He then tried stoneware.¹
Sales would be an initial issue. But supplies were also a problem. The operation needed five to seven tons of clay a year.¹
To obtain materials he had to go to Len Fairey at Fairey and Company for a clay from Saskatchewan that they used for bricks; he also went to Jim Hadgkiss at Haney Brick and Tile in Maple Ridge for their clay to make glazes. ¹
Characteristically Lambert set about solving the supply problem himself by researching and scouting locations of kaolin, silica and feldspar, nepheline syenite and clay deposits all over the province. He used samples of clay from the BC Department of Mines and the University of British Columbia, from sources such as Thetis Island, and china clay from Clayoquot Sound.¹
Next he went to work doing tests on glazes and nepheline syenite which meant he could use glazes that dropped the firing temperature from cone 10 to cone 5, a big saving in time, heat, wear and tear.¹
Later he would move to using electric kilns and to favour earthenware to preserve design colours, firing at lower temperatures.
But there was a bigger picture also. He was interested in developing a cottage craft business: designing and making pots, with four to six wheels going at a time, along with coil building, jiggering and casting. The operation was also partly financed by designing and building kick wheels, and sometimes selling plate heads as sanding heads.¹
His business model was interesting. He never had more than 15 people working at a time but did sub contract studio locations. The business would buy land, set up a building, give keys to a production potter, tell them to work out production details with their accountant and he would supply and stock it until the potter didn’t want to do the work anymore and would then return the keys.¹ Such people sought him out and were always available; many were Europeans.¹ Some were experienced in pottery, some not.4 He would work with them to work out new designs. The potter would work out labour costs with the accountant, for example on how to profitably handle a multi-thousand order of a two-bottle beer mug.¹
But times were changing rapidly. Many of his workers were European who returned to Europe after the War.¹ Also, production methods needed modification:
“at first [we] used throw or press or coil everything … we got into casting because people were leaving. … we stopped pulling handles and started to hand cast them.” ¹
Lambert Pottery Industries Ltd. was thus a multitude of small potteries “all over the place” working hard to be economically viable, to having supply companies become interested in large volumes, and thus willing and able to stock the large volumes of materials needed.¹
Lambert felt the only way sell pottery was to have his own retail outlets. At one time he had five retail stores. They would also be used as storage, packaging, distribution and export locations.¹
The company would transport greenware items all over the country. These would then be painted, fired and glaze fired.¹ The finished mugs, pots and bowls were shipped internationally.¹
For Lambert the biggest frustration was officialdom:
“Bureaucrats, inspectors and taxes were frustrating. Taxes going up, piece prices going up. They weren’t economical anymore.” ¹
Part of his frustration was the result of his own initial naivety as to how business was controlled at the time. He complained in a style that reflects his talking style:
“… but hold it, what’s this? … a letter? For ME? Golly, I wonder, open it … from the city did you know you had to have a license to do this, a license to do that, another to do this, and another to do something else? Where is the simple life? Bang goes the bank account (such as it is). Another letter. from the government … Did you know about Dominion Sales tax, Excise tax, luxury tax, and all the other taxes? Well. I didn’t, but I soon found out. And bookkeepping (sic) and accounting and lawyers and a host of other things. Oh well, it’s all in a day’s life.“ ²
During the 1950s an increasing public awareness and acceptance of studio pottery developed, This produced business opportunities and challenges. Lambert commented
“The early 1950s were a very yeasty time.” ¹
The pottery situation was not barren in Vancouver at the time but there was not yet the market for full-time studio pottery. Any potter who wanted to strive to a “professional” level had to also have a full-time job and income as support.
Although the artistic side still needed development there was abundant aesthetic and developing technical expertise. The Leach-Hamada tradition of Mingei pottery exerted a strong influence on BC potters. Although he acknowledged the movement’s influence on pottery in BC Lambert stated:
“I am not Japanese nor Korean, not an aesthete. I am a peasant interested in what is basically pottery.” ¹
By peasant he was referring to the use of earthenware as a major form of ceramic production across various cultures around the world. This attitude partly underlay his later preference for earthenware in his later production.¹
Lambert did not subscribe to Leach’s interest in leaving the hands of the maker evident on the final work. Aesthetically he was more inclined to the other major stream of twentieth ceramics, modernism and the influence of the Bauhaus. This, tied in with the then current, nationalistic vogue for native BC materials and inspirational sources, influenced his design choices: stick figures and the indigenous Northwest coast designs.
He subscribed to the more “anonymous” finish of an industrial production, very much in the European and British industrial traditions of the time. Individuality in the production-works, apart from the quality of the designs, was relegated to a worker’s simple initial as part of the inscription on the base of the work. David himself would design or initial his own works using his own name or sometimes a symbol incorporating his initials.
Lambert also started exhibiting his own work. For a 1951 UBC exhibition he made a stoneware bowl and won first prize a purchase prize, $6.00. That there were some thirty-five to fifty exhibitors gives a sense of the interest and bubbling potential ready to burst onto the BC scene.¹
He was also involved with the schools adding pottery to the curriculum.¹ Around 1950-51 pottery was added to the curriculum of the Board of Education, to be taught in all the schools of BC, a development Lambert saw as unique in the world.¹ Instructors came from the existing pool of basically amateur potters, but he saw the availability of equipment as especially significant.¹
Meanwhile, at the Vancouver School of Art, Grace Melvin who had taught basic pottery retired in 1952. Lambert and Reg Dixon started teaching wheel throwing classes, accelerating developments beyond the amateur.4
Also, UBC had been offering classes since 1948.4 Early classes had started with Molly Carter and Hilda Ross in the basement of the university library.¹ A more permanent location, the “Pottery Hut” was later established in an army barrack,4 a quonset hut. The collector and potter, Jean Fahrni, remembers the Pottery Hut as having two kilns, both electric, one for biscuit and sculpture; the wheels were mostly, if not all, kick wheels; there were ten wheels and approximately twelve people; some were doing hand building.12
Lambert particularly remembered Olea Davis He first met her when she was interested in making pottery, jewellery and casting figurines. He taught her how to make plaster piece moulds for casting. He admired her as one of the reasons pottery in BC went from a craft to a fine art.¹
The time was right to establish the Potters Guild of British Columbia in 1955. Davis along with Hilda Ross, Avery Huyghe, and Stan Clarke saw a need for an organized clay community to facilitate inclusion into Vancouver’s art scene.³ Lambert claimed he co-founded the Guild with Olea Davis but I have not been able to verify this.¹ But he was to serve as president.¹
Yet paradoxically Lambert claimed to see himself as somewhat independent of all this “artistic” creativity:
“I was a manufacturer of taxable goods for resale and in the export business.” ¹
Meanwhile there were other major developments in the BC pottery scene. On the business side Stan and Jean Clarke had started selling pottery materials and supplies as Greenbarn Pottery.¹ Along with materials becoming more available knowledge, teachers and artists from the United States were gradually working their way north. It was the McCarthy era.
“People were running back and forth from Portland to Seattle and Vancouver all the time.” ¹
But selling was still tough.
“[We] made about 18000 quality pieces but couldn’t sell. … At one we time had five retail stores, some never made more than $5 a day but at least they had their licence.” ¹
Lambert remembered 1953 as a tough year. Production people started to die, some moved back to Europe. “The business thrown for a loop” and even reached a stage for a while where he would rather not deal with customers.¹
However, the business started to flourish when he started using “Indian” (sic) designs. These, which “[We] did … by the thousands” were added to his sgraffito designs. ¹
Earthenware became the preferred new choice. He spoke with enthusiasm about the central place earthenware clays held as the “true” pottery clay around the world:
“All over the world pottery means earthenware. … Earthenware was a fantastic choice,” ¹
The indigenous designs started about 1951 and ran to about 1970. He maintained that he himself didn’t create that many.¹ The vast number of such works bear the marks and signatures of the “cottage industry” producers. The design quality was also thus quite variable. He also wrote a booklet, ‘the story of west coast designs’ to help in the marketing of this new series. The booklet lists not only the rationale for the design lines but also the “stories” behind the images he collected along with lists of the types of ware produced.
Initial inspiration for the series was provided by his friend Bill Marshall who encouraged him to move away from the type of pottery everyone else was making.² Lambert reports that his study of Northwest Coast designs
“took my breath away.” ²
The result was Lambert Pottery’s west coast designs of red Haney clay, thrown, bisque fired, tin glazed ware, with coloured natural and rare earths, iron, cobalt, and praseodymium painted onto unfired glaze.¹ The brochure also mentions further clay sources: ”china clay from Giscombe Rapids, Fort George, BC, various deposits of red clays from the Fraser Valley, iron bearing earths from small local deposits.” ²
The use of such indigenous subject matter is now considered suspect in today’s awareness of cultural appropriation, especially considering the profit motive. However, in talking with Lambert I sensed he believed, as a man of his times, that he was connecting with indigenous people in his research, and his attempting to understand their stories and symbols.
The Canada pottery website states he wanted:
“something that would be new and yet old at the same time”, pottery that represented the regional system, something that could be recognized as “truly pertaining to the country in which we live.” 5
In the new line there were initial design “mistakes”. First attempts tried to fit the design to the ceramic form but this resulted in
“them losing all their beauty and grandeur. The designs were [then] retained in their original manner and the pottery was changed to suit the design.” ²
Examples of this series of works are in museum and private collections, and widely circulated on the secondary market such as Pinterest, eBay and online auction houses.
Yet for all the intensity and purpose of the business there was another side to David Lambert. Was it fatigue, new life explorations, a less-hands-on attitude? By the time of the publishing of the story of west coast designs, 1969/70, its back pages mention that Lambert
“live[d] on a farm in Sardis, B.C., in the Fraser Valley, where children, geese, ducks, chickens, rabbits and milch goats, fruit trees and growing vegetables occupy a portion of his time.” ²
Yet he was still producing his own work and using his home/studio in Sardis as a storage, packing, distribution centre.
David Lambert died in 1985. his contributions to the development of ceramics in British Columbia are fondly respected by his contemporaries and present-day artists. Awards for post secondary British Columbia ceramics students have been established in his honour. The works he and his business created are collected internationally, in museum and private collections, and are also a lively feature of the secondary auction and online markets.
The images below can only be a small sampling of the extensive output of David Lambert’s individual and Lambert Pottery Ltd. production. General comments about the works can be found in the article above
Endnotes & Bibliography
1. David Lambert. Interview with Barry Morrison, November 21, 1981. Vancouver, BC.
2. David Lambert. the story of west coast designs on hand-made pottery with 40 authentic stories & myths of the Coast People. 250pp, ill. 1959ff, various publishing dates.
3. Sloane, Debra E. Origins Of A Ceramic Culture.
4. Rachelle Chinnery in “Significant Material: Ceramics of British Columbia 1945 – 1960,” A Modern Life: Art and Design in British Columbia, 1945 -1960, ed. Alan Elder, Vancouver Art Gallery, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004. His status as “godfather” is mentioned on p.86.
10. Bee Hansen has an extensive image collection of David Lambert’s works on Pinterest.
11. David Lambert, 1980. “Reflections” in the ‘Retrospect 80’ Catalogue
12. Jean Fahrni. Interview with Barry Morrison. November 22, 1981. Vancouver, BC.