Martin, Bruce John Interview
21st April 2021. This morning I’m with Bruce Martin from out at Bridge Pa, [who] very kindly has consented to be interviewed. Good morning, Bruce; very nice to meet you. If you would like to tell us a little bit about your family heritage?
As far as I have been able to find out, my father’s family came from Devon in the UK; [United Kingdom] I’m not sure how or when his family came to New Zealand. His name was Charles Henry Martin. My grandmother on my father’s side was Elizabeth Linden; hence my brother’s name, Linden.
L-i-n-d-e-n. But her husband was killed in a railway accident when he was twenty-eight. His name was Mark Martin; and Elizabeth got remarried and had further children to her second husband, but the only true relation to me was an uncle called Fred, whom I knew quite well.
On my mother’s side, my grandparents were Herbert Seaton, and I think my grandmother’s name was Elizabeth. I’m not sure of their early history when they came to New Zealand, but when my mother was born they were living in Australia and it seemed that they travelled quite extensively. They had a number of Japanese artifacts in their house which was in Wellington when I knew them; and my mother’s name was Doris Victoria Martin because she was born in Victoria, Australia. They lived in Wellington, in Palmer Street for many years, and as a young child I visited them quite frequently and got to know the Wellington trams and some of the city area there in the early days.
My own history starts in Levin; in 1925 I was born. My father was a grocer in Levin at the time, and with the Depression and other factors my family moved to Hastings in 1931 after the earthquake, my father hoping that there would be jobs available as the grocery business wasn’t doing very well. We moved houses a couple of times when we arrived, and ended up living in 505 Tomoana Road. My father found work one way or another, but ended up as a tally clerk at Tomoana Freezing Works; my mother remaining as [a] housewife.
I grew up there; I went to Mahora School which wasn’t too far away, following on going to the Hastings High School which at that time was a co-ed [co-educational] school. This was really during the war, and many of the teachers had joined the armed forces and we were left some that were either very old or had flat feet or something and couldn’t go to the war. I left high school in 1944 [date in doubt – HBKB]; I worked in a hardware store, Robert Holt & Sons as it was called then; now called Carter Holt Harvey, or Carters. I worked there for about two years; and through a friend of my brother, decided to become a radiographer. I was employed as a radiographer in the Pukeora Sanatorium; oh, hell yes, the old Pukeora. [Chuckle] I worked there for just a little over eighteen months and during that time did a correspondence course with the Melbourne Institute of Technology and was able to obtain a degree in radiography.
My father died … I’m not sure of the date … and I was given compassionate leave to come home for a week or so, during which time my future wife, Estelle, took my job at Waipukurau temporarily while I was away. I then moved to Hastings, working at the Fallen Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital; and I got to know Estelle better and we became engaged and we got married in 1950. I worked at the Memorial Hospital for just about twenty years. I was appointed Senior Radiographer after a few months there, and also did a lot of their clinical photography while I was working there. Estelle was working at the private rooms of Dr Costello who was the Consultant Radiologist for both the Sanatorium and the Memorial Hospital; and I got to know him quite well. His name was Charles Desmond Costello.
After our marriage Estelle changed her job. She worked for a while for an accountant, but not for very long; and we started our family in ‘52. We had three sons; the eldest is Brett McDonald Martin; the second was Dean McDonald Martin; and the third was Craig Roderick Martin, the middle names being Estelle’s family names from down the South Island where she first came from.
We had a place built for us, we used a design from an Australian magazine – I can’t remember the name of it – but John Mackersey built the house for us, and Estelle and I spent a lot of time making furniture and the kitchen cupboards and fittings. John Mackersey was not very happy – he said everything had to be lined up and square and so forth. But I had had enough experience of building to be able to complete the job to his satisfaction. This house was in Pakowhai Road … 901 Pakowhai Road … and we lived there for nearly twenty years.
During that time Estelle had started doing some pottery. The links there are quite complex, but just briefly, she had been to some floral arranging classes run at the Hawke’s Bay Art Gallery and Museum as it was known then, with Lou Theakstone who was a florist in Napier; and Lou and ourselves became good friends. But he had some vases that he had brought back from Japan, and nothing like this was available in New Zealand. But Estelle became very interested, and I foolishly said to her, “Well, there’s only one thing to do, is to make your own”, [chuckle] which was the beginning of our potting career. Estelle started potting about 1957, ‘58, with some great help from a man by the name of Roly Bell who lived in Auckland; who was introduced to us by Dr Costello. Roly was a high school physics teacher but had a great interest in pottery, particularly Japanese pottery, which was good; and he wrote endless notes for Estelle to follow, in preparing clay; centreing clay; being able to make pots with it. These notes Estelle followed very, very carefully.
In the meantime, I had made a stand-up pottery wheel … electric wheel … for her, that she used for a number of years; and I built a small kiln to fire her pots. And not wanting to be left out of it all, I started making pots out of slices of clay called slabware. Our first firing wasn’t completely successful but there were half a dozen pieces that showed promise. And we decided that we needed some help, so we went up to Auckland with the family in a little Morris 8 that we had at the time, and went and visited Peter and Diane Stichbury who at the time were at Ardmore, but soon after shifted to Manurewa. Peter was quite excited with what he saw and thought we had done very well, and we became very firm friends with Peter and Diane for many, many years; visited each other frequently and enjoyed each other’s company immensely. Peter had studied pottery with Michael Cardew who at the time was working in Abuja in Nigeria, so Peter and Diane had had the experience of living in Nigeria and had interesting tales to tell about Michael Cardew and the other people in the area there.
But Estelle’s progress with the pottery and all the notes from Roly Bell were [was] quite magical, and she was soon very efficient at throwing pots and being able to sell them; and by 1965 we were both quite efficient potters and selling work throughout the country. And at that stage I was rather unhappy at the hospital; I guess I was getting tired of dealing with sick people and being on call at night and various things like that, so I resigned from the hospital and we went full time. That was in 1965. We succeeded in producing pots we fired; I built a much bigger brick kiln after the design from Roy Cowan who was a Wellington potter. We sold pots from Invercargill to north of Auckland; various craft shops and all sorts of places.
We ended up that Pakowhai Road was too small, and we were concerned about making smoke and annoying the neighbours, although they were all very good and didn’t complain; and the workshop really was far too small. So we started looking for a piece of land, and in 1968 we found this piece in Valentine Road that had just been subdivided. We were the second or third house to be built on this road.
My interest in architecture came about from a Miss Miller, who was the art teacher at the high school when I was there; and she was the daughter of one of the local architects at the time. And when we decided to build we decided we would like an architectural designed house; so we both knew John Scott slightly. John at the time was working in partnership with Len Hoogerbrug in town. Friends of ours had just had a house built by Len and we didn’t want to compete with them so we asked John if he was willing to design a house for us. As it turned out, John and ourselves got on extremely well. He visited us frequently in our home in Pakowhai Road and learnt how we lived; that you know, we didn’t entertain a lot; we’re fairly private sort of people. And he went about designing this home here for us, which has become an iconic home of John Scott design. There’s no other one that he designed that is like this. There are many homes that he has designed and there are various features that are similar, but this one is quite unique and is much admired by other architects and friends that we’ve made. Just a brief description of the house: it’s not a large home; it’s built in two parts – one side has three small bedrooms; one a double bedroom where the boys, who were teenagers at the time, lived; and John consulted with them as to what they would like and what they wanted. The smaller bedrooms have got a desk and a wardrobe and a chest of drawers where they could do their homework, and they’ve got a large living room where they could entertain their friends without worrying us; have their music playing and such, and a bathroom and shower. The main part of the house is separated by a covered deck and consists of kitchen / dining room, a lounge with an open fireplace, bedroom and bathroom.
[Break in recording]
We’ll just go on to war service now …
Okay. During the war at high school I had two quite close friends, Guy Instone and Cyril Whittaker. We were good friends and we joined the Air Training Corps, and we attended weekly drill meetings and learning about aeroplanes and things like that. And finally towards the end of the war, or at the end of the war, the government decided that they wanted a corps of semi-trained pilots just in case war broke out again. And there was [were] nine of us altogether, were taught to fly at the Bridge Pa Aerodrome … the Hawke’s Bay/East Coast Aerodrome it was. And we were taught by … forgotten his first name … Pete, I think … Vanderpump. And we all trained with him; we would come out at least once a week and weekends to learn to fly de Havilland [Tiger] Moths … DH82s … and we all went solo and got our private pilot’s licence[s]. I didn’t do very much flying after we got married for the simple reason that I couldn’t afford to, but the likes of Cyril Whittaker went on to become one of the main pilots for Piet van Asch of Aerial Mapping in Hastings. Cyril took Estelle and I up a couple of times in the Aerial Mapping planes; he wanted some extra weight or something, and that was good fun, and we remained friends for many, many years.
Estelle and I got married in 1950, and had a short honeymoon in Palmerston North; came back to an almost finished newly built house that I spoke of before. We were married on the 9th of December 1950 in St Andrew’s Church in Market Street. St Andrew’s then was a lovely old wooden building. I was really bought up as an Anglican, but as Cyril Whittaker and Guy Instone, and Estelle’s family were Presbyterians I often went to church with them; and it was a lovely place to have been married.
Family consisted of three boys. The eldest, Brett, lives in Christchurch and has just completed a new house for himself and his second wife who’s a Chinese lady by the name of Wi Hong. They’ve just finished building this passive house that Brett designed for himself and it apparently is very, very successful; temperature inside the house never falls below about 21 degrees, where it can be frosty and cold outside.
The second son, Dean, he lives in Australia now, about a two-hour drive north of Sydney. His married life has been a wee bit up and down. He obtained a divorce from his first wife and married another lady, Phillipa Kitchen, who now lives in Blenheim. And they had two children – Hannah, who was born with extensive heart defects and wasn’t expected to live, but the wonderful surgeons in Starship Hospital looked after her and operated several times and she now lives with her mother in Blenheim. The second child, Henry, very sadly committed suicide. That really broke up the marriage, and Dean moved to Australia and lives with a partner in Lemon Tree Passage [north-east of Newcastle, New South Wales] of all names, [chuckle] but seems to be very happy there.
My third son, Craig, lived in Nelson for a long time. His first wife, Jill, lives in Napier, and they were divorced … ooh, I can’t remember when, but we’ll go back to Jill in a moment. But Craig lived with his partner for, I think, twenty-eight years in Nelson, and have a small hundred and twenty, hundred and thirty-year old cottage that they lived in. Unfortunately Craig was found to be anaemic, and when they did a scan found that he had extensive bowel cancer; and Craig died two years ago in 2020 .
Yeah. Just over two years ago. His partner still lives in the same cottage in Nelson.
And going back to Jill … Craig and Jill had three children, Frances, Stella and Hilary. Frances now lives locally; they were living in Christchurch, and she and her husband, André, are a great help to me. They do my shopping, ‘cause I haven’t been able to drive for several years now, and help me with property maintenance and things like that; and they’ve been wonderful for me. Stella lives in Brisbane in Australia, and has just changed her job – I’m not sure what she’s doing now. And the third child, Hilary, she’s a dress designer, or a designer of clothing and accessories, and she lives in Melbourne.
Talking about travelling, we often said when we were potting that we should go to Japan and finally our son, Craig, said, “Oh, I don’t believe you’ll ever go to Japan – you’re always talking about it, but you don’t go.” And that was the spur and we made an extensive trip to Japan in 1978. We followed the footsteps more or less, of Bernard Leach, a very famous English potter; but finally made our own ways to various places. We did quite a lot of research before we went so we knew what the places were, what sort of pottery they made; and we had a wonderful time and travelled from Kyushu right up to Aomori in the north, and back down to Tokyo where we met some very nice Japanese people; the name of Kanji Murakami and his wife’s name was Hiromi. And they adopted us and took us to many, many places around Tokyo, and showed us things that we would never have found for ourselves; where to buy the best noodles and things like that. And we only stayed a few days in Tokyo and then went to Kyoto, where we stayed for the rest of the three months that we were in Japan.
We explored Kyoto fairly thoroughly; there’s no way you could see it all in three months, or three years, I don’t think. But temples and gardens; palaces – it’s got such a wonderful long, long history. The people at the tourist information centre were a wonderful help, telling us where to go and what to see; and we were also able to go to two or three ikebana arranging exhibitions. The Ikenobo School of Ikebana in Kyoto is a multi-storeyed, very beautiful building, and the day we went there were four floors devoted to this exhibition by the master arrangers of flowers. And as we came out there was an English-speaking American who was learning ikebana there, and he said, “The exhibition will change tonight, and if you’d like to come back tomorrow you’ll see a totally different exhibition.” From that I was able to take a number of photographs which helped us in our potting career[s] by being able to see how different shaped vases could be used.
Following that we travelled further into the country, and we met Japanese potter, Sanyo Fujii, at [?Kodera?] which was just out of Himeji City. He was an anagama potter, and we got the design for the anagama kiln; we loved the work he was doing, and we had also seen anagama pots in the museums that we had visited.
So when we came home we decided we would build an anagama kiln. We had plenty of land and a slight slope – not quite enough, but enough – and we got the design through a Japanese lady interpreter who knew Mr Fujii. 1982 we built the anagama; had our first firing in 1982, which wasn’t very successful; we didn’t know anything about wood firing. However, we took a few of the pots back to Japan and showed them to Mr Fujii and some of his friends, and they were really thrilled with what they saw. And Mr Fujii’s remark that we’ve always remembered and used [chuckle] for our own kudos … he said, “I can see something in your pots that the tea masters would love.” So anyway, we needed to do some repairs on the kiln, and Mr Fujii came and helped us with those and participated in our second firing in 1983, which was very successful. Mr Fujii chose about three hundred of our own pots and the ones that he had made, and we packed them in cartons and got a container delivered and we shipped that off to Japan. And Mr Fujii had arranged a joint exhibition with himself, Estelle and I to be held in the Mitsukoshi Art Gallery at the Mitsukoshi Store in Himeji City. That was very successful; our friends from Tokyo came to the opening, and it was opened by Simizu Kosho who was the Head Abbot of Todai-ji Temple in Kyoto. We sold very well – about half of the pieces we sent sold, and the remaining ones were sold amongst Mr Fujii’s Japanese friends. Although the prices were very high, we didn’t come home with a stash of money because of the actual costs of getting there, getting the pots there, and the gifts that we had to give to people for their services and help. But anyway we enjoyed the experience.
Since then both Estelle and I have travelled back to Japan and explored some more and always enjoyed our times there. Since Estelle died, I’ve had two other trips; one on the train trip through the Rocky Mountains from Vancouver through to Kamloops and the beautiful lakes that are there. From there I flew to Toronto in Canada, and stayed with some friends; visited other friends in Edmonton on the way, and came back through the UK and Japan to New Zealand. And then in 2010 I had another trip to the UK and visited a very good friend, and he took me on an extensive tour around mostly to visit potters, but also to see a lot of the general history of UK. He took me up to Hadrian’s Wall, and it was snowing at the time but it was really my first experience of being in snow, which was quite funny. I think that covers my travel experiences.
Well, I’ve just had a very interesting talk from Bruce Martin about his life; and he’s done an awful lot of travel to Japan, and it’ll be very interesting reading for people.
Original digital file
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Format of the originalAudio recording
Interviewer: Jim Newbigin
- Bruce John Martin
- Estelle Isobel Martin