The life story of Orpheus Arfaras is a familiar one, repeated many times amongst our immigrant population. A talented person with many skills, Orpheus arrived in Australia in the 1950s to find that his talents were not required. Orpheus was born in Greece on 31st May, 1909 to parents, Agapitos and Maria (nee Papaiouanou). Agapitos was a teacher of Greek literature, a poet and a painter who played guitar and mandolin. Orpheus was encouraged by his parents to learn similar skills. In 1931 at age 18, Orpheus enrolled to be trained as a pottery designer and artist, at the Ceramic Institute of Fine Art. Not only did he study pottery but he also painted, and in 1934 exhibited his oil paintings, water colours and pottery in Palestine. He remained in the Middle East for four months to further his studies before returning to Greece.
In 1935 he was awarded a diploma and a medal for his pottery at an International Exhibition in Salonika. He remained at the Institute (Graham Cocks and Jack Grace) until 1939 during which time he was seconded to the Athens Museum to reconstruct recently discovered pieces of ancient Greek pottery. Orpheus’ life of artistic achievement and absorption of Greek culture came to an abrupt end in 1939 with the start of World War II. He joined the Greek Army and was trained as machine gunner. The Germans invaded Greece in April 1941 and Orpheus returned to Athens, where he worked as a clerk. In order to survive he sold most of his treasured pottery and other possessions. He was active in the underground movement until the end of the war. During this harrowing period, music became his artistic outlet and he studied classical guitar, obtaining his diploma in 1944. When the war ended in Greece there was little opportunity for cultural pursuits, so Orpheus went to the Middle East and settled in Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, Jerusalem ceased being a British protectorate and the war between the Arabs and the Jews spread as soon as the British forces moved out, and Orpheus, who had experienced enough of the misery of war, decided to emigrate to Australia where he had friends. Orpheus came to Sydney in 1949 [arrived Sydney per SEBASTIANO CABOTO, 11 August 1949] and was fortunate to meet Reg O’Donnell, a shareholder in Modern Ceramics Products (M.C.P.), a small firm making art pottery. O’Donnell recognised Orpheus’ talent and skill and employed him to make hand decorated pottery vases and other items requested by clients. O’Donnell recognised his ability as a world authority on the use of gold glazes on ceramics and many articles were produced incorporating a gold glaze as decoration.
“I believe him to be the world’s greatest artist with gold glaze,” said Mr. O’Donnell. His work is acclaimed in Europe”. Mr. Arfaras came to Australia three years ago and until recently he worked for Mr. O’Donnell. [The Evening Advocate, Fri 5 Dec 1952, page 6, Migrant Creates Symbolic Pottery]
In May 1951, Orpheus was invited to submit examples of his pottery for an exhibition promoted as part of the Commonwealth Jubilee Celebrations of New Australian Arts and Crafts which toured Australia: “to demonstrate to the Australian people the variety and wealth of talent which new settlers from Europe were able to contribute to the cultural development of their new homeland and the adaptation of aboriginal motifs to ceramics produced by immigrant artists.
Orpheus married Daisy Arfaras (same surname, no relation) on 7th January 1951 and their son, Agapitos, was born in 1952. On Saturday 23rd February, 1952, at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, to wide acclaim, Ratimir Antic performed original Spanish Flamenco dances, accompanied by Bela Dolesko on the piano and Orpheus Arfaras on guitar. [Sydney Morning Herald, Sat 16 Feb 1952 | Recital of Original Spanis Flamenco Dances – First appearance in Australia of Ratimir Antic. Pianist: Bela Dolesko, Guitarist: Orpheus Arfaras].
Life was looking very good for Orpheus in early 1952. However, one should never underestimate politicians in all their wisdom. In September 1951 the Menzies Government imposed a sales tax of 66.6% on Art Pottery and overnight decimated the handmade pottery industry in Australia. Modern Ceramic Products decided to mass produce ceramic bathroom fittings which, being for housing, were not liable for sales tax. The Art Pottery (Mingay) section of the factory was closed and Orpheus Arfaras’ talents were no longer required.
High sales tax, production costs, and credit restrictions ended plans for high-class pottery, and caused Mr. Arfaras’ retrenchment. “I feel that this country has a lot to offer art,” said Mr. Arfaras, “Aboriginal work must come forward; as the work of ancient Greeks has come forward to merge with modern art. [The Evening Advocate, Fri 5 Dec 1952, page 6, Migrant Creates Symbolic Pottery].
Orpheus became a small businessman and in 1952 was the proprietor of a fish and chips shop in Liverpool Street, Sydney. Both he and his wife worked in the shop, but it was not a financial success and he returned to Modern Ceramic Products, where he worked on routine factory processing until June 1956.
In 1954, according to The Land Newspaper, published Fri 6 Aug 1954, during the Ceramics Art and Fine Ware Exhibition Orpheus Arfaras demonstrated the art of painting aboriginal designs on modern unbaked pottery pieces and many amateur potters gathering around to see him at work during the show.
Disillusioned with the lack of opportunity to utilise his skills, he terminated his employment.
“Perhaps I cannot do it, I am 40 now, and you must live a long time in a country and be part of it to understand it. “But I hope: my baby son will do it, if I cannot. I will teach him.” [The Evening Advocate, Fri 5 Dec 1952, page 6, Migrant Creates Symbolic Pottery].
Then followed a short period of employment with Studio Anna, where some Australian motif items were produced. However from this time on, regular employment was a more practical necessity. He was employed as a process worker for Jeldi Manufacturing from 1958 to 1959, for R. Fowler Ltd from 1959 to 1962 and for Popolare Metal stamping from 1962 to 1973. All these firms had premises in Marrickville where Orpheus lived during this period. Whilst not able to continue with his pottery due to lack of facilities, Orpheus continued to paint and to play and teach classical guitar. Pieces of pottery still in existence were made during the period from 1949 to 1956 when Orpheus was at Modern Ceramic Products. Some were made in his own time for personal use and form the majority of the Arfaras Collection. Orpheus continued to teach classical guitar and gave up his oil painting around 1993.
Orpheus considered that he had a wonderful life in Australia but one wonders how much richer Australia’s cultural heritage would have been if 66.6% sales tax on Art Pottery had not been imposed in 1951.
Orpheus Arfaras passed away on the 3rd May, 1995. His wife, Daisy, passed away on the 4th November 2018 [as per death notice published in The Sydney Morning Herald].
- Source: Australiana Magazine [August 1993, Vol 15, No 3]
- Portrait of Orpheus Arfaras, Greek ceramic artist and decorator, 23 November 1952, Pix photographer, from film negative, State Library of New South Wales, https://collection.sl.nsw.gov.au/record/YzOm6Av9 ON 388/Box 070/Item 176] | acknowledgements: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales