An Anomalous Pot – Episode 2: Lucie Rie

2020-04-16 11.23.10If you have read the first instalment of this blog piece (or if you haven’t read it I recommend that you do so here) you know that I recently paid £3.40 for a teacup (no saucer) made by Lucie Rie, which had been included unrecognised in an auction lot of pieces by another potter.

The cup was an anomaly in the auction. And as soon as I got it home, it became an anomaly in my studio pottery collection. It shouldn’t have done, but it did.

There are many different kinds of studio pottery collector. Some like to accumulate works by a particular maker, some go for a style, some go only for vessels, some only for figurative and abstract pieces. Or you might want to focus on stoneware or porcelain or slipware. Or thrown or handbuilt pieces. Or a particular type of glaze, or a colour. Or work from the early pioneer potters or from new, young artist ceramists.

But whatever kind of collector you are, it’s a given that over your collecting career you will want, if possible, to own pieces made by the very greatest of the great names in the genre.

So it is with every form of art. If you collect Old Master paintings, you want a Raphael and a Botticelli. If it’s modern art, you want a Picasso. Street art – Banksy. Sculpture – Michelangelo or Barbara Hepworth.

Of course, the likelihood of your ever actually owning such an iconic piece of work is quite low and in almost every case will depend upon the size of your budget. Yes, we all want a Picasso, but how many of us own one? Very few.

In the rarefied world of studio pottery, the top potters’ names that you want to collect are for the most part affordable by comparison with prices of paintings, and many collectors with modest budgets can build up fine collections including pieces by big names.

But in a small number of cases the name and reputation of a potter has broken out of the folksy, beards-and-sandals, cheesecloth-and-patchouli image of studio pottery. They have crossed the boundaries and entered into the realm of Fine Art.

Pottery collectors might pay up to, say, £15,000 for a great piece by a great potter. But Fine Art collectors will pay stratospheric prices for works by those few potters who have successfully made the crossover from craft into Art.

Everyone knows the three biggest names of all: a Grayson Perry vase was sold in 2017 by Christie’s for £632,750; a Hans Coper “Cycladic” form sold in 2018 for £381,000; and a Lucie Rie bowl sold in New York in 2016 for $212,500.

For small-timers such as me the possibility of ever owning a piece by one of these luminaries has always been vanishingly small – but now miraculously I’ve brought home this teacup made by Lucie Rie. Wow! It must immediately be placed in the central position in my collection. Move aside, losers! Make a space there, Bernard Leach, Alan Wallwork, Emmanuel Cooper, Richard Batterham, Alan Caiger-Smith, Janet Leach, Lisa Hammond! Clear the middle of the best shelf! Lucie is incoming!

That is precisely what you would do if you had just paid $212,500 for a Lucie Rie bowl.

But here, of course, is the problem. My example of her rare and treasured output is nothing but a teacup without a saucer. It’s monochrome, matt black glaze outside, glossy grey-white tin glaze within, plain and featureless. It is so unpretentious and minimalist that you can barely see it. Put it in the middle of a shelf and it disappears. It’s a black hole.

At the same time, it is a beautiful and magnificent object. The look! The feel! The shape! The handle! The heft! The workmanship! The glazes! The clay! The throwing! The firing! The finish! All perfect. You can see within it everything that makes Lucie’s work so internationally covetable and so jaw-droppingly pricey.

Unfortunately, I can’t prove any of this to you because I’m a poor photographer with no specialist skills or equipment – so any image that I’m able to show you is merely a slightly fuzzy and badly-lit picture of a plain teacup, black outside, white inside. You’ll just have to take my word – backed up by Lucie Rie’s reputation as just about the best studio potter ever – that my cup is everything I say it is.

You might be wondering why it was that a potter so splendidly awesome as Lucie Rie should be bothering to make modest tea ware? Of course she wasn’t always world famous, and her pots didn’t always sell for fortunes. In fact, in her early years after moving to England she was making not pots but ceramic buttons.

CoCA-YORAG_SHAW_93-5-Phil-Sayer
Buttons in CoCA Lucie Rie ceramics collection, York – Photo by Phil Sayer

c715e17d1cee8aa736cfaa18b48e5b47I won’t give you her full biography. You can easily find it on Wikipedia [1] or in any number of published sources. Born in Vienna in 1902. Trained as a potter in the European modernist style. Fled to London from the Nazis in 1938. Set up pottery in Albion Mews, central London. Struggled against dominance of Bernard Leach’s traditionalist-cum-Asian style of studio ceramics. Formed partnership with Hans Coper, another refugee. Featured at Festival of Britain 1951. Exhibited widely. Appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire 1991. Died 1995.

As for the type of pot for which she is best known, again all you need to do is Google some images in order to see them in all their elegant, understated modernist splendour. From the early 1960s her work was characterised by

“new, thick, textured glazes and by the 1970s the introduction of pinks and blues which served to emphasize the elegance of her thrown forms. Rie experimented further with glazes, pushing the boundaries with her fantastically detailed and painterly design, many of which have the same gestural expression of a painting by Pollock or de Kooning, and her bright and brilliant bowls topped with luscious wrinkled bronze rims.” [2]

In the late 1940s and the 1950s, before Lucie’s reputation was thoroughly established and her prices began to escalate, she produced simple tea sets and coffee sets and other functional wares for sale in fashionable London shops including Heal’s and Liberty’s. This work generated the revenue she needed in order to make her one-off pieces.  “Making cups and saucers – ‘repeat work’ – was primarily taken on for survival” [3]. They were made in substantial quantities and were cheap enough to be put into everyday use – with the result that many examples of teaware that you see coming up for sale are chipped and cracked, whereas the individual pieces made for display are usually perfect. But even the modest cups were highly prized from early on. Monika Kinley, one of Lucie’s apprentices writes that in the 1950s she invited Lucie to meet her father and “as a gift she presented him with her black coffee cups which he treasured so much that he would not use them.” [4].9b97c6f40b51837732f78e950796a2b3

So even Lucie’s plainest and simplest pieces have been regarded as special since long before her reputation was established. I guess that means there must be something extraordinary about owning a piece other than the mere fact that it represents a chance to possess an object made by the greatest of the greats at a comparatively affordable price.

So. Now it’s time to start looking at why it is that I’m quite so chuffed with my teacup (no saucer) by Lucie Rie. Is it because I feel that have some sort of tenuous personal relationship with her that I don’t have with other potters? Or is it that I’m so blinded by her reputation that I’ve convinced myself that a really rather banal object is a great work of art? Or do I think that by finding one of her pots for just a few quid I’ve made myself a fortune? Or perhaps I think that ownership of one of her pots is the ultimate collecting achievement and my collection is finally complete?

Let’s look at each of these issues in turn.

800px-18_Albion_Mews_004bPersonal relationship. I didn’t really have one. But I might have had. Lucie’s home studio in Albion Mews, Marylebone was just 13 minutes’ walk from my childhood home in Harcourt Street, and 7 minutes from my primary school, and 15 minutes from my secondary school. How many times between 1955 and 1966 did I walk past her in the street or queue behind her in a shop? duckworth_mamapotAs I browsed in Marylebone Public Library for books about coins, my then collecting obsession (Dewey Decimal Classification Class 737), was she browsing the adjacent shelf for books about Ceramic Arts (DDC Class 738)? Alternatively, do I feel an affinity for Lucie because she was a (lapsed) Jewish potter and I’m a (lapsed) Jewish collector? Possibly, but just don’t get me started on how much I dislike some of the output of another big-name Jewish potter, Ruth Duckworth.

Reputation. Am I able to separate my appreciation of my teacup from the knowledge of who made it? Is that connection the reason why I love it? If it didn’t have the distinctive LR monogram impressed on the base, would I bother with it at all? Yes, I think I would bother with it because once you have looked closely at a few thousand pieces of studio pottery, you get to be a fair judge of quality in a piece. The cup would have enthralled me because of its sheer quality. I have pots in my collection which I consider to be outstandingly good pieces but whose makers are a mystery. The fact that they are made by someone unknown is completely irrelevant. 2020-04-23 13.25.43One example is a fabulous slipware jug bought in a charity shop a few years ago. I had no idea who made it but like it so much that I happily display it on a shelf alongside work by some very eminent and celebrated potters. 2020-04-23 13.24.29I now know that it was made by the little-known potter David Wicks at Newark Park Pottery, but this knowledge doesn’t make me like it any more or any less. By contrast, I own a large bowl made by the revered Bernard Leach himself, but between you and me I think it’s horrible, a clunking great overfired thing of surpassing ugliness. I keep it as an interesting historical artefact from the early days of the St Ives pottery, but get no pleasure from it.

Value. Does my teacup gain an additional gloss and glamour because it just happens to be worth a fortune? No, I don’t think so. For one thing, as a stray cup from a set and with no accompanying saucer it isn’t worth a life-changing amount – probably only two or three hundred pounds in the pre-pandemic market place. For another, I like to think that value doesn’t figure much in my appreciation of the objects and artworks that I like to collect. If it did why would I be investing so much time and energy into collecting the work and studying the lives of the characters on my list of Lost Potters, whose marvellous pots are marvellously valueless? Additionally, if my Lucie Rie pot was worth a five- or six-figure sum, it is likely that I would feel compelled to dispose of it instead of retaining it in my collection. This decision wouldn’t be because I’d want to spend the money on fast cars and floozies, but for a whole raft of reasons which I analyse in my book Random Treasure. Want me to go into detail? No, I thought not.

SG43-Plate-77Completion. How does a collector feel when the final piece of his or her (more likely his) collection is finally secured? I don’t know the answer to this question firstly because I don’t think such a thing has ever happened, and secondly because I’m not that kind of collector. You find the last and most desirable object you’ve been craving, and fill the final gap in your stamp album. What then? Do you spend the rest of your life contemplating the beauty and perfection and completeness of the album, or do you lose interest altogether and go on to collect something else, or do you simply start looking for better specimens or add pages to the album for rare variants? This is a matter of only academic interest to me because I am not a completist. Rather than being obsessed with finding full sets of a particular type of object or maker, I have a fairly mindless and random tendency to collect attractive objects of one kind and then move on to objects of other kinds. So the addition of a Lucie Rie pot to my collection, while thrilling and exciting, is really just a significant milestone upon a meandering road which leads in no particular direction.

Having gone into such exhaustive detail about the issues which don’t affect me, the fact remains that I really am quite excited about my Lucie Rie teacup. So how and where will I display it to best advantage? Ah, now we’re finally getting to the central predicament arising from my developing relationship with it. It is simply too difficult to display, too anomalous. Show it on a shelf in amongst exhibition pieces by other great studio potters and any visitor would say “nice pottery on your mantelpiece, but you’ve forgotten to take that old cup back to the kitchen”. Or they might think “hmmm, I thought these people were too middle-class and petit-bourgeois to use a cup without a saucer”.

Show it with smaller, more modest pieces and they won’t notice it at all. Show it with a miscellany of antique ceramics from many countries and many periods and they’ll say “do you mind if I move that cup aside to look at that Chinese bowl, that Wemyss tankard, that pearlware jug?”. Show it on a stand and it looks silly and pretentious. Show it placed directly on the shelf and it looks saucerless. Put it away in the cupboard or attic and it’s forgotten. Sell it.

Sell it? No, no way, I can’t sell it – it was made by Lucie Rie!

 

References

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucie_Rie

[2] https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/the-pioneering-pottery-of-lucie-rie

[3] Cyril Frankel A Potter’s Life, in Lucie Rie, ed. Emmanuel Cooper, Ceramic Review Publications, 2002, page 11.

[4] Ibid., page 22


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