Most of us are familiar with Lucie Rie’s work: stunning, thinly potted vases, bowls, and bottles with flaring rims, glazed in astonishing colors. We know too, the outlines of her life. But reading Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter by master potter Emmanuel Cooper, is a magical experience. It’s almost as if we get to meet her in person.
Rie enjoyed success and acclaim as a young potter in her native Austria for a dozen years, but, forced to flee to England as the Nazi threat pressed down on her family, she was confronted with being unknown and less than appreciated in her adopted land and had to start anew. Bernard Leach, with whom she became friends and who, Cooper tells us, spent many a night at her flat and studio in Albion Mews (though he draws no conclusions about what exactly they were doing together during those long dark nights of terrible air raids), thought her a mere charming amateur and advised her to make her pots thicker. He disdained her use of an electric kiln and told her to get a real fuel-burning kiln.
She did make thicker, more English pots as he suggested, and then during the war years, began making buttons to pay her bills, essentially turning her studio into a button factory. There were an assortment of assistants and employees coming through, including a young Ruth Duckworth. Famously, Hans Coper also came to work in her button factory during the time in his life when he was trying to find his own way as an artist. He made buttons too, but was fascinated watching her on the wheel and asked her to teach him.
It was Coper who suggested to her that her Viennese pots were more truthful to herself than her attempts at making Leach inspired English pots. After that, she began to make the pots for which she is most known and which came to be widely appreciated by critics and connoisseurs around the world. She and Coper, who was much younger than she, developed a symbiotic relationship and often showed their work together. They designed a big top loading electric kiln (Lucie had no interest in wood or oil or propane despite Leach’s entreaties) that would reach higher temperatures than the small kiln she had brought to England from Austria. She developed new, high fire glazes, and continued to do reduction fires in her electric kiln, though Cooper tells us, there are no records of exactly how she accomplished this. He speculates that she dropped slivers of wood into the kiln.
Rie’s work bore no similarities to the stoneware others were creating at the time. She was primarily interested in form and her only decoration was the the glazes she has painstakingly developed and an occasional line. She was an independent woman, though Cooper tells us she could feign otherwise around certain men. She knew and loved and entertained many other interesting people, such as the Freuds, yet she was a good businesswoman.
Cooper does an excellent job of placing her in the context of the time in which she lived. He brings Rie, complex, fascinating, sometimes mysterious, to life on the page.
She liked to bake poppy seed cake for her guests.
She threw with little water and without clay splatter.
She favored the Marcel Breuer chair in her living room.
If you read one book on ceramics this summer, I highly recommend Lucie Rie; Modernist Potter. Even if you are not a potter, you will find her story engaging.
Emmanuel Cooper the British studio potter and prolific author of books on Bernard Leach, ceramic history, and glazes, and founder and longtime editor of Ceramic Review, died in January of this year immediately after completing Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter for Yale University Press. How sad it is that we lost him at only 73 and that he did not live to see publication of this important book, but how lucky for us that he completed it. A masterpiece.