Walter Keeler

Walter Keeler set up his first pottery in 1965 and moved to his present workshop in 1976. Though he is adamant in calling himself a functional potter, influenced by historical European pottery, his teapots and jugs are unlike those of any other artist.  In Walter Keeler Emmanuel Cooper and Amanda Fielding look at Keeler’s life in clay, his ideas and growth, and, the pots themselves.

“All my pots are functional,” he explained to David Biers in a Ceramic Review interview quoted by Fielding. “”It is a fundamental justification and a challenging starting point. If the pots could not be used, I would rather not make them.”

Fielding notes that his Ideas on functionality are of interest. “The function of a pot, in a practical sense, is a very deep thing…because function goes beyond whether you can pick an object up by the handle or raise it to your mouth, it has other implications too,” Keeling explains. “In certain company you would not drink out of a mug, you’d drink out of something more refined…The fact that you can play with that, if you have a mind to – you encourage people to stick their little finger out – seems too rich and important…I think that if you work in the crafts, then somehow that’s where your heart should be.”

And, most tellingly, he explains, “If you make a very ordinary teapot, people will say, oh that’s just a teapot, and walk away, but if you make a teapot that poses questions – I’m a teapot, but what sort of teapot am I? Would you use me, how would you use me? – then people have to engage with that.”

Fielding describes his work as “mischievous, slightly subversive.” Cooper tells us that the shards he found as a boy first drew Keeling, like seemingly many UK potters, to pottery. He keeps his shard collection to this day. Inspired by metal cans and containers, Whieldon ware, Staffordshire creamware, and German salt-glazed pottery, Keeling works in both earthenware and stoneware. His pieces begin with thrown forms, which he reassembles, with carpenterly skill, adding extruded handles, generous pouring lips, and his signature sprig of concentric circles.

This is a thoughtful look at one of the more celebrated potters of our era and his personal philosophy of pot making. It is published by the Ruthin Craft Center. Sadly, we have lost both authors, thoughtful and important contributors to the ceramics literature. Happily. Keeling is still very much with us, and potting.

Books and Pots and Emmanuel Cooper

Amongst makers, potters, it seems to me, are the wordiest, giving us stacks of books. One of the most prolific and influential was Emmanuel Cooper, the late British potter and author. I have multiple well-read editions of his World History of Pottery, that in later editions became the more lavish 10,000 Years of Pottery. And what potter does not have a copy of one of his glaze books on their reference shelves? He also wrote two of the most important biographies of potters, Bernard Leach: Life and Work, and Lucie Rie: Modernist Potter as well as a number of shorter biographies. In 1970, he founded Ceramic Review, which he edited. Philip Hughes writes, “Ceramic Review was pivotal in Emmanuel’s life and in the evolution of British ceramics.” If he never touched clay himself, he would be lauded as a major influence on 20th &  21st century ceramics.

But he did touch clay. Throughout his life, he was a maker and it is his making that informed his writing. Emmanuel Cooper OBE 1938 – 2012, published in 2013 by the Ruthin Craft Centre to coincide with a touring exhibition of Cooper’s work, celebrates Cooper the potter with essays by Chris White, Sebastian Blackie, Jeremy James, Josie Walter, Alison Oddey, a forward by Julia Pitts and Philip Hughes, Colophon by Philip Hughes and an introduction by his longtime partner, David Horbury.

We learn that, unlike so many other potters in the UK, he was not intent on a rural life, and worked instead in an urban basement studio. Sebastian Blackie writes, “An interesting aspect of Cooper’s making environment that is not evidenced in the work is the relative chaos of his studio. Cooper’s writing required a very ordered mind so it is surprising to discover this side of his character…a cramped basement littered with precarious stacks of half finished pots and other ceramic detritus.”  His partner David Horbury in describing the three basement rooms where Cooper worked says, “All around on makeshift shelves were hundreds of glaze tests, their colour and textures obscured by dust and debris, and in every space there were pots – fired and un-fired – huge thrown porcelain bowls, jug forms of all sizes and variations, large platters and hand-built work and, in the darker furthest corners, the remains of his production ware – a relish tray, a bread crock, a stack of saucers.” The keeper of a “chaotic” studio myself, in the basement no less, though a walk out basement, I find Cooper’s messiness reassuring.

Potting in an urban studio, he did not have the old barns and sheds that his rural colleagues possessed, and with no place to house large wood burning kilns and stacks of wood, he embraced the electric kiln. His glazes are proof that good glazes can indeed come from an electric kiln.

Cooper was a production potter for his first twenty years, producing tableware and dishes, selling largely to restaurants.  This work informed his later individual pieces. Blackie writes, “Cooper’s individual pots, made in small batches, have an authority and clarity that is the product of years of repetition throwing. It is an apprenticeship few of today’s makers have benefited from. His work always remained domestic in scale and it is interesting that he continued to weigh his clay for all his pieces…”

Throughout his life, he made pots while he wrote and taught and conducted his thousands of glaze tests. The book is illustrated with black and white biographical photos, two-page close-up spreads of glazes, and color photos of the jugs and bowls that were the shapes that defined him.

Long an admirer of Cooper’s research and his books, I was grateful to discover some of the man and his pots here on the page. He deserves as fulsome a biography as he wrote of Lucie Rie, but for now, Emmanuel Cooper OBE 1938-2012 is a most welcome addition to ceramic literature.

Lucie Rie Modernist Potter

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.

Tidbits:

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.