20 March - 26 April 2002
LUCIE RIE CENTENARY EXHIBITION
A Lucie bowl is clearly a Lucie bowl, whether it has been made at the beginning or the end of her working life.
For a few the work transcends the life and all it holds. Little-Big (we used to call her).
Lucie is certainly one of the few.
So we celebrate a hundred years – of a long life to come.
I am grateful to my father for his introduction to his friend and fellow potter Lucie Rie. I found Lucie, from my first meeting in about 1947 at the Leach pottery, to be an integrated artist who had no need to voice a philosophic raison d’être. She lived it in the integrity of her life and work. The pot was the woman; sensitive, consistent and gracious.
She deserved the universal recognition she received, though she never sought it, but this will live on internationally in the memories of many a student, collector and critic.
My husband and I became aware of the presence of Lucie Rie in the early fifties when she exhibited at William Ohly’s Berkeley Gallery in Mayfair. Her pots ‘spoke’ to both of us as works of beauty; and through William Ohly we were enabled to meet with her. This was the beginning of a deep and loving friendship.
Bob, my husband, always referred to lovely Lucie as the great potter of the 20th Century. Each pot, bowl or vase or coffee cup one could recognise as coming from her hands. We knew no other potter who possessed such control of colour and form.
It gave us great pleasure to invite Lucie to hold a major retrospective exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre, (UEA Norwich) in honour of her 80th birthday. Lucie’s pots are now displayed in a large glass case opposite our collection of Hans Coper’s Cycladic works, together with his bronze head of Lucie between them.
So many sweet memories of visiting Albion Mews, being welcomed by a smiling Lucie and being treated to delicious sandwiches and her famous apple cake. Lucie’s generosity was unbounded and she instinctively knew which pot to add to our collection. Of course it was for us to have the pleasure of her company to dine at Smith Square. Our dining table would be graced with a fine porcelain bowl of hers and coffee served from her delicately lined coffee cups. Of course one misses her presence but as much of her independence of spirit is evident in her work. It has been a huge gift to Britain that Lucie chose England as her home when forced to leave Vienna. I can only think of her with love and admiration.
Former Curator of the Department of Decorative Arts and Design, Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam.
Guests had priority over other important factors in her life. It was stunning and surprising that learned and famous people from Japan, the USA and the Continent came to Albion Mews, as well as the less spectacular and countless visitors from all over. Asked how she could bear with these many usurpers of her time, her reaction was: “I do not go out. I can either become a hermit or I can learn about the world by having guests. I chose to have guests”.
My guess is that she also, after she had become famous, considered it her duty to welcome people if they wanted to see her, somewhat like Hamada and Leach did after they had become famous.
Lucie Rie offered the visitor a listening ear and a radiant face and, further, let her pots communicate her passion to convey luscious beauty in classical shapes and gorgeous colours.
Couturier and Collector
I only met Lucie in 1980. Several mutual friends had suggested earlier meetings but I had been very much in awe of her and put them off. Finally, although Lucie was rather reluctant, she needed a costume for her retrospective at the Sainsbury Centre. I made her a simple grey suit in a paper thin flannel and piped the pockets and button holes as finely as I could, trying to echo her sgraffito lines.
My visits to Albion Mews were a great privilege. To be met at the door by her smile, as she stood several steps up the stairs by the door so that our eyes were level, ushered one into a unique world. The same excitement of her private views preceded these visits. Lucie was her work and expressed it simply and directly. She thought I did not like her work which was not really true. I loved her buttons, her domestic ware and the stoneware of the late 60s. I felt that the later wares were variations on the root-stock and produced in an increasingly decorative age.
The simple pleasure of eating and drinking with Lucie were memorable times, her coffee mixed like her glazes and dramatic, her cakes richly textured and full of life. Not forgetting the chipped Lucie cups and damaged Bernard Leach coffee pot – all still perfection.
Naturalist and Broadcaster
Looking at Lucie’s pots now I am struck by a paradox. Their variety even in the most obvious of ways, is astonishing. There are dishes and bottles, jugs and tea-pots, vases with the delicacy of tropical blooms, bowls with the bubbling stoniness of volcanic lava. There are huge monumental jars as big as her kiln could accommodate, and the tiny receptacles that sit in the palm of your hand that she used to call her ‘dumplings’. Their symmetry may be radial or bilateral. Their surfaces are as varied as their forms. Glazed and unglazed, flecked and spiralled, sgraffito and rimmed with dribbles, salmon pink and peacock blue, piercing green and softest cream, uranium yellow, manganese brown and metallic glinting gold. The invention seems infinite.
And here is the paradox. You need not lift up any one of them to look for her small discreet mark. You know that each is hers even if you have never seen its like before. How? I cannot articulate the answer. But it is that indefinable quality that made her a great potter.
A very long time ago I drank coffee at a friend’s house out of cups made by Lucie Rie. It was the only time. The friends were collectors and that was how we met. I was, I remember, very careful with the cups. They were white with a dark rim. They seemed vulnerable. They got straight to the function and spoke of a quality of life that I responded to. I enjoyed the soft clay shaped and hardened. I enjoyed their organic geometry. These cups were not used every day but were brought out especially for me. I think if I had some of these cups now I would use them every day. I would drink my breakfast coffee out of them.
Dr Ian Shine
The pots speak for themselves, but the intellectual side of Lucie is sometimes overlooked. She preferred simple ideas and simple and spare explanations provoking some to see her as a simpleton. Her eye was not the only part of her that was first class. Lucie listened well, responded with few words and with wit. When asked what she did the day the Germans entered Vienna, she replied; “I read Gone with the Wind”. When explaining her appreciation of English society, she said “I am so grateful to Hitler”. It was the mixture of aesthetic and intellectual pleasure that held the attention of Walter Mondale for an entire afternoon, just as it had Sir Lewis Namier, Ove Arup, the Freud’s, David Attenborough, one or two Roosevelt’s, and many more.
One final anecdote. I dropped by to see Lucie one afternoon after dining with Prof. RM Dalitz, FRS. “Ian, you seem very pleased with yourself”. “Perhaps so” I replied, “I have just had lunch with a physicist friend. You have probably never met a physicist, which is a pity as all the physicists I have known have been remarkably pleasant”. “Do you know Erwin Schrodinger?” she asked. “Did you know him?” – to which she said “Well, I have about thirty letters from him that I did not want to destroy as I believe he was very prominent, but they are rather silly love letters”. I gave the letters to Dick Dalitz, who gave them to the Royal Society.
J V G Mallet
Former Keeper of Ceramics and Glass, Victoria & Albert Museum.
Lucie Rie would hate me for saying so, but the Viennese dimension to her personality was immensely attractive. I heard hardly a good word from her about the city that did so much to form her but where relatives had been persecuted or shunned by their neighbours. Her arrival in England in 1938 marked the beginning of a new life, and she was eager to forget the old.
Ultimately she proved able to leaven the Anglo-Oriental, ruralist tradition of Bernard Leach (whom she greatly admired) and, by sheer Viennese cuisine, produce a body of work that is light, urban and wholly original.
In 1954 Dick Kendell, Head of Ceramics at Camberwell School of Art, persuaded Lucie Rie, against her will, to teach one day a week to help us work with porcelain. I remember the excited anticipation we students felt. On the first day she stood silent in the doorway of the workshop. She was tiny, shy, sharp-eyed, wearing a pristine apron. She said nothing to us until the third week, when she asked for all the porcelain work, we had struggled to throw, to be put together on the huge slate table. “This work is terrible” she said, drawing our attention to the thick wide bases and clumsy rims. Clearly she would be a hard task-master. This was a challenge to me then and still is.
She gave us a demonstration. We saw for the first time the porcelain come alive in her hands. She chose a large cone driven electric wheel with attached seat. We had to strap wooden blocks to the pedals for her feet to reach! The porcelain shot up between her powerful hands and opened up into a fine large bowl. It wobbled a bit with the unexpected force of the electric wheel in contrast to the familiarity of her own continental wheel in her studio, with its quiet speed, propelled by her two feet, the momentum creating the pot.
She took us outside the Leach/Hamada era, into a world of thought provoking form and experimental surfaces. Her parting words to me when I left a year later to get married - “Margaret, if ever you need help, come and see me”. Twenty years later I did. In the years that followed I would visit her often in Albion Mews. Partake in her delicious cake and tea, look in her studio, absorb the atmosphere and always leave with my courage strengthened by her presence.
Lucie Rie was the first ceramist that I photographed and it was a remarkable experience for me. As a photographer of performers I am accustomed to my subjects trying subconsciously to ‘please the camera’ but Lucie was uniquely herself. She was charming and warmly welcoming but then totally absorbed in the wheel and the extraordinary objects that her fingers conjured from it. This absorption attracted me and I wanted to somehow produce a picture that demonstrated her concentration and also showed her craftsman’s hands. Her hands were powerful and yet delicate, muscular yet fragile, and I always felt that they must resemble the hands of a highly skilled surgeon.
“I don’t like pots. I just like some pots”. Lucie Rie 1975.
As one of my mother’s closest friends, Lucie and her pots have always been part of my life. A very private and slightly daunting small person, dressed in grey or white, with a distinctive deep voice, although unused to children, she treated me with the sort of respect and courtesy usually reserved for adults.
Visiting her magical studio and home was a highlight of a London trip. If I, aged 8 or 9, admired a pot, she would hand it to me to hold and ask what I liked about it. Each time we went, she had a new shape or glaze to show us. The home-made cake and coffee were also part of the experience!
For my mother, Lucie’s work represented a standard which nobody else seemed to attain – a daunting prospect for me later, as an aspiring potter, until I realised that Lucie really was in a league of her own. A great artist, with the discipline of a craftsman, she had a true understanding of her materials, and the instinct and skill to recognise the potential of what would normally seem outside limits. She knew how to break the rules.
Lucie (who was born Gomperz) liked to call my father, Coenraad Gomperts (a Dutchman of colonial - Suriname-origin), her favourite cousin. That there might have been a just a grain of truth in this idea came from a book in her possession, Die Familie Gomperz (published 1907) which indicated that all people of that name are descendents of a single family of Rhineland Jews traceable to the beginning of the 17th century. This book has now been translated by Bernard Standring of the University of Birmingham, and I have been asked to see it through to publication. In the text, neither Lucie’s family nor ours gets a mention. However, in the last few days I have been shown Lucie’s lineage. If I were able to gather Lucie and my father together now, I could tell them that they were indeed cousins, but that their last common ancestor lived in Emmerich and died in 1647. I say, “where there are genes there is always hope”.
But, much better in my inheritance is a magnificent collection of her pots, collected by my mother Barbara, that commenced as Lucie returned to the wheel in about 1946. In my last conversation with Barbara , before she died, we talked about what I was going to do with all those pots. A cabinet would be made. But what sort of cabinet? We settled on something derived from the Arts and Crafts movement to go with the Morris wallpaper. Later on, I ran in to Danny, ‘cellist with the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, and he said that he thought that I should talk to his Dad, an architect turned cabinet maker. Even before we met Derek Yeadon I was certain that we were on the right lines. We asked him to plan the room, strip the wallpaper, install modern lighting. And yes, he designed and constructed two magnificent cabinets informed by the ethic of Le Modulor. I am sure that both Barbara and Lucie would approve.
Lucie Rie’s schedule was disciplined, the morning was for work, the afternoon could accommodate visitors. Courteous to her friends and admirers, Lucie received and dismissed them within the time she had allocated for their pleasure and her own. Her hospitality was simple and elegant, but also formal and touched with majesty. On people she was fierce; either flattering or annihilating; for example, she venerated Sigmund Freud and excoriated his grandson, Lucian. Such verdicts did not allow contradiction, but as her manner was gentle and her tone unvarying, her praise and condemnation were delivered with equal weight. As she could sum up a pot with a glance, so she was perceptive about people. Comments she made that seemed questionable at that moment turned out to be prescient; alert and keen-eyed, her judgements were delivered in stringent phrases. Her preference was to be with individuals rather than crowds, so time spent with her was of its essence intimate. However, she tended to disguise her feelings and to reject the emotion of others, though her own experience seeped out as she spoke of her early decades and those who had peopled her life but were by then dead. Julius von Schlosser, like Lucie, a refugee from Vienna, wrote: “There is no such thing as art, there are only artists”. Lucie’s greatness as an artist is in her work, her ambiguity curious and beyond resolution. It was that unresolved aspect of her being that made her a rare and precious friend.
Harley Carpenter and Geof Walker
I no longer remember if it was the last time we visited, but remember it as the last time we saw the real Lucie.
Lucie was not only a wonderful potter, but a great support to me as a friend and later in my gallery. I got to know her shortly after I first came to England in 1948 and when I was at Fischer Fine Art, I began exhibiting her work. When I suggested a show – after her V & A retrospective – and said that an artist of her standing should now be shown in a proper art gallery, she responded “Do you really think I am an artist? I am just a potter”. Lucie was always modest, while still knowing her worth.
I miss her enormously, but six years on her work continues to provide a benchmark by which I judge the work of others. Lucie’s pots remain a vivid presence in my life and I look back on her friendship with gratitude and love.
Compiled and edited by David Whiting, January 2002. Anita Besson and the editor are most grateful to the contributors for sharing their memories of Lucie.
(c) Galerie Besson, 2002