Ceramic Points of View: 'Teapot & Jug', by Lucie Rie
'Ceramics Points of View' is the result of a collaboration between The National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts and the V&A. A range of people were asked for their responses to the same ten objects from the V&A's 20th century ceramics collection.
On this page you can discover the six people's responses to 'Teapot & Jug', made around 1936 by Dame Lucie Rie (1902-1995). Simply choose one of the people below to see their response..
Here the work of Lucie Rie is critiqued by Alison Britton, Neil Brownsword, Emmanuel Cooper, Claire Curneen, Tanya Harrod and Oliver Watson in the following videos.
AB: Well, this is such a startling contrast with the Leach cup and saucer because it's so fine and so delicate, so beautifully made, and from a quite different visual language. It's a kind of refined European modernist object already, and very thinly potted, very skillfully turned. Knowing as I do that it comes from a whole set, the cup and saucer is beautifully open and horizontal and low, which I'm sure you won't be able to see on camera.
One cup and saucer. So the jugs are higher than the cup and saucer. So it suggests thin, refined Lapsang Suchong, I think, that you have to cool it quickly. Well, I just find this much more exciting. I suppose the European link, that's a surprise too. That's clearly not what she meant, sitting next to something else in the kiln. [video clip starts] There's an interesting play of proportions in all of these things, the tiny little lip, the jug that's very much like a cup, the smallness of the spout. There's a sort ofurban feeling it has, and having had tea with her myself a few times it was a very good ritual, always [with] cakes, and it was always a concentrated moment.
MP: What was she like?
AB: Absolutely direct and charming with a very nice, dry, ironic way of talking sometimes. [video clip ends] I went with a friend once who was very curious about the architecture in the flat and was asking about the window fittings or something, and he went to look and when he came back she said, 'So now you know everything.' And she was full of charm but quite steely, quite sort of strong. At the time I think she was talking to Issey Miyake about showing work in Tokyo, which he organised. And I'd heard that he'd given her lots of clothes. One of his things was that the clothes weren't just for young trendy people, that he was going to dress all kinds of people. And I said, 'What were they like?' And she said, 'Well they're okay, but I can't wear them.' Which seemed like a tragic waste. No she was a very powerful personality and it means a lot to me to have encountered her. And I think you know from my pattern and my own sort of urban links it's just much more of a root for me, although I'm not making work anything like this. I feel a connecting link to this work in a way I don't with the Leach.
NB: I suppose I'm drawn ... Is it terra sigilata, the surface, or ... It looks like a ...
NB: Right. There again I almost ... you see, part of seeing these things, it always makes me reflect back to prior things like the Xing. I suppose I've got more warmth to those things as objects, especially some of the Eelers Brothers' red ware which, again, you spark immediate associations with. But just comparing the finesse of some of those Eelers Brothers pieces to the finesse of these things in the flesh, again, there's no comparison really. I suppose some of the shapes, again that veer towards the Bauhaus and stuff, I suppose that's an appeal. [video clip ends] But again, looking at it in today's context, I don't know. I don't know what to say really.
MP: What would you say to a student who came to you with a piece of work like that?
NB: I'd say, ''Go back to your sketchbook, start to think about...' I don't know, I'd just try and bring out people's individuality in them, whatever they're doing, whether it be product or you expression, but I'd try and stretch them as far as they could in terms of what they were doing. Now to me that doesn't. How old was she when she was making this piece? Thirty?
NB: Yes. I don't know, it's hard to say, isn't it? You have good pieces and you have bad pieces, and maybe there are things upstairs and I'd say, 'Yeah, that was a kind of interesting piece you know, that strikes more of a chord.' But to pick up on these things which have been pre-selected it's difficult for you to ... I would have preferred personally to have free access and gone and picked ten pieces upstairs. I don't think any of the pieces I would have picked would have been from this period of time. They would have probably been medieval, a lot of Staffordshire, 17th/18th century pieces. I think things which have got a kind of resonance for what I do as a maker, really. Now to me this doesn't. There are some things upstairs which I think are a wonderful use of material, they speak about clay, but for me again this doesn't really hold any kind of value.
MP: I suppose the idea is to get different people with different opinions talking about the same objects, and the idea is to have ten objects that vaguely chronologically represent generally accepted important figures in the Studio Pottery movement. So what you've had so far is an early Leach piece, then a Staite-Murray, and they were very different but working at the same time, and then you've got a European coming and making something in the European tradition. So the idea is to try and represent that. Whether for some people that's obviously going to have resonances and for other people it's just not. But it's equally valid to say, 'It's of no relevance to me' as it is to say, 'It's sublime and wonderful.'
NB: Yes. I suppose again it's just something different from that Leach aesthetic of that period, isn't it? It's something of a different kind of lean towards the Oriental and references to the Medieval, kind of what the Leach and the Staite-Murray were. But I can only respond to stuff from the way I respond to stuff . And in the museum I would probably, if we could go round with that camera I could go and take you to pieces and chat for half an hour about certain pieces, but these pieces have just got no kind of interest at all.
MP: So you're not going to take that one home with you then?
MP: Oh right. That's a shame isn't it?
NB: And again I was reading something what Ewen Henderson had written, I think it was a show I saw in 1995 or 1996 when I'd just left the RCA, called 'Pandora's Box', which kind of stored a bit of stuff into it. And I think he commented on how over-rated that Lucie Rie was, you know. And I suppose he'd got his foot in his camp, because that exhibition was criticised for him just including his mates and one particular way of working. But I'd much rather go for the kind of anonymous objects you know than these things, which are more honest in a way. And I'm not saying that there was no honesty in these objects, but one seems to think when you've got this kind of label around you [that] you can just do anything, and maybe you can.
It's what draws me back to the thing at Stoke really, when we did the filming there and just seeing these people, it was just so humble doing what they do everyday. And maybe it's just a job to them, but you acknowledge something, some truth there in what they're doing. I am a bit skeptical about people, especially Staite-Murray who'd been worshipped. And then you see something like what we'd got there in the flesh and you know, gosh, well what was the fuss about. How did people define quality between one Staite-Murray and another Staite-Murray. Do they say it's all good or do they you know?
MP: I suppose if I was going to be devil's advocate I'd say that in 1930 you might have had Leach, Cardew, Staite-Murray and not even by then Rie, you may have had three or four figures who had a profile and that was who you had, that was it.
MP: It's not like now where you've got dozens of makers. It was a completely new field.
EC: Yes, what a difference this was when you see it in comparison to the work by Bernard Leach and Staite-Murray. It's a completely different tradition. You feel that you're dealing with a whole new way of thinking about ceramics and it's a tremendously refreshing thing about it, you feel that there's such a lot of thought gone into not only the actual pot itself, but actually what it's about in terms of today. Whereas with Staite-Murray and with Bernard Leach you never for a moment think that they're thinking about today, they're thinking about the past, history, how they interpret history. With this you think how, how do we interpret architecture? How do we interpret the modern world?
[video clip starts] And so they seem very modern, indeed very moderne, almost, in the way that they reflect the ideas of the 1930s. Enormous simplicity, this idea that you want to go back to basics, this Bauhaus idea that it's form, form, form, no decoration, nothing to interrupt a profound understanding of function and the simplicity of the shape itself. The actual making is very skilled, to actually bring your clay up, to bring it like that and to bring it in is actually quite difficult to do when you're a thrower. The form itself... how this short spout actually operates I don't know, but there's something terribly nice about that. This is not a pot in a sense for everyday use three times a day, it's a special pot. [video clip ends]
You're going to use this for very special occasions, it seems to me, and the handle [is] beautifully made. The moment where you suddenly realise that there's beautiful craftsmanship gone into weaving it, and make a very pleasant and rich contrast between the actual pot itself so that this suddenly has a particular life of its own. It's not just any old handle, it's not metal, it's woven cane which is very sympathetic. And the actual form... this kettle-type teapot is very functional because you're not picking it up from the side and it's quite a big teapot, and it's much easier ergonomically to handle when you're picking it up like that and rocking it, and this is an Eastern form in actual fact rather than a European form.
But of course in Bauhaus design that didn't matter. You called on anything that was appropriate and of course she did. And she was influenced by the Bauhaus. She didn't study at the Bauhaus, she studied under people who had worked there. She was born in Vienna, lived in Vienna and studied in Vienna and was very much in tune with what was going on. Her friends were architects and she was very aware of what architecture was. And I remember about ten years before she died I went to see her in her studio in Bayswater, and we were talking about where she'd been, and she'd just been to a big exhibition at the Royal Academy of Architecture. [so] there was this old lady of eighty popping off to see an exhibition of architecture because it was an interesting thing to do. It was what she was about and what her work was about.
The interesting thing is that she was making these in Vienna, and when she came to this country in 1938 or thereabouts she met Leach, and Leach pooh-poohed these pots. He thought they were absolutely terrible. He said they were like paper. And you can see that they are almost like paper. It is so thin. And when you feel it, it is almost as if it could have been slip cast rather than thrown on the wheel. There's a slight irregularity which makes me think that it was thrown on the wheel. But the precision of throwing... [it's] beautifully thrown on the inside, [with an] absolutely smooth curve like that, and then you look at the foot ring which is beautifully turned. And when you compare that to a foot ring by Bernard Leach this is indeed like precision engineering in comparison to his rather often clumsy and rather quick working.
Look at the handle, again how precise [it is], it's almost like metalwork. And you feel that it could be metalwork, that the whole thing could be metalwork. And of course it goes with this. It forms the complete unity. You feel that the same degree of analysis of form that's gone into the teapot has gone into the jug, with its tiny little rudimentary lip here, just so that you can pour your milk. Whether this actually functions or not is another question. How well it functions... I suspect it doesn't function very well. But again it's almost there. Its style has suddenly become more important than function, but in fact that wasn't generally true for Lucie Rie's work. She was just as interested in function as she was in the actual way that they were going to look.
When Leach saw these you know he said, 'Oh they're like paper,' and it really must have been pretty demoralising. There was this woman in her late thirties. She'd come to this country from Vienna, she'd already won several gold medals for her work on the continent. She was very highly regarded, and she came to this country, she knew of Bernard Leach when she came here, Bernard Leach had never heard of her, and she went to see him. He was then working at Dartington. [She] showed him her pots and he said how awful they were. She was trying to build up her career at the age of 38. Her marriage had failed, she'd had to leave the country where she was born, her husband went off to America, she decided to stay. She'd got to build up a career, she'd got to establish a pottery, she'd got to find a style and of course Leach was pretty awful to her. And it made her rethink what she was going to do.
So the only lasting effect was that this is earthenware, she moved to stoneware, and that was the big influence he had. For a time she tried to make pots after the war rather like Bernard Leach. They were a terrible failure, they were all lumpy and heavy, and not her at all. And her friend Hans Coper said, 'Look you know they're not you, you must do what you believe is right,' and then she started to evolve her own style. And this is the beginnings of her style, and although her work changed later it never changed in its spirit, in its simplicity, in the way that she could bring out the best [from] the material. And there's still an element to this which maybe is a bit sweet, maybe is a bit saccharine, a bit too meek, a bit too resolved in a way, but its a very handsome object and a very beautiful thing to look at in it's own right, quite apart from whether it is going to work as a teapot. Because the whole proportions are quite lively, they're quite vibrant. And you can look at it almost like a piece of sculpture, it's almost like a big, fat stone, and it's got that sort of quality. And the quality is brought out by the surface, heaven knows how she got it, but it's obviously a mixture of various processes. And of course the interesting thing for a potter is that where you've got a drip of glaze, obviously in a kiln something fallen off another pot, and you get that effect. Now to Bernard Leach or somebody from the East that would be a pure example of a Zen, that would be a pure example of an accidental happening quite beyond the control of a human being, as it were. And just falling at exactly the right spot so you get that element of disruption. This contrasts with this, the colour works, this is very glossy and this is pretty matt in comparison, and I think that's absolutely terrific.
The other thing about Lucie Rie was that although she accepted Bernard Leach's advice and moved to stoneware, she also started to make two types of ware. She made functional ware in the way that he did and she made individual pieces. And I think that she got that from Bernard Leach. She, what she admired about Bernard Leach was his unity, his wholeness, pottery as a way of life, lifestyle if you like today. And although she didn't go along with that in one sense because she came from a different tradition, that wasn't how she saw herself, but in fact she did want to make these two types of work. And you feel that when she was making this, before she'd met Leach... is this wonderfully elegant, this extraordinary confident object which is both functional and sculptural at the same time. Later her work became more functional. It retained its sculptural qualities, of course, but it became more functional. With this you feel function is an element because of the short spout and, on this jug, this little lip here. But when you look at this you just wonder how she actually did it, whether it was made up to here, up to this neck, this shoulder here and then another piece added on and it all smoothed over. You can see the turning marks where she wanted to get this flat, but the whole thing does hang together as s a very satisfying resolution to the eternal teapot.
MP: Would Bernard Leach's opinion of Lucie Rie's work [have] affected her reception in this country in ceramic terms?
EC: I think that it would have affected it, because not only did Bernard Leach not like her work, but W B Honey who worked here at the Victoria and Albert Museum also didn't like her work, and they were both very critical of it and felt that it wasn't English enough or British enough [and] it wasn't right, it wasn't oriental in other words. They admired oriental work. And in fact to start with she actually sold in Northern Europe, in Scandinavia and in New York rather than in this country. It did affect her market. But that was not so much I think because Leach didn't like it as because it then didn't suit prevailing taste, which was very much Leach orientated.
CC: Well this is just exquisite. It's incredible. It's doll-like, isn't it? I just think it's incredible if this was ever to be used. It's just so delicate, so really quite beautiful. But in relation to the teapot it's quite strange. I can understand this better than I can understand this. I think I was reading about the cup that went with this where she said she boiled it to get rid of the taste of borax or something, but it didn't quite work because there was still a taste in the tea. And I felt that was really interesting, something so delicate having such dangerous effects. Lucie Rie killing people with her dangerous pots.
[video clip starts] That is exquisite. I almost don't want to handle it because it is so delicate. The relation between that space there and this lip, this opening, that decisions of something so delicate and small measurements there, against that quite confident rim. The weight of that and the thickness of that is quite contradictory, almost to the thinness of the rim and the body. But it holds all that weight. [video clip ends] I'm not going to pick it up by just that.
Well, the most interesting bit for me is this bit here, on that accident, or [is it] deliberate but maybe aiming for something accidental as well. It's very curious, it's kind of weighty, its fat body against this proportioned, very carefully proportioned spout. I just think that is quite beautiful. I'm not a great teapot user anyway. I don't know what I would do with it. It's a very beautiful thing to look at. I presume her intention was for them to be used as well.
MP: The story goes, I think, that she was trying to make terra sigillata and used borax, and then the borax made it taste terrible so she was trying to do a particular type of ceramic and used an extra bit of chemical. And then it's useless as a functional object, but she must have brought this from Vienna with her …
MP: So, I think it's a quite rare, early example.
CC: This was interesting, this very angular form, how it's quite a sculptural form, this big body with the spout and then this handle almost mirroring this shape here. It's very good, [it] has beautiful composition and decisions. I was never much good at teapot projects at college. The possibilities are endless, that's the amazing thing with the teapot - of how to make this relationship between body, spout, lip and handle, and that, I think, does it quite beautifully.
TH: Yes, [it's] another surprise to actually come physically into contact with it. I didn't know about this splash here. And this is a piece that I think was given to the Museum by Lucie Rie in the 1980s. And I suppose it does show her extraordinary strengths as a designer and the exquisiteness of the workmanship. I think it tells us something really interesting about her, that although she arrived in a country which was design-wise to a large extent somewhat anti-modern, fond of tradition - even in the world of studio pottery - [she] does this work, well, it would have seemed too much like industrial design I think. I know she found it very hard to work out where she fitted in, because this really belongs to the continental modern movement in design. Its extraordinary simplicity... although it's rounded there's a terrific sense of good design. And yes, absolute simplicity. And the fact that this kind of work wasn't particularly well-received when she showed it to British potters and museum people must have been wounding and puzzling. And I think the reason it wasn't liked was because it would have seemed kind of hard; a tenderness of touch that people expected of handmade pottery isn't there.
I guess this has been carefully turned and it's very finely, thinly potted. In a way it makes you think more of Greek ceramics, and I know her grandfather or her great uncle had a wonderful collection of black and red Greek pottery which she studied. [video clip starts] But I think there's something a bit limited about these two pieces in that this unsettling experience of coming to Britain actually made her a greater potter at the end of the day. She stuck to her own ideals and techniques, and there are a few pots she made shortly after she arrived in England that suggest she's slightly lost her way, but then she rediscovered her own voice. But she loosened up and became much bolder. And although she went on making tableware and so on, she also branched out into these majestic bottle forms and huge bowls that she'd push slightly so that they'd be asymmetrical. And I think that the tragedy of having to flee Vienna and come to Britain as a refugee can't be understated. [video clip ends]
But I think the old things that were going on here in studio pottery, while she didn't abandon everything she'd learnt and understood, actually affected her in quite a fruitful way. And I think those things are to do with being really ambitious about ceramics and a tenderness of touch, acertain degree of neo-primitivism that was characteristic of post-war British pottery... [with] being closer to the worlds of painting and sculpture and to the worlds of design, and this piece to me seems to come out, very much out of the world of Viennese design. It's all of a piece with the interior of her flat designed by Hans Pushcar which in fact was bodily brought over to Britain and rebuilt in Albion Mews. These are the sorts of things you would expect to see on the shelves, but then after a bit of time in England you see much wilder, more ambitious work from her hand. So I wonder why she gave this particular piece to the Museum.
MP: I suppose because they didn't have anything like it, they didn't have any early, pre English period [pieces].
TH: I wonder.
MP: And that strange wicker handle.
TH: Yes, it's very practical, sehr practische.
MP: Well, a potter would say that the wicker handle means there's less to break.
TH: I suppose that's right, yes. It is a kind of oriental isn't it? Although it would just normally be perhaps some curved bamboo, I don't know. Having made it in this kind of squared off way, again you get her great sense of design. But it's made me feel that coming to England wasn't all bad, that she was able to develop in more exciting directions, [to] become the truly great potter she became.
OW: Yes, Lucie Rie gave this to the Museum after her big retrospective exhibition, and we were absolutely thrilled because her Viennese period stuff is very scarce and difficult to get hold of, and she gave us a group of things which gives us a very nice understanding of her, [of] what it was like before she came here. Though, of course, as with many artists and particularly potters, the pieces she keeps one feels are the ones that didn't quite succeed and that she didn't sell. I'm pretty positive this blotch down here is a mistake and one of the reasons why maybe it wasn't sold at the time.
Rie's often said to be bringing in modernism whereas Leach wasn't, which I think is probably the wrong way round actually in terms of these. [video clip starts] But it rather amuses me that here in the milk jug and in the cup and saucer which go along with it - a very, very flat saucer, very thin earthenware [that is] actually completely impractical - this is not form following function at all, this is pure aesthetics driving the way these things look. [It's] very nicely done, but very impractical. And [it's] even more impractical that she says that she was trying to get a terra sigillata effect, and you see a bit of the glossiness on the outside here, but she got it by boiling the piece in borax after it had been made and she didn't get the effect she wanted and it made the tea undrinkable, that's what she said. [It's] very nice stuff, very, very continental as we would say in England, meaning not British, not English; it couldn't possibly have been made at that period in this country, I don't think. [video clip ends] [It's a] very nice cane handle. And I suppose it gives you some indication of the sort of things that she then went on to become famous for. And these must have been the sort of thing she showed to Bernard Leach, who rather sneered at them and said they were very feminine, before she discovered her other thing. But that very precise way she has with form, [it's] very considered. None of the 'let's see what will happen', either in the throwing or the firing.
MP: What effect do you think this sort of ware had when people saw it in the 1930s?
OW: [It's] difficult to know. I suppose it must have seemed modern. To me now it's got a variety of resonances from it, both Scandinavian and other modernist, [and] there [are] ideas from Central Europe as well. But also it's got quite a strong Chinese red ware look to it, accentuated by the Chinesey handle. Quite how popular it would have been I don't know. Whether if she'd been working in England would she have been... would we in the V&A have bought her or would it have seemed too, I don't know too extreme in one way or another?
MP: What sort of impact did Lucie Rie have when she came to this country?
OW: Well, of course, she came immediately before the war, history is fazing me a bit. She came essentially as a refugee from Fascism and through the war years she was making buttons and other things, her potting was not the thing that made an impact. I think she had a considerable impact in those circles that matter, the taste formers in the 1950s in the tablewares that she was making with Hans Coper. I'm always surprised that whenever I have a friend whose parents were architects you find Lucie Rie tea sets in the back of their cupboards. So it suited certain kinds of contemporary environment where they were found. And that would have been urban design-conscious environments in contrast to Leach or Cardew or others of her contemporaries.
The reaction from Bernard Leach knocked her confidence and there are some rather gross pots that she tried to make in a sort of heavy brown lumpy phase, which luckily she soon gave up and found her own thing. It's very difficult, it takes quite a lot of concentration to work out what actually the impact was in 1950 of someone like Lucie Rie because the kind of subsequent history very much colours one's view of it. ??? used to talk of her as an enormous dominating personality, since both her contemporary work and the success of her work as antiques, as it were, in houses, has given a very different picture by looking back. So you should be interviewing some of those architects that bought it.