Ceramic Points of View: 'Cornucopia', by Richard Slee
'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 'Cornucopia', made in 1983 by Richard Slee (born 1946). Simply choose one of the people below to see their response.
Here the work of Richard Slee is critiqued by Alison Britton, Neil Brownsword, Emmanuel Cooper, Claire Curneen, Tanya Harrod and Oliver Watson in the following videos.
Video: Alison Britton on Richard Slee
AB: He's been one of the key people I think, really, really important. This is not the object I would have chosen of his although it's said lots of things that were current themes for him. It's got very classic Slee things, [a] wonderful sense of colour, it's actually a little bit unstable, too, on this mat, very unserious, very sensual and humourous, beautifully made. There are just other ones that are odder, that I think you can have the humour with a real mysterious form, which I like better. There's a great big pod with a flute coming out of it from a similar time. It's perhaps not quite big enough for me. I like the slightly larger ones.
MP: Why do you think he's important?
AB: Well, he's steeped in a very strong sense of the historic objects; there's a lot of reference, it's a very echoing object. But it's done with kind of satire and reverence mixed. It's affectionate and making some things ridiculous, and ideas like ornaments and the kind of things that humans attach themselves to that they put their memories into. I'm really pleased he's won the Jerwood this year. It's the right choice, although I was competing with him. But I think he's just really sure-footed, he makes them wonderfully well, he's always thinking of something new and witty and provocative to do. It's connected with quite defined ideas about society and politics and things, in a way that's very different from my own approach, and I really enjoy it in him.
MP: He seems to be very popular across a surprisingly wide range of people who are interested in ceramics and were very well respected.
AB: I think that's quite recent though, isn't it? Isn't that quite recent?
MP: I don't know.
AB: Well, I think people interested in ceramics have liked him for a long time, but I think people coming across it freshly have thought, 'Blimey, what's that?' You know I think he hasn't been very popular commercially until recently, really. People haven't known whether the joke's on them, against them or with them. Whether they're actually being ridiculed somehow. [video clip starts] I have also come across people who think that they're slip cast or somehow a very different kind of object, like a cheap kitschy thing, which they're not. They might be looking at ideas about kitsch, but they're certainly not being kitsch in themselves at all, not when you see them in the flesh. There's a terrific amount of skill and knowledge [involved], particularly [in] the way he's glazing things now, building up layer upon layer, and he developed a special clay body that would just take loads of glaze, [so] you could really pile it on. This is before that. He's just got his eye on so many things. He's really engaged, I think. [video clip ends]
MP: Does he have an influence? Do you see students being influenced by his work as a major maker?
AB: Not really. I mean, once or twice. No, he's really been on his own, I think. I think he's quite difficult to imitate. People thought early on that it looked very American, and certainly some of the things he's liked and referred to have been things like the kind of jugs that you were given in the fifties if you bought a fridge. They're just a whole mixture of other influences. I mean, this leg being so crudely squished is very nice, isn't it? And then being bright yellow instead of crusty brown or something.
MP: They're very knowing of ceramic tradition and ...
AB: Very, yes, there's a lot of things coming into them, isn't there? In the kind of use of colour and so on. Yes, and they're not knowing in an exclusive 'I'm cleverer than you' way. They're very affectionate, I think.
Video: Neil Brownsword on Richard Slee
NB: I can remember when I was first introduced to Richard Slee, and that was at an exhibition that was at the Oriel Gallery in Cardiff when I was a student. I think it must have been about 1991 or 1992, and it was a show called 'The Abstract Vessel' which had some of Richard Slee's pieces in. I suppose it was an immediate love/hate relationship with the pieces. I started questioning the reasons why I didn't like them, and then I liked them, if you know what I mean.
They'd got so many connotations for some of the objects I grew up with as a child. My grandmother worked on various factories in Stoke and from each factory she worked at, she collected the wares from the factory. She worked at Carlton, and worked at Bilton, to name but a few. But just some of the styles of some of those early Carlton-ware pieces, the kind of novelty factor, I draw an immediate parallel to. Shore and Copestake, I don't know whether she worked there, but she'd got a lot of the stuff. Sylvac, I don't know whether you know it: green Yorkshire terriers, the pink rabbits and stuff like that. Really quirky stuff. So that's got the same kind of appeal to some of these Richard Slee.
[There's] the fact that it references the history of ceramics as well - again, go back to some of the cornucopias that were produced, [such as] William Greatbatch from the 18th century, some of those things. They're really ornate, but all cornucopias as well. So I like that fact that he's reinventing [a] kind of tradition. Well, he does it in everything that he does. But part of what attracts me, there's a period of work which I'm really kind of drawn to, and I suppose it was the period when he started to incorporate more contrast, the evidence of the kind of hand, and this clinical mass-produced feel, this industrial element to it. And there's a series of flowers and flower pieces which I've got a lot of affection for, and that period of his making is the kind of strong period for me.
[video clip starts] I love the fact that it's animated, and there's this characteristic crutch which I think he's included in a lot of his pieces. It's almost as a support, and the fact that it's a symbol of opulence, a cornucopia, and the fact that it's stripped right back, there's nothing there. You see all these 18th century cornucopias with all the fruit and heavily adorned, [and] I think that's what attracts me to it as well. It's just a handlable object. I've never seen it in the flesh, but you just want to pick it up. The base is great as well. I'd love to subvert some of these objects you know. You just see them from a different perspective and they mean something else don't they? [video clip ends]
But yes, I suppose [with] reference to that period of industrial ceramics, you get all these wonderful quirky objects, like the green Yorkshire terrier, and the very happy objects, but then when you reflect on the conditions they were probably made in - dipping them into buckets of lead and stuff - [it was] not so happy for the people who work[ed] there at the time. But there's a lovely sense of clayness to these things, the mark of the maker. But there's also that stripping back of that object as well. And a lot of his objects now haven't got this characteristic cack-handed handling of clay, they're just very slick and taken right back now, aren't they? But they've still got the same kind of appeal on a different level, yes.
Video: Emmanuel Cooper on Richard Slee
EC: Yes, it is a pot I suppose, but I wouldn't think of it as a pot. It's a container but it's actually not a pot. It would be very difficult to think, it does have a function in containing, and it has actually got this cornucopic feeling. And when you look at it from the side you begin to get an idea of the rather rococo splendour of the actual piece. And then this huge form at the front which is vaguely reminiscent, vaguely like a cornucopia.
Richard Slee is probably the leader of the post-modern potters. He calls on any process or technique that he thinks is appropriate, and he calls on any imagery which he thinks is appropriate. And he's particularly interested in the imagery of Staffordshire and Staffordshire ornaments from the 18th and 19th centuries. Here it's difficult at first to see how he's got where he's got because you're being asked to look at an object which really doesn't make any sense at all. You're being asked to decode quite a complicated object which, when you first see it, looks not very much.
But when you think about how it's made... All of it is hand modelled so that you've got this horn, if you like, which is hand modelled, with this beautiful tail which is very smooth. And it's the colour of the sea, it's the colour of the sky, and then you've got these very roughly modelled legs or feet supporting it, and in some sense this just looks like an ordinary prop and it's all roughly modelled so that you know it's almost like it doesn't belong. It's like, this is like [it's] temporary, holding this up. When you look at the front feet they're like feet, they're like the feet of an animal. So suddenly the whole thing has got this animalistic quality to it with the little feet sticking out at the side, although they're modelled very roughly. And he's drawn attention to that by making you aware that these are yellow and this is blue, this is this pale blue. So that again it's like emphasizing the difference, and the unity comes together in the fact that they're actually joined on.
The inside is white, it's pure, it's full of promise, it's full of hope, it's full of light, if you like. But it's an object which doesn't appear to have any sense at all, until you start to think about the bits and pieces within it. The cornucopia is an ancient symbol of fullness, of a source of knowledge, a source of generosity, its very ancient meaning in that sense that it actually is full of everything you want. This is a bit like that but the front, of course, is vaguely sexual. And the whole thing is a bit sexual and a bit one thing and the other. And so in the end you begin to get more out of it than you might think when you first see it, this curious object.
What is this object about? And of course it's about ourselves. You know it's what we want to bring to it. It's about how much we're prepared to put into it to start to get something out of it. I think one of the things that people like about ceramics is that what you see is what you get. When you see a nice pot, when you see a nice Michael Cardew cider jar or a Bernard Leach pot, [or a] Staite-Murray pot, that's what you get. Okay there's complex histories gone into making that pot, but you don't need to know those histories to enjoy it. [video clip starts] Yes, you can enjoy it as a decorative object and it's got a slightly fairground attractiveness to it, but suddenly you've got to do a bit more work if you're going to get more out of it. And this, of course, is one of the things that people then say, but then that's becoming too arty. It's becoming too much like Fine Art, there's too much concept there, it's become too conceptual. We've got to start working at it to get out of what is a craft, if you like, something else. And of course that is true, you do have to work at it, you've got to start pulling it to pieces a bit to get more out of it, but with Richard Slee's work it's invariably worth it. What you get in the end is a very beautiful object, [an] intriguing object, a fascinating, beautifully made object and the skill is always there. And then you start to get other meanings, in terms of our own life, [video clip ends] in terms of our own understanding, where we are today, our relationship with history, our relationship with ourselves. And Richard Slee is witty, the whole thing about it is an element of wit. And it's meant to raise a smile rather than remind you of meditative qualities. It's not that at all. It's a bit of fun really.
Video: Claire Curneen on Richard Slee
CC: 'Cornucopia' means conical, I think, doesn't it? Or cone? Which is obvious. He's probably the cleverest man in Britain today. I just think they're just wonderfully witty pieces of work. I think this, particularly, really makes you smile, really brings something. Initially you're reading this quite serious, formal, cone-like shape and then he decides to put these legs on it which throws it all on its head. You're drawn into this mad world. And it's very clown-like as well. It has [this] really strange other world with it as well; it reminds me of really odd childhood memories of circuses. Strange places which are supposed to be full of fun but they can be strange.
[video clip starts] And it's all handbuilt, handmade. There's almost a sense that it might have been extruded or something ... or not. These legs really quite animate the object. You get a sense that it's just going to take off, or run off. And then [there's] this strange opening. It's like a collar again. Something very like clothes, or wearing something. Yes. I always quite like his use of colour and the way things bleed into another colour, like that blue coming into yellow, disappearing to yellow again. It has that dream-like dream landscape to it. Very odd. [video clip ends]
Video: Tanya Harrod on Richard Slee
TH: [video clip starts] I'm a great fan of Richard Slee's and this is far from disappointing to see it really close and be able to touch it, although it's not a very tactile piece. His work, I always feel, would work really well domestically, in a domestic environment. It's part of a tradition of English ornament that's quite over the top, and I'm thinking of the kind of ceramics you'd pick up at a fairground, when you've been shooting some targets with a little rifle. [video clip ends] And yet at the same time it taps into the great history of ornament, the cornucopias of... what is it? A goat's horn overflowing with good things. And I think he made quite a few of these cornucopia in a of cheery, happy period of his life. But he's got this amazing way with the iconic bits of ornament, like he's done wonderful crowns and orbs and there's the cornucopia. There are lots of prime objects, things like anvils, which take you out back to the classical world somehow, and obviously to make an anvil out of ceramic is thoroughly contradictory and mad really. But it seems to me he's the ... and this was made back in, what would you say, 19 ...
TH: 1983, yes. People expect such a lot from art works nowadays.They're meant to be quite immense, [to] embody all kinds of theoretical discussions about consumption and national identity and there are things like Michael Lander's decision to destroy all his possessions on huge conveyor belts. And not many ceramics actually seem able to join in that new conceptual area that we have today. Also lots of artists are terribly interested in domestic contexts. I think they've all read the same books, they've all read ??? essay on the uncanny and they're interested in ordinary ordinariness. And then something eerie and uncanny popping out of the woodwork. I think they've all read Marx's great passage in 'Das Kapitol' on fetishisation of objects and how objects that he always echoes for it have a weird life of their own, you know. So they read all this stuff and they're making this stuff, but not many ceramicists are able to join in.
Richard Slee seems really able to do so, because there's something slightly uncanny about this object. And he's not doing what a great many extremely gifted ceramicists are doing even now as we speak, which is carrying forward the kind of early modern project, reuniting abstract sculpture and abstract painting in wonderful vessel forms. Nor has he gone down the road of figurative ceramics, whether elegaic like Phil Eglin's or savage and satirical like Steve Dixon. He's in a class of his own with his strange, odd, highly referential pieces. I saw one recently that he'd made specially for an odd conceptual art project where artists were invited to look at a sale catalogue of a big country house sale that took place after the war, and they had to choose a lot and then make an object that was inspired by it. So all these artists went off and did different things, most of them pretty feeble I thought, but Richard had read an account of a little pastel portrait of a girl in a wood and he made this wonderful ceramic version of it which looked extraordinary. I mean, these are so ???, because they do operate very well in museum settings, but also in some kind of mad, domestic setting. And so in some ways he's in a sort of class of his own. I'm trying to think of a ceramicist like him, and yet there's nothing aceramic about it, I'm slightly complaining that Hans Coper's a bit aceramic, but this is all muted, I think, in one knowledge and skill. Things like his Toby jugs obviously directly ??? from ceramics, but somehow you feel the medium's quite important even though it all looks so glossy and unexpected.
MP: They're very witty, aren't they? They make you smile.
TH: Yes, and they can be quite sad too and haunting, especially when he sticks... I mean, this is a fairly early piece. He's got more and more cruel and subtle. There's a very strange piece I saw recently he just called 'Wave' and it was just a piece of ceramic in a sort of wave shape and he'd drawn a wave on it, and that was it. He's become... that's all... there's a darker side to him. But then I think the ceramic handle was meant to be a tragic piece.
Video: Oliver Watson on Richard Slee
OW: And I know it well. [video clip starts] I think it was the first Slee that I bought for the Museum. I think we got a couple of pieces earlier that came in. I remember going down into the craft shop in the Museum and seeing this there and just laughing, sitting there so expectantly with its little feet as if it was about to scurry off. And so unlike so much other stuff, not earnest, not self-important, none of those things. But it had some kind of quality to it, and I think it's taken me a while to work out what those qualities are. It is beautifully made, he makes things with great care and precision, his handling of clay is very nice and the colours are very luscious. It's not at all cheap and shiny the way it might first look. This is not one of his great masterpieces, but I think it has a lot of the qualities of work that was to come. I think that now his work has developed on, he's one of the great potters in the studio pottery movement. [video clip ends]
For me it combines so many different strands of interest that end up in amazing and wonderful objects. Here it's to do with what I see in it, and what makes it interesting to me is a whole pedigree behind this of his historic pots where the first step back is obviously 1950s knick knack ornaments that you have on your little tiled stove in your semi-detached house somewhere, but it goes further back than that to Victorian vases and ornaments and then the whole grand 18th century mania for vases and things of that kind. And he is very respectful of those traditions, but he's a very playful artist as well. And it's dealing with the whole area of... you know... I think one of the things he said at some time is just the importance of ornament or ornaments in people's lives and that how much more important those have been than conventional great art has ever been. So a lot of his later work which digs more even more deeply into that crossover of popular culture, cultural significance of ceramic history and all sorts of things, I think is particularly magical.
MP: Were you aware of his work a long time before you managed to acquire one?
OW: Not really. He had been brought to our attention as somebody who did a ??? of... It was Ian Bennett in his publications that had drawn our attention, and I think the first things we got were from then. But I think in a way it's his most recent work over the last four or five years, since the big Toby Jug figures and series, that for me have suddenly shown where a lot of these earlier things - which are quite difficult to place and to understand - were heading and in a sense validate some of these things retrospectively. I've called him the great wizard of studio pottery in one of my writings, which is a title he particularly loves, I think. And he's used it in his e-mail address just recently.
MP: Did getting to know and meet Richard Slee change your perception of his work?
OW: Not terribly, actually. I mean he's a very nice chap. He's rather dry in what he says and I think it's been more a conviction that's grown with the work, and I'm always stunned and rendered speechless when people describe it as being trivial and cheap and all those sort of things, that it doesn't embody the values that they see in pottery, the earliest brown glaze and certain other traditions. But yes, I was talking about something different.
MP: From a personal point of view, is Richard Slee the sort of work that you own yourself, or you'd like to own?
OW: I'd like to own more, but it's the only time, I think, he's shown his last show a couple of years back at the Marsden Gallery, where I've wished I was a Saatchi brother and I want to go in and say, 'I'll take the show.' I just thought it was such an extraordinary range of work. And I did acquire a piece for that, paid for over months. I'm delighted to see that he is getting a bigger audience. I think it's been quite difficult for him to establish that, his serious credentials as a potter with something worth saying, something worth looking at and where it's not just a jokey façade.