Video: Oliver Watson on Elizabeth Fritsch
OW: Well, I know this pot very well, because this is one of the ones that I chose to get into the Museum. I arrived in the Museum the year before this, in 1979, and we had a big exhibition of hers, [a] touring exhibition. Liz Fritsch, I think, was the first big exhibition. I can remember the sheer excitement of this work. It was stunning, it was visually stunning and it was so different from everything else we saw or had seen then; [it was] terribly exciting and, of course, all the best pieces had gone and the Museum was scrabbling around to try... we got one double piece from that show and then a year later we managed to get a much more respectable piece.
It was exciting just to see all the different things that she was dealing with; different aesthetic, different games is a rather demeaning word to use about the things that she was playing with, playing with the three dimensions working in two and half dimensions, or whatever she said. The precision and thought that lies behind the decoration, 'Optical Pot' here, because it's squashed and that part of it is about what space is it actually occupying and what is the difference between the space it's occupying and [what it would occupy] if it were completely round and so forth. And then her patterns are often based on music and musical variation and so forth.
[video clip starts] As I say, for us then it was something very exciting and very new, and I remember being rather disappointed that a colleague of mine seeing these said, 'Oh, she's obviously been to Denmark.' And of course she had been to Denmark for a while and learned there, and interestingly if you set this pot into the context of contemporary Danish ceramics it makes much less impact. I'm taking nothing away from the qualities of the pot, which are very high, but it's almost in a tradition out there. The quality of the material, the matt glazes, the sorts of colours, the precision, the finish and so forth are all very characteristic of things from that part of the world. But they were a great, refreshing wave of stuff that suddenly came in and set off the Royal College girls, as they were rather disparagingly known. [video clip ends] Students of Hans Coper from the Royal College, with Jacqui Poncelet and Alison Britton and Jill Crowley and others suddenly working in a very new way, and the excitement that it generated. It was in that period in the early 1980s, when there was a private view, you rushed along to queue outside because if you wanted to make sure you were going to get a good choice of pot you had to be there right at the beginning. Yes, happy days, it didn't last long unfortunately.
MP: As a curator, when you are quite passionate about her work, how do you go about deciding what it is you're going to acquire for the museum?
OW: What do you mean? From her work or whether we get her ...
MP: Yes, why Elizabeth Fritsch or why a particular pot?
OW: 'Why Elizabeth Fritsch' is easier, for people who come to the top are fairly self-selecting in terms of who you're going to choose. I think we're rather cautious as a breed, we curators, and you don't want to get things that you don't feel are going to have some life in them, that's going to carry on. It's very easy to get over-excited and get things that then find that they don't last in some way. I was a bit shocked when I published the catalogue of the collection in 1980 to discover the youngest potter we had represented at that time was 35, which gives them quite a long time to establish their names before we get their work. But mainly the potters who you want are fairly straightforward, it's choosing the pots, and there are always funding difficulties. And then the issue about are you going to get a really good piece or is the next one coming along going to be better one. We've tended to wait for the big exhibitions and then see if we can get a special preview to identify the one. I don't know what kind of psychological mechanism is at work there. I usually go in, I look quickly round at everything, [and] a few things catch my eye. Then I work much more systematically round looking at everything and I consult people whose views I value. Quite often I come back to the first thing I spotted - 'That looks a good one.' Whether it was or not I have to leave to others to judge.
MP: Do you definitely have your museum hat on when you're going to buy museum things? Is it very different to how you might go about buying something for yourself?
OW: Oh yes, very different. And I think whether it's right or wrong again is up for debate, but one thing is [that] you have to think of things in the way that we display them and the way it kills pots, that the way that we have to display them is behind glass. And behind glass, a lot of subtleties go. And I remember the agony of... I think we did buy a Richard Batterham porcelain piece, but the whole point of that [piece] is the very, very subtle quality of the glaze and colour and so forth, and you put it behind glass and shine neon lights on it, then it's all pointless. It loses all that. But maybe one should still have it. There might be an opportunity one day of showing it in the right way. But things fighting for space... I think we try and go up against just getting very big brash things. And there are sometimes you can see that potters make things they think are going to be the museum pot which are always their best works. But I'd rather go with John Mallett who was the keeper of the department when I joined here, and he said he was having no truck with committees. He said he didn't mind if some people hated the things so long as some people really loved it - that was enough for putting something in.