A slender vessel made from clay: Dame Lucie Rie, 92, is soon to be honoured by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. John Windsor salutes our greatest living potter

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The Independent Culture
DRESSED in white, frail yet seemingly indestructible, 92-year-old Dame Lucie Rie, the greatest living potter, has been taking the autumn air in Hyde Park, central London, near the mews where she has lived beside her kiln for 55 years.

She will miss the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York next month that will carry her life's work, and that of her late co-worker, Hans Coper, into the realm of international fine art. A stroke put an end to Rie's potting four years ago. Coper, 18 years her junior, has been dead 13 years. On the arm of a nurse, she makes her way through fallen leaves along the paths where she and Coper - wartime refugees devoted to their pots and to each other - bantered about new glazes, new shapes, new horizons.

Odd things, pots. A craft, but not quite an art, until Rie and Coper got together. They resisted the earthy sentiment of traditional country pottery, and refused to imitate the Japanese. Instead, they created sophisticated, metropolitan ceramics for the 20th-century West, inspiring a new generation of British potters. Prices have soared: a pair of monumental candle-holders by Coper has fetched pounds 88,000, highest auction price for a contemporary ceramic. A Rie vase with 'volcanic' glaze has made pounds 14,985.

Commercial galleries have been showing Ries and Copers for more than 40 years. Museums started buying them 30 years ago. But the Met is the first national institution to devote an exhibition to them. It has done what the Tate never did, and what the Victoria and Albert Museum last did in 1969 when it gave Coper a joint exhibition with Peter Collingwood, and in 1982 when it exhibited the Rie retrospective (first shown at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich). Britain's most visible accolade has been to put the potting pair on postage stamps.

Even when rich Americans started collecting studio ceramics and glass in the Sixties and Seventies, American institutions remained aloof. Five years ago the Met politely rebuffed the man who has marketed Rie and Coper most successfully - Cyril Frankel, head of Bonhams' contemporary ceramics department - when he visited the museum to propose a joint Rie and Coper exhibition.

Times change. Last year, Stewart Johnson, the Met's new consultant for 20th-century design and architecture, startled Mr Frankel by walking into his office to propose just that. Mr Johnson explained: 'Until recently, American collectors would happily pay dollars 20,000 for a piece of sculpture because they were seen to be buying art. But they would not pay the same for a pot.

'As for museums, they have tended not to have exhibitions of the decorative arts; when was the last time you saw an exhibition of pots at the Tate?' The Met's exhibition will do much to bridge the gap between the craft of pottery and the art of sculpture. Mr Frankel has no doubt that art history will nominate, as Britain's 20th- century greats, Moore, Bacon, Freud, Rie and Coper.

There is nothing rustic about Rie and Coper's work. But then, neither came from rustic stock. Rie's Jewish family had wealth and influence on her mother's side; her grandmother's home was like a small palace. Coper's Jewish father was a successful businessman until the rise of Hitler.

When Rie and her husband, Hans, arrived in London in 1938, they had pounds 2,000 ( pounds 64,000 today). The following year, when Coper took refuge here, aged 19, he brought his most prized possession, a dress suit, believing it to be de rigueur in Britain. He was immediately interned. When he knocked on Rie's door after the war in search of work, he was unskilled.

Rie's vase shapes are exaggerated: elongated necks, wide rims - made by plonking one piece on top of another - and brilliantly glazed in peacock blue, sage-green, gold, magenta. They look more vase-like than vases.

Coper's are more sculptural: spade, winged and bulbous shapes but without bright colour - just blacks, browns and whites.

This is bourgeois ceramics at its most refined, bringing to fruition, a generation after its demise in 1932, the intelligence and vitality of the Wiener Werkstatte, Vienna's avant-garde arts and crafts studio where Rie studied. Its ceramics, dimple-cheeked kitsch, were its weak point; but Josef Hoffmann, its co-founder, recognised true Werkstatte spirit in Rie's ceramics. He put them into competitions where they won medals.

Her growing Viennese reputation counted for nothing in Britain. For a while, she and Coper made ceramic buttons, earning a pittance. But she never let slip the dignity and decorum of elite Viennese society. There is a famous shot in a film of Rie's life, directed by Cyril Frankel for the BBC in 1982, in which the presenter, Sir David Attenborough, grabs her legs to stop her falling into her top- loading kiln. (Alone, she would have tied weights to her ankles.) 'You'll have to cut out the undignified scene,' she told Mr Frankel, despite his pleas that every film should have an 'emotional moment'. Subterfuge was resorted to. Rie was shown the film among friends in a private studio. As if by arrangement, they told her: 'What a wonderful moment]' Mr Frankel added: 'She grasped my arm and said, 'You can keep it in'.'

Ever ready to help the penniless in discreet ways, such as buying them season tickets to travel to work, ingratitude has always horrified her. Her special bane: visitors who would cajole her into accepting only pounds 30 for a pot, then ask for another at the same price.

Mr Frankel and Sir David are two of the men in Rie's life. As she has said: 'I am man-made.' Her marriage to Hans Rie, a manager in a Viennese felt-hat factory, was a failure. But throughout her life she has had deep but unconsummated friendships with men who have inspired and guided her.

Coper, a married man, was by far the most influential. She taught him to throw pots. He excelled, rescuing her from the rustic conventions of Bernard Leach, the father of British studio pottery. The flamboyance of Coper's vases eventually exceeded hers. Mr Frankel said: 'Even in company, they used to talk to each other almost in whispers. One felt that, between them, they were living some secret life.' Mr Frankel bought his first Rie bowl for six guineas in 1954. He founded the London auction market in contemporary ceramics primarily to promote her works. He has become her Werkstatte.

Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury financed her retrospective at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia in 1980. She found another champion in Lord Queensberry, in charge of the RCA's ceramics department, who had invited Coper to teach there. Mr Frankel, Sir David, Sir Robert and Lord Queensberry each have outstanding collections of her work.

Her most frequent visitors are Mr Frankel, Max Mayer, her doctor turned pottery student, and his wife, Yvonne, her secretary.

Even the untutored marvel at her closely etched sgraffito lines, the work of hand and eye alone. But it takes a trained potter to spot that she often stopped the wheel just seconds before the slender vessel would have disintegrated, stretching the clay to its limit. She was making heavy pots well into her eighties. Mr Frankel said: 'Although she appears frail and dainty, she has always been aware of her strength. In her heart, she knows she is very special.'

Her techniques will not die with her. All have been published, including the origin of the most innovative: glazing before a single firing instead of between two. In pre-war Vienna she preferred to make one tram journey to the kiln instead of two.

AN INSPIRATION, NOT A TEACHER No student of Lucie Rie's remotely matched her first, Hans Coper, a supplicant both receptive and brilliant. But works by living potters taught by her in the Sixties at Camberwell School of Art - including John Ward and Ewen Henderson - can be bought from galleries and at auction.

Rie did not rate herself a good teacher. Most of her students found her unbending, a reflection of Coper's adage: 'beneath her velvet glove is an iron fist'. She found his teaching so extraordinary that she occasionally hid behind a partition at Camberwell, listening to what he said to his students.

Ward, 55, said: 'Her comments were kindly but she did not hedge. She would glance and say, 'Your feet (the clay vessel's) are too small'.' He says his pots, made from clay strips, were more influenced by studying her work than by her teaching. Expect to pay pounds 80- pounds 800 at Contemporary Ceramics, 7 Marshall Street, London W1 (071-437 7605) and at Amalgam, 3 Barnes High Street, London SW13 (081-878 1279).

Henderson, 60, known for his grouchy view of Rie, admitted liking her, acknowledged her breaking of traditional boundaries, but dismissed her as 'not even among the top 10 potters'. He said primitive pottery had influenced him more.

His craggy pots are pounds 2,000- pounds 3,000, his tea bowls pounds 250- pounds 350 from Galerie Besson, which has a Rie-Coper exhibition, 2 November-21 December, at 15 Royal Arcade, 28 Old Bond Street, London W1 (071-491 1706).

At auction: Ward pounds 250- pounds 1,500, Henderson tea bowls about pounds 200, major craggies pounds 2,000. Next contemporary ceramics auction, with works by Rie and Coper, at Bonhams: Wednesday 30 November and Thursday 1 December (both at 6pm).

(Photographs omitted)