A love, a lifetime, a Lucie

Tomorrow in London, a sale which reflects the greatness of Lucie Rie, a tribute to her and to an unsung friend of forty years. By John Windsor
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"I miss her terribly", says Cyril Frankel. Dame Lucie Rie, the West's most famous potter, died two years ago, aged 93. "I was close to her during her lifetime and I have felt very, very close ever since. I feel I am still basking in the light that she gave out."

She was frail and dignified, and maintained to the end the punctilious good manners of Vienna, whence she fled the Nazis for London in 1938. He is aged 75, wiry, upright, quick-witted, a film-maker who learnt to sell pots and was crucial in making her reputation.

Their decorous devotion to one another, spanning 34 years, is an art- market legend. But the private world they shared has hitherto been a secret.

When I visited Frankel in the Harley Street flat that he shares with his companion and fellow collector Steve Nelson, it was Saturday lunch time - the time that he and Rie used to spend together. "I no longer know what to do with my Saturdays," he says. "One of her friends once said to me: 'It's so kind of you to spend so much time with Lucie.' I replied: 'It's not kind at all. It's a love relationship.' In fact, it ruled my life."

Tomorrow, the last of her own cherished tall-necked vases and wide-brimmed bowls, from the studio where Frankel was a constant visitor, will be auctioned at Bonhams. Frankel, the firm's contemporary ceramics director, has called it The Sale of a Lifetime. Rie's lifetime, that is. It is the first sale dedicated to the work of one potter, and is expected to raise pounds 300,000.

When he met Lucie Rie, in 1953, she was selling pots to only a small circle of enthusiasts, some of whom were unaware of her prizewinning reputation on the Continent. Frankel had just made Man of Africa, the first British all-black film, and was soon to make classic screen comedies such as It's Great To Be Young, before becoming Lew Grade's principal director. He directed The Avengers, and created and directed Randall and Hopkirk.

"When I first saw Lucie," he says, "she was standing amid a group of people greeting her in her studio. I was struck by her beauty. I held back, just to look at her."

Having been "educated in the cinema", as he puts it, he had come to worship stars such as Dietrich, Garbo and Lombard, "whose faces had a haunting mystery".

"Lucie's face had the same luminous quality that had filled my mind over the years."

But it was her empathy that was most important. At the time he was suffering from the tribulations of the film industry and was in need of comfort. "When I visited her to buy pots she always recognised my state of mind. Because of her great depth of spirit I would find myself uplifted. By the time I left I was in a quite different state. She would give of herself in this way whenever I was troubled. I'm sure she was aware of her gift. Though she did not use it often, it was part of her generosity of spirit. She was an extraordinarily giving person."

But she was exacting, too. Both pots and people had to live up to her standards. She used to scold Frankel for putting on weight. "She considered it ugly."

In her final months, following a second stroke, as she lay at home in Albion Mews, dressed in white and attended by nurses, Frankel sat beside her and and gave back some of the comfort that she had given him.

"Sometimes she would grip my arm; sometimes, with the back of her hand, she would stroke my cheek with great tenderness. Her eyes were wonderfully expressive. When we could no longer communicate with words she would give a ghost of a smile and nod her head. It was a silent communication between us. We were meeting on the same level of inner spirit. What travelled between us was a healing sort of love.

"What I call natural healing can be done through either hands or mind. I simply place myself close to the transcendent and allow communication with whoever I am aiming to heal."

Back in 1961, Frankel had been one of the first to take personal instruction in transcendental meditation from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, then lodging in a flat in Pont Street, at the start of his journey to the west, before his association with the Beatles.

Frankel attributes his healing ability to transcendental meditation. The Maharishi generally discourages healing. But Frankel says: "Years after he had taught me to meditate, when I told him what I had been doing, he gave me his blessing and reminded me that healing is not of the body but of the mind."

Dame Lucie used to say, impishly, that Frankel was one of many men in her life. Another was the German refugee Hans Coper, who potted alongside her in her Albion Mews studio, near Hyde Park, for 14 years. Since his death in 1981 her prices have begun to approach his. Another was her doctor, Max Mayer, in whom she had complete trust. He and Coper's widow, Jane, are the two principal beneficiaries of her estate.

Frankel's big collection includes the pots she gave him as birthday presents, still bearing stickers on the base marked "Cyril", or sometimes "Syril", in blue ballpoint. Among them are also the two pots that brought Frankel and Rie together.

The first is an exquisite red earthenware, gourd-shaped pot with a pinched neck, made by a Batwa pygmy of the Kigezi region of Uganda and presented to Frankel by a tribal chief when he was filming Man of Africa in 1953. It fired his enthusiasm for pots.

The second is Rie's conical rice-bowl with brown spots, which he bought for six guineas from the Berkeley gallery in London upon his return from Africa. A friend of his who clapped eyes on it exclaimed: "You've got a Lucie!" and introduced him to Rie, in her studio, the following week.

He began buying a pot to commemorate each completed film. He would sometimes pay Rie pounds 30 in pounds 5 instalments. By the Seventies, the price was more likely to be pounds 250. "I'd take her a wodge of notes if I really wanted something she didn't want to part with. She would say: 'When I needed money you kept me waiting. Now I'll keep you waiting.'"

He began selling the pots he had bought from her after being forced to sell his house to pay off an overdraft, following the failure of a restaurant venture of his in the late Seventies. It was she who told him to sell.

He was at first horrified. "I couldn't possibly," he said.

She insisted: "Sell my pots, and I'll make you more." The three pots he sold at auction raised pounds 600. A Rie vase can now fetch pounds 15,000.

At that time, there was no contemporary ceramics market. At auction, studio pottery was lumped with Art Deco and Art Nouveau wares. Even Rie thought it odd that her pots found their way to auction. "Don't people like them any more?" she would ask.

Auctioneers consulted by Frankel soon realised that he knew more about contemporary pottery than they did. "Double your estimate," he once told Sotheby's. They got their price. On hearing about this, Christie's were so impressed that they offered him a job as a consultant. At the age of 61, Frankel found himself embarked on a new career.

In 1988 he parted company with Christie's, and joined Bonhams. Prices there for pots by Rie, Coper - and youngsters such as Christine Jones and Gabrielle Koch, talent-spotted by Rie - began to soar. It was Bonhams that made the big prices, not the galleries.

By the time her name gained international renown with the joint Coper- Rie exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in November 1994 - realising Frankel's dream of elevating their pots from craft to art - Rie was in nursing care with only five months to live. She gripped Frankel's hand when he told her of the exhibition, and said: "Well, it's what you want, isn't it?"

He is now praying that the finest pots in Thursday's sale will be bought by museums, so that he can borrow them for more exhibitions, continuing his mission to promote the work of the woman he loved. He will miss the cylindrical umbrella-stand (estimate, pounds 8,000-pounds 12,000). But there could be even more tragic disappearances, such as lot 213, a stoneware and porcelain bowl, with pitted white glaze and an unusual unglazed brown band, that she would never part with, saying it was unrepeatable. It is modestly estimated at pounds 6,000-pounds 9,000.

The sale will be an unrepeatable opportunity to snap up pots Rie made in Vienna, and the ceramic buttons she made during the lean "cabbage days" of her early years in London. But at least her Wedgwood has been saved. That is, her Jasperware cup and saucer prototypes that Wedgwood rejected. She was bitterly disappointed, and consigned them to a cupboard. This week, her estate gifted them to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury are among her most ardent collectors.

And, not for sale until after Frankel's death, Rie's "God pot". It is a marvel, a white, globular creation with a round base and a tall neck pinched to an oval lip. "You must have felt like God when you made that," he told her. "As a matter of fact," she replied, "I did".

'Dame Lucie Rie, Sale of a Lifetime', Bonhams, Thursday, 6pm. Viewing today, 9am-4.30pm and Thursday, 9am-2.30pm (0171-393 3944).