Lucie Rie's death at the age of 93 brings to an end the long, productive and distinguished life of one of the leading studio potters of the 20th century and marks the end of an era for the craft itself. As part of the pioneering generation which forged a new identity for studio ceramics, Rie created within it her own distinctive voice.
She arrived in Britain in 1938 as a refugee escaping the horrors of Fascism and not only had to re-establish herself as a potter, but also to find her identity in a country which had little sympathy for the kind of pots she was making. In doing so Rie not only created an individual style of great character and sensitivity which celebrated Modernism, but established the work of the studio potter in the modern world - an art-form to stand alongside any other.
Lucie Rie was born Lucie Gomperz in 1902 in Vienna, the third and youngest child of a prosperous ear, nose and throat doctor with progressive artistic taste. His surgery and waiting-room, designed in the style of Viennese Modernism, made the particular characteristics of the approach familiar to Rie from an early age. Sigmund Freud, one of the visitors to their house who used to play chess with her father, was remembered by Rie as being kind and generous. Artistically inclined but unsure of her direction, she enrolled at the Vienna Kunstgewerberschule in 1922. Here, under the kind but old-fashioned eye of Michael Powolney, who was a modeller rather than a potter, she learnt to throw, a technique she continued to use all her life. She also gained a sound knowledge of ceramic chemistry which enabled her to develop a range of volcanic and textured glazes which became major characteristics in her work.
Despite the lack of inspired teaching she was sure she wanted to become a potter and her early pieces, thrown and manipulated, already showed signs of her later style. It was the influence of such figures as the Modernist architect and designer Josef Hoffmann which made the biggest impact. Adapting Hoffmann's interest in metal and fabric, she made her pots minimal and spare in form, concentrating on deceptively simple-looking tall cylinders and rounded bowls, domestic in scale. Dry textured glazes brought out the strength of the shape, enhancing their austere, almost Spartan qualities. Pots shown at International Exhibitions in Europe were awarded Gold Medals. In 1937 a group of 70 pots shown in Paris also won a prize.
In 1926 she married Hans Rie, a man she had known since childhood, and made pots under the name of Lucie Rie Gomperz. Though they were to remain good friends, they had little in common and in 1940 their marriage was dissolved. The couple moved into an apartment designed by the innovative young architect Ernst Plischke which was more or less recreated in her London house in the late 1930s, remaining carefully preserved and maintained until her death.
As the 1930s progressed the threat to the Jewish community in Vienna increased as anti-Semitism became more widespread. Following the Anschluss, the union of Austria with Nazi Germany, it was clear that she and her husband had to leave, and both arrived in London in 1938, she to settle, he to move on to the United States. A mews house was rented near Marble Arch, in central London, and the old stables converted into a pottery studio.
At that time studio ceramics in Britain were dominated by the ideas and philosophy of Bernard Leach. Following his training in Japan, Leach had set up his pottery in St Ives in 1920, and his Orientally inspired pots and approach continued to be an important influence until his death in 1979. Leach adopted the folk tradition re-invigorated by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, while his first and most important student, Michael Cardew (who died in 1983), based his pots on the example of the English country potter. But, unlike Leach and Cardew, Rie rooted her works and ideas in the Modern Movement: they had little in common with Leach's and Cardew's more rustic approach.
Rie arrived with some earthenware pots with textured and mottled glazes made in Vienna but, despite their acclaim on the Continent, they were coolly received in London. W.B. Honey, Keeper of Ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum, thought they were earthenware pots clothed with stoneware glazes; William Staite Murray, Professor of Ceramics at the Royal College of Art, asked her when she was going to start making pots, while Bernard Leach thought her throwing too thin and her turning unnecessarily fussy. Nevertheless Leach recognised her talent and invited her to join him in Dartington, where he was then setting up a pottery. Though it was clear they were working along different lines, they became lifelong friends and Rie always said that it was from him that she learnt to make handles.
During the Second World War Rie worked at an optical instrument factory and afterwards found an outlet for her ceramic skill by designing and making a range of buttons and jewellery for Bimini Designs. The process enabled her to use all her technical expertise producing brightly coloured and textured glazes. The button moulds stood neatly stacked on shelves in her studio until her death.
The arrival of Hans Coper, a young German refugee, as an assistant to help make the buttons, was the start of a creative partnership in which Rie always claimed that it was she who was the student. Not only was Coper, a budding sculptor, keen to learn how to be a potter, but he encouraged Rie to have confidence in her own ideas rather than bend towards prevailing Orientally inspired taste.
A high-firing electric kiln was purchased, and Rie stopped making earthenware and started to make stoneware and porcelain, developing suitable clay bodies and glazes, again making use of her training in ceramic technology. While there was a great deal known about high-temperature firing in a flame-burning kiln (Leach had published A Potter's Book in 1940), little had been written about stoneware produced in an electric kiln and Leach had dismissed this in a short sentence in his book. Rie not only had to resolve technical difficulties but also had to evolve an aesthetic which owed little or nothing to classic Oriental wares. For some years Rie and Coper worked together, sharing the same studio until 1960, and were each a great source of inspiration to the other.
As well as making a small range of elegant and refined domestic pots such as teacups and saucers, plates and coffee-pots, covered with a white glaze contrasted with a matt black, Rie produced individual vases and bowls. These often had rich, deep colours such as greens and yellows, many with a metallic bronze and gold rim. Other pots were covered with dry, pitted surfaces with soft diffusions of colour, or with dramatic but carefully controlled volcanic textures. All were thrown on the wheel and turned so that no throwing lines were left to disrupt the crisp profile and smooth surfaces.
Spare, clean-cut shapes and minimal decoration combined a strong sense of form with a sensitive awareness of surface and texture - pots which made no reference to the rustic tradition or industrial production but were a new expression in studio ceramics. As a metropolitan potter working in the centre of a large city, Rie had limited space, her output was small and she produced in limited quantity. Hence the prices of her pots tended to be high in comparison with those of her contemporaries, a fact to which she was always sensitive.
The pottery studio below her flat in Albion Mews was always kept immaculately clean and tidy. Two continental kick-wheels without splash trays stood under the windows, the large electric kiln with its counter-balanced lid occupied one end and a stove the other. Rie threw with an economy of style using a minimum of water, and was greatly amused by the way many potters in Britain appeared to slosh water on the pots during throwing. She stepped off the wheel after throwing as clean and spotless as when she went on.
Technically, Rie created surface interest through overlayering slips and glazes and loading the clay body with metal oxides so they would bleed into the glaze. Firings were long and slow and involved a short period of sleep snatched between kiln adjustments. As materials became more refined over the years, effects could not always be repeated, though endless testing took place to develop new glazes and colours. Potters curious to know how certain effects were achieved were given scant information, though more recently recipes were divulged and published, but always with the warning that they only worked for her.
Pots by her shown in the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion in the Festival of Britain in 1951 captured the progressive spirit of the time with their refined shapes and cool black-and-white glazes. Exhibitions at the old Burlington Galleries above the Royal Academy and at the Berkeley Gallery brought her pots (and those of Coper) before a small but appreciative audience. Galleries overseas were equally if not more enthusiastic. It was not until the Arts Council's retrospective exhibition in 1967 that she gained the official recognition she merited. A year later she was appointed OBE and received an Honorary Doctorate at the Royal College of Art.
1981 was a memorable year; Hans Coper died, she was advanced CBE, while a large retrospective exhibition shown at the Sainsbury Centre for the Arts, Norwich, and the Victoria and Albert Museum demonstrated the full range of her genius. In 1987 she was one of four potters selected for the commemorative series of postage stamps of British potters - recognition of the status of pottery and of the talent of the chosen potters.
Further recognition followed. In 1991 she was created a Dame and in 1992 a large retrospective exhibition at the Crafts Council Gallery surveyed her career as a potter. Highly acclaimed and attracting record attendances, the exhibition introduced her work to yet a new generation of potters.
A continual stream of visitors came to see her. They were politely shown round the studio and, with traditional Viennese courtesy, offered strong coffee or tea along with home-made chocolate cake or fruit pudding. Spare moments between visitors were spent in the studio making or finishing pots and Rie often worked late into the night. The living-room, which looked out on gardens, retained its 1930s elegance, its design of straight lines, natural coloured white and pale cream fabrics and dark wood softened by copious pots of flowers. It had the soothing calm of a retreat in which the only change over the years was the pile of books in the corner which seemed to grow in height.
Quietly spoken and still with a strong Viennese accent, Rie could be both alarming and delightful, her small trim figure carrying a commanding presence. Her acute observation of contemporary work, of which for the most part she was highly critical, could make her seem forthright in her opinions, but these were always tinged with kindness and understanding. Supportive of her friends and ex-students, she resisted becoming a public figure despite teaching part-time at Camberwell School of Art in London, never courting publicity and preferring not to join organisations or become involved in craft politics, though always keen to have news of change and make pertinent observations. A stroke in 1990 left her unable to continue work, though she retained a lively interest in pots and potters and was able to attend her Crafts Council retrospective.
One of the most creative studio potters of this century, she leaves a legacy of work which will be admired and enjoyed for years to come.
Lucie Rie was the most extraordinarily sensitive and yet dogged craftswoman, writes Margot Coatts. She was someone who could look at a formal idea repeatedly in a working life of over 60 years and produce alternatives of equal merit.
Her memorable repertoire of forms - the footed bowl (like an upturned coolie hat), the lipped vase with serpentine outline, tactile ``potato pots'' or the (earlier) elegant tea- and coffee-pots - speaks of simplicity. Within this almost programmatic approach she produced a plethora of colours and weights by subtle use of her many treatments of clay and glaze, working in reaction to each other.
In January 1992 the Crafts Council celebrated Lucie Rie's 90th birthday with a retrospective exhibition of her pots at their new London gallery. The previous summer, as the exhibition's freelance curator, I had been dispatched to take tea with her; her closest friends and advisers were present to oil the wheels. When faced with plans for the exhibition Rie was at first unmoved, even chilly, and asked that the work of the late Hans Coper, her one-time colleague and lifelong friend, should be included. She seemed to lose interest in the conversation when told that, for several good reasons, this was not really practicable. Instead she fell to examining my gift - a spray of pale pink mallow flowers - and, catching my eye, threw me a gentle but luminous smile.
In the months that followed I discovered Lucie Rie through her work, for the exhibition was deliberately selected, with minimal disturbance to her, with the generous co-operation of numerous museums and private collections around Britain. A few hours before the exhibition's official opening, when several hundred ``pot people'' from all walks of life were due to gather to hear Sir David Attenborough's speech, another small tea- party was held.
This time we were surrounded by the jigsaw of Lucie Rie's life, skilfully designed into a flowing exhibition by Brian Griggs. The acid test was the moment when Lucie Rie, impeccably dressed in white and cream, walked slowly around the gallery on the arm of Dr Max Mayer. Once again she appeared unmoved, despite compliments from all sides, until, seeing a tiny photograph of herself with the eminent potter Bernard Leach in the grounds of Dartington Hall in 1952, she turned and produced a positively impish grin.
A select exhibition of her pots opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in November. This time she shares it with Hans Coper.
Lucie Gomperz, potter: born Vienna 16 March 1902; OBE 1968, CBE 1981, DBE 1991; married 1926 Hans Rie (marriage dissolved 1940); died London 1 April 1995.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies