Lucie Rie was one of the most important potters of the 20th century. Conical Bowl (1971) is notable for it’s distinctive glaze and the undulating shape of the rim – a feature that became one of Rie’s trademarks.
Where is it in the house?
The bowl sits on a slate table in the lower extension of the house with a selection of other objects including sculptor John Clegg’s Fiddle Fish, (1963), some glass floats and goblets. Above the slate are three collages by artist Italo Valenti, Etana (1964), Giardino a Mezzogiorno (1964) and Pietra (1964). The three collages are similar to a triptych – a painting made up of three sections, often hung above a church altar. The objects on the slate table could therefore be interpreted as devotional pieces, the goblets suggesting the Eucharist or Holy Communion.
Jim Ede, the founder of Kettle’s Yard, placed everything in his house with great care. He explored many different religious and spiritual ideas throughout his life, and his interest in Roman Catholicism may have influenced his arrangement of these objects.
How was the shape made?
Lucie Rie would have made this pot on a potter’s wheel. She would have first centred a large lump of clay to make it balanced in the centre of the wheel. Next, with her hand or a tool, she would make a hole in the centre of the clay, opening up a gap to create a widening cylinder. She would then pull up the clay from the base while the wheel was turning, creating the basic bowl shape. The final stage would be to gently shaping the top to create the distinctive wave-like rim. Explore the shape of Conical Bowl in the carousel below.
Rie combined different clay types together in her pots, often using a large proportion of kaolin, which allowed her to make her characteristically thin, fragile shapes. The clay blend for this bowl probably consisted of stoneware and porcelain, and some red earthenware. Red earthenware contains iron, which is visible in the dark reddish-brown flecks on the surface of the bowl.
Listen to potter Rachel Dormor explaining the process in the audio clip below.
Lucie Rie described the process of shaping her pots:
‘To make pottery is an adventure to me, every new work is a new beginning. Indeed I shall never cease to be a pupil. There seems to the casual onlooker little variety in ceramic shapes and designs. But to the lover of pottery there is an endless variety of the most exciting kind. And there is nothing sensational about it only a silent grandeur and quietness.’
How was it glazed?
Ceramic glazes are made up of different raw materials, often including silica and metal oxides such as sodium, potassium and calcium. Lucie Rie made all her own glazes. She kept notebooks filled with recipes she had perfected over time, as well as pot designs and records of customer orders. The glaze used on this bowl was designed to bring out the iron speckles in the clay and to create a pitted surface, adding texture to the smooth sheen of the finish. Can you see a pattern of tiny cracks all over the surface? This is caused by the glaze shrinking, an effect she used deliberately.
Listen to potter Rachel Dormor discussing the glazing of Conical Bowl below.
Most ceramic works are made in clay and then fired in the kiln. This first firing is called biscuit firing. After the biscuit firing, glaze is added and then the piece is fired again. Early in her career, however, when still in Vienna, Rie decided to add the glaze without first biscuit firing the clay piece. She was so pleased with the result that this method, known as raw glazing, became her preferred technique.
The bowl would have been fired in a high temperature electric kiln. This was also unusual, as most of the potters working at the same time were using flame-burning kilns. There was little precedent for using electric kilns and Rie would have had to experiment to find the effects that she wanted. Rie was so slight that when broadcaster David Attenborough visited to make a film about her work, he had to hold on to her feet as she leant into the kiln to extract the pots, in order to stop her toppling in.
Despite years of experimenting it was not possible to predict how each piece would come out of the firing. There was always an element of discovery when unpacking the kiln. Rie described it to Attenborough as ‘not revelation, but a surprise’.
Is it functional or is it an art object?
Lucie Rie made both functional and decorative objects. After the Second World War, she had commercial success selling tea and coffee sets to smart London businesses including Bendicks, a chocolate retailer, and Primavera, a gallery of applied art. She also continued to make pots that were purely decorative. This bowl would almost certainly have been decorative. The small base makes it relatively unstable and the shape and texture can only be appreciated fully when it is empty. The porous texture would also have made it difficult to clean, again suggesting it was not meant to be for practical use.
When asked about her views on her pottery Lucie Rie responded:
‘If one should ask me whether I believe to be a modern potter or a potter of tradition I would answer, I don’t know and I don’t care. Art alive is always modern, no matter how old or young. Art theories have no meaning for me, beauty has. This is all my philosophy. I do not attempt to be original or different. Something which to describe I am not clever enough moves me to do what I do.’
Lucie Rie (née Gomperz) was born in Vienna in 1902 to a Jewish family. During the 1920s she studied ceramics at the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule, the well-respected school of Art and Design. She had success with her work whilst still at art school, with pieces featured in exhibitions and publications.
At the age of 36 she left Austria, which was under the growing presence of the Nazi party. She moved to London where she and her husband, Hans Rie, parted ways and Lucie settled in London to resume her ceramics career. Despite her success in Vienna she was unknown in London and struggled to make a living. During the war she took on factory work, and started producing ceramic buttons. She welcomed other emigrants to work with her in her studio, including Hans Coper, who arrived in 1946 with no experience of ceramics, but went on to become an important potter. Her work grew in popularity from the 1950s; Rie exhibited in important exhibitions and achieved commercial success.
Lucie Rie taught at Camberwell School of Art in London from 1960-1971, ensuring her continued influence on modern pottery. She continued to make pots until a series of debilitating strokes in the early 1990s. She died in 1995.
Why is it special?
Lucie Rie’s career spanned seven decades and she has had a profound impact on modern pottery through the work she created and through teaching new generations of potters at Camberwell School of Art.
It is perhaps best to hear other potters talking about her to understand why her work is so special.
‘Her work, timeless and majestic, remains, a lasting and enduring testament to the art of the potter.’ – Emmanuel Cooper, leading British studio potter, writer and editor.
‘Through her training as a potter in Vienna to her exile in London, and to her creation of a style of making that had no counterpoint in the earthy functionalism of British pottery, she projected a force-field of separation from the expectations of those around her … Lucie Rie’s pots reveal an instinct for powerful concision, for the paring back of forms, textures, functions to the essential. Her life reveals someone who was able to get to the point’ – Edmund de Waal, artist, potter and author.