Lucie Rie (1902–1995) was one of the most accomplished and influential potters of the 20th century. Featuring work produced across six decades, this new exhibition at the Holburne follows the evolution of Rie’s distinguished career, from some of her earliest ceramics made in her native Vienna to striking pieces from the last years of her life.
Here is an excerpt from the associated book, The Genius of Lucie Rie by Andrew Nairne
Opening an exhibition to celebrate Lucie Rie’s 90th year in 1992, the broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough finished his speech: “What is the genius of Lucie Rie? Enormous invention.”
The title of the exhibition [at the Holburne], and the associated book, comes from Lucie Rie’s own words: “To make pottery is an adventure to me, every new work is a new beginning.” Her remarkable body of work, exceptional in its variety and experimentation, continues to captivate and inspire today. Featuring photographs of over 100 works from private and public collections and six insightful essays, the exhibition and book consider afresh the singular nature of Rie’s achievement and seek to reveal again her ‘enormous invention’.
Lucie Rie was born in Vienna in 1902 and died in London in 1995, her life almost spanning the 20th century. Rie’s upbringing within a prosperous and cultured family, and her education and training in Vienna, were to have a profound influence on her approach to making pots. In the decades around the turn of the century, Vienna was renowned for its pioneering artists, architects, designers and composers creating new images, forms, designs and sounds. Rie’s prize-winning pots of the 1920s and 1930s are infused by modernist tenets of experiment and rigour, characteristics that informed her artistic approach throughout her working life.
In 1938, at the age of thirty-six, Rie was forced to flee Austria to escape the Nazi persecution of Jewish people, choosing to settle in London. It was to be a watershed in her life and work. To begin with she was known only to other Austrian refugees and a few potters, notably Bernard Leach, who was to become a close friend. During the war, unable to secure a licence to make pots, she turned to making ceramic buttons for the fashion industry, experimenting with miniature forms and new glazes in the process.
From 1939, Rie lived and worked in a small mews house near Marble Arch. It was to be her home and studio for the rest of her life. Re-establishing herself after the war, Rie gained a growing reputation for her refined tableware and ambitious one-off bowls and vases. Her work, striking for its sense of modernity and individuality, stood out from that of Leach and other studio potters who looked to medieval European and East Asian traditions. Nevertheless, Rie drew inspiration from many sources including ancient ceramics, contemporary design and the natural world. Works from this period exhibit Rie’s use of sgraffito and a deep brown-black manganese glaze. Her black and white coffee pots, cups and saucers and sugar bowls were in tune with the new optimism and formal clarity of the architecture and design of the period.
To make pottery is an adventure to me, every new work is a new beginning
She was selected to show her work in the Festival of Britain on London’s South Bank in 1951. In these years, a creative partnership developed between Rie and Hans Coper, another Jewish refugee, who was briefly one of her assistants. A number of exhibitions have displayed their individual pots beside each other. Rie and Coper also worked collaboratively on simpler, repeat pieces, such as cups and saucers, stamped with their pottery marks side by side. In 1958 Coper left to set up his own studio.
As a female potter working independently, Rie constantly forged her own path. She developed forms, colours and surfaces that pushed the boundaries of studio ceramics. Rie’s experimentation continued into her later decades, with exuberant long necked and flared vases and footed bowls, their richly coloured glazes full of expressive life.
After Rie’s death, Crafts magazine asked an array of ‘friends, admirers and collectors’ to write of Rie’s achievement. The words of the potter Julian Stair continue to resonate: “Lucie Rie produced work of poise and beauty that had the formal sophistication of the best art of its day. In reflecting the ideas and values of modernism, her work demonstrated the principle that craft practice has the capacity to engage in the intellectual and aesthetic debate of any period. She challenged the conventions of her time by broadening the scope of studio pottery, while remaining within its traditions. In doing so, she showed pottery to be a language capable of evolving, with no limitations except the preconceptions placed upon it.”
An excerpt from page 59 of Lucie Rie: the Adventure of Pottery book
Lucie Rie: Sgraffito and the fifties
The post-war years saw Rie slowly returning to making one-off pieces, alongside tableware. In 1948, Rie shifted from using earthenware to stoneware and porcelain… Stoneware was more durable, making it a practical material for ceramics designed to be in daily use, as well as enabling Rie to make pots with thinner walls…. Around the same time, Rie and Coper visited the Neolithic stone circle at Avebury in Wiltshire. Here they saw Bronze Age vessels on display in the nearby museum. These had been decorated using the sgraffito technique, with incised patterns etched into the surface using bird bones, which had been reserved inside the vessels. Rie was captivated by the technique and soon began to include it in her own work, using a steel needle to scratch through glaze or slip and reveal the pale clay body beneath. In other instances, the etched groove was filled with pigment to create an inlaid line, allowing positive and negative versions of the same design. Sgraffito designs, often of astonishing intricacy and beauty, are a distinguishing feature of Rie’s work throughout the 1950s and in later decades.
Lucie Rie: The Adventure of Pottery is showing at Holburne Museum, Bath, from 14 July – 7 January 2024