This is the story of two artists: Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, émigrés who escaped to England from the Nazis in the late 1930s, and who would then spend the next 40 years transforming the landscape of studio ceramics in Great Britain.
‘It is almost impossible to imagine ceramics in this country without them,’ says artist and ceramicist Giles Round. ‘They brought an urban European sensibility to what was, until then, a kind of rustic nostalgia, and they have been a touchstone for British ceramicists ever since.’
Lucy Rie was born into the Jewish-intellectual environs of Sigmund Freud’s Vienna in 1902. She trained at the Wiener Werkstätte, the highly influential graphic arts workshop established by Josef Hoffman, and in 1925 opened her own workshop. Here, she created austere bowls in dense matt glazes — ‘The perfect objects for a modernist apartment,’ according to Edmund de Waal, a long-time admirer of her work.
In 1938, as the Nazis annexed Austria into the German Reich, Rie fled Vienna for England, settling in a mews house in Bayswater from where she established a small pottery studio. She took on emigrés as her assistants, and in 1946 met the young Hans Coper.
Like Rie, Coper was Jewish, and had abandoned an engineering degree in Dresden to escape to Britain in 1939. The journey was the culmination of a traumatic four years of persecution by the Nazis, which had ended with his father’s suicide and his brother’s exile to South America. In London Coper was re-arrested as an enemy alien, and spent two years in an internment camp in Canada. Subsequently, along with thousands of other Austrian and German nationals, he served in the British Army’s Pioneer Corps.
Rie instantly recognised Coper’s talent. Together they ran a successful workshop producing beautiful, essential objects of impeccable quality.
Rie used silicon carbide to create mottled, pitted surfaces that seemed to emerge almost by chance. ‘She had this incredible style which she stuck to against the contemporary trend in England,’ says the potter Kate Malone. ‘I admire Lucie Rie because she stood strong as an independent woman from the start. She had a passion that drove her forward against all the odds.’
For Coper, function was secondary to sculptural form. ‘You can see how Rie inspired Coper to take risks,’ says Giles Round. ‘Coper’s works are thrown and then reassembled to make these very complex constructions.
‘The biggest influence in Britain at the time was Bernard Leach,’ Round continues. ‘He took his ideas from traditional Japanese pottery and combined it with rural medieval craft influences to create these wonderful objects that combined form and function.’
Rie and Coper however, were metropolitan, and their inspiration came from the city. They embraced concrete and asphalt, tarmac and dust. Together in the 1950s they created a post-war aesthetic out of the devastation of the London Blitz. ‘They proved you didn’t need to live in the countryside to make pots,’ says Round.
‘They made London their own,’ remarked De Waal to the BBC in 2021. ‘And that affection for the city inspired me… I’ve rubbed away my old ideas about what an authentic English potter should be and found that once I stripped it all back, underneath is something authentic to myself.’
Coper and Rie brought that urban aesthetic to their students at the Royal College of Arts, inspiring a generation of potters, among them Alison Britton, Carol McNicoll, Jennifer Lee and Elizabeth Fritsch.
When interviewed about her former tutor, Fritsch recalled that Coper’s teaching ‘had the same integrity and strength as had his pots: graceful, direct, precisely and sensitively tuned.’
‘I remember seeing Elizabeth Fritsch’s work at the V&A for the first time,’ says Round. ‘I was mesmerised by the exquisiteness of the decoration. It is a bit like the first time you experience a Bridget Riley painting — not just the optical effects, but the meticulous way it is painted. She was playing with form and decoration in a way that marked the influence of Rie and Coper.’
Coper died in 1981 and Rie in 1995. ‘They have never been out of fashion,’ says Round, ‘and I think that is because they did something radical. They opened the door for colour and fun and an expression outside of nature and harmony.’
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‘They were disrupters offering an alternative to the Leachean rural tradition. They showed us that the city was a fit subject for pottery.’
Lucie Rie: The Adventure of Pottery, is showing at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, from 4 March to 25 June. A selection will also be shown at Holburne Museum, Bath, from 14 July to 7 January 2024