Emmanuel Cooper was, at the time of writing this biography of one of this country's most significant, most original and also most reclusive of potter artists, already aware of his own life approaching its end. So to put the creation of this tome in context, we could say that Cooper, he an academic, writer, potter, artist, humanitarian, photographer, editor and London Potters president, was setting himself the task of writing the definitive biography of Rie, she a pioneer, an artist of the highest rank, a potter who created a school of urban or studio pottery. Thus in the realisation of his objective, we have two greats of the ceramic world coming together in just under 300 pages of text and photos.
Cooper had a secret weapon in accomplishing this monumental challenge, he had known Rie, he had visited her and watched her at work and his circle included many who were willing to help him compile a dizzying array of facts and historical events around his subject who had spent most of her life avoiding blatant publicity and often surprised even friends with her modesty and humility. He had other tricks up his sleeve too, he was a leader in glaze development and formulation, his forms were severely modernist in their aesthetic and he was a witness to the growth of awareness and excitement that Rie's work generated in the society of collectors and exhibitors, all factors that lent a special empathy to the task at hand.
The book is indeed a deep and detailed account of many aspects of Rie's life, in particular her youth in a troubled Vienna and her subsequent early years in London. Cooper has taken great pains to unearth family relations, her education, marriage to Hans Rie and the parting of the two shortly after their arrival in London. Against this, Cooper has also painted the social backdrop of enormous change in the Austrian political scene which was soon to overwhelm much of Europe as the situation worsened into the inevitable war against fascism.
Once the book reaches the stage of Rie's life and work where fame and fortune begin however, Cooper then retreats mysteriously into discretion. I was surprised to read relatively little about her techniques of making and of firing, certainly there were little hints like using bits of wood in the electric kiln to achieve reduction with some glazes but where he had gone into tremendous detail with her life and training, there was suddenly a paucity of facts and steps in the techniques where the production of the work was concerned. Although he mentions that she made her own porcelain clay and developed glaze recipes which she shared with him, Cooper does not supply any of these in his book. So I looked to his portrayal of Rie who comes across as cautious in her interactions with people, who had a tendency to being introverted and was wary of fame, publicity and talk of prices for a clue as to why Cooper might have refrained from leaving no stones unturned. I therefore suspect that Cooper was respecting her privacy with this distance, a little disappointing perhaps but we can but trust to the better judgement of the writer that this was what Rie might have preferred. He does say that she kept meticulous notes which only serves to highlight the absence of step by step detail in this section of the biography.
The writing is lucid, impeccable in tone and at times piercingly intuitive. My favourite is his description of Rie's work which is fundamentally domestic but belongs in the living room rather than the kitchen. Another is the neatness of her throwing, Cooper recalls that she used so little water and was so precise in her handling that there was no mess either on the floor or on her apron to indicate that she'd actually been in a throwing session. He also injects many vignettes of her personality like her fondness of baking, her generosity to those she valued like the Leaches and the Copers, her gentle humour and her acceptance of her fame so we do get to see some of her life and thinking, albeit from a safe distance. This book is a valuable and significant account of an extraordinary artist, carefully and intelligently written by a pillar of ceramic history and both are much missed.
Reproduced with kind permission by London Potters News.