Lucie Rie 1902 - 1995


Private Collection, Paris


Tony Birks, Lucie Rie, Marston House, Yeovil, 1994, similar examples illus b/w pp164-5


The term sgraffito is taken from the Italian sgraffito to scratch and the related graffiti meaning to inscribe. In ceramics it describes the technique of layering of two or more glazes onto a vessel and then scratching through the top layer to reveal fine lines of a contrasting glaze beneath. Rie sometimes combined this with the related technique of inlay, in which fine lines are carved into the surface and then filled in with another glaze. While Rie would have always been aware of the technique, she only took it up in earnest after visiting Avebury, Wiltshire in the late 1940s where she encountered both bronze age pottery and the bird bones which had been used to inscribe them.

Tony Birks explains how… ‘the painstaking sgraffito technique with a needle is a long-winded business, like tattooing, and more than doubles the amount of time which a pot takes to make. Lucie’s great skill in the fine-detailed sgraffito pots, which span the central part of her career from the late 1940s to the end of the 1960s, lay in matching the design with manganese of the appropriate thickness; sometimes this rises up around the sgraffito design with an arched meniscus, sometimes the manganese is so thin that it is like a varnish.

Done mechanically or clumsily, sgraffito can be a boring and soulless technique, like scraperboard; also, when applied to finely thrown porcelain, it can be an extremely dangerous technique as far as the structure of the pot is concerned, since the incising of the clay weakens the wall and sometimes, even with Lucie’s experience, the pot will be lost when it bursts apart like a seedpod along one of the incised lines.’ 1

As with all of Rie’s oeuvre, her sgraffito bowls are delicate and precise, but their wavering lines also have a charming liveliness which suggest Rie’s hands at work. When seen collectively, Rie’s ceramics can truly be appreciated. Hers is an art of subtle variations, each object a progression, a new note in harmony with the last. Working within a limited scale and range of motifs, she was able to produce an extraordinarily various body of work and her later ceramics benefit from a technical prowess accrued over decades of dedicated practice.

1 Tony Birks, Lucie Rie, Marston House, Yeovil, 1994, p68