Roger Law: Polymath and Unreconstructed Subversive

Roger Law’s Jesus Bird Plate, 2016. Photo: John Lawrence Jones.

Ceramic artist Roger Law describes himself as a “polymath and unreconstructed subversive.” It is a very apt description of a man who has created some of the most memorable caricatures of the 20th-century as well the long-running satirical TV series, Spitting Image in the UK, which has sparked offshoots in countries as far afield as Russia, South Africa, New Zealand, Italy, and Japan with the most recent franchise being licensed by a US company. He has been a seminal artist for over four decades, resulting in several careers being rolled into one.

Skills Expanding

Having trained as an artist at the Cambridge School of Art in the UK, he quickly found his art skills expanding into 3D modeling. Working with Peter Fluck, he created clay caricature models of personalities like Elvis Presley, President Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher for use within a variety of media, and eventually these became latex Spitting Image puppets. Their unique skill in transforming personal foibles into political and satirical statements meant that anyone became a target—celebrities, politicians, judges, establishment figures, royalty, newspaper magnates, and people in show business. As Law comments, “we sought targets most worthy of caricature.”

His involvement in ceramics goes back many years. “Drawing is central to my career,” he explains. “Nothing starts without a drawing. Fluck and I made ceramics even before Spitting Image. We went to Stoke-on-Trent and played about with the molds to create coffee pots and teapots caricaturing President Reagan, Prince Charles, and Margaret Thatcher. The Michael Foot coffee mugs now cost about £800 ($1075) due to the scarcity.”

1 Roger Law and Peter Fluck with their caricature ceramics, 1980. Photo: Peter Moody Meyer.

2 Mrs T-pot and the Reagan Coffee Pot. Photo: Spitting Image Workshop.

Move to the Wetlands and Exotic Wildlife

After Spitting Image came to an end in the UK, Law went to live in Australia, attracted by the wetlands and exotic wildlife. He produced hundreds of drawings and paintings featuring swimming platypus, creeping frogs, and leaping kangaroos, along with numerous insects and sea creatures. At the same time, he began to gravitate toward Chinese ceramics.

“Australia has lots of cultural exchanges with China and I went on one. I went to Jingdezhen, the city where porcelain was perfected 1000 years ago, and was hooked. I started to spend a lot of my time in China. It was hard to get started working there, as I had to find people to work with me. The Chinese [artisans] hated working from original drawings; they do copies of copies of copies. So I had to find some young people who needed the work. It took about four years to get it right. We started with small brushpots using drawings made in Australia, and once we realized what could be done, we put the images onto really big pots,” Law said.

3 Roger Law and Wu Song Ming at work on big pots in Jingdezhen, 2010. Photo: Derek Au.

A New Learning Curve

It marked a major learning curve for both Law and the Chinese potters. Law was closely involved at every stage of the production. His ceramic works are very much the result of hands-on activity. He draws the designs onto newly made clay pots. Each pot is moved across the workshop where Law works directly with the carver to cut away background clay, leaving designs in high relief. This has resulted in a new approach to large-scale celadon and flambé-glazed porcelain, allowing traditional Chinese skills to be used in new ways.

“I don’t speak Mandarin, so [I] had to come with a translator.” Law notes, “Wu San Ming did most of the fine carving. I was allowed to carve the background.” He adds, “Porcelain gets into your being.” When describing the steps used to create the surface drawing and carving process on large pieces, Law says, “You wet down the pot with a big brush. Cover a bit two inches across at a time, and do the drawing. I had to learn how to do that and not wipe out the nearby drawings. Each image had to be drawn upside down. It took three months to cover and carve a pot from start to finish. We never lost one in the firing. Each pot was bisque fired, then glazed, and fired again.”

4 Illustration of the cheerleader crabs before plate application.

5 Roger Law’s Cheerleader Crabs Charger, 2016.

“I love the pot work,” Law explains. “I get more enjoyment out of doing the pots to record the landscape and the wondrous animals. Near my studio at Bondi, there was a whole colony of leafy sea dragons—Australians ask me if I made them up.”

Color schemes range from blues, whites, and terra-cotta browns to the massive fields of calm, tranquil green celadon shades that characterize the immense five-foot tall pots. Designs swirl and twirl around the pots, making you look closely at every animal or leaf. Sea wrack, dozy prawns, and all manner of fish swim around a large Paradise Pot glazed in celadon, while leaping fish and crayfish adorn a salt-water glazed vase in deep red, whites, and shades of green.

Evolving through Experiences

His initial work focused very much on designs inspired by the Australian landscape and wildlife such as chargers adorned with cheerleader crabs or platypus with yabbies. He designed bowls that looked like Song Dynasty bowls but with mudfish flying about, brush pots with wading ostriches, and plates adorned with running emus.

6 Roger Law’s brush pot.

7 Roger Law in his studio, China, 2011. Photo: Michael Coulson.

Following his move back to the UK, Law has maintained his links with China, developing designs that are clearly influenced by the East Anglian landscape. His work is adorned with wild flowers like teasel and holly, Norfolk meadows, owls, and marsh hares. His most recent work incorporates Norfolk lobsters, a mackerel shoal, and an English rabbit dance.

There can be little doubt that his designs and concepts are stunning, leaving visitors to his recent exhibition totally in awe of his immense skill. Having spent several months at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, England, the show, titled “Roger Law: From Satire to Ceramics,” moved to the Clydebank Museum and Art Gallery, in Glasgow, Scotland. The imposing vases, jars, and cauldrons on display capture the attention of everyone who sees them due to their sheer size, beauty, and impressive designs. Numerous drawings and engaging films demonstrate how these works have been created and show why Law has become one of the foremost ceramic artists in the world. His unique vision has resulted in the creation of ceramics that are eye-catching, monumental, and distinctive.

8 Roger Law’s Paradise Pot.

the author Angela Youngman is a freelance journalist and author. She writes for a wide range of publications and websites, and has written numerous books.

5, 6, 8 Photos: John Lawrence Jones.

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