Escaping the Spitting Image Workshop that consumed his life for more than a decade, Roger Law discovered China’s porcelain city. Ysanne Brooks finds out more about his not entirely unconnected career as a ceramic artist
Handpainted Running Emu Plate by Roger Law; courtesy of the artist
At first glance, it is hard to imagine that the same hand that created the gruesome puppets of the 1980s and 90s satirical TV show Spitting Image is also responsible for a series of beautiful carved porcelain pots, platters and cauldrons. Look closer, however and you will see the celadon-glazed exteriors of artist Roger Law’s ceramics are filled with amazing creatures that appear to have gyred and gimbled their way directly from the lines of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. In fact, these tactile and expert carvings are drawn from the amazing real-life flora, fauna and wildlife inhabiting the seas and wetlands of Australia, which are strangely reminiscent of the Norfolk Fens where Law grew up.
The journey that took Law to Australia and eventually to Jingdezhen in China started when his secondary school expelled him and it was a choice between, ‘art school or Borstal, probably,’ he declares. Law chose a scholarship to art school in Cambridge, from which he was also expelled in 1960, but not before he met his future Spitting Image Workshop partner Peter Fluck. Stints as an illustrator and cartoonist for The Sunday Times and The Observer were followed by a partnership between Law and Fluck that would result in the hugely successful satirical puppet series, which ran on ITV from 1984 to 1996.
While Law’s main focus was on illustrating and model making, he and Peter dabbled in ceramics quite early on, creating grotesque china caricatures, including a teapot featuring the face of Margaret Thatcher, a Ronald Reagan coffee pot and a Prince Charles jug with massive ears for handles. ‘We modelled them in Plasticine first because we’d never really studied ceramics,’ Law explains. ‘When we took them to Stoke-on-Trent to have moulds made, they were astonished by how skilled they were but also how complicated. We went to the workshop with our Reagan and a craftsperson who had been working at Stoke for years said: “You know Roger, if you took a bit off here and there, I could probably get it out in three, what you’re looking at now is a 14-piece mould that would be too expensive to produce.” We learned a lot. Well, Peter did. Process goes a bit in one ear and out the other for me,’ he admits.
During the crazy Spitting Image years, ceramics were an interest that provided some respite from the relentlessly long working weeks creating foam puppets. It was at this time that Law discovered Janice Tchalenko’s work, which he found a welcome counterpoint to all the Bernard Leach brown homewares so prevalent at that time. ‘Making ceramics is really difficult – about one in 99 will be the piece you’re after – so most potters find something that works for them and stick to it. Janice was different, she was very experimental and open to change,’ Law says.
Dancing Lobster Brush Pot by Roger Law; courtesy of the artist
Large Paradise pot II, Celadon; courtesy of the artist; Sladmore Contemporary
He first came across Tchalenko’s colourful glazed pieces in the early 80s at a sale at the V&A and couldn’t get them out of his mind. ‘There was one particular bowl I couldn’t stop thinking about, so I went back to buy it. There were about four of us in the queue and infuriatingly the person in front of me bought it!’
The pot that got away preyed on his mind, so Law arranged to visit Tchalenko and they hit it off immediately. ‘We started working together on and off for about ten years and I learned a lot, a hell of a lot,’ he says. ‘Some was process because that’s necessity, but it was much more than that.’ In the early 1990s, the pair, along with Pablo Bach from the Spitting Image Workshops, started
I worked on my sketch books as I went around the country, but I had no idea what I was going to do with them working on The Seven Deadly Sins, a series of grotesque stone and earthenware pieces representing pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony and sloth, which were modelled by Bach and Law. ‘Janice was an instinctive potter but some of the glazes were developed by others,’ reveals Law. ‘She knew roughly what she wanted but had no real idea how to get it. However, because she was able to embrace experimentation, we got some amazing results.’
Meanwhile, the gruelling work at Spitting Image continued. The team was spending long hours in the workshop to complete each show on time, often creating 14 puppets a week at breakneck speed in response to everchanging news stories. By the time the 18th series was over, Law was worn out, both physically and mentally and decided he needed to distance himself, literally. ‘I chose Australia because it’s as far away as possible from people asking you to make puppets,’ he chuckles. ‘Also, we had language in common. If you speak the language you can join in. What I wanted to do was get back to grass roots.’
The day Law arrived in Sydney, an artist friend introduced him to the art school there, which provided him with a studio in which to work. ‘Within 24 hours I was back in another prison as the art school was literally in a former prison,’ he explains. ‘I had a cell as my office/workroom.’ This prison, however, proved to be a welcome base that gave him the stability he needed to fully explore the extraordinary landscape of Australia’s outback. This invisible tether grounded him and allowed Law to travel Australia extensively over the next few years. From Arnhem Land in the north to Coorong in the south he drew and documented the amazing creatures he encountered, particularly those that inhabited Australian wetlands so reminiscent of the fens of his youth – only in technicolour. ‘I worked on my sketch books as I went around the country, but I had no idea what I was going to do with them,’ he says.
A cultural exchange with the art school in 1998, which included a trip to Jingdezhen, China’s porcelain city, changed all that. ‘At first it was just so culturally different I couldn’t face it. It was a real shock to the system, but when I got back to Australia, I couldn’t stop thinking about the place,’ reveals Law. Unable to get the bustling pottery workshops of Jingdezhen out of his mind, Law started to experiment alone, creating ceramic pieces inspired by his sketch books, but no examples and few images of this work remain – he was so unsatisfied with what he made, he destroyed them all. It was clear creating alone wasn’t for him. ‘I’d been used to working with someone to bounce ideas off. I love collaboration and don’t have a problem with other peoples’ talent. I’m all for working with people who can do things better than I can.’ Much like Tchalenko’s bowl, Law couldn’t forget about Jingdezhen, but his lack of Mandarin meant he needed someone to help make the introductions. That person was Australian-Chinese ceramic artist Ah Xian. ‘You had to know the workers and develop relationships before you could make a breakthrough and Ah Xian was my way in,’ reveals Law.
Crab Dance Illustration by Roger Law; courtesy of the artist
Beached Crabs Charger by Roger Law; courtesy of the artist
‘He helped make everything possible, as did my friend Takeshi Yasuda.’ The workshop belonging to highly respected potter Yasuda – known locally as ‘The Godfather’ – became an occasional home from home for Law, filled with Americans, Canadians and Australians all looking to learn from a master.
Law, however, was frustrated by the trend for other Westerners to simply make Chinese versions of the pots they made at home, so he spent his time looking for inspiration in the local family-run workshops that were filled with craftsmen producing traditional pieces en masse. ‘All the businesses in Jingdezhen at that time were small and people were very skilled and specialised. A bit like Britain was in the 1950s. They would take the pot from process to process, from one tiny workshop to another until it was complete. I loved it. I thought I had died and gone to heaven,’ he smiles.
Despite the obvious discomfort of working in dusty workshops in a tropical climate, Law had the bit between his teeth and was determined to combine the sketches full of light and energy that he had collected on his travails – dancing crabs, leaping mudfish, spitting fish, saltwater exotica and freshwater f lowering lotus – with the huge Jingdezhen porcelain pots with which he had become so enamoured.
At first, he struggled to find craftsmen to work with him as many were used to producing the same pattern over and over again and they couldn’t see the benefit of learning one design, never to replicate it again. So, Law employed younger workers willing to try something new, in particular Wu Song Ming whom he collaborated with for 12 years.
His first instinct was to create the depth he wanted by attaching the design via sprigs. ‘Working with topquality porcelain is like trying to model blancmange but by then I was used to modelling in clay as I had sculpted many Spitting Image characters,’ he explains. ‘We made press moulds and just before the pot was leatherhard, I would hold the sprig to the pot where I wanted it and a woman would run around the pot wrapping it with wool to hold it in place. I’d draw around the sprigs when they were on the pot, take them off again and then the dry-toucher would attach them with a thin layer of water, offering up the attachment to the pencil outline, which would then suction on with a satisfying squelch.’ While some of these first experimental pots survived, many did not. A walk around the workshops revealed that if anyone was attaching sprigs to pots it was only at the very top, mostly because gravity had a nasty habit of taking over. It was at that point that Law realised deep carving was the solution but that, too, came with its own set of complications. The pot-makers were used to much more delicate incising and so when Law started to carve at depths of 20mm or more, pots were lost because the walls were not thick enough. ‘There was a language barrier,’ Law explains. ‘But once we got over that, the guy making the pots knew to throw them deeper so we could really carve into them but then, of course, they were really heavy and difficult to lift.’
Carving Detail; courtesy of the artist
Fish, hand-painted porcelain dish, from a series of four; courtesy of the artist; John Lawrence Jones
First to receive the Law carving treatment were brush pots but he soon moved on to large platters, vast cauldrons and huge Paradise pots, some more than two metres high. Communicating through drawings, the pots and platters were commissioned and thrown, some in several parts, and then Law would set about drawing his magical creatures directly onto the unfired surface. ‘The beauty of working on a pot is that if you make a mistake you simply get a bit of sandpaper and it’s gone in seconds. However, water is traditionally used to combat the dust, so when a pot is brushed down it washes the drawings away. Not great if you’ve just spent two weeks working on a giant pot,’ says Law. The solution was to use a fixative over the pencil drawings, which could resist up to two or three washes so you could get all the backgrounds cut and keep redrawing to a minimum.
Once the drawing was finished, the process moved to deep carving by specialists such as Wu Song Ming with Law working on the less complicated background. Bisque-fired in huge kilns and then finished with a traditional celadon glaze the huge pots – some weighing up to half a ton – are a striking combination of traditional Chinese form and British eccentricity.
More recently the gigantic carved cauldrons and vases have been joined by smaller plates and bowls decorated with lively, loosely drawn illustrations in cobalt blue. Painted directly onto greenware, some are inspired by Law’s travels in Australia, while others are drawn from closer to home, featuring creatures more familiar to the Norfolk coastline. Now based back in Norfolk at the home-cum-studio he shares with his wife Deirdre, it has been a couple of years since Law last visited Jingdezhen and he doesn’t plan to return.
Rabbit, hand-painted porcelain dish, from a series of four by Roger Law; courtesy of the artist
In part because the tough conditions are wearing at any age let alone for someone approaching 79, but also because regime change has meant the workshops are sadly not what they once were. ‘Xi Jinping [President of the People’s Republic of China] is a terrible autocrat and has changed everything. Now you’ve got a form of capitalism creeping in, approaching the rabid kind in America, and all the small family workshops are being bought up by people who want to expand,’ he says sadly. ‘The people I used to work with started on the shop f loor and they are interested in ceramics but the people running the businesses they’re just interested in profits.’
Law’s latest project sees him turn his back on the gentle beasts of his ceramics and revisit the grotesque foam ones of Spitting Image as the show returns to our screens after a 24-year hiatus. Satirising the current world order might seem beyond parody to some but Law’s not on board with that at all. ‘Trump’s not beyond satire,’ he smiles. ‘You can go as far as you think possible on pay-per-view, there’s very little censorship. It’s your own morality that guides you and that, well that all comes from experience.’
This article is taken from the July/August 2020 issue of Ceramic Review. For more on Roger Law’s ceramics visit Sladmore Contemporary Gallery; sladmorecontemporary.com Spitting Image returns to TV via the BritBox streaming service in autumn 2020.