Earth, Wheel and Fire

In a cozy ramshackle atelier in the Shropshire hills, Rupert Spira puts a modern spin on English pottery.

The English ceramist Rupert Spira lives tucked away in the Shropshire hills, where England's border rubs up against Wales. It's a soulful place reached via narrow lanes winding past rich green fields and russet-brown moors. His house, which dates from the late 16th century, has higgledy-piggledy ceilings, floors and window frames riddled with old woodworm, and Georgian additions here and there. The walls are caked in rough plaster, the colors as soft as those of a blackbird's eggs, in shades of tea-stained whites, sun-bleached blues, and dusty grays. There isn't much furniture—a trestle table in the kitchen, a harpsichord in the music room, and a dresser on which stands a tall vase, its opaque white glaze exuding an almost living luminescence.

At the other end of a grassy courtyard, two recently renovated barns house the potter's studio and a small gallery. On the ground floor, the surfaces of Spira's work space are covered with large unglazed bowls, their edges unfurling like flowers poised to bloom. Upstairs, in a white room with oak floors, a number of finished pieces are on display: tall, thin vases with rims so finely crafted that light seems to pass through the clay; a wide bowl engraved with intricate, needle-fine markings; and a teapot with a shape so satisfying you want to lift and hold it to feel the reality of its curves. A vast window frames a nearby duck pond, which is circled with irises in summer.

The setting is bucolic, but the effect is unique, not quaint, for Spira is too knowing, too modern to be romanticized. His aesthetic runs like blood through everything he touches—a powerful commentary on the beauty of austerity, of a particular studied restraint that belongs more to Japan than to En- gland's sleepy shires. I feel it in the weight of the water glass I lift at lunch, in the broth-braised beans we eat together, and in the way he hangs a single painting on an uneven wall. "I once gave two small beakers to a friend living in a messy apartment in South London," Spira says. "He put them on the mantelpiece and then sent me a card saying that whenever he looked at them, he couldn't live in the same state again. It was one of the greatest compliments I've been paid." As I look about me, I realize the point of his tale. His pieces create a sort of resonance—a single bowl on the windowsill sets the tone for the entire house—that emanates not so much a particular design sensibility but something closer to raw emotion.

Such utter simplicity is key to Spira's work, which is now being sought after by American and Japanese buyers as well as savvy English collectors, says Ben Williams, head of contemporary ceramics at Bonhams auctioneers in London. In the United Kingdom eminent collectors include documentarian David Attenborough and Lisa Sainsbury, of Britain's family-owned supermarket empire. Spira has crafted tableware for Nicole Kidman and frequently sells to New York decorator Peter Marino. His work can be found at the überchic London fashion store Egg and will soon be available at Matin gallery in Beverly Hills.

For all the unfussiness of his approach, Spira says he is not interested in minimalism as a style. "It's monodimensional," he explains. "I'm interested in beauty. Whether that's done with a lot or a little is not the point." Nor are Spira's most recent pieces in any way derivative. He has long moved on from early influences such as Michael Cardew, Bernard Leach, and Lucie Rie—20th-century potters whose books fill his shelves. Instead he operates both within the English studio tradition and outside it. "He sticks to wheel-thrown, vessel-based ceramics, which is not terribly fashionable, but he blends that with a pared-back, contemporary appeal," Williams says. "His understanding of the process is extraordinary. What he creates by working with the glaze and kiln—letting them do what they do—is ethereal."

"It's not that the handmade ceramics are intrinsically good," Spira points out. "I would far rather eat off a well-designed mass-produced plate than a bad handmade alternative. But the handmade has far more expressive potential. It retains irregularities, which are otherwise ironed out to make the production line function."

Such nuances—the blush of red copper oxide on a pearly gray-white vase or Spira's barely legible calligraphic script etched on the delicate surface of his signature poem bowls—are what give his work life. No matter that I cannot read the words, inscribed with a needle dipped in black pigment over a white glaze. Instead I think of T. S. Eliot's line in Four Quartets—"Only by the form, the pattern,/Can words or music reach/The stillness, as a Chinese jar still/Moves perpetually in its stillness." Then, more crudely, I inquire: "And the price?"

Ceramics range from $75 for an espresso cup to $21,000 for a large vessel. Matin gallery, 9905 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; 310-788-0055; matin-gallery.com; rupertspira.com.

SOPHY ROBERTS wrote about Dubai in the May/June issue.