Ceramicist Richard Slee in conversation with Grayson Perry about Slee's piece 'Drunk Punch', in the V&A Museum's Ceramics collection. Filmed June 2009 in conjunction with the forthcoming V&A show Richard Slee: From Utility to Futility, June 5 2010-April 3 2011, curated by Amanda Fielding.
GP: I think these Punch pieces are the first pieces of your work that really stuck in my mind because they really appealed to me because they were very much about Britishness somehow. Would you say that?
RS: Yes, they were kind of the archetypal grumpy British man, that’s what I wanted out of them. This one particularly reminded me of a grumpy child, the kind of child that you try to pick up off the floor and somehow they’re glued onto the floor.
RS: But they’re the grumpy British male.
GP: Is there an element of self-portraiture there?
GP: Is that enough said on that one?
RS: No. He’s called Drunk Punch and he’s autobiographical because I was drunk, probably, not when I was making him. I was drinking quite heavily at that time, so he’s autobiographical, he’s slumped down, he’s drunk.
GP: And yet … Also what I like about your work, it’s seemingly simple but also very, very multi-faceted. So what was the moment, can you remember the moment when you decided to work on the toby jug theme?
RS: It was sometime in the early ’90s … I was teaching then, and I got into the studio for the long summer break and this was the last recession … The order books were empty, no shows, hardly anything going on. I thought, what’s the point of making anything? Up until then, I’d been showing very regularly, I’d been very, very busy and I thought, I don’t want to continue with what I’d been making, I want to challenge, want to spend this time. I’d always been afraid of making anything that was figurative.
GP: What was your fear with that?
RS: I just thought I didn’t have the skills, quite honestly. It started off with actually copying a piece. This was part of the series of Punches and Toby Jugs. I also inherited a small collection of toby jugs from my grandmother who’d recently died. There was one particular one, not a brilliant toby jug, it was probably a twentieth-century copy, and I literally copied it, just to learn what the style was.
GP: I associate the look very much with you, the look of being almost slipcast, they have that smoothness.
RS: Yes, well that was it, it was a copy of a slipcast toby jug. This one was quite interesting … They take a long time to make as you can imagine – to model them they take about a week, to model and finish etc. Then there’s all the painting, many firings … It was partly I wanted to get that slipcast … I really don’t trust that handmade …
GP: I was going to ask you about that, because looking at the little maquette, it’s very handmade obviously, a doodle almost in some ways. I do associate you with this flawless, almost inhuman perfection and yet looking now back at this [Drunk Punch] it looks a lot more handmade.
RS: Well it is, it’s quite rough. To me, looking at it now, I can see all kinds of flaws and imperfections in it. The bottles are quite roughly made … much more cartoony … as if they’ve stepped out of a Krazy Kat cartoon which I really admire. But the bottles are very, very cartoony but he’s not, he’s something else.
GP: The colour is quite earthy, that red.
RS: It’s called Derby Red, it’s a traditional colour, it’s an enamel which is based on iron oxide, it’s a very, very old colour, you find it in English eighteenth-century Staffordshire used a lot. His livery …
GP: Yes, that’s perfect. I understand that, but you have moved towards a palette that is more artificial in many ways.
RS: Yes. He’s very traditional in his colouration whereas nowadays my colours tend to be more computer-like.
GP: Yes, exactly, it’s interesting, we can pick up that again later. When you first sold a piece to the V&A, how did you feel then?
RS: Chuffed, and I went out and bought some books with the money. Really very chuffed, you started to arrive in a way.
GP: So do you feel like a member of the establishment now?
RS: Obviously I must be. I don’t want to be, but I must be.
GP: I want to go back to talk about the maquette for a minute. When I saw the photograph - I’d never seen it before - I assumed it was the same size as the Punch and I thought it was a finished work in itself because the idea of you making a maquette and making it a work seemed like a very Richard Slee idea.
RS: It was basically because I had difficulty and I made a number of these just to try and get his pose. I wanted him to look as if he’s slumped and fairly pissed. I did various things like get into that position myself to understand, sit on the studio floor. I did think of photographing myself but I didn’t in the end … He’s obviously a solid piece of clay which is unusual for me because most things are hollow that I make. The lines around him are simply a device to scale him up.
GP: Ah, right, yes, I thought that.
RS: Some years later I was clearing out the studio and I found him and I gave him to the [V&A] Museum.
GP: It’s interesting because somehow when I look at your work, you work with such archetypes sometimes, you seem to pare it back to almost your voice is inherent in the idea but not necessarily in the fingermark, yet when you talk about it I realise you have to put a huge amount of thought into making it almost look like you’re not there.
RS: Yes, yes, yes … This piece is slightly contradictory because the bottles, you can see how they’re constructed, they’re faceted, you can see they’ve been made in bits and joined. That was maybe significant, even then I saw these as something in the past, the bottles.
GP: Do you think this was at a turning point, when you were going perhaps away from a more hand finished look towards the sort of perfection I now associate you with?
RS: Yes, yes. You can’t see the hand of the maker.
RS: Yes, it probably is a turning point. I can remember thinking, these are different, the bottles were different, they were made at the same time but they were very different in the way I handled the clay, and they’re much more about … slightly more expressive, so there might be something there.
GP: You’re thinking about perhaps your relationship to ceramics at that point, and the mark of the maker is fetishised, isn’t it?
RS: Yes, yes, that’s something I really want to try to avoid.
GP: And in terms of the scale of it, why have you made it that big?
RS: I suppose, crudely, impact, but no, it’s partly about technique, it seemed to be the right size for me to make. Also, as I said in the beginning, it’s a bit like a child, it’s child-sized, small toddler size, small toddler’s probably a little bit bigger. I thought it’s quite significant that the head is bigger than the body, the head is almost human. It’s really me.