Roger Law's Odyssey: From Satire on TV to China's Porcelain City

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After fourteen years of roasting everyone from Princess Diana to Margaret Thatcher on his TV show, Law gave it all up to throw clay

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If you were conscious from 1984 to 1992 and lived on the British Isles with access to a tele on Sunday evenings, you might have been one of twelve million viewers who tuned in to Spitting Image, the satiric puppet show created by caricaturists Peter Fluck and Roger Law. Their living latex creations, weapons of acerbity, were constant thorns in the sides of the Conservative leadership (Maggie Thatcher, for example, was portrayed as a dominatrix) and Royal Family (the dear Queen was cast as a harried housewife besieged by idiot children). Other targets included Ronnie Reagan ("the President's Brain is Missing") as well as pop stars like Mick Jagger. Intensely topical, the show drained its originators, so that they were somewhat relieved when the series and the Spitting Image enterprise shut down. Law, a large mate with pirate features, even took the opportunity to jump ship, as it were, in Australia, where he took up a new vocation making ceramic pots.

"In Jingdezhen I could afford to fail financially and creatively. And fail I did. It is the best way to learn."

The notion that one of Britain's leading satirists was engaged in what could be considered art therapy may appear a bit ironic, but his passion actually started when he and Fluck made caricature pots in the late '70s -- the Mrs. Thatcher Tea Pot and Ronald Reagan Coffee Pot. "On a visit to Cambridge, President Reagan bought two coffee pots from us and sent a thank you letter," recalled Law in a recent conversation. "I am not sure he got the joke."

The Spitting Image years saw the Royal Egg Cups, the Thatcher Toby Jug (stabbed in the back, the knife as the handle), the Charles and Diana divorce commemoration plate (cracked), and more. "Making ceramics seemed a good way of keeping sane whilst producing the puppet show," Law said. "So satire and ceramics were going in tandem for many years." Indeed, five years before closing Spitting Image, Law collaborated with another potter on an exhibition of ceramics, "The Seven Deadly Sins," for the Victoria and Albert Museum. "I decided on the seven deadlies as I was still busy with television and had little time to spare for research. I could draw on my extensive experience of the subject matter -- Sloth was the last pot to be finished."

As head of the Spitting Image workshop Law decided fourteen years "of rolling chaos was enough." He sold the puppets at Sotheby's and "found myself swimming through the ashes of the bridges I had burnt." In 1998 he became an artist in residence in the ceramic department at the National Art School in Sydney. There, he resumed drawing -- he's quite good -- and weaned himself off adrenalin-driven deadlines.

Law's interest in pottery began over forty years ago when he discovered the Martin Brothers (1860s-1920s), the first studio potters, whose subject matter was the surreal and the grotesque. "Australia is full of the surreal and grotesque -- perfect subject matter for me," he explained. "You cannot become un-cynical but with a little talent and much application you can reinvent yourself. I was hoping to produce something just as beautiful and crafted as my caricatures had been ugly and immediate."

Story continues after the gallery.


After an immersion in porcelain, China soon beckoned. In fact, Law noted, "You cannot spend any time in Australia without becoming very aware of China. Everything the Aussies dig out of the ground is shipped to China -- Australia is China's favourite concubine -- and the cultural exchange dance follows. Sydney boasts an impressive private museum, the White Rabbit, devoted entirely to Chinese contemporary art." So, in 2003 Law made a pilgrimage to Jingdezhen, China's Porcelain City, and began making ceramics there. The city's workshops are mainly family businesses. "The people are highly skilled and work hard in sweatshops -- not unlike the conditions at Spitting Image," he adds. "In Jingdezhen I could afford to fail financially and creatively. And fail I did. It is the best way to learn. You never learn much from success except perhaps where to find a good lawyer."

Law has been working steadily in Jingdezhen for eight years during the spring or autumn as the city is tropical in summer and freezing in winter. "Slowly, the flora and fauna of Australia is appearing on large porcelain pots -- dancing Cheer-leader Crabs, Weedy Sea Dragons. etc. I have honed my drawing skills, learnt much about porcelain and can say 'mei wen tie' in Mandarin. 'It's not a problem.'"

Law's website is, today, a catalog of his small, big, and large pots -- the largest befitting a man of his size. His plans, he said, "are to exhibit the large pots and make more ... even bigger. I feel the best of them are very good and will hold their value so I am in no hurry to sell them and I can afford not to." Some of these wares will be on exhibit at the V&A at "Porcelain City: Jingdezhen" beginning the first week of November.

About retiring from the daily grind of poking holes in inflated egos, Law told me: "I had a lot of fun over the years with satire, but the mediums I worked for are ephemeral. The pots are about porcelain as a material and just how incredible and weird nature can be, certainly in Australia." As for satirical messages, he concludes, "it is someone else's turn to climb into that particular barrel."

Image: Roger Law.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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