Isabel Ettedgui, widow of the visionary retailer Joseph Ettedgui, is renowned among the cognoscenti for her “taste” and her “eye”. If she says something is good, then they have observed empirically that it is wise to pay attention. So when she talks about the work of Lucille Lewin – founder (with her husband Richard) of the Whistles chain, former creative director of Liberty and now newly launched as a ceramicist – and describes her work as “extraordinarily beautiful”, it means it is to be taken seriously.
So excited is Isy, as she is known to her friends, about Lewin’s work that she is giving her a selling exhibition at Connolly, in London’s Clifford Street, which will run from November 29 until February 28. How to Spend It readers will already know that Isy relaunched Connolly in a beautiful Georgian townhouse just over a year ago, having taken over the family-owned company in 1999 with her husband. It represents an intensely personal vision of the things Isy herself loves – softest cashmere in neutral colours, the finest leather, big white shirts – but interspersed between all these she likes to make room for very special objects for the home that she loves and thinks her customers would also enjoy.
Isy first heard of Lewin’s ceramics when she had a small exhibition at Messums in Wiltshire. She was so captivated by the pieces she saw that she made a point of going to her degree show at the Royal College of Art, where Lewin had gone on to do a master’s degree. There she fell in love with her work. “Lucille’s pieces are so organic, so very personal. I love that you can get lost in them. They’re so complex that they are almost like a huge cosmos in a very small piece and there is an extremely high level of craftsmanship – which is one of the things I always look for in the works I give space to.”
When I first saw Lewin’s work for her final year show at the end of her diploma course in fine art and ceramics at London’s City Lit college some three years ago, I had almost exactly the same feeling that came over me when I initially saw the sublimely serene work of Edmund de Waal 22 years previously – here was a completely original creative force doing work that nobody else was doing. Lewin describes herself as a sculptor who uses porcelain, glass and metal as her media. Almost all her pieces are pure-white porcelain with occasional shards of glass and fine shots of colour. Each consists of myriad intricate, tiny parts, made separately, fired and glazed, often several times separately and then fused into complex organic shapes. They take something like three months to make and Lewin often returns to them during this period to change and add to them.
What is extraordinary is that Lewin has come to this relatively late in life and she’s come to it quite slowly. After the Lewins sold Whistles in 2002 she discovered the charms of clay through a friend who was doing some classes. She decided to do part-time evening classes herself at London’s Working Men’s College and her tutors there encouraged her to do a diploma at the City Lit where, in turn, she was persuaded to apply to do a master’s at the Royal College of Art. Lewin, who was 67 when she started, thinks she is the oldest person ever to have studied for a master’s at the college. Merely to get in is an immense achievement, but to go on to have a degree show where collectors jostled to buy up her pieces is something of a triumph.
She called her collection Alchemical Bodies and says she uses porcelain to “express the complexity of the contemporary world. I realised as I was working that I was discovering the unconscious through my work.” And finding one visitor to her degree show in tears as he looked at her work “was particularly thrilling, for it made me feel that through it I had found an emotional and spiritual connection with the viewer”. She was just as thrilled when a banker, who bought her work, said although he collected other things, it was the first time he had ever been moved to buy a ceramic piece. When I go to interview Lewin in her studio there is a pile of boxes ready packed with work to send to Switzerland, to Austria, to the Middle East. Word has got out and collectors are snapping it up.
She calls the collection on sale at Connolly Time Between Time (£500-£7,000) and it is, like most of her work, exclusively white porcelain pieces, entirely decorative and quite extraordinarily original and interesting. She will have another collection on show and sale featuring other pieces from Time Between Time at the art fair Collect (running from February 22 to 25 at the Saatchi Gallery), but she is also always happy to take on special commissions at her central London studio.
Lewin’s is a very inspiring story for all who are worried about growing older – with purpose, meaning and creative work, the years don’t seem to matter. “The wonderful thing,” says Lewin, now 69, as she is happy to tell me, “is that by concentrating on my work it makes growing older seem entirely irrelevant.”