Roger Law made the puppets for Spitting Image, the satirically subversive show, which ran from 1984 to 1996, which poked fun at anyone and everyone – most notably, politicians. It was Law’s artistic genius which transposed the traditions of the political cartoon, with its exaggeration of features – the grotesque mouths, hooked noses, rheumy eyes and luxuriant quiffs – from print to television.
Now in his early 70s, Law has abandoned puppets for porcelain. His pieces range from seven-feet tall temple vases to paperweight-size models of frogs. They are made in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, where porcelain has been made for 1,700 years.
When Spitting Image ended in 1996, Law had ‘had enough’: ‘I’d lived in a bubble for 13 years.’ He decamped to Australia, where he was appointed artist-in-residence at the National Art School in Sydney. The school was located in Australia’s first prison and, he says, ‘Having done life at Spitting Image, I spent some time in another cell and began to feel free.’ He started drawing Australia’s wonderfully varied marine life. These creatures adorn Roger’s plates and vases: carp, crayfish, crab, jellyfish, sea dragons, turtles and sea snakes. The result is both traditionally Chinese yet completely modern and uniquely his work.
Law was introduced to the wonders of Chinese porcelain by Ah Xian, an Australian-Chinese ceramicist. When he first went to Jingdezhen in the late ‘90s it was ‘a culture shock. Just too much’. ‘You had to crap in trenches with rats in them,’ he remembers, although thankfully things have now improved. The craftsmen throw the pots roughly and then carve them with knives. When the carved pots have dried they are pared down again until some pieces are eggshell thin. It is an intensive, highly skilled process. Roger Law found a young artisan who was prepared to experiment with him, Mr Wu Song Ming, and they built up their method.
Working from his original brush drawings, Roger spent a year drawing images onto pots with a pencil until they were both familiar with them. Then he and Mr Wu Song Ming cut the background out, created surface texture and, even, in time, got the hang of getting the movement and life into the creatures. It didn’t help that Mr Ming had never seen the sea. The images were carved to an eighth of an inch deep, deeper than the Jingdezhen carvers were used to working on their temple pots. It gives Roger Law some satisfaction that he notices they now carve their own work deeper than they used to, a little bit of Western-Chinese give and take.
Roger’s interest in China extends far beyond porcelain. He has made two series of programmes for BBC Radio 4, Chinese Curiosities. His husky delivery gives the listener a quirky, humorous, clear-eyed look at China’s cultural eccentricities. His affection for the country and its people though is reciprocated: The Chinese affectionately call him – a big man with a splendidly piratical beard – ‘The Hairy Monkey’. He hopes the Big Pots will be a legacy to equal the TV series - a lasting statement to his eccentric genius, long after the hundreds of videotapes of Spitting Image stored in his archive have crumbled into tiny pieces.