PABLO Picasso's artistry as a ceramicist is not well known and yet, in the last 25 years of his life, the Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, stage designer, poet and playwright concentrated almost entirely on working with clay.

"The art world at the time dismissed the work as just being weird, but plenty of British potters were inspired by him, such as the group that called themselves The Picassoettes: William Newland, Margaret Hine and Nicholas Vergette," says Helen Walsh, curator of ceramics at York Art Gallery, where 18 Picasso pieces from the Attenborough Collection are on show in the Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA) until November 5.

The loan of the works has been in the planning for a number of years. They now form the centrepiece of the show and around them are glass cases displaying some of York Art Gallery’s British studio ceramics collection, including the gallery's one Picasso ceramic purchase, 1954's Scene de Tauromachie, a bullfighting scene.

York Press:

Lord and Lady Attenborough

This offers the chance to compare and contrast the works of Picasso’s contemporaries and those influenced by his work. "We've changed the contents of four of the cases to pick out artists who had connections to the way Picasso worked, such as Ann Stokes and Gordon Baldwin, who was inspired by the thought that a potter could be an artist and not just a craftsman," says Helen.

The Picasso works have been loaned by the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester, by kind permission of the Estate of Lord and Lady Attenborough, as in the late actor and director Richard Attenborough and his wife Sheila, who lived in the Midlands city.

Picasso had begun experimenting with clay in 1946, producing his own ceramics at Georges and Suzanne Ramié’s Madoura Pottery in Vallauris, South of France.

York Press:

One of Pablo Picasso's works on show in the Centre of Ceramic Art at York Art Gallery. Picture: Frank Dwyer

Picasso spent much of his life in France, but he was born in Malaga, Spain, where the long tradition of painted earthenware pottery prompted his own interest in pottery in his childhood days, although he was 65 before he began his explorations, with the Ramiés recognising the value of working with such an important artist. They duly agreed to let him work in their pottery, where he saw his ceramics as a return to the origins of art.

The Attenboroughs began collecting Picasso ceramics in 1954 after meeting him while on their annual family holiday in the South of France.The Attenboroughs would return to Vallauris year after year, purchasing many more pieces, to the point where they created the most significant private collection of Picasso ceramics in Britain.

Such was Lord Attenborough's appreciation of Picasso that he would hint to his family what pieces he might like as a birthday present. "And because he bought directly from the Madoura studio, he built up a relationship with the potters who would often hold back pieces for him to view," says Helen.

York Press:

Lauren Masterman, York Museums Trust's marketing and press co-ordinator, with Pablo Picasso's Heads Of Women Aztec vase (1957). Picture: Frank Dwyer

Unlike the Attenboroughs, the likes of British studio potter Bernard Leech were not enthused by Picasso's ceramics. "Picasso was untrained in the skills of a ceramicist, which is why some people dismissed him as insincere, such as Leech, who thought that being a ceramicist required you to do everything yourself, rather than work with others in the studio," says Helen.

"His work was such a contrast to Leech's Anglo-Oriental style. Picasso's work was so full of colour, created in the South of France where he used metal and tin glazes that came out in really bright colours.

"He was just having fun really, playing with the form and enjoying optical illusions! Just like a lot of his paintings have an element of humour and look at things from a different perspective. It was the same with his ceramics, like Little Owl, a composite vase where he reassembled pieces to create the tail and the head.

York Press:

Pablo Picasso's ceramics on show in the Centre of Ceramic Art at York Art Gallery. Picture: Frank Dwyer

"Not knowing the limitations of what could be achieved with clay meant Picasso worked in a very unconventional, unrestrained way and that's what so many British potters found inspiring."

Picasso was not precious about his ceramic work; indeed he was keen that it should not be too exclusive, and so he allowed the works to be released in editions, a practice that the craft establishment viewed with great suspicion. Picasso, however, said he "would have liked to take all these pots and drive them to market to sell them for 100 francs each".

Even now, 44 years after his death, the Picasso ceramics market is "really volatile, whereas his paintings go to auction rarely and always sell for millions," says Helen. Don't expect to pay Picasso's preferred guide price of "100 francs each", nevertheless.

"People are just starting to discover ceramics as an affordable possibility, but if you are an artist of provenance like Picasso, it tends to skewer the price," Helen cautions.