DAME Lucie Rie may be best known for her finely thrown, beautifully decorated functional domestic ceramics, but as the title of an exhibition at York Art Gallery would suggest, this 20th century potter should be celebrated for more besides.

Ceramics & Buttons, on show in the Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA) until May 12 2019, reveals the findings of new research into her practice of making buttons, alongside many examples of the aforementioned domestic wares.

Look out, in particular, for more than 30 works from an anonymous private collector on public display for the first time in a show that gives an introduction to Lucie, her family background, education, her emigration and how she made London her home.

After emigrating from Vienna, Austria amid the rise of Nazism in 1938 – her Jewish name is pronounced 'Lutzi Ree' – Lucie sought to find her place in London’s pottery world and supported herself by producing ceramic buttons for the fashion industry.

She went on to provide employment for other émigrés from Europe in her own "button factory", which became so successful that she was producing 6,000 buttons a month for the likes of Liberty and Harrods, as well as fashion designers.

Now CoCA One is exhibiting hundreds of those buttons, brooches, earrings and door handles, displayed with fabric from the Anthony Shaw Collection.

Helen Walsh, York Museums Trust's curator of ceramics, says: "Lucie Rie (1902-1995) is rightly regarded as one of the most influential potters to have practised in Britain. Her simple Modernist style was in sharp contrast to the sentimental idea of pottery being a rural craft in England during the 1950s and '60s. Today her influence shows no signs of diminishing and her studio ceramics are highly sought after by collectors all over the world.

“This exhibition features not only a wide variety of her ceramic vessels – York Museums Trust has 40 of her pots, mostly from the W A Ismay collection – but also hundreds of her handmade buttons, which Lucie created after spotting a gap in the market, and capitalising on it, as many British button factories had been requisitioned for the war effort. The results are beautiful in their simplicity, ornate yet practical, and they're displayed in eye-catching ways and presented with new research into this largely undocumented part of Rie’s work."

Helen adds: "When Lucie came here in 1938, she had to get both a permit to stay and a permit to work, and she worked initially for Bimini Glassworks, set up by Fritz Lampl, who was also from Austria. He employed her to make buttons in glass but also encouraged her to do them in ceramics, and when she received her permit to work in ceramics, that's when she started producing all these beautiful buttons and employed other Jewish émigrés to help them settle in Britain."

All 550 buttons at CoCA are from the Anthony Shaw private collection that is so important to CoCA's calendar of exhibitions. "Anthony worked in couture and made curtains for Lucie, who would pay him in buttons or make him ceramic pots," says Helen.

When Lucie first arrived in Britain, she discovered her European style was at odds with the work produced by many of the British potters. "Lucie asked Bernard Leach, the leading authority on studio pottery at the time, for advice, but found his suggestions of how to adapt her style unacceptable and continued to strive to create a place for her work, staying true to her own aesthetic values," says Helen.

"Our exhibition includes an important coffee set made by Leach in the 1940s – apparently she had rejected it as a gift – alongside one of the earliest examples of a teapot and coffee set made by Lucie when she arrived in London, showing the difference between their styles."

Meanwhile, Alison Welsh, head of fashion research at Manchester Fashion Institute – part of Manchester Metropolitan University – has worked with CoCA to develop a display featuring two garments she has made with 1950s' patterns – one silk, one cotton, both with Lucie Rie buttons – based on Lucie's personal style and love of cream and neutral colours.

Among the émigré potters employed by Lucie was Hans Coper, from Germany, and together they developed tableware in the 1950s and 1960s. Thirty pieces by Coper from CoCA’s collection are on display to underline the importance of their relationship, along with a pottery wheel Coper used from 1959 until the end of his career.

During the 1960s, Lucie was persuaded to teach at Camberwell School of Art and at the Royal College of Art. "Though she did not find teaching easy, she made a strong impression on her students," says Helen. "Some of her most important and successful students are included in the exhibition: Ian Godfrey, Mo Jupp, Ewen Henderson, John Ward and Deidre Burnett, all of whom went on to find their own unique voice working with clay, after she encouraged them to develop their own style rather than insisting they copy her work."

That work demonstrated Lucie’s experimentation with form and decoration over the years at Lucie Rie Pottery in Albion Mews, London. Collectors Dr Trudie Bergman, WA Ismay, Henry Rothschild and Anthony Shaw appreciated her artistry, even if Bernard Leach had not. "Leach said her vessels were too thinly potted, too thickly glazed and lacking in humanity," says Helen.

"He suggested she should go on one of his training courses, but she left after only two days in disgust at what they were making. Hans Coper told her to stick to her guns."

How right she was to do exactly that, and so the last word should go to Lucie Rie, who once said: "To make pottery is an adventure to me; every new work is a new beginning." On the button, to the last.

Lucie Rie: Ceramics & Buttons, Centre of Ceramic Art, York Art Gallery, until May 12 2019. Gallery open times: Monday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm; last admission at 4.30pm.

Charles Hutchinson