Picasso: Ceramics from Attenborough Collection

Richard Attenborough made an annual pilgrimage to France to collect Picasso’s ceramics. Now some of them are on display in York

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As an annual ritual, the late Richard Attenborough would drive his family 1,082 miles from their home in Richmond to the French town of Vallauris. Once they arrived, the multi-award winning actor and director would marvel over a collection of ceramics made by Pablo Picasso before purchasing a number of pieces, some as a birthday treat.

The Attenborough family’s pilgrimage to Vallauris was carried out every year for more than five decades. It was a journey that initially bewildered Lord Attenborough’s son Michael, who remembers watching his father as he stood laughing at the painted vases and pots, which often depicted faces.

“It is the pottery town where Picasso first exhibited his latest creations and we went every year,” remembers Attenborough junior. “My dad would think nothing of standing in front of one and roaring with laughter. I used to think: ‘Why the hell is he buying something that he’s laughing at?’ Then I grew to understand – they’re not holy tablets. There’s a real wit and warmth to them.”

Ceramics are perhaps the least celebrated aspect of Picasso’s work. The artist began working with earthenware at the age of 65 and threw, baked and painted over 2,800 vases, pitchers, plates and additional forms.

Richard Attenborough – pictured with his wife Sheila Sim – used to encourage visitors to his home to pick up his Picassos and handle them

The Attenborough family’s hoard of Picasso ceramics became known as the Attenborough Collection, and it soon became recognised as the finest of its kind in private hands.

With every year that passed, the items in the Attenborough Collection increased in value, but Attenborough says his father was not precious about them.

“It’s impossible to convey just how overrun our house was with Picassos,” says Attenborough. “In the days when people didn’t think twice about smoking there would be people sitting in his drawing room smoking and about to stub out their fag and they would scream because they’d suddenly realise that they were stubbing their fag out on a Picasso. And dad would say: ‘No, it’s an ashtray. It’s not just a work of art. You can stub your fag out as much as you like and it won’t harm it at all’. “He wanted them to be a part of everybody’s lives so they weren’t kind of sanctified. And he always loved handling them. Often when he was showing them he’d pick them up and get someone else to hold them so that the feel of them, the weight of them, the shape of them was a kind of sensuous experience. It wasn’t just this holy thing that sits on the table. They were almost like friends to be picked up and cuddled.”

In 2004 Lord Attenborough’s daughter Jane and granddaughter Lucy lost their lives in the Boxing Day tsunami. As a tribute to their memory, he entrusted 70 of his Picasso ceramics to the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester, and now 18 of the pieces are on loan to York Art Gallery.

Exhibition curator Helen Walsh says: “The Picassos are a really important body of work because pottery generally had been looked down on by the fine art world, and what Picasso did with pots was take it into a different world. He showed that pottery can be arts with a capital A.

“They’re all really amazing objects and they just scream Picasso. You can’t really mistake them for anything else.”

Picasso: Ceramics from the Attenborough Collection is at York Art Gallery until 5 November

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