LONDON––Phillips brings together a broad spectrum of international names across its sales of 20th century and contemporary art and design in London this week. Important Design––comprised of 166 lots––will offer works by the most respected designers from the past century, including Diego Giacommetti, Lucio Fontana pupil Fausto Maletti, Valentine Schlegel, Colin Pearson and Alev Ebüzziya Siesbye. A group of exceptional works by Ettore Sottsass, Jr. are included in the sale, alongside contemporary design by Ron Arad, Wendell Castle, Zaha Hadid, and Marc Newson, among others. Important Design will take place at 2pm on October 18, 2018, and will be preceded by a separate auction at 11am celebrating the pioneers of modern British ceramics: Lucie Rie and Hans Coper – Potter and Artist.
Lucie Rie and Hans Coper – Potter and Artist
By: David Whiting
‘I am a potter, but he was an artist’, Lucie Rie said in an interview for The Guardian (‘Hands on the Wheel of Fate’, August 31, 1988). Rie was making a distinction between her work and that of Hans Coper, a familiar mantra of hers over the years, and in some ways it was true. Both were throwers, whose work expressed so much about the power of the wheel, but Rie’s work owed more to its traditional potter’s aesthetic. She was not someone, like Coper, who radically cut and altered forms after they had left the wheel. Her pots were pieces of purer throwing, pots in a more conventional sense. They possessed the wheel’s essential rhythms, and her bowls and tall bottles for example had that organic sense of growth, of vessels rising and broadening. But this was not to say that within the parameters of her tools Rie was not a considerable innovator, she was.
Coper moved further away from accepted notions of throwing than Rie, creating a new dynamic, one which involved considerable modification, cutting and joining thrown sections to make completely new kinds of articulated shape. And if Rie became increasingly immersed in rich glazing and colour to elaborate her essentially classical sense of form, Coper concentrated more and more on the form itself, eliminating the surface drawing of his earlier pieces. He depended on a generally monochrome palette, of purely light and black surfaces to accentuate structure, with minimal distraction. Coper used white clays for the lighter pots and coloured clays for the black, using slips and oxides, and burnishing and rubbing the face of the clay to create texture and depth.
Rie was brought up in the ethos of the modern movement, a daughter by association of Vienna’s Wiener Werkstätte. However, whilst growing up with an intelligent appreciation of modern forms in design and architecture, her pots drew largely on the history of ceramics, whereas Coper looked primarily to modern sculpture and early Mediterranean and ancient Egyptian art for his inspiration. Despite the formal ambition of many of Rie’s pots, the tall-necked vases with flared rims (thrown in two parts), the monumental bowls with volcanic glazing and so on, she was working primarily with the throwing synergy that had produced her core domestic wares. Indeed, Rie continued to make occasional tableware pieces for the rest of her life. Coper never made any after leaving Rie’s workshop in Albion Mews.
Yet if he wasn’t drawn to making every day ‘functional’ pieces, we should not underestimate Coper’s commitment as a thrower, his deep understanding of the craft as well as the art. His leanings may have been more deliberately sculptural, but his debt to the repeat throwing he did in Rie’s workshop was something that never left him. It is a legacy you find in the groups and runs of hour-glass pieces, thistle pots, cup forms and other shapes you see on shelves in photographs of his workshop. As Tony Birks wrote, ‘All [Coper’s] works were containers dependent upon ceramic techniques, thrown on a wheel. In this context it is important to point out that their energy comes from the fact that they are made on a wheel’ (Tony Birks, Hans Copers, Yeovil, 2013, p. 63). Coper had made solid abstracted heads back in Rie’s workshop in the mid-1950s, but quickly abandoned this ‘pure’ sculpture when he realised that the wheel was the basis, the springboard of his creativity. And he took it to new heights, literally in the case of his giant candlesticks for Basil Spence’s new cathedral at Coventry (1962), and other ambitious architectural projects. It is what he did with the process that counted.
What of Rie and Coper’s legacy? Looking at the significant group of pots being offered here, of bowls, vases, bottles and stem cups (and including an important group from the family collection of William Ohly), we get a clear sense not only of ceramics at their most paired down, but of a new aesthetic in British clay in the post-war period, one that went beyond technique. Before World War II studio work was led largely by Bernard Leach and William State Murray and their followers, potters whom we often call today ‘Anglo-Oriental’, their debt to native traditions as well as the Far East very clear. By the late 1940s ceramics in London art colleges like the Central School and Institute of Education became more experimental and sculptural, often looking outside clay for ideas, to European avant-garde art, but concentrating chiefly on hand-building. Meanwhile Rie and Coper were working more independently, almost out on a limb, developing a quieter more ethereal modernism, one born out of the pulse and life of the wheel.
Rie, Coper & William Only
William Ohly (1883-1955), founder of the legendary Berkeley Galleries in London’s Mayfair, was a significant figure in the lives of Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. He gave Rie her first solo show in Britain and Coper’s first ever exhibition, and his gallery on Davies Street went on to exhibit both potters, together or individually, over seventeen years through the 1950s and 1960s, latterly curated by his son Ernest. It was because of Ohly that the two potters met. It was a crucial association, represented by the present rare and significant group of pieces acquired by Ohly and his family. Ohly first met Coper in 1946. On being told of the young German refugee’s ambitions to be a sculptor and his need to find some employment, Ohly sent him to a small workshop in Bayswater, which required help with ceramic button making. The workshop was that of Rie, herself a refugee from Vienna. In thanks to Ohly’s initiative, so began one of the most important creative associations in twentieth-century ceramics.
Ohly was a fascinating figure in the British art world. He was not a specialist in studio pottery (like his London neighbours Muriel Rose at the Little Gallery or Henry Rothschild at Primavera), but a sculptor and leading expert on ethnographic art. Ohly was born in Hull, but his family moved to Frankfurt when he was a teenager. Educated at the Städelschule, he was later taught by the sculptor Hugo Lederer in Berlin, and went on to make a number of fountains and memorials in a romanticised academic style. Ohly eventually returned to England, where he permanently settled in 1934 after returning to Germany following World War One. He moved to New Barnet, north London, where he subsequently founded The Abbey Art Centre, which was in essence run as a non-profit making artists’ commune.
Ohly set up the Berkeley Galleries in the middle of the second World War, exhibiting several of the artists based at The Abbey Art Centre, along with ancient and ‘primitive’ art from across several continents. He organised shows, for instance, of American Indian and Chinese artefacts, Tibetan art, Benin sculpture and ancient works from South America. There were memorable general shows of the art of the ‘primitive peoples’. Ohly’s aesthetic had a significant effect on the young Coper, a potter drawn to the modernism of Constantin Brâncuși and Jean Arp, but who was now also exposed to the ethnographic source material for this contemporary sculpture at Ohly’s gallery. In the British Museum Coper could see Cycladic, Egyptian, Neolithic and Etruscan art, whilst Ohly exhibited the objects of these cultures in a more intimate manner. Coper was attracted to Ohly’s displays of African pottery, tribal art and the beauty of Hellenic ceramics. He was immediately drawn to what he found to be a sophisticated but unselfconscious language. Making the most of the material available to him in Rie’s studio, Coper began to formulate the beginning of his own personal language in clay.
Like Rie, Coper was very much drawn to simplicity of shape, with decoration following and enriching the delineation of the surface contour. From early on, Coper revealed an intuitive feeling for the essence of form. Of lasting significance to him was a small Ancient Egyptian pot a friend brought one day to Albion Mews. Beguilingly simple, it epitomised Coper’s own need to strive for an art of distillation and remained a treasured possession to the end of his life. Coper was one of the first British studio potters to look not to pre-industrial England or the Far East for primary inspiration, but to other early civilisations and art being made in the twentieth century.
For Rie, Ohly’s outlook must surely have underlined her interest in the economy of early pots, one which suited her own modernist aesthetic formulated in Vienna. In around 1948, she made a trip to Avebury, where at the museum she was deeply impressed by the Neolithic and Bronze Age bowls and beakers. She was particularly intrigued by their incised decoration (and the improvised tools used to make them), which Rie developed into her characteristic sgraffito. The early Rie bowls from the Ohly collection illustrate her initial efforts with this technique, revealing her ability to use minimal repeated incising to enhance the shape and moving away from the familiar brush decoration used by many contemporary potters (lots 303, 304). Rie’s pared-down approach to her work reflected her Viennese-instilled absorption of modern architecture and design. In addition to individual pieces, Rie used sgraffito on much of her tableware, some of which she made with Coper. Notably, Rie developed her preference for linear decoration in some of her more heavily glazed and pitted pieces that she had made by the 1960s, for example the beautiful cylindrical vase in the Bienchen Ohly collection, here elaborated by diagonal fluting (lot 301). The flared vase in the collection is another example of Rie’s fresh and innovative sense of form; adopting a kind of stem-cup shape, Rie created a minimally conceived object made for a modern interior (lot 302).
In 1950, the occasion of their joint exhibition at the Berkeley Galleries – Rie’s second show at the gallery and Coper’s first – made a considerable impression on both its visitors and the press. Admiring the exhibition’s distinct modernism, the critic Carol Hogben described, ‘Madame Rie…occasionally uses delicate criss-cross sgraffito work. Coper’s sgraffito is freer, slashing and effective, reminding one occasionally of Near Eastern pre-historic ware’. If Rie’s incising was one of repetition, creating a linear rhythm and texture, Coper’s was a much broader and freer type of drawing. As Tony Birks wrote of Coper’s approach to sgraffito at this time, it was ‘…abstract draftsmanship on the pot, a network of ley lines, emphasising the three-dimensional shape, cut across the form…’ (Tony Birks, Hans Coper, Yeovil, 2013, pp. 23-24).
The two fine Coper pieces in the Ohly collection, dating to circa 1952, are of particular importance (lots 305, 306). The works illustrate the beginnings of his distinctive sculptural style, drawing on his reading of a range of ancient pottery styles and artefacts, but already with an assured language and clarity of his own; unmistakably, Coper confidently scraped through the manganese to the white clay beneath. His incising energised the surfaces of his pots, objects which had an almost ritualistic presence and anticipated the increasingly condensed and abstract qualities of his later work. The pots by Rie and Coper offered here, the two Copers important prototypes, capture a significant creative moment, a pivotal friendship between a leading gallery owner and impressario and two of ceramics; most influential figures.
Auction: October 18, 11am BST | 30 Berkeley Square, London
Auction: October 18, 2pm BST | 30 Berkeley Square, London
View the catalog for both of these auctions here.
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