Ceramic Points of View: 'Pot', by Hans Coper
On this page you can discover the six people's responses to 'Pot', made in 1975 by Hans Coper (1920-1981). Simply choose one of the people below to see their response.
Here the work of Hans Cooper is critiqued by Alison Britton, Neil Brownsword, Emmanuel Cooper, Claire Curneen, Tanya Harrod and Oliver Watson in the following videos.
Video: Alison Britton on Hans Coper
AB: It's a very, very nice thing to touch. It's very holdable, probably because of its matt surface. And the scratch had this very slight staining - I don't know whether that's been added or whether it's just some of the manganese coming through from the slips underneath. It's not the most exhilarating form that he made. I think he got more and more tuned in to the excitement of things taking off and so on, so it's a kind of middle ranking pot, I think. It's anchored very nicely, it's a pleasure to pick up, and it's got that very classic thing about his work of having this dry, pale surface outside and a dark interior. It's nice to actually be able to get your hand in because I'm never quite sure. This has presumably been joined on when leather hard.
MP: Presumably the inside doesn't look quite like that, but I presume it must have been.
AB: It feels like it though. There's a roughness of a join there I think. [video clip starts] Because when you look at it first you think it might be a cup sitting on a neck, and it's not. It goes all the way down. If it had been in various people's homes it would have had flowers in it probably, wouldn't it? I mean, Lucie would always have put flowers in his pots.
I like them more when he's playing more severely with the form, when there's more flattening or extension or something. But I own a little thistle,and some of the ones where there's an envelope that's been shut to an extreme with the points at the bottom; that'sthe spade one, isn't it? That may be my favourite form. But it's very, very evocative of the whole body of things. [video clip ends]
It's always good , I think, to see more than one with him too, the way they relate to each other, the different nuances of shape when you see two or three; [there] is loads of space, [which is] exciting too. He was my tutor at the Royal College in the early 1970s - well, I chose him to be. I was actually allotted somebody else but I couldn't really talk to him very easily, so I kind of attached myself to him. Although my work was in a very shambolic and uncertain state and nothing to do with what he was doing, he was still a very wonderful teacher. He could imaginatively explore what your problems were, although they were completely different from his own. And I think there was always a sense of wanting to get it sorted out for him in a way; you couldn't stay in this uncertain state. You wanted [it] to be cleared so that you could give something back, in a way. But it was a very good tutorial for me, and most people who were taught by him say that. He was a very intuitive [and] non-demonstrative, but [a] sound person to talk to. And I did have a habit of going to visit him in Somerset on the way to other things, just dropping in.
MP: Can you give us a sense of how he taught?
AB: He would never impose himself. He'd never say, 'We're having a tutorial next Wednesday, I'm worried about whatever,' which I might now say to some people. You would have to go and find him, or you could make a date for the following week. He only came in one day a week. And he would be very measured, be a long time looking, and sometimes talking about quite a wide variety of things, not just what was on the table. I never saw him demonstrate. I suppose he did if he was teaching , but by the time I knew him he was already beginning to get a bit stiff, so he was not moving his head very much. There was already a kind of seizing up going on, and [he] had a stick, I think, by the time he left. He probably left around about when I did, 1973 or 1974 I think, and just retired to Somerset. It was an enabling conversation, and you did have a sense of a long past and, I think, lots of quite complicated events in the past, but without him ever talking directly about [it]. There was a sense of depth and understanding going in lots of different directions. And the piece, the only piece of writing he has ever committed to print is that introduction for the sixties V&A exhibition. And it's so quotable, isn't it? I mean everybody, in fact ...
MP: The egg.
AB: About the egg and also about the demented piano tuner approximating the phantom pitch. And that still feels apt for the people working now with being devoted to pot form but not having function as their main thrust. So he said something that lasted a very long time [and] has stayed meaningful, so pared down.
Video: Neil Brownsword on Hans Coper
NB: I suppose the thing for Coper for me, apart from [an] industrial background, was my introduction to Studio Pottery. I can remember a book; I was doing a qualification at school in Ceramics and one of the tutors gave me this book, I think it was called 'Potters on Pottery'. It had a section on Coper in there. And I suppose even at that time it made some kind of contact with me. I don't know whether it was the presence of the form, but it made some kind of impact, even though I hadn't really got any understanding of what it was about or what it was. But as a visual statement it made an impact. Again, when I was a student at college, you could guarantee that it would always be a Coper rip off, in the degree show at Cardiff. A very good friend that I used to live with was mad on Coper and he'd try and mimic these to the nth degree.
[video clip starts] But the thing I find with Coper, he's a bit like the Henry Moore of the sculpture world, isn't he? You get a bit bored of him. After you've seen one piece you ... I know he was seeking that perfection within that object, but there are better pieces which again I could talk about, the more two-dimensional pieces, those which are constructed cycladic pieces. I think they give me more of a buzz than this particular piece. I love the subtlety of surface on it and how that works with the purity of the form. I could quite happily not pick any kind of fault with that. Just that contrast of interior with exterior. [video clip ends] But as an object in terms of its immediate presence, then I don't think it gives the impact that some of his other pieces give. I mean, there are classic pieces aren't there, classic Coper pieces?
MP: I know Coper wasn't teaching when you were there, but as a student at the Royal College did the legacy of his teaching and his work have an impact?
NB: The strange thing was, you see I was taught by Geoff Swindell ... well I wouldn't say taught, but Alison Britton was there in the department at the RCA. But I always got the feeling that they'd never really say anything positive about him as a maker, it was always about him being a tutor and how he'd brought that sense of individuality out in different people. And I suppose that impacted on them and that generation of teachers is what we emerged from.
I can always remember them not being very complimentary to him, but just saying that he was someone that they could have a good chat to. And I suppose in just saying go ahead and do something, rather than this is the way that something should be, I suppose it inspired a lot of the philosophy of art school today. I think that's [the] relevance he has for me. Not particularly in terms of his objects, but more of that impact and what he's done on that generation of 1970s potters. And I think the awkward thing with a lot of the Copers is they're very two-dimensional, aren't they? They should only be viewed from one particular viewpoint. They're very photogenic from that viewpoint. But you look at them from the side or another angle and they've lost it a bit.
MP: It's interesting, because some people would see them as simply sculptural, and other people would argue that, well, Lucie Rie's house was full of Coper pots full of flowers, being used and being very definitely a functional object.
NB: Yes. You see, I wouldn't tie that element of function in there, I'd just see them as objects, really. I don't know, I really felt [OK] with a bunch of kind of daffodils springing out the top, but OK.
MP: OK. Display is a function, isn't it?
NB: Of course, yes.
MP: Because your work is for display.
MP: It's just sometimes there's an assumption that studio pottery has to have a function.
NB: Well, yes, there's the utilitarian function. I think there's that kind of confusion there, isn't there?
Video: Emmanuel Cooper on Hans Coper
EC: Well, I'm a great fan of Hans Coper. I think his reputation is totally well deserved and well merited. I think he actually started to do things with pots which was quite different, in assembling the different pieces together and making a form which was quite different. But this piece I find very underwhelming. I don't find the surface terribly interesting, and I'm not terribly interested, I'm not terribly excited by the relationship of this to this. But it is very characteristic of a lot of the work that Coper did because I think that a lot of Coper's work was to do with the figure, and so this is like the figure, so these are either breasts or bums or however you want to see it, backsides. And this is what I think his work is about. And in that sense it echoes this long line which goes back two or three thousand years to the central Mediterranean where you've got potters making figures, making, making small pots which were not like, but related to the figure. I think that this is part of that tradition.
The nice things about it are this wonderful rim, [this] absolutely beautiful rim, this interchange between the inside and the outside. The inside dark and black and mysterious, the outside this white matt, but the join [is] absolutely wonderfully accomplished. And that can make it go so wrong. This is like a drawing at the top in the way that it defines the whole thing. The surface, as I said, I don't think is so interesting. Coper's use of various processes to get the surface that he did is slightly mysterious. Nobody quite knows how he did it. He put on a layer of slip, a mixture of ball clay and china clay, rubbed it off with a pan scrubber and then put on another layer and rubbed it off, and he built up multi-layers, but this, I don't think, is so successful. It's only when you begin to get a bit of the breaking around these little areas here where you get a bit of the body coming through that it starts to come to life.
There's an awful lot here which I think is pretty dead. If you look at a few of these little air bubbles which pop out here then they are more interesting, they give it a bit more life. [video clip starts] But the other thing of course was that he put these pots on a stand, so that it was like incorporating a plinth into the actual pot itself. And here he allowed himself to show you what the wheel was about because you've got this spiral line running up it, which is a line of growth, of course. It is about this whole thing growing up, and what it does is to give the pot an extraordinary sense of formality. It roots it on the ground, it's the plinth, it's the object on the plinth, but the object and the plinth are one and the same. Of course we think of a plinth as performing a function. It isolates an object. It presents an object, it puts it into space, but it gives that object artistic status, if you like. It gives it some sort of kudos, [video clip ends] it says this is actually a rather special object. It's not a shelf object, it's a plinth object, I mean it's just going to be one of them. And Coper does that. So there's rather a witty play I think around that whole idea.
While I don't find this one of his best pieces and a lot of his other pieces which have got slightly more texture are slightly more vibrant relationships within them, which all sounds a bit negative in a way, but I am a great fan of Coper and what he was doing. Coper, like Lucie Rie, was a refugee who came to this country and then started to learn pottery from Lucie Rie, and for a time there was a big overlap. They worked together on cups and saucers. Then Coper definitely didn't want to make anything functional, he wanted to make individual pots. So this is what he started to make. And over the years they varied; some were very big, some were very small, particularly towards the end of his life. And he created in a whole new way, opening the way forward because he didn't use glaze, he used slip, he used surface. And as soon as you use a surface like that which is matt it draws the light into it and it emphasizes the shape, the form. You don't get any distortion, there's no reflection. And this of course was saying clay is okay, clay can do this.
MP: Did you meet Coper?
EC: I never met him. No, he was very shy and reclusive [but] I saw him. He had an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum that he shared with Peter Collingwood the weaver and I was there when they were setting it up, but I never actually got to talk to him, which I would have liked to have done.
MP: Do you think this pot was intended as a sculptural thing, and that was it? Do you think there may be more?
EC: No, I think that in that sense his work is beautifully ambiguous. Lucie Rie, his great, lifelong friend, puts flowers in these pots and when you went round to her flat she would have three of these pots on the side or maybe five and different flowers in each one. Some of them would be dried flowers, some of them would be flowers bought that day, and she said, 'Oh I like to put flowers in, he likes me to put flowers in'. So they look just as good with or without. I wouldn't put flowers in, to me it's [a] no no. But for Lucie Rie and others, she put flowers in. And in a way I think for her it was a way of using the pot, but it was a way of keeping him alive I think. You know he was slightly more than that, which I liked very much. I thought that that was a really nice thing to do. But you can put flowers in, and in that sense it de-mythologises it, it says it's a pot, it's not this pretentious art object, it's a pot, and that's what you can do with pots, you can put things in them and she did.
MP: Do you think, because it's quite a heavy pot, do you think that it looks like it isn't a heavy pot? It's strange in that sense.
EC: It, it certainly doesn't look like it's a heavy pot, but, but Coper had this reputation for making shapes which he then turned. So that when he threw, he wasn't bothered about being economical with the clay, he wanted to make the form he wanted so that he would throw it thickly and then he'd turn it. And if it ended up heavy it didn't bother him, this was not important. And indeed you can see on here that this is quite thick, the foot, and the whole thing is quite a weight at the bottom, but from the point of view of stability, it's a good thing. But he actually did make them quite thick and heavy and I remember going to see his wife and looking at pots that she had and she said, 'Oh you know they're really very thick,' but you would never know it from that. And that is what tells you it's thin, it's thin here but not down here. But it doesn't matter because it works visually.
Video: Claire Curneen on Hans Coper
CC: Well, it is the Fred Astaire of ceramics. It's really incredible actually to see this object in front of me. I know of his work. It's been taught in college and I haven't read a lot about him, only in the fact that he's great. Everyone seems to talk about him like that. But in seeing it formally it's just incredibly sophisticated. I quite like the way he talks about not liking the material too much, using it because it was a means to the end. I find that interesting when makers talk about material as a way at play, as a material which is there to make what they want to make, not just because of the love of material. It can be a bit yawnful sometimes when people talk about the love of the material all the time, when in fact it's there to make a beautiful object as well, like this. It's incredible simplicity of form, and that weight, it's kind of one, two, three and then the mark ... this mark as well.
MP: You can pick it up if you want.
CC: I was afraid that that weight would just fall off. [video clip starts] Oh it's just incredible, it's incredible. I never thought it would be as beautiful as that. You get that sense of presence of it as well, the way it holds a space where it can exist quietly. Looking at it through photographs you get the feeling that it's a big piece of work because it seems to demand a lot of space, and the kind of formal compositions of the line and the incised line, it's quite serious. It has a lot of weight and seriousness. But it has a lovely stillness, [it's] really quite beautiful. [video clip ends]
The surface here, as well, is that egg shell, that almost skin-like quality. And the complexities of the layers seems very simplified when you first view it, but then it starts to reveal these f layers of the way it's been thrown, the thrown line, which is more evident on the inside; I've got a lot more of that, that inside line which is recorded, but also left with the glaze to enhance it. But then it's lost on the exterior, which is a really nice combination or reflection of the inside and the outside. And that volume as well, that dark space just seems to kind of echo, [there's] something very haunting about that interior against that really white, pure outside.
It [has] really interesting figurative qualities as well, [the] body you talk about in terms of a vessel having the belly and the neck, and [you] use those terms to talk about vessels. But also it [has] bodily references. It's almost the crease in the skin of this translucency of pale, delicate skin, like that there. You get various layers happening. There's a painting by Piero della Francesco of the Baptism of Christ in the National Gallery , and he's the body, his skin is almost porcelain-like, you can almost see what's happening beneath the paint. And there's that similarity here that he's still seeing something beneath the glaze, the clay body, but also the way he's worked that surface.
Yes, [it's] quite extraordinary. And also that, that view. This view here, getting very different arrangements. You get this really, really delicate line where the mark has been made. I don't know whether it's been hit or carefully drawn, but you also get a very delicate line that leads from that crease into the body there, whether it was just a suggestion of where the hand has just tailed off very slightly and a mark is still left. Yes, [it's] wonderful.
Video: Tanya Harrod on Hans Coper
TH: Well, I'm somehow less physically engaged by this pot than certain other pots I can think of. I've always wondered why proper potters, people like Colin Pearson and Michael Cardew, really hated Hans Coper's pots. I think it was because they seemed [rather] cold and that they had no relationship much to the history of ceramics, that in fact these are probably as sculptural as you can get and yet retain a vessel shape, or vessel form. And there's a slightly artificial way in which the two parts are muted together, which is aceramic somehow. They're quite aceramic - I mean you can see that Brancusi was obviously a great inspiration to Hans Coper. And I think he talks about certain very early pre-dynastic Egyptian pots. And this is the sort [of pot where] I think somebody said 'Make a young girl blush', there's something slightly physical about them, you know, this vessely part of the pot. But actually having it here in my hands and being able to touch it, is a little bit disappointing. So I think you can divide pots into pots you desperately want to touch and some ones you don't. I don't know where that takes us, but it's possibly true that Hans Coper pots and Lucie Rie pots take you in that way less than, say, a pot by Bernard Leach.
MP: Bill Newland said in an interview, where he talked about Hans Coper and Lucie Rie, that he felt that they were representative of a European hardness that English people find difficult to relate to. He mentioned their accusation of them being cold.
TH: It is funny how you do feel that about inanimate objects, that they can be warm or hard and cold, and I heard people talk about the difference between Korean pots and Chinese pots, [in] that Chinese pots are hard and Korean pots are soft. And that's really by virtue of the fact that Korea's economy went into a dreadful decline from about the 16th century onwards, so they were technically less advanced than Chinese potters. [video clip starts] I think he came here virtually as a schoolboy, but I think he had plans to train as an engineer, and these are beautifully engineered. And I think they work wonderfully on a big scale, like the great candlesticks in Coventry Cathedral, which are engineered out of several parts. And I can see why people want to have a Hans Coper pot. One can see them in a certain sort of interior full of other kinds of iconic objects. You can see it beside an African sculpture. There'd be a row of things that would hang together aesthetically. So I'm impressed by it, but I'm not moved or touched in quite the way I expected I would be. [video clip ends]
MP: It's strange, do you think the way it looks when you handle it, [does] it feel how you expected it to feel? Because it's got that very thin rim and black interior, makes it look very fragile, almost like an ostrich egg.
TH: Yes, and then a very stout. Well, it's like a plinth really, isn't it? It's all one, I thought, I'm trying to think how it's made now, which is rather boring of me.
MP: I imagine it's very much turned
TH: Yes, I'm just ... I mean, this was made first, they were [made] separately and muted together. One of the things that would upset a figure like Cardew is that there's a kind of artificiality about bringing two pieces, bringing these two bits together and looting them together like that. And I think in some of them where the upper part comes to a very sharp point, Coper was quite happy to use a knitting needle that went up inside to keep the things stable. So, again [it's] a rather aceramic thing to do. No, I'm full of admiration, but I'm surprisingly remote from [it]. I suppose there's a lot of so-called sculptural pottery now which is completely aceramic, and this really belongs with that kind of ceramic activity. It's just that the pots we've looked at so far have all been, in different ways, so enmeshed in ceramic traditions, that this comes as a bit of a shock.
Video: Oliver Watson on Hans Coper
OW: He called himself a potter, mind you. Coper, of course, [is] one of the only potters of the studio potter movement who's really kind of made it as an internationally acclaimed artist. And I remember when I started dealing, when I joined the Museum and started looking after he studio pottery collection in 1979, Coper was a name spoken with great awe and reverence. And we were astonished then because the prices for Coper pots then were a thousand pounds, which was four times what the highest other pots were, and then within a few years they were ten thousand pounds and now for big pieces they can be anything.
[video clip starts] A very interesting character, Coper, I think. Neither Rie nor Coper wrote hardly anything about ceramics or their making or their work or anything, and there's one famous passage in a small paragraph by Coper in the Coper and Collingwood show, and actually there's a letter in the V&A archive where he asks whether he could withdraw it because he didn't really want even that published. And it was all about the work speaking for itself. I think I've been infected by the awe that one has for Coper and seeing it as great timeless art, and what I find strange now, coming back and looking at them again after a few years, is suddenly seeing them as very much of their period. They start to have a period look to them. [video clip ends] And when you say this is made in ...
OW: They were acquired in 1975.
MP: Made in 1975.
OW: I find that quite surprising, that it's actually... It seems to me to be an aesthetic that by 1975 had been going a long while, and that they have a very 1950s look to me. I think they're great things. I'm not sure that this is the best example of his work in this form, and he made series of very similar forms, and I think one of the great things is putting a series together and seeing the subtle variations that come in them. They're very austere. And it's said - is it in that piece of writing? - that he didn't really like clay, he found it a very intractable, unfriendly material, but it was the only thing that he could use that did what he wanted. And comparing that with Cardew or someone like that, who just loved the material qualities of clay, it's [a] completely different other area of work.
Seen as purely sculptural things I think the interest is that he always retains the container as the basis. He doesn't go flying off into you know purely abstract work. I remember Lucie Rie pointing out that his mark, which if you read it one way is HC for Hans Coper, should actually be read the other way up so it is a bowl on a potter's wheel reflecting the fact that his work is very much about throwing and about the very basic things of potting. And Lucy Rie in her flat in London, her Hans Coper pots would have flowers in. I mean, they were just pure abstract pieces of sculpture to be admired as such, but they were being used. I think it's going to be interesting to see how his reputation develops over the next decades, [to] see whether it still sticks there.
MP: Did you ever meet him?
OW: No, he had already stopped potting and ill by the time I really came to the Museum, so I didn't meet him. I wonder how my view might have changed if I had met him. I knew him mostly through Lucie Rie who lived just across the park from the Museum here, who I used to see fairly regularly when she, of course, was a great devotee of him and his work. So it was he that taught her everything she knew about potting there... might have said it could also have been the other way round. Some of his pieces are very seemingly mechanical or formal exploration of abstract shapes. And I think it's only in some of his pots that you see a very different and rather sensuous quality in them. And we have a large piece rather like the top part of this without the base. It's got a very sensual character to it which kind of shows up some of the other things in a rather different light.
MP: It's quite a heavy pot. It doesn't necessarily look like it might be.
OW: Yes, [it's] well-grounded, well-based. They feel very well made. It's the other thing that he might have been purely an artist, but the craft in that is of a very high order. And indeed he was a superb; he might have of liked clay, but he managed to work it extremely well. This one's rather a small piece, but there are great tall pieces like this thrown with great precision, great work.