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.