Its elegant shape was inspired by ancient Aegean figures and its pleasingly mottled surface made it feel like it had just been dug up from the ground. Yet when it was first sold in the 1970s, this understated vase by the late British potter Hans Coper changed hands for just £250. An unloved present, the creation was then kept in an old shoebox by its recipient, who finally decided to offload it last month – and was stunned to see its price soar to £381,000 at auction, a figure you might expect for certain Ming dynasty or Picasso vessels.
The world of ceramics was stunned too, but not as much as it might once have been. While it’s true that Coper is a key figure in British studio pottery, with works in London’s V&A and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, what this whopping sum – more than double the previous record for a Coper – really reflects is the fact that ceramic art is currently experiencing something of a boom.
Last month’s Ceramic Art London was oversubscribed like never before, with a queue of pottery nuts snaking around Central St Martins College, impatient to bag top contemporary pieces while they could still afford them (prices ranged from £30 to £10,000). The previous weekend, the Barbican’s conservatory was transformed into another ceramics fair, this time showcasing 60 artists from the Turning Earth collective’s two London studios. Many of these makers got their starts through taking classes there, while similar urban ceramic-making communities that pool resources and share kilns are flourishing across the country, including Glasgow Ceramics Studio and Clay Studio Manchester.
In Cambridge, meanwhile, the Fitzwilliam Museum is celebrating a “spring of ceramics” with two simultaneous shows. The larger one, called Things of Beauty Growing, is a major survey of British studio pottery – a first for the museum, which is responding to what co-curator Helen Ritchie refers to as “a steady rise of interest” in the museum’s 20th and 21st-century ceramics stash.
The show combines influential antiques from China, Korea and Japan with the work of 20th and 21st-century potters. These range from Bernard Leach (whose famous pottery lives on in St Ives), Coper and his teacher Lucie Rie (who both settled in Britain after fleeing the Nazis), through to Kenyan-born Magdalene Odundo (incoming chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts) and Edmund de Waal, best known for his installations of shelves of pale and delicate porcelain vessels, sometimes huddled in conspiratorial groups.
“There’s been a lot of chat,” says Ritchie of the strapline for the show: “British Studio Pottery. Where does it begin and when does it become art?” Some of the makers, she says, like to be known as potters while others prefer the term ceramic artist. “It’s partly a generational thing,” she says, mentioning Grayson Perry, who also has a vase in the show and who came up through art school rather than a pottery studio. “More people now just prefer to be called an artist – and clay is their chosen medium. Whereas Bernard Leach, often known as the father of British studio pottery, is very much in the potter camp.”
Halima Cassell, who was born in Pakistan in 1975 and grew up in Manchester, is among the younger artists in the show. Her installation Virtues of Unity comprises a row of exquisitely carved (as opposed to thrown) bowls, each made with clay from a different place, lined up in order of colour like a tea-strength chart, from the palest cream to the darkest brown. The ongoing project, she says, “is to do with my own identity, growing up in Manchester and the various comments you get, like ‘foreigner’.”
In 2009 she returned to her “own country” for university residencies in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. “I expected to be treated like a homecomer, but I was always introduced by the university staff as ‘a foreigner from England’. It got me thinking about where we belong. You think about the migration of people over thousands of years, and really we’re all the same. We’re made from the same material, we’re from the earth and we go back to back the earth.”
Recent exciting ceramics acquisitions for the museum, says Ritchie, include work from Alison Britton, famous for her colourful interpretations of traditional pottery vessels, and “a very hot artist” called Jesse Wine, who is based in New York but was born in Chester. “He makes this fabulous sculptural work,” says Ritchie, which ranges from vast organic earthy abstracts to glossily glazed renditions of his bowl of pasta, Sports Direct mugs with a snail idling between them and the Adidas sliders he wears to potter about in the studio.
One reason why ceramics feels quite “buzzy at the moment”, she says, “is that we are seeing younger collectors. That idea of spending more on something and buying less is spreading. You do see people spending on something handmade that they really love rather than buying something mass-produced or disposable.”
And there’s a simple human joy in feeling a connection to the maker through a tactile 3D object. “When it’s made with the hands, you can hold it or imagine holding it, or use it, and your hands are where their hands were. People really love that directness. And they love knowing how things are made – we get asked that all the time. People are interested in technique, materials and process.”
In fact, more people are getting involved in making themselves, says Toby Brundin, director of Ceramic Art London. The urge to take up pottery, he says, goes hand in hand with the recent boom in knitting, sourdough bread-baking and craft beer brewing. “It’s all connected. If you pick up a pot – which is shorthand for any ceramic object – a lot of it’s about texture and there’s no way to digitise it. There are no shortcuts in the making. If you lose concentration, you’re screwed. It’s so rudely analogue that it’s an antidote to the analytical, screen-based way that most of us spend our working, and a big chunk of our non-working, lives. People are craving physical experience.”
There was also the BBC2 game show, The Great Pottery Throw Down, which ran between 2015 and 2017. Filmed at Middleport Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, it saw members of the public compete to make the best pots, in the mould of The Great British Bake Off. “I think Throw Down definitely drew attention but I also suspect the programme was commissioned in response to the rising popularity of ceramics,” Brundin says. “So while it definitely helped the growth of the craft, it was also a response to it rather than the cause of it.”
Some ceramic artists have become role models for an alternative way of life, such as Adam Buick, who has a few pieces in the Fitzwilliam show. “He makes only moon jars,” says Brundin, referring to traditional spherical vessels. “He lives on the Pembrokeshire coast, surfs every morning at six, digs his own clay out of the earth.” Sometimes he leaves a pleasing bowl impression in the ground, as is documented on his Instagram feed.
“Instagram is a key driver for the younger generation of makers,” says Brundin. “It’s changing the way they sell.” The American potter Eric Landon, of Tortus studio in Copenhagen, is as close to a rock star as a potter could get, touring the world and posting to his 786,000 Instagram followers videos of himself with tanned, muscly arms effortlessly manipulating wobbly wet clay, or a selfie with Susan Sarandon at one of his workshops.
Fashion and textiles illustrator-turned-potter John Booth says he gets a kick out of selling directly through Instagram rather than through galleries. New to the medium, he started an evening class at Turning Earth in 2015 and his first edition of 50 painted plates sold out in two days. Previously best known for designing prints for fashion house Fendi, he now funds his studio with his bright, crude vases. “It’s such a simple process and there’s a roughness to them – they’re for using,” he says of the works, built from slabs of clay, with faces painted on.
Booth is currently co-designing “a ceramic side table that you can put your ceramic pot on”, along with bed linen and soft furnishings. “It takes me away from that uncomfortable feeling that art should be elitist, or conceptual. People aren’t scared of my work. It’s a fun decorative or functional object.”
Not surprisingly, such fashion figures as Simone Rocha and Silvia Fendi are fans of Booth’s pots. And, with ceramics’ roots in craft, they’re not the only designers who are ambassadors for the medium. Jonathan Anderson, the Irish creative director of Spanish luxury house Loewe, has admitted to making personal budget cuts to facilitate his Bernard Leach pottery collection, and this May will see the third instalment of his Loewe craft prize, which showcases ceramic artists among other makers. Meanwhile Raf Simons, the Belgian designer who is currently chief creative officer at Calvin Klein, has long been addicted to buying and selling ceramics and unflinchingly displays breakable Picasso pots in his living room.
At Ceramic Art London, a representative from Bonhams approached exhibitor Nichola Theakston, who makes deeply empathetic sculptures of animals, to commission her to make fresh work for the auction house to sell. “The auction world follows trends and finds underexploited areas,” says Brundin. “Ceramics has historically been undervalued because of its connection with craft so they can see room to move upwards.”
But generally, he says, “we’re still in the realm where people are buying for themselves rather than for an investment. In any case, that’s how you should do investments: buy things that give you pleasure.”
- Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery is at Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 17 June.
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