Last year at an Exeter auction house, a slim stoneware pot fetched an astonishing £305,000, smashing its £4,000-£6,000 estimate. This beautiful arrowhead vessel, just 30cm high, was created by German emigré artist Hans Coper in the late 1970s in his adopted home of Frome, Somerset. It represents the pinnacle of postwar British studio ceramics – an expressive fusion of a modernist sensibility with ancient technology. Acquired in 1980 for £250, it indicates how 20th-century ceramics have transformed – from decorative or functional items to critically acknowledged, internationally sought‑after works of art.
The genre experienced a first wave of collecting fever in the early 1980s, when Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams ran dedicated ceramics sales. While the movement’s founding figures – Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew, William Staite-Murray – were attracting a new generation of collectors, two names in particular began to lead the field: Vienna-born Lucie Rie and her protégé and collaborator Hans Coper, who had both fled to Britain in the 1930s.
Their unassailable position persists today in a market that is flourishing. Sotheby’s has successfully integrated ceramics into its Made In Britain sales; ex-Bonhams specialist Marijke Varrall-Jones has established her own dedicated ceramics auction business, Maak Contemporary Ceramics; and both Phillips and Christie’s pioneered sales dedicated to ceramic objects in the autumn, the latter offering a smattering of Ries and Copers (a white stoneware bowl realised £23,750 over an estimate of £8,000-£12,000) alongside a Pablo Picasso plate and a Grayson Perry vase.
“The market has broadened out dramatically,” says Robin Cawdron-Stewart, Sotheby’s deputy director of specialist sales. “Art collectors now hold Lucie Rie in as much esteem as Barbara Hepworth.” And prices have risen accordingly: in late 2014, Salisbury auction house Woolley & Wallis sold a vibrant blue c1980s bowl by Rie for £47,000, a then-record; less than three years later Sotheby’s sold a similar bronze-rimmed design, this time in the potter’s favourite mustard yellow, for £125,000. The yellow glaze also appears on a c1960 stoneware jug by Rie and Coper that’s available for £5,900 at London gallery Joanna Bird, while Woolley & Wallis sold a blue and black bottle vase by Rie, featuring her signature sgraffito marking, for £14,000 in its British Art Pottery sale in December.
Postwar pieces continue to dominate the market, with Rie’s and Coper’s younger contemporaries, such as John Ward, Ewen Henderson and Emmanuel Cooper, also coming to the fore. “Ten years ago there were half a dozen British names that sold above £3,000,” says Varrall-Jones. “Today it is a couple of dozen.” She highlights the gorgeously patterned abstract pots of ceramicist, painter and sculptor James Tower, as well as Magdalene Odundo’s exquisitely burnished red and black vessels (she sold one in 2013 for £30,000), while her Modern & Contemporary Ceramics sale in November included a particularly graceful c1995 black and white vase by Ward that sold for £11,000 over an estimate of £3,000-£4,000.
The current ceramics buzz has been bolstered by a slew of exhibitions. Last year Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery moved from Connecticut’s Yale Center for British Art to The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, while York Art Gallery’s display of Lucie Rie buttons and pots runs until May. Another boon is the high profile of artists such as Grayson Perry and Edmund de Waal, as well as ceramics influencers on Instagram who “garner lots of followers”, says Varrall-Jones.
One of studio ceramics’ most enthusiastic promoters is Jonathan Anderson, creative director at Loewe. In 2015 he filled the Miami flagship with pots by Rie; in 2016 it was the turn of John Ward. “I first bought one of his pieces 10 years ago,” says Anderson of a black and white patterned vase (a similar piece sold for a record £18,000 at a Maak auction in May 2016). “After that I was obsessed. His pots have a timeless modernity.” His collection also includes pieces by Henderson.
“Anderson has brought these names to a new audience,” says Matthew Hall, co-founder of ceramics specialist Erskine, Hall & Coe, which has stunning pieces (all prices on request) by Rie (such as a 1986 porcelain and bronze bowl), Coper (a c1970s interlocking form) and Tower (a 1957 fish dish). “There was a big increase in the number of 18- to 28-year-olds visiting our Lucie Rie show last summer.” He advises new collectors to look out for 1990s tea bowls by Henderson, which can still be found for under £1,000, and the early work of Ruth Duckworth, whose centenary is this year. Joanna Bird currently has a c1973 coffee set by Duckworth for £8,000.
It was a Lucie Rie bowl from Joanna Bird that kickstarted the magnificent collection of London-based investment banker Dmitry Gladkov and his wife Alisa. Their pieces by Coper, Rie, Ward, Cooper and others are largely monochrome with beautifully worked surfaces, and are grouped together on shelves to reinforce the sympathy between the works of different artists. “I love very early Lucie Rie pieces,” says Dmitry, pointing out a vase that reminds him of a drawing of a figure by Giacometti. “It is interesting how much you can pack into a pot. They are household objects yet hold so much meaning.”