‘I’m a potter, but he was an artist’ were the famed words of the celebrated ceramicist Dame Lucie Rie, in a 1988 interview on her creative partnership with her pupil and contemporary Hans Coper. The work of Rie and Coper are both of seminal importance in the development of modern British studio ceramics, and understanding their differences and similarities offers great insight into this fascinating and collectable area of decorative art. The two shared a studio from 1946 until 1958, and remained friends until Coper’s death in 1981, and although their styled remained distinct, the effect of each can easily be seen in the work of the other.
Dame Lucie Rie (née Gomperz) was born in Vienna on 16 March 1902 and was educated at home before enrolling at the Viennese Kunstgewerbeschule, an arts and crafts school, at the age of twenty, after having studied pottery there under the sculptor and ceramicist Michael Powolny. Her work was so highly regarded that some of her pots were sent to the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Moderned in Paris in 1925 by Josef Hoffmann, one of the co-founders of the Wiener Werkstatte. The following year Rie married businessman Hans Rie, however she increasingly devoted herself to her craft, focussing on domestic wares and exploring a modernist aesthetic.
In 1938, the couples emigrated from Vienna to London in search of a better life, and to evade the ever-growing Nazism that was becoming prevalent in Austria. Hans ultimately moved to the United States, and Lucie decided to stay in London; the couple subsequently divorced in 1940. During and immediately following the Second World War, Rie produced ceramic buttons and jewellery to support herself, some of which are now in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. In 1946, she hired a young assistant to help her fire these ceramic buttons – his name was Hans Coper.
Hans Coper was born on 8 April 1920 in Chemnitz, eastern Germany. Like Rie, Coper fled his homeland and came to Britain to escape Nazism in 1939, three years after his Jewish father committed suicide to ease the plight of his non-Jewish wife. Coper served as a conscientious objector in the Non-Combattant Corps from 1942, before being hired by Lucie Rie in 1946. Following the ceramic buttons, Coper went on to experiment with solid abstracted heads in the 1950s, before abandoning this as he discovered the magic of the wheel.
In Tony Birks’ book Hans Coper from 2013, he observes that ‘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’ – his potter’s wheel was the base from which his creativity and vision emerged. Coper left Rie’s studio to establish his own at Diswell House in Hertfordshire in 1958, by which point he was already successful in his own right, as he continued to work and went on to also teach pottery in the 1960s at the Camberwell School of Art, and the Royal College of Art.
From the beginning, Rie and Coper worked side by side and developed their own distinctive style. During the 1950s when the pair worked from the same studio, Rie was invited to supply tableware for the Heal’s department store, and was also asked to exhibit at the Festival of Britain in 1951. Later in the decade saw the real development of both Rie and Coper’s signature style: as Rie’s focus remained on modern functionality and experimenting with a spectrum of colours and glazes, Coper’s work became increasingly sculptural. Coper executed his pieces in a much more limited range of glazes, and stuck to a much more natural palette of browns and whites, preferring to experiment with texture and form than with colour.
Both Dame Lucie Rie and Hans Coper’s legacy cannot be understated. Their modernist ceramics have come to be synonymous contemporary studio ceramics that we know in Britain today. Before the Second World War, the ceramics industry in Britain was dominated by the Leach Pottery under Bernard Leach, however Rie and Coper brought an experimental, avant-garde yet quiet and graceful modernism to the table. Their timeless and ethereal works are held in major international institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.