Interpreting Ceramics | issue 14 | 2012

Conference Papers & Article

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Hans Coper: Sculpture in Architecture


Alun Graves

Contents | Home

What difference can a description make?

Michael Hose

'You can use clay, but you can't do ceramics'

Some Thoughts on Why Ceramics isn´t Sculpture

Conor WIlson

From Ceramics to the Bronze Age:

Commercializing Sculpture in the United Kingdom and on the Continent – A Juxtaposition
Part I

Isabel Hufschmidt

Order and Disorder:

Some Relationships between Ceramics, Sculpture and Museum Taxonomies

Michael Tooby

Hans Coper:

Sculpture in Architecture

Alun Graves

Why Clay?


Stephen Dixon

Not all Cows are Piebald:

Ceramics and Sculpture in South Africa

Wilma Cruise


NB. A Word document is available to download at the end of each article.

For Hans Coper, 1958 was a pivotal year. His landmark first solo exhibition was held at Henry Rothschild’s gallery, Primavera1, and it was the year he made the decision to leave Lucie Rie’s Albion Mews studio and relocate his practice to the Digswell Arts Trust in Hertfordshire. It can also be observed to be the moment at which his work takes on a greatly increased sculptural sensibility. The focus of this paper is a series of four commissions carried out by Coper for specific architectural locations, made during or shortly after his Digswell residency. The possibility that our understanding of these works might usefully be informed by consideration of the contemporary relationship between sculpture and architecture, is the premise upon which this paper is based.

Founded in 1957 by the visionary educationalist Henry Morris, the Digswell Arts Trust provided affordable studio and living space for artists and their families at the recently converted Digswell House, on the edge of Welwyn Garden City.2 Part of the Trust’s philosophy was that the artists should work in the community, and to facilitate this, they were brought into contact with industry, town planners, architects, and patrons. Most of Digswell’s residents were at a formative stage in their careers, but it was seen as beneficial to include in the mix a number of more established artists whose presence would be stimulating and exemplary, and it was in this capacity that Coper was approached.3

Coper made his first visit to Digswell on March 11, 1958, at Morris’s invitation. The same day, Coper wrote enthusiastically to Morris of ‘the great possibilities of your scheme and Digswell itself’.4 Shortly after, he wrote again, asking that his name be submitted as an applicant for workshop and living accommodation, and stating that he would ‘like to be given the opportunity of building up a pottery workshop there, and concentrate on the development of architectural ceramics.’5 Coper’s application was endorsed by Muriel Rose, in her capacity as Officer for Crafts and Industrial Design at the British Council, and by Bernard Leach, who commented that Coper had ‘already proved himself as a sculptor-potter’.6 The term ‘sculptor-potter’ seems then to have been appropriated by Morris, and it appears at the head of the initial two-year Programme of Research drawn up for his residency.7 This document set out Coper’s objectives, central among which were: ‘To study the requirements of architecture in the field of ceramics. To develop forms and techniques, from tiles and reliefs to free sculptural features, both decorative and to meet certain technical and functional needs of contemporary building (both unique features and prototypes for production).’ During this period of research, Coper was to ‘act in close consultation with a … committee, consisting of’ Morris, William Allen of the Building Research Station, Garston, and A.J.C. Watts, Director of the Maidenhead Brick and Tile Company, together with the architects Richard Sheppard and Stirrat Johnson-Marshall. Coper was provided with a spacious studio equipped with a new electric kiln8 , and simple living accommodation in an adjoining flat. Funding for Coper’s research programme was provided by Maidenhead Brick and Tile Company, who gave a grant of £300 to meet the cost of the electric kiln, and £350 a year for two years paid as a salary.9 A further grant of £500 was given by the Elmgrant Trust to support Coper’s first year of research.10 On 1 January 1959, six months later than had first been envisaged, he took up residence.11

The operation of his architectural group was described by Coper as follows:

The development group based on the Digswell work-shop, consisting of a number of architects concerned with school and public buildings, two heavy-clay manufacturers, and occasionally technical consultants, and myself as design consultant, is continuing to function; the main pre-occupation being the development of clay products for pre-fabricated application in housing and school building ... This work, if brought to a practical conclusion, will produce the ‘face’ of much of future public building … So far a number of products have been developed at Digswell and are being successfully produced. Cladding tiles, which might be regarded as an intermediate step – between traditional and pre-fabricated usage – acoustic tiles and bricks and, rather outside the actual group work, cladding tiles and bricks for traditional application and some sanitary ware.12

The weaver Peter Collingwood, a fellow resident at Digswell, recalled that Coper had abandoned throwing for two years in order to design extruded tiles and hand basins.13 This evidently is not strictly true, but it is clear that Coper initially devoted most of his time to his programme of research. Morris wrote in July 1959 that Coper ‘has been and still is putting in a great deal of time with Johnson-Marshall, and Dick Sheppard and Allen … He has in consequence during the past six months done very little commercial work and he is having some financial difficulties.’14 By commercial work, Morris probably meant individual pots for sale. Coper evidently did continue potting, but with a much reduced output, and was exhibiting less frequently. His pots at Digswell nevertheless show marked development. They are characteristically of sharply delineated profile, and notably this was the period in which he evolved his entirely black pots. The seemingly metallic – and specifically iron-like – surface of these works heightens their sculptural character, particularly in the context of sculpture of the period. Indeed, with the help of his friend and fellow resident, the sculptor Donald Brook, Coper cast a number of pots in bronze around 1960, though abandoned the practice fairly quickly, finding the surfaces less subtle than could be achieved with clay and glaze.15

Coper had anticipated being able to help maintain his Digswell workshop after its first experimental year by carrying out commissions.16  In the end it appears to have been two years before he began to fulfil any major commissions for unique architectural works in clay – those reliefs and free sculptural features indicated by his research programme. While at Digswell, Coper undertook three site-specific commissions based on his own wheel-thrown studio practice: two mural schemes of around 1961, and his celebrated Coventry Cathedral candlesticks in 1962.

The earlier of the mural schemes is probably that for Swinton Technical High School near Rotherham, a new school by Robert Matthew Johnson-Marshall built using the CLASP system of pre-fabricated and standardised components. The decision of the architects to approach Coper to produce a mural for the building seems to have arisen through the firm’s partner, Stirrat Johnson-Marshall, who was a member of his Digswell development group.17 An Architect’s Instruction of 1 March 1961 confirmed the order with Coper ‘for the supply and fixing of a decorative screen wall in accordance with his tender for the sum of £450 date 3 February 1961’.18

Coper’s mural was sited in the dividing wall between the entrance hall and an assembly room, and comprised a series of interlocking ceramic discs forming nine openings that provided a visual connection between the spaces. The discs, which vary in diameter from around 30cm to 60cm, exhibit the full tonal variations and complex abraded surfaces that characterise Coper’s mature work. Overall, its carefully balanced and harmonious abstract composition combines a sense of order with the suggestion of random motion. Installed by Coper with help of Lucie Rie, the work remained more or less undisturbed at the school until 2009, when it was removed and subsequently exhibited in London and Japan, before being sold by Philips de Pury in 2011.19

A further mural of ceramic discs was commissioned from Coper by the Powell Duffryn group for the entrance hall of their offices in London’s Berkeley Street. While occupying only one face of a wall, the site for the Powell Duffryn mural was nevertheless as complex as that at Swinton, bridging as it did two adjacent spaces – one outdoor, one indoor - divided by a plate glass wall. Set into concrete, the mural’s eighteen discs were composed in response to the confines of the space, and provided a considerable sense of rhythm and movement. Three years later the mural was moved to a new location within the building and, as the firm were unwilling to pay Coper a fee to redesign the work, it was installed in different arrangement without his involvement.20 The mural appeared in this altered, debased form when it was illustrated in Tony Birk’s The Art of the Modern Potter in 1967.21 Now set in a cellulose interior wall, it was described by Birks as: ‘no longer valid as a unified design, but the powerful disc shapes are as strong as ever. This is no bas-relief; the dark well-like centres of the subtly varied forms gave the original scheme tremendous depth, and it represented the most advanced ceramic mural of our generation.’ By the time it was removed and sold at Christie’s in 1985, however, the work had gone through yet another reconfiguration. Recorded as being sold as last arranged in the Berkeley Street building, it had by then lost any semblance of its original composition, as well as two of its component parts.22

A rather less troubled history has been had by the monumental candlesticks made for Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral, arguably Coper’s greatest achievement, and certainly one of the most significant post-war public commissions for ceramics. Coper had first been approached to make candleholders in black stoneware for the cathedral’s light-filled Chapel of Christ the Servant.23 These he executed as low broad disc forms that, as David Whiting has observed, ‘perfectly suited the severe geometry and transparency of the tall circular chamber.’24 The decision to award Coper the commission for the sanctuary candlesticks came late in Coventry’s development. In his autobiography, Spence recorded:

One of the last embellishments asked for by the clergy was six tall candlesticks to flank the high altar, three on each side … To keep up our standard at the eleventh hour was difficult. It was a temptation to say ‘six simple tubes’, but this attitude just would not do. After much thought and talk to Anthony Blee, we decided to ask Hans Coper to do them in pottery … My aim was a strong robust object about seven feet tall, in scale with the huge concrete altar. Obviously an ordinary design would look puny.25  

The commission was confirmed in an instruction dated 13 February 1962, for ‘six sanctuary candlesticks, for which you have estimated £100 each.’26

Maquettes were produced by Coper, and from these derive the final candlesticks, each constructed from individually thrown sections threaded onto steel rods set into the altar floor. On either side of the altar, a central candlestick finished in black manganese and composed of seven sections is flanked by predominantly white candlesticks of six sections. Visible from most parts of the building, the candlesticks echo the insistent verticality of the surrounding architecture, but stand apart from it through their distinct individual character. Their function within the space is significant. As Katharine Eustace has commented: ‘The six Candlesticks are vital in bringing the eye to rest at the most important point in the cathedral. They anchor the Tapestry, and their monumental size frames the altar.’27

A further commission from the Basil Spence Partnership followed in 1966, after Coper had left Digswell and returned, for a time, to London.28 This arose in connection with the Meeting House at Sussex University, a building that was an integral part of Spence’s scheme for the campus. The first floor of the magnificent circular building – 80 feet in diameter – housed an interdenominational chapel, with walls two feet thick, composed of alternating concrete blocks and coloured glass panels. Coper’s commission was to produce the altar candlesticks, and resulted in the creation of low, chalice-like black forms, magnificent and monumental. Tony Birks has described the Sussex candlesticks as ‘pots for a building rather than as part of a building’.29 But while it is true in that the pots are not physically joined to the structural fabric, this perhaps underplays the significant function they performed within the architecture. A notable feature of the building’s design is that the colours in the glass panels are ordered with the brightest yellows behind the altar, onto which a rooflight also directs daylight. The intense black of Coper’s generously proportioned candlesticks thus performed a necessary function in focusing attention on the altar, and providing definition of its position with the physical space of the chapel. The candlesticks were, unfortunately, sold by the University in 1989.30

At Coventry and Sussex, Coper’s candlesticks clearly went far beyond the functional requirements of supporting candles. Their practical function in this regard effectively legitimised their presence within the spaces, but their essential purpose was to articulate the architecture and to provide focus. Despite having a more or less permanent presence within the architecture, it is nevertheless clear that these works remain separate from it. They are discrete entities, distinct in material, form, concept or feel. How then, might they be considered? And specifically, does the intimate historical relationship that exists between sculpture and architecture provide further clues to how these works might be understood?

In her book Patio and Pavilion, Penelope Curtis makes a special case for the relationship between sculpture and Modernist architecture, taking as her starting point the positioning of George Kolbe’s essentially classical figure, ‘Morning’, in Mies van der Rohe’s 1929 Barcelona pavilion.31 Curtis writes: ‘Modernist architects found a particular use for sculpture that, in part, was premised on a traditional belief in the complementary nature (but essential difference) of the two arts. The abstract and transparent qualities of modernist architecture even gave sculpture a heightened role.’32 In the case studies that Curtis puts forward, the placing of sculpture was a deliberate act on the part of the architect, but it was one that was about separation: ‘sculpture creates views in which the viewer is implicated … between interior and exterior’.33

The placing of Coper’s various architectural works might equally be seen to be about separation, between spaces of varying status or public accessibility: sanctuary and nave; altar and seating; foyer and assembly room; entrance hall interior and exterior. In the interiors of Coventry Cathedral and the Sussex Meeting House – open, light structures dematerialized by stained glass – Coper’s candlesticks have a strong physical presence: a monumentality in the broader sense of the word. They are the equivalent of the sculpted figure within the transparent space.
The title of Curtis’s book is borrowed from the collaborative contribution of Alison and Peter Smithson, Nigel Henderson and Eduardo Paolozzi to the seminal 1956 exhibition This Is Tomorrow, held at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. As Lawrence Alloway stated in his introduction in the catalogue, This Is Tomorrow was ‘devoted to the possibilities of collaboration between architects, painters and sculptors’, yet sought to do so ‘without submitting to the idea of synthesis in which the separate contributions are sympathetically bound together. On the contrary … different channels are allowed to compete as well as complement one another.’34 In other words, the vocabularies of the separate disciplines would not be compromised in the pursuit of artistic integration.

Twelve artist groups contributed to This Is Tomorrow, the opening section bringing together the architect Theo Crosby – one of the show’s organisers – with Germano Facetti, Edward Wright, and the sculptor William Turnbull. Their collaborative endeavours are described in the catalogue – presumably by Crosby – as constructed:

using simply and directly certain materials which we consider constituent elements in current production … The … roof is a prefabricated system … The space is modulated by plastic sheets, blockboard and plywood, all mass produced materials … Within this mass produced environment the sculpture represents the imprecise yet recognisable image of the irrational and of chance; non-utilitarian yet necessary, they focus the environment and are the poetic equivalent of man.35

The closing line of this statement might equally – and precisely – describe how Coper’s works operate in contemporary architectural settings.

There are perhaps many parallels to be drawn between Turnbull’s work and Coper’s, but here we might observe a specific correspondence between Turnbull’s Sungazer, shown in the Group 1 presentation at This Is Tomorrow, and Coper’s candlesticks for Coventry. Both are essentially abstract, yet both offer a dual reading as either a figure or – in the tradition of Brancusi – as an exaggerated plinth. And further, there is the shared sense of the archaic that runs through so much of the work of each. Turnbull articulates this in the catalogue for This Is Tomorrow by stating: ‘Sculpture used to look ‘modern’; now we make objects that might have been dug up at any point in the past forty thousand years. Sculpture = totemic object. It can exist inside or outside architectural space.’36 This finds an echo in Katharine Eustace’s assessment of the Coventry candlesticks, which notes that: ‘their archaic quality gives the building a sense of antiquity, of ancient ritual and custom.’37

If collaboration had been a concern for architects, sculptors and painters in the 1950s – as This Is Tomorrow indicates – then for sculptors in the 1960s, architecture began to offer up different possibilities. One of the leading tendencies in sculpture of the period was the appropriation of the qualities of architecture, so that sculpture itself became a kind of architecture. It was sculpture in which – as William Tucker stated – the ‘spectator [was] invited… to identify its forms and spaces… with his own use of space, and in particular with the way in which space is modulated and directed inside buildings.’38 Principal in this development was Anthony Caro’s early welded sculpture, made from 1960 onwards, and exactly contemporary with Coper’s Digswell commissions. Caro’s work was perceived to have invented a new syntax for sculpture.39 Yet despite their innovation, such works nevertheless remained carefully composed. They do not exhibit the more complete detachment of minimalism.

These ‘breakthrough’ works of Caro offer interesting points of correspondence with Coper’s murals for Swinton Technical High School and Powell Duffryn. As with Caro’s welded sculptures, Coper’s murals result from the consideration of complex spatial relationships across the same space inhabited by the viewer. They see Coper – albeit temporarily – abandoning the monolithic, as Caro was reputed to have done. They also mark the extreme of Coper’s formal abstraction, in which the suggestion of external references is eliminated most completely. They are works that might be seen to use what is characteristic about the discipline to critique the discipline. Although ground-breaking, they remain ‘about’ wheel-thrown clay. As Coper was later to write: ‘the wheel imposes its economy, dictates limits’.40 If such a formalist reading of these works has its limitations – and it quite evidently does – it nevertheless serves to locate them in relation to one significant contemporary branch of sculpture practice.

Coper’s ‘architectural period’, as he jokingly referred to his time at Digswell41 , can thus be seen to coincide with one of transition in the relationship of sculpture and modern architecture. A period when collaboration based on the complementary nature but essential difference of the disciplines was increasingly to be replaced by their convergence. By understanding something of this changing relationship, and what it tells us about the operation of sculpture in an architectural space, we can also understand something about the singular and extraordinary architectural works of Hans Coper, ‘sculptor-potter’, poised as they are between separation and integration.

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1 The exhibition Stoneware Pots by Hans Coper was held at Primavera, Sloane Street, London, 6 - 19  May 1958.
2 Tanya Harrod, The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, p.244. See also A Matter Done: An account of the Digswell Arts Trust, Welwyn Garden City, Digswell Arts Trust, [1965].
3 A Matter Done, p.59.
4 Letter from Hans Coper to Henry Morris dated 11 March 1958, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, DE/DAT/5/1/10.
5 Letter from Hans Coper to Henry Morris dated 27 March 1958, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, DE/DAT/5/1/10.
6 Letter from Muriel Rose to Henry Morris dated 9 May 1958, and from Bernard Leach to Henry Morris dated 4 April 1958, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, DE/DAT/5/1/10.
7 Several drafts of this document exist. Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, DE/DAT/5/1/10.
8 Supplied by Cromartie Kilns Ltd., Longton, Stoke-on-Trent. Letter from Henry Morris to A.J.C. Watts, dated 21 March 1959, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, DE/DAT/5/1/10. It was stated in Coper’s Programme of Research and elsewhere that he also intended to build himself a second fuel-fired kiln.
9 Letter from A.J.C. Watts to Henry Morris, dated 9 February 1959, and Morris’s reply of 10 February 1959. In a letter from Morris to William Allen, also dated 10 February 1959, Morris records that Watts had ‘harangued his board for an hour and three-quarters about the state of the Industry in general and their firm in particular’ in order to secure the grant. Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, DE/DAT/5/1/10.
10 Letter from Kathleen Hull-Brown to Henry Morris, dated 27 May 1958, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, DE/DAT/5/1/10.
11 A copy of a letter from Henry Morris to Mr Wetherman dated 2 February 1959 states that Coper took up his residence on 1 January 1959, but for his living accommodation only, his studio not being ready for occupation until 16 January. His tenancy of the studio thus did not begin until that later date. Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, DE/DAT/5/1/10.
12 A Matter Done, p.59.
13Peter Collingwood, tribute to Hans Coper, Crafts, January/February 1982, p.38.
14 Letter from Henry Morris to Sidney Broad, dated 24 July 1959, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, DE/DAT/5/1/10.
15 Tony Birks, Hans Coper, London, Collins, 1983, pp.41-42.
16 Letter from Hans Coper to Henry Morris dated 19 May 1958, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, DE/DAT/5/1/10.
17 Letter from Peter Newnham to David Medd dated 26 July 1983, Institute of Education archives, ME/M/1/20. I am indebted to Geraint Franklin for alerting me to the content of this letter, and the associated Architect’s Instruction for the Swinton mural.
18 Institute of Education archives, ME/M/1/20.
19 Phillips de Pury, Design, London, 27 September 2011, lot 50.
20 Letter from Bill Ismay to Alan and Pat Firth dated 21 February 1985, Ismay archive, York Museums Trust. I am indebted to Helen Walsh for alerting me to the content of this letter.
21Tony Birks, The Art of the Modern Potter, London, County Life, 1967, p.36, ill. p.44.
22 Christie’s, Contemporary Ceramics, London, 19 February 1985, pp.40-41, lot.172.
23 Louise Campbell (ed.), To Build A Cathedral: Coventry Cathedral, 1945-1962, University of Warwick, p.68. On the candlesticks, see also David Whiting, ‘Coper at Coventry: Hans Coper and the Coventry Cathedral candlesticks’, Studio Pottery, no.20, April/May 1996, p.17-23. On the various craft commissions for the cathedral and their context, see Harrod, The Crafts in Britain, pp.352-366.
24 Whiting, ‘Coper at Coventry’, p.19.
25 Quoted in Whiting, ‘Coper at Coventry’, p.19.
26 Campbell, To Build A Cathedral , p.68.
27 Ibid.
28 In a letter to Gordon Maynard dated 28 November 1964, Hans Coper gave notice that he would move out of his Digswell workshop and flat on 16 January 1965. Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, DE/DAT/5/1/10. It nevertheless appears that Coper had effectively moved back to London as early as Spring 1963, and subsequently spent lengthy periods away from Digswell. Birks, Hans Coper, p.54.
29 Birks, Hans Coper, p.49. See also Birks, Art of the Modern Potter, p.36, ill. p.44.
30 Whiting, ‘Coper at Coventry’, p.23.
31 Penelope Curtis, Patio and Pavilion: The Place of Sculpture in Modern Architecture, London, Ridinghouse, 2007.
32 Curtis, Patio and Pavilion, p.9.
33 Ibid.
34 Lawrence Alloway, ‘Design as a Human Activity’, This Is Tomorrow, London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1956, unpaginated.
35 Introduction to group 1, This Is Tomorrow, London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1956, unpaginated.
36 Ibid.
37 Campbell, To Build A Cathedral , p.68.
38 Quoted in Penelope Curtis, Modern British Sculpture: from the Collection, Liverpool, Tate Gallery Publications, 1988, p.104.
39 For a recent discussion of Caro’s welded sculpture of the early 1960s, see Alex Potts, ‘Anthony Caro, Early One Morning’, in Penelope Curtis and Keith Wilson (eds.), Modern British Sculpture, London, Royal Academy of Arts, pp.178-185.
40 Hans Coper, statement, Collingwood / Coper, London, Victoria and Albert Museum, unpaginated.
41 Birks, Hans Coper, p.44.

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Hans Coper: Sculpture in Architecture • Issue 14

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