Handle with Care
In Apartamento magazine issue #29, we featured the neuropathologist and collector Brian Harding at his home in Camden, London, where he lives together with hundreds of artworks he’s gathered over the last four decades. The interview was by ceramicist Sara Flynn and photographs, here, were by Lewis Ronald. For the very first time, ceramic and fibre works from Brian’s collection are being exhibited publicly in A Passion for Form, featuring esteemed artists Magdalene Odundo, Jennifer Lee, Peter Collingwood, and Hans Coper. And so, for this special occasion, we teamed up with Maximillian William to document the journey of Brian’s collection across London, from his home to the gallery, with a short film by Raphael Chipperfield and a limited edition broadsheet with texts by Jareh Das and Brian himself.
The boundary between an interest and a passion can be as difficult to define as that between a miscellany and a collection. But to my mind, the origin of my ceramic odyssey is crystal clear. A chance meeting in the late ‘70s at the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington with a young Kenyan artist, Magdalene Odundo, has led to a friendship spanning more than four decades. My first impressions were of a strikingly beautiful, fiercely intelligent woman with a steely determination to find her true artistic vocation. As she began her master’s at the Royal College of Art, I remember her painstaking studies of clay composition in her search for the optimal medium for her vessels. And then the alchemy began.
It has been a great privilege to have watched her grow in confidence and achievement, and to have learnt so much from her. It was her enthusiasm for the medium, and for such preceding masters of studio ceramics as Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Michael Cardew, and Liz Fritsch, which first sparked my interest and led to many gallery and museum visits. But in those early years, as a junior doctor building a career and with limited funds, acquisition was very tentative and largely confined to Odundo and her near contemporaries, such as Jennifer Lee and Julian Stair. I could only look on from the sidelines as Hans Coper’s monuments in miniature, which I so admired, reached dizzying heights in the saleroom.
The ‘90s was a turbulent period in my private life, but the new millennium brought emotional and financial independence, and with it, a renewed enthusiasm for collecting. I purposefully began to acquire work by Coper, while continuing my close interest in and acquisition of work by Lee and Odundo. But my horizons were widening to encompass both the bold sculptural works of Gordon Baldwin and some notable contemporary European ceramicists: Bodil Manz, Beate Andersen, Wouter Dam, and Claudi Casanovas. Fibre art also entered my collection, initially with the macrogauzes of Peter Collingwood (a one-time studio neighbour of Hans Coper), who is now widely regarded as the most important and innovative British weaver of the 20th century. Later additions have included works in a variety of media, including metal, plastic, stone, and slate.
A move to the USA in 2009—to join the faculty of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—opened up new possibilities, as I found myself unexpectedly pitched into the vibrant art and craft network of that culturally sophisticated city. Also unexpected was the interest my small collection received from makers, gallerists, collectors, and enthusiasts both locally, at the highly influential Clay Studio in Philadelphia, and from further afield, such as the Renwick Alliance in DC and Watershed in Maine, whose group visits I was able to accommodate in my large loft. An important consequence was encountering the work of Chris Gustin, a co-founder of Watershed, and I have since acquired several of his large pots in addition to a tea bowl, which is used every day.
Even a casual observer will quickly realise that I am especially drawn to vessel forms and eschew the largely figurative or decorative. This is what I mean by a ‘passion for form’—the essential, which, in this case, is visible to the eye. For me, each acquisition is a love affair when a work demands regard and impels one to cradle in the hand, hug to the body, or caress with the fingers.
Music and ceramics have been the twin passions that have enthused my life. Music is the most ephemeral of the arts, each performance a unique, infinitesimally varying recreation, in contrast to the sheer physicality of a pot, moulded and fired from the very earth on which we spend our little lives and which can endure for millennia. For both, it is not just superficial beauty which can enthral, but more potently the underlying form, the architecture which suffuses the whole, and in the hands of such as Bach or a great potter, resulting in a joy forever. Living with these works is a privilege and a daily source of delight and astonishment.
A Thing of Beauty
In her introduction to Documents of Contemporary Art: Craft, scholar and design historian Tanya Harrod maps out craft as a contested terrain, but signals that rather than focusing on its contestation within visual arts, it is more useful to understand the field as evolving and as one that allows for shape-shifting concepts and emergent forms. Harrod provides an explanation for the ambiguous relationship between arts and crafts within the context of the industrialised West:
Ultimately, Arts and Crafts synthesis did not flourish in schools of art as compartmentalisation became the norm, sliced into categories architect, designer, artist and craftsman. The crafts lost touch with architecture early in the twentieth century, the latter having been such an important component of the Arts and Crafts movement. Craft was cut off from fine art and fissured, with makers mostly working obsessively in one medium, be it ceramics, stained glass, weaving or calligraphy. Some crafts had closer links with fine art than others, with ceramics being seen as a form of abstract sculpture. After World War Two, in the country where what came to be called studio craft flourished, there was an institutionalised push to support its various genres.1
A Passion for Form is an exhibition that speaks to this boundary-defying concept of craft Harrod identifies, and explores both the progression and evolution of form in craft practices through an intergeneration of renowned makers: Magdalene Odundo (b. 1950), Jennifer Lee (b. 1956), Peter Collingwood (1922–2008), and Hans Coper (1920–1981). These artists have all reimagined and created new forms for ceramic and textile artworks over the course of their careers, leading to a rethink of craft as an expansive and ever-evolving field. All the artists on view were born between the ‘20s and ‘50s. Some migrated to the United Kingdom, such as Odundo, who moved from Kenya to further her studies, while Coper fled from Nazi Germany to London in 1939, where he spent a formative period training with Lucie Rie (1902–1995). Both artists, one can argue, are part of a wider artistic diaspora that redefined British studio pottery. Through deftly building on individual practices centred on new explorations of form in their chosen medium—clay, taken up by ceramicists Coper, Odundo, and Lee, and woven linen, by Collingwood—an observation of genre-bending works emerges, based on a language of transformation and creating new ways of working with age-old materials.
All the works on display are loaned from the collection of Dr Brian Harding and shown here publicly for the first time in a gallery setting. I had the privilege of visiting him at home in North London, where the works take their place in a domestic setting. One might describe Harding’s home as a ‘Wunderkammer for crafts’ as almost every surface, wall space, and even the custom-built furniture serves as a display for his remarkable collection of ceramics, wall hangings, and sculptures that have been amassed over four decades. Objects are part of everyday life, to be experienced and encountered daily.
A Passion for Form notably explores the evolution of the vessel in ceramics, with artists who, in their own way, expanded further possibilities for rethinking this recurring form, for it to take on more sculptural and non-functional attributes. Hans Coper fused what would normally have been classed as wheel-based clay pots with sculptural elements. Influenced by the shapes, colours, and forms of ceramics from the ancient world, Coper—in the 30 years he spent actively working as a potter—became internationally renowned for his contemplative, meditative, and evocative ceramic objects. Heavy scratching and etching marks are often repeated on the surfaces of Coper’s works, echoing ceramics from the Cycladic period, emphasising shapes and volume through surface texture.
Magdalene Odundo’s vessels, on the other hand, with their poetic curvature and sinuosity, signal at gestures of dance and movement. Since taking up formal ceramics in 1971 after she moved to the UK to attend art school, and over the decades she has spent working with clay, she has been informed by global pottery traditions (and travels), most notably a formative period of hand building in Abuja (now Suleja) with renowned Nigerian potter, Ladi Kwali (1925–1984). Odundo has paid close attention to the ways dancers use their bodies to create abstract and ephemeral lines while in motion. Her vessels capture the essence of such movements or held poses, and she has described her process as a dance with clay. Hand building, Odundo’s preferred method, requires movement around the mound of clay, pounding, beating, and carving with an upward motion. A sculptural dance with clay, perhaps, where the potter’s body mimics what would later be developed as the potter’s wheel, demonstrating how these bodily gestures with clay form the foundation for the technology that would come afterwards.
Odundo’s work is shown alongside Jennifer Lee’s—both hand builders who began their ceramics careers during a decline in interest of function and a departure from traditional forms in ceramics. Alongside this, painterly surfaces exploring pattern, texture, and optical illusion became as important as the expressive, organic form. The works selected here demonstrate the vitality and sculptural possibilities of clay in the hands of practitioners who, at the time, rejected tradition for individual artistic expression.
Lee began her journey with clay in 1975 as a student studying Ceramics and Tapestry at the Edinburgh College of Art. After her degree, she spent eight months travelling across the USA, learning about the prehistoric pottery of Arizona and New Mexico. Experiments in form soon emerged in her early work, like the tilted rim recognisable in her works to this day.
Peter Collingwood was a weaver best remembered for developing large-scale wall hangings with a unique and radical technique; he coined the ‘macrogauze’ method in 1964.2 Collingwood boldly broke apart traditional looms and rebuilt them, meaning that, rather than a rigid system for weaving, his compositions were formed by constantly movable parts, resulting in dramatic and highly geometric woven lines.
Craft is ever-evolving, as demonstrated in the artworks on display and the artistic oeuvres which see domestic function both challenged and abandoned in favour of resisting comfortable categorisations. Craft, in this context, embodies expansive narratives of progress and endless conceptual discoveries of form.
1 Harrod, T., ‘Introduction//Craft Over and Over Again in Harrod, T. (eds), Documents of Contemporary Art: Craft (2018), The MIT Press, p.13.
2 Peter Collingwood developed and created his macrogauzes by moving segments of several warp threads and crossing them over, so that rather than them following parallel vertical lines, these threads crossed each other at different angles, creating new graphic shapes and, later in his process, three-dimensional woven forms.