Desirable Clay

Installation view from the exhibition Ceramic Object at Gallery Format Oslo
Joakim Borda-Pedreira talks with ceramicist Alison Britton about why ceramic art is hot in the art market

The interview was first published in Norwegian Crafts Magazine #1/ 2014: Marked and marketing

The article has been updated with new imagery in September 2017, in connection with the exhibition Alison Britton: Fieldwork at Galleri Format Oslo

«I believe there is a sort of solidity about ceramics that make them seem quite investable. They are lasting objects that will not disappear.»

Alison Britton
Alison Britton in the exhibition Fieldwork at Galleri Format Oslo (2017)
Alison Britton and Heidi Bjørgan. From the exhibition Ceramic Object at Gallery Format Oslo.

Thanks to private museums and international art fairs it has become trendy to collect contemporary art, and for the newly wealthy this hobby represents the easiest way to gain social status and recognition. But how does this affect the market for crafts, and who collects ceramics today?

According to the British ceramicist and author Edmund de Waal, holding a pot in your hand entails one of the most basic human experiences. Ceramic objects have followed humanity for tens of thousands of years and represents a universal sign of human civilisation. For de Waal it has become a life task to restore the status and cultural significance of the ceramic object.

Edmund de Waal has a unique position among contemporary ceramicists. Since his breakthrough in the mid 1990-ties with his minimalist white ceramic objects and installations, de Waal has been one of the most sought-after ceramic artists on the international market. He has exhibited in many leading museums and is represented by the legendary Gagosian gallery. In the biography The Hare With Amber Eyes (Chatto & Windus, 2010), de Waal portrays his own family history through a large collection of Japanese netsuke, inherited from his great uncle. The book is a history of collecting and a tribute to the world of things, to ”the territory of personal story-telling”: ”the sensuous, sinuous intertwining of things with memories. A favoured, favourite thing.”[1] Throughout the book de Waal explores the philosophical, psychological and poetic dimensions of collecting, towards a background of antique tapestries, renaissance majolica and famous paintings – pieces from the vast art collection that once belonged to his family.

Installation view from the exhibition Ceramic Object at Gallery Format Oslo
Installation view from the exhibition Ceramic Object at Gallery Format Oslo

Ceramic artists such as Bernard Leach (1887-1979) in Great Britain, Wilhelm Kåge (1889-1960) in Sweden, Axel Saalto (1889-1961) in Denmark and Erik Pløen (1925-2004) in Norway, make up a generation of ceramicists whose work has had a great importance for creating a wider understanding for ceramics as a unique form of art, and they have contributed to increasing the status of ceramics amongst collectors and art connoisseurs, as well as the general public. In many Scandinavian homes you might still find vases and bowls by Saalto and Kåge. They were exclusive objects often given as wedding gift or as commemoration.

Today many of the most prominent galleries, ceramicist and collectors have their home base in the United Kingdom. One of the most famous ceramic artists today is Alison Britton (b. 1948). Like de Waal, Britton is also a prominent writer, current with the book Seeing Things: Collected Writing on Art, Craft and Design (Occasional Papers, 2014).

– Ceramics play an important role in British culture, especially after the phenomenon Bernard Leach. He was very influential. Obviously it is a small audience, but it has been definable. We did also have a lot of galleries specialised in ceramics, but many of them are not here anymore because of the financial situation, says Alison Britton.

Still, she believes that ceramics in particular are relatively insensitive to economic fluctuation – at least compared to other art objects – among collectors. According to Britton, many of today’s collectors are very open in their attitudes towards medium and material. They regard ceramics as an expression of contemporary culture and are as likely to collect ceramic objects as paintings or any other kind of art object.

– I believe there is a sort of solidity about ceramics that make them seem quite investable. They are lasting objects that will not disappear.

Edmund de Waal describes how ceramic artists after 1945 distanced themselves from a society that they perceived as being aggressively technological, and rather sought for inspiration in ancient cultures. To a larger extent ceramic objects were created with collectors in mind. [i]

«Perhaps an indication of growth and confidence in this field is that the artists have begun to create larger and more complex objects, which have been eagerly accepted by an interested, buying audience.»

Mark Piolet
Alison Britton: Sedge
Alison Britton: Sibilance
Alison Britton: Terrain

– I have been working with ceramics for over forty years and after the first decade you reach a point where you begin to be recognized and interesting for collectors. My peak selling time was in the 1980s, when all museums seemed to want pieces of my work for their collections. This was a time when museums to a larger extent began to collect contemporary ceramics. Twenty years later they are of course looking for the next generation, however the complication is that many of the new generation are not making works that are made for museum preservation, says Alison Britton.

Now in a new millennium it is not only the ceramic objects which have changed, but also the collectors themselves. The obsessive collectors of the past, who would fill countless vitrines with their exhaustive collections of jars and vases, are a dying species. According to Alison Britton many of the great ceramic collectors belong to a generation that is octgenarian today. As they pass away we are likely to see the market being flooded with the ceramic golden age of the 20th century, which judging from recent auctions in Stockholm and London already has begun. The question is if a new generation of collectors will be interested in Bernard Leach pieces.

Mark Piolet is director of Adrian Sassoon in London, one of the world leading ceramic galleries, who specialises in both antique Sèvres and contemporary ceramics. He suggests there is a new kind of collector now who focuses less on style, period or type, and more on quality.

– Originally the clients who purchased antique porcelain were very distinct from clients interested in contemporary ceramics. However, we have often found that clients who collect one type of object will notice something they like about an object from the other side of the business and start to develop an interest which often results in a purchase. The fact is that many of the inherent qualities so valued in 18th century antiques are often found in the contemporary work we sell: Qualities such as form, beautiful decoration and the finest materials, says Mark Piolet.

Installation view from the exhibition Ceramic Object at Gallery Format Oslo

The collectors of today are interested in how well their art objects communicate with their surroundings and each other. Such a collector assembles his collection as a total unity, where furniture, art, glass and ceramics amalgamate into a particular narrative that corresponds to that collectors personality and self-image. According to Mark Piolet the international ceramics market is relatively strong and the future looks bright:

– In spite of the past years of world economic decline, our clients have remained loyal and have continued to buy. In fact, we have found the market to be steadily growing over the past few years, allowing our business to develop. Perhaps another indication of growth and confidence in this field is that the artists have begun to create larger and more complex objects, which have been eagerly accepted by an interested, buying audience. As a consequence, prices for the work have also started to rise.

[1] Edmund de Waal: The Hare With Amber Eyes (2010), p. 16-17.

[i] Edmund de Waal: 20th Century Ceramics. Thames & Hudson: 2003. s. 148.