Every once in a while, a collection comes to market that has the capacity to revolutionise our understanding of an art form on a fundamental level. The collection of Dr John P Driscoll did just that. Marijke Varrall-Jones, Director of Maak, tells us more
November 2021 saw the two auction houses, Phillips and Maak Contemporary Ceramics, come together to present the first selection from the seminal collection of studio ceramics of the late Dr John P Driscoll. Billed as ‘the most important collection of Contemporary Ceramics to ever come to auction’, it was an historical event that saw the pre-sale high estimate of £2 million exceeded by 228% and set 28 world auction records. Importantly, it was a celebration of Driscoll’s cultural legacy.
Working in close collaboration with Ben Williams, International Ceramics Consultant at Phillips, to bring this group of works to auction has been an extraordinary privilege as we had both known Driscoll for many years. He was a well-known and respected art dealer and scholar from New York specialising in the Hudson River School and American painting who began collecting ceramics in the mid-1970s. Over the course of nearly 50 years he amassed a collection of nearly 1,500 pots, which he surrounded himself with in his home.
Driscoll had an ambitious vision for his collection. I cannot think of another assemblage that goes into such depth for such a broad range of artists. However, it was his desire to seek out the ‘famous’ pots, which told the story of a movement, that gave him the most joy and makes this collection stand out above all others. Driscoll’s intention for his retirement years had been to record those stories, the story of a collection, of a movement and of the artists he so admired. Sadly, his unexpected death in 2020 meant that those stories were left untold. In making this selection from the Driscoll collection for the Art of Fire auction, both Ben and I had a genuine desire and sense of responsibility to try and tell those stories, both for the posterity of the collection, the history of British studio ceramics and to honour Driscoll, a remarkable collector. With his early career in academia, Driscoll was first introduced to ceramics in the 1970s while working under Bill Hull, Director of Penn State Museum of Art. Hull’s 1976 exhibition Twenty-Four British Potters would prove to be a revelation to Driscoll.
Bernard Leach, Charger with ‘Tree of Life’ design, circa 1924
As he explained in his interview with Glenn Adamson for the publication Things of Beauty Growing: ‘My first purchases from the Twenty-Four British Potters show were outstanding works, yet economically modest… After I brought those initial pots, I was just viscerally, intellectually and aesthetically energised, and focused on the quest to see more and acquire more.’
The appeal was instant, and this quest was to become an important part of Driscoll’s life as he discovered a rich artistic movement that was defined by its vitality and inventive creativity. It was his desire to seek out the ‘famous’ pots, which told the story of a movement, that makes this collection stand out above all others.
The auction opened with Lot 1, Bernard Leach’s Charger with ‘Tree of Life’ design from circa 1924, a major work from Leach’s earliest time at the Leach Pottery in St Ives, Cornwall. A museum-quality piece, it captivated an international audience and broke the first artist world auction record of the day when it sold for £97,020, setting the tone for the rest of the sale. Twenty-Four British Potters introduced Driscoll to a group of ceramic artists active in the 1970s, including Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Joanna Constantinidis and Elizabeth Fritsch, amongst others. Lot 80 in the auction was a small Lucie Rie footed bowl from that very same exhibition with bright golden glaze and diagonal sgraffito design that was offered with an estimate of £20,000-30,000 but went on to sell for £119,700. The historical context resonated with Driscoll’s academic inclination, allowing him to explore the aesthetic and cultural connections between artists and developments within British studio ceramics, but also beyond, exploring the cultural cross-pollination between East and West as he expanded his collection to include important Japanese and European ceramics.
Hans Coper, Ovoid pot with disc top, circa 1972 Stoneware, layered porcelain slips and engobes over a textured body, the neck and disc with manganese glaze. SOLD FOR £163,800
A perfect example of this cross-pollination was Lot 8, the Aeroplane Water Pot by the celebrated Nigerian potter Ladi Kwali, one of four in Driscoll’s collection. Bernard Leach’s first pupil Michael Cardew worked with Kwali at Abuja, Nigeria, in the 1950s. The work created there amalgamated Cardew’s Eastern-influenced high-fired glazed stoneware techniques with the regional stylistic vernacular. Kwali’s work is admired for her powerful use of incised and inlaid stylised zoomorphic designs, however, this pot is one of only two known works to include a less naturalistic reference – an airplane. The uniqueness of this particular work will unquestioningly have contributed to the high levels of interest that saw competitive bidding push the final price to £132,300 – over 10 times the previous artist record. Most notably it was those ‘famous’ pots with exceptional provenance – the ones that told the stories that have become part of studio pottery folklore – that Driscoll most enjoyed searching out and most resonated with collectors around the world, resulting in an extraordinary depth in bidding. One such work was a rare early bowl and saucer by Lucie Rie made in Vienna circa 1936.
The form is pure modernism, reflecting the cultural and artistic environment where Rie’s career was already thriving. Forced to f lee Vienna in 1938, Rie was able to take just a few prized pots with her. This was one of those precious works, wrapped in her clothes in her suitcase, and it remained in her personal collection for her entire life, eventually sold in her estate sale in 1997, where it was purchased by Driscoll.
A further highlight included a historically important Bernard Leach raku slipware dish, made in Japan in 1917 with an inscription by William Blake that was successfully acquired by the Crafts Study Centre, Farnham. The estate had already arranged to donate Driscoll’s extensive archive material on Leach to the Crafts Study Centre, making this a particularly special acquisition.
The first of the Hans Coper lots to set a new world auction record was the famous Monumental ‘Writhlington School’ Pot from 1972. On moving to Frome in Somerset, Coper and his wife Jane approached a local school that had a farm unit asking if they could buy one of their goats. The school suggested that rather than selling them a kid, Coper could perhaps exchange it for a pot. Despite his work already being far more costly than the price of a goat, Coper chose to give them the largest single work he is known to have made, inscribing it to the underside ‘HC To Writhlington School. Thank you for Jennea the Goat’. Following a 15-minute bidding war, this pot achieved seven times the low estimate, reaching a final price of £554,400. This was later exceeded by Coper’s Monumental Ovoid Pot, that sold for a record £651,700.
Lucie Rie, Footed bowl, circa 1960 Porcelain, managanese glaze with fine sgraffito grid design repeated inside and out. SOLD FOR £207,900
The record-breaking prices achieved in this sale are testament to Driscoll’s knowledge and understanding of these ceramicists and their artistic expression at such pivotal points in their careers. What is notable is that it isn’t just the acknowledged ‘masters’ of Bernard Leach, Lucie Rie and Hans Coper that realised record prices but artists across the spectrum of the movement, from ‘traditionalists’ including Michael Cardew, David Leach, Janet Leach and Richard Batterham, to ‘contemporary’ makers such as James Tower, Ian Godfrey, Angus Suttie, Alison Britton, Richard Slee and Akiko Hirai, amongst many other celebrated artists.
My hope is that this first presentation from Driscoll’s collection will prove to be a unique opportunity to catalyse a re-evaluation of the cultural significance of studio ceramics. Driscoll was never in any doubt that ceramics could provide a vehicle for artistic expression equal to painting and sculpture. His eye for quality and nose for a story has brought us a collection that has made history and will resonate for years to come. It is a legacy to be proud of and Maak looks forward to presenting further selections from this historic collection in 2022 and 2023.
For more details visit maaklondon.com; phillips.com
Hans Coper, Large 'Bell' form, circa 1966 Stoneware, layered porcelain slips and engobes over a textured body, the neck, lip and interior with a manganese glaze. SOLD FOR £516,600