Our use of pottery for everyday rituals dates back to before the Neolithic period, but today we appreciate the subtle beauty of ceramics. Here, Julia Bagguley discusses the history of pottery in relation to artist Jennifer Lee’s work, currently on show at Kettle’s Yard.
An Introduction to Pottery: Reflections & Evolution
The classicist, Mary Beard is on the record as saying
‘It’s a bit naff, but there is something exciting about pulling a bit of pottery out of the ground that’s 2,000 years old.’
The innovative twentieth-century potter, Bernard Leach, repeats this sentiment a little more elegantly:
‘as far back as one goes in time, the works of humanity from prehistoric times have reached us not through stone, which crumbles and wears away, nor through metal which oxidizes and becomes like powder but through slabs of pottery, the writing on which is as clear today as it was under the stiletto of the scribe who traced it.’
Ceramic pots are some of the very earliest artefacts created. The primary needs of earthly cultures can be traced through bowls, vases, dishes, beakers, plates and models, all of which touch every facet of human life. Not a day goes by when anyone reading this review doesn’t touch or use something created by this combination of earth and fire, from your favourite coffee mug to utilitarian sanitary ware.
At its highest aesthetic are the exquisite porcelain creations of the Imperial factories in Jingdezhen, north-eastern China, where the kilns have been in existence for over 1,700 years, in addition to the eighteenth-century output of the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres between Paris and Versailles, both of which are still in business today in 2019. Mass manufacture in Britain has prospered from the seventeenth-century factories in Derby, Stoke-on-Trent, London and Worcester, their finest wares imitating the innovative factory at Meissen pioneered by the Electors of Saxony.
Studio Potters: The Debate
The studio potter, however, is a more recent phenomenon. In the late nineteenth / early twentieth century there emerged a new ‘school’ of the ceramic genre. Initially in response to the traditional craftsmanship of the Arts and Crafts movement, there grew a disparate group of artist-craftsmen and women creating their own individual and unique pieces.
There is little conformity – studio pieces cover a wide range of techniques and the jury is out on a definition – even the participants agree to disagree. Put simply: objects are designed, modelled, formed, thrown, decorated, glazed and fired by the designer in small workshops either alone or with a small number of skilled assistants. Household names include Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Ewen Henderson and, still active, Edmund de Waal, Grayson Perry, Rupert Spira, Roger Law and Richard Slee.
Jennifer Lee: The Development of an Aesthetic
Which brings us to Jennifer Lee. Born in Aberdeenshire, she began her artistic career working in both ceramics and tapestry but made clay her primary material from 1980 whilst studying at the Royal College of Art.
Since then she has followed those early studio pioneers, primarily led by Bernard Leach, who dismantled notions of clay as a medium confined to those functional forms and domestic environments. The roots of her process lie in the earliest forms of clay ‘forming’. Her pots are characterised by their smooth surfaces and rich colours, using colours from metallic oxides added to clay carefully selected for its strength and texture. Creating is deceptively simple – there’s no glazing or use of the potter’s wheel. Starting with a pinch pot base, the piece is painstakingly constructed by hand by coiling lengths of clay and forming into unconventional contoured shapes. She then scrapes the surface back slowly and carefully to ensure the clay is compacted and the surface is smooth before very high firing. All this takes time and Lee produces less than a score of pieces each year. David Attenborough – a discerning collector of studio pottery – observes:
‘Because she does not use glaze, her subtle colours and misty shades come not from a veil draped over the pot but from within its very substance, as in the face of a cliff. There must also be a sensitivity to shape and material linked to a kind of daring that comes from an instinctive understanding of both. It is this which fuels true creation and gives her work such distinction and beauty.
This aesthetic has enabled Lee to progress beyond the simple process of forming to interact between her materials and the elements. Her completed objects reflect time, place and processes both ancient and contemporary – or, as Edmund de Waal has observed, ‘the embodiment of place – complex and intriguing.’
Recognition of Lee and Her Work
Initially inspired by a travelling scholarship to the United States, she visited contemporary West Coast ceramic artists and researched ancient Southwest Native American ceramics. From 1980 to 1983 she continued to develop forming techniques in coloured clay using these traditional methods at the Royal College of Art in London. Since then her travels have included inspirational visits to Egypt, India, Japan, the United States and Europe.
She has built up a following of discerning admirers and is not short of private collectors; there is a profound ‘must have’ element about her finished work. Her pots are also found in prestigious institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum, the V&A and the British Museum and she has had retrospective exhibitions in museums in Göteborg and Aberdeen.
In 2006 she was invited to take part in an installation by Issey Miyake at his foundation in Tokyo. This display of her pots appeared to float on the surface of a crystal clear shimmering pool of gently moving water behind which cascaded a wide waterfall.
Lee’s work at Kettle’s Yard
Lee’s current exhibition at Kettle’s Yard is her first solo exhibition of work in a UK public space since 1994. The exhibition, filling one gallery, consists of 40 works including those from her early career and a number of new works which have been specially made for the exhibition at Kettle’s Yard.
Some are mounted on a breathtakingly large but simple single plinth deliberately raised to be exactly the height of Lee’s studio workbench. This has been created by Jamie Fobert, Architects – designers of the new Kettle’s Yard extension – and evolved through visits to her studio in Camberwell, south London and through conversations about emphasising the scale of human experience. A number of works are also on display in the Kettle’s Yard House, bringing together contemplation of image, sculpture and ceramics in a domestic setting.
The exhibition makes two strong statements. If you want to see works of art at their most simple and sublime – ‘subdued elegance’ – then this is a display that embodies all these qualities. It confirms the place of contemporary studio ceramics as an independent and distinct art form, occupying its own space and freed from the increasingly obsolete ‘art versus craft’ debate.
It also emphasizes the personal intensity and process of creation – be it a painting, an object or a piece of writing. I leave the last word to that great Renaissance man, Primo Levi, writing about how the world works and, in particular, the creative role of the craftsman:
‘[You] have the advantage of testing yourself, not depending on others, reflecting yourself in your work and the pleasure of seeing your creation grow…. and when it is finished you look at it and think ‘it will live longer than me’’.
Jennifer Lee: the potter’s space will be shown at Kettle’s Yard from the 9th July until 22nd September 2019. Click here to find out more information about the exhibition and here to find out more about Jennifer Lee and her work.
A small display of Jennifer Lee’s work is also being shown at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 22nd September 2019; click here for more information.
Feature Image: Installation view of Jennifer Lee: the potter’s space at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. 2019. Photography: Stephen White.