“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,”
From ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, John Keats
On the high work table in Jennifer Lee’s small, neat studio, at the back of her home in South London, stands an array of pots. All are variations on the classic cylinder and bowl, with no spouts or handles to detract from the purity of their forms. The bowls flare symmetrically from a tiny foot, while the cylinders spring upwards chastely, seeming to embrace the space they hold. Some of the cylinders curve in slightly at the shoulder, others have their openings on a slant, or a thickened lip; they come in a variety of sizes, yet always on a domestic scale. There are no glazes, just the colour of the stoneware itself mixed with oxides which Lee sources from all over the world.
The colours range from the palest cream to dark metallic blues, across an organic spectrum of greens, browns, and greys, with bands of oxides creating flares and haloes. This deliberately limited palette of colours and effects delivers a continually surprising range of results. And while as a group the pots represent an almost musical arrangement of theme and variations (indeed the pots chime each with a different note when you tap them), every one is also like a complete world, spinning on its own axis, with its own unique geology and weather. It is not just that the surfaces, with their speckles and streaks, their flecks and flashes, evoke so atmospherically pebbles and rock strata, lightning and thunder, clouds parting at sunset or the canopy of the universe. It is more that you have the illusion, as you become attuned to their subtle variety, that each pot, more than simply alluding to the physical processes of nature, in some sense recapitulates them, compacting clay into planet, colour into climate. The product of years of thoughtful practice, these vessels seem also to resonate on a cosmological scale.
Jennifer Lee has been making pots for over thirty years. A farmer’s daughter from Aberdeenshire, stirred by that remote landscape, she had thought she would do geology or geography. In the end however Lee studied ceramics and tapestry at Edinburgh, using brown, grey and black wool for tapestry and throwing crackle-glazed Raku pots. It was here that she was first introduced to the idea of using raw, unglazed stoneware and coloured clay. A scholarship to the United States in 1979 introduced her to the abstract expressionist work of Peter Voulkos and other west coast potters, and to the prehistoric pottery of Southwest Native Americans. But it was at the Royal College of Art that Lee finally settled upon the method, hand-building, and the form, the classic vessel, that have preoccupied her ever since.
Undeflected by fashion, and encouraged by a visit to Egypt while at the RCA, Lee has continued to experiment and refine her own particular process: a tiny pinched and coiled base, then thick strips slowly hand built, building both from the inside and the outside, then cutting back to run different coloured oxides through the body, as lithe as a pencil line, before cutting or refining the lip. Then Lee scrapes and burnishes the leather hard pot - not to create a sheen but to compact the clay and unite the layers into one, like sedimentary rock. It is a slow process - Lee makes no more than twenty pots a year - and each stage is meticulously planned and recorded. Dangling from her work bench are Lee’s trial discs of coloured clays and oxides, while beneath her feet are massed plastic bags of clay which have gradually changed their qualities over the years, under Lee’s fascinated observation. While Lee makes only brief notes and sketches before embarking on a pot, setting herself rough parameters of colour and form, once it is fired she makes a finished drawing with detailed notes. As she suggests “The drawing of the pot leads me into the next pot.” By contrast, Jennifer Lee does not like to talk about her own pots. The simple descriptions - “Pale olive, three peat bands, flashes”; “Speckled shale, haloed granite bands, tilted shelf” - refuse any narrative or visual association, however expansively suggestive viewers find the pots themselves.
Despite this fierce commitment to her tough discipline, however, there is nothing parochial or narrow about Lee’s work. The shelves in her studio reflect her travels in India, Japan, the United States and Europe. There are dried seed pods, shells and feathers and the sun-bleached bones of exotic fish and birds, while on the wall are pinned Morandi drawings. Her pots allude back to the oldest traditions of pot-making in the world - Egyptian canopic jars or the beakers made by the Beaker folk of Aberdeen or ancient Japanese Jōmon pieces - and yet, in their simplicity of form and depth of resonance, they are also resolutely modern.
Emma Crichton-Miller is an art critic and and writer with a special interest in ceramics