Modern British & Irish Art

The Artistic Journey of Contemporary Ceramicist Jennifer Lee

By Robin Cawdron-Stewart
Sotheby's Made in Britain sale on 10 September will bring to auction a selection of the most celebrated British contemporary artists, including potter Jennifer Lee.

T hroughout the summer, Kettle’s Yard – a beautiful and unique house in Cambridge and a touchstone of Modern British Art – presents Jennifer Lee: a potter’s space, an exhibition of forty pieces by the leading ceramicist and her first solo presentation in a UK public gallery since 1994. For those familiar with the field of contemporary ceramics Jennifer’s name will not be a new one, but for many this show will mark their first introduction to a potter who, to many, is seen as the natural inheritor to the most celebrated ceramicist of the twentieth-century – Dame Lucie Rie. This beautiful exhibition charts the journey and evolution of her works from the late 1980s through to pieces fresh from the kiln this year.

Jennifer Lee in her studio, 1988, photograph © Jake Tilson

Writing in the introduction to Lee’s first solo show at Galerie Besson in London in 1990 (the gallery who represented Lucie Rie from the 1980s onwards), ceramics aficionado Sir David Attenborough commented that

"New voices that are not strident but modest, that are restrained yet bold, are rare indeed on the contemporary ceramic scene. When they are heard, they bring a new delight and refreshment. This is one."
Sir David Attenborough, 1990

Born in Aberdeenshire in 1956 Lee did not have her first experience of ceramics until she was sixteen – working for the potter Robin Welch in Suffolk. Clay caught her imagination and in 1975 she enrolled at Edinburgh College of Art studying Ceramics and Tapestry, with tutors that included the painter Elizabeth Blackadder. Following graduation in 1979 Lee spent eight months on a travelling scholarship in the U.S.A., absorbing the prehistoric pottery of Arizona and New Mexico, before embarking on a three-year MA at the Royal College of Art in London.

Jennifer Lee, Left: Hand-Built Pot, 1980, Estimate £2,000–3,000, Right: Hand-Built Porcelain Pot, 1979-80, Estimate £600–800

As part of Sotheby’s 10 September Made In Britain sale we are delighted to be offering two early works from this period, acquired directly from the artist by the present owner and making their first appearance on the open market. These delicate hand-built vessels in porcelain and coloured stoneware display her influences of the time, including latterly her travels in North America.

Jennifer Lee in her studio, 1988, Photograph © Jake Tilson

Also included in the sale, from the same private collection are two later works made during her time at the Royal College of Art. With a palette that is more recognisable within the context of her later works, these display the development of her understanding of form, including the introduction of the tilted rim – a motif that would feature heavily in her work of the late ‘80s and beyond.

Jennifer Lee, Left: Hand-Built Banded Asymmetric, October 1980, Estimate £3,000–5,000, Right: Dark, Banded, Asymmetric, Curved Polished Rim, 1982, Estimate £4,000–6,000

Lee’s work is now collected across the globe, with pieces held in almost every major museum of ceramic art. In 2018 she was the recipient of the Loewe Craft Prize, and this summer’s exhibition at Kettle’s Yard seems the culmination of forty years of work and development

Jennifer Lee in her studio, 1988, photograph © Jake Tilson

To see these early pieces in the Made In Britain sale – all of which pre-date the earliest of the works at Kettle’s Yard – is to fully appreciate the origins of her artistic journey. Of immense importance, they capture an artist of great promise at the very beginning of a journey that would take her on to become one of the most celebrated, successful and recognised names within the field of ceramics today.

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