Guest post by Jo Lloyd, Roseberys London
Deirdre Burnett (1939–2022) was an exceptional potter. Her work immediately demonstrates the skill of someone extremely well-practiced in their craft, with an ability to produce the elegant forms of her earlier porcelain vessels, as well as the impressive volcanic glazes of her later stoneware.
Burnett’s works have been held in major public institutions worldwide, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Auckland Museum, Waikato Art Museum, Perth Museum, Het Princessehof Museum, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, and others. But, astoundingly, her art has never attracted significant attention from the auction world; and despite the tidal wave of interest in studio pottery, her work remains affordable.
On Tuesday, July 4th, London auction house Roseberys will offer a selection of works by a woman who, despite making only small ripples in the auction market for studio pottery, deserves far greater acclaim. Considering the sums being achieved at auction by artists such as Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, it is incredible to think that pottery of this standard commands relatively little. It is only a matter of time before Burnett’s work is recognised in the wider realm, making now an excellent time for discerning collectors to invest in her art.
Who was Deirdre Burnett?
Deirdre Burnett was born in Simla, India, in 1939 and came to England in 1947. Estranged from her regimental army family, she studied sculpture at St. Martins School of Art. But she then took a BA in ceramics at Camberwell School of Art, and decided that she would dedicate herself to work in the field. At Camberwell, she had been heavily influenced by her lecturers, the renowned ceramicists Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. While some have compared her work to that of Rie, Burnett developed her own unique style.
After graduating in 1967, she set up her own pottery in Dulwich, London. At first her output was mainly tableware, turning out endless plates, saucers and mugs for London restaurants—a process which provided income and taught her about technique. As ideas evolved and budgets improved, she began creating vessels or ceramic sculpture with forms mostly thrown and pinched. A magazine article titled “Britain’s 1968 Ceramicists”—with a rather amusing sub-title “(which seems to be the new name for the traditional potters)”—shows a youthful looking Burnett, alongside images of well-known figures including Mo Jupp, Ian Godfrey and others.
During the 1970s and 80s, Burnett’s work took the form of delicate porcelain vessels inspired by her love of flora and fauna, indeed she once won the Lambeth Horticultural Society’s First Prize. This era marked the beginning of her exhibitions, both in the UK and abroad—including in America, Germany and New Zealand.
From June to August 1975, an exhibition at Amalgam in London included work by Burnett alongside that of Gordon Baldwin, Hans Coper, Elizabeth Fritsch, Ewen Henderson, John Maltby, John Ward, and others (30 artists in all). An article in the local newspaper described her as “one of the country’s most up-and-coming young potters.” An exhibition in November/December of the same year was held in Pennsylvania, showcasing her work as one of “Twenty-Four British Potters” alongside Mary Rich, Jacqui Poncelet, Mary Rogers, Lucie Rie, Joanna Constantinidis and others.
The British Crafts Centre and Crafts Advisory Committee “Master-Piece” exhibition of 1977 included a porcelain bowl from Burnett. In December 1980 the Sotheby’s auction “Contemporary British Crafts,” held in association with the British Crafts Centre, showcased four of her works in porcelain. It had been a busy decade.
In 1990 Burnett’s work was featured as part of the exhibition titled “Lucie Rie, Hans Coper & their pupils.” Various exhibitions followed throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s – including a joint show with Ashraf Hanna in 2006, and works featured in the “Designing Modern Women” exhibition held in 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Burnett’s later work utilised stoneware with volcanic glazes created using oxides or materials in the body of the clay that develop during the firing process at around 1280 degrees Celsius—a method which requires a huge amount of skill.
Burnett’s early work is distinctive for its ruffles, or convoluted lobes, as they have previously been described. One wonders whether these forms perhaps reflected the personality of this young woman with a warmth and sense of calm, yet with brittle edges protecting and shielding the centre. Later in life, the pots seem to have become smoother around the edges, reflecting an artist at peace.
An extraordinary life
In her last few years, Burnett embraced modern methods of showcasing her work and had her own Instagram account. Her rather modest profile simply read: “London based ceramic artist. Inspired by growth in Nature. Working in porcelain and clay, using heat control to capture volcanic, reactive glazes.” An understatement for an extraordinary life of creativity.
A selected number of works from the estate of Deirdre Burnett will be offered in the Design Since 1860 sale taking place at Roseberys Auction House on Tuesday, July 4. The sale also features works by other women ceramicists, including Daisy Makeig-Jones, Jacqui Poncelet, Grete Marks and Janet Leach. The auction catalogue can be viewed here.
Jo Lloyd is Head of Department in Decorative Arts at Roseberys London, having joined the auction house in April 2022. As well as being a Senior Specialist, Jo is also an auctioneer. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Antiques, which included academic research on the impact of Islamic ceramic decoration on British decorative ceramics 1860–1910. Jo’s knowledge encompasses works from the Aesthetic, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements, as well as 20th century Studio Pottery.