Close-up: Tamsin van Essen

How do you infect a jar with cancer? Give it to an artist with sickness on her mind...
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Everyone has a favourite old pot about the house, looking a little worse for a crack here and a chip there. But does it have a disease? A bout of acne? A serious case of cancer? Tamsin van Essen's series of jars do – or at least they appear to. But what's amazing about her Medical Heirlooms series of ailing ceramics is how weirdly beautiful they are: a delicate white veil floats above the raw pink of the jar Psoriasis (pictured); Osteoporosis, meanwhile, first mottles at the neck then crumbles away at the lip.

"I was looking at the way old medical specimens are displayed in places such as The Hunterian Museum, in these amazing, shiny glass jars – when you look closer there are these grim specimens, but they can be beautiful." From this, van Essen pondered the thought that diseases, like heirlooms, are passed down within families. Using her background in science publishing, she began to experiment with shapes based on old apothecary jars and how she might "infect" them. "I wanted to make clay go through a physiological process. For instance, syphilis gives you sores, then corrodes your bones, and I went for both by putting salt in the mix, which would act like a disease, moving within the clay."

A recent show at Sotheby's auction house was a success – yet not everyone realises quite what they're viewing: "My collection wasn't the usual sort of thing you'd find at Sotheby's, so visitors would be looking at a piece, then catch the title and be repulsed."

Van Essen, 33, is coy about what the future holds, but she has recently moved to Prague. "I'm surrounded by all these beautiful, historic buildings, and they have to have an influence on my next project."

Van Essen is showing in Collect, at the Saatchi Gallery, London SW3, Fri-Sun. See more of her art at