The Independent Collector: John Windsor's Guide To Collecting Contemporary Art: Tessa Clegg

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The Independent Culture
YOU MIGHT think that winning this year's Jerwood Prize for glass would prompt queues to form outside Tessa Clegg's London gallery. Except that, although she is British-born and lives and works in London, she has no gallery here. To buy a Clegg fresh from the kiln you would need to call the galleries that represent her in Paris and Basel.

The reason - you have guessed - is that the Brits have not yet woken up to contemporary glass, unlike the Europeans. Clegg, 52, has spent 17 years since graduating from Stourbridge College of Art sending photographs of her work to British galleries, to little avail. But that is hardly surprising, considering that Britain has no commercial gallery dedicated to its own contemporary glass work.

"I had given up on this country," she says. "We produce so many good artists, but we would rather lag the roof than buy art."

Clegg's reputation was made by her showing at an independently-curated European biennial art fair - the Venice Aperto Vetro of 1996. In the past year alone, she has been awarded commissions by the Corning Glass Museum, New York, the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Paris - and the V&A in London. At least the Prime Minister showed some appreciation by displaying her work at the G8 summit in Birmingham in June - where foreign political leaders recognised it more readily than their British counterparts did.

What do foreigners see that most Brits don't? For a start, Clegg is pioneer of the lost-wax technique in kiln-cast glass. Kiln-casting is itself relatively new, having revolutionised glass-making in America in the 1960s. All eight entries shortlisted for the Jerwood Prize were cast, not blown.

Melting coloured glass fragments into a mould can produce some unexpected and delightful shapes, but Clegg has brought a new sophistication to this process by using lost-wax moulds - in which thin, delicate seams of wax are steamed out of plaster moulds, leaving a cavity to be filled with molten glass. The method gives her total control of the process and allows her to remain faithful to the vessel shape.

The glass bottles shown here, though only 20cm high, look monumental because of their perfect form. Her eye locates the prime proportions of the ancients - the "golden section", for example - then departs slightly from it. Such works spend 10 days in the kiln prior to three or four days of grinding and polishing.

The play of light in enclosed spaces is her signature. The three "Play Boxes" exhibited in Venice are hollow, red, geometric shapes free-standing in clear glass dishes. At first glance, the hollow shapes look solid, teasing our ability to cognise hidden space. Her work has wit.

She sees herself not as an artist, but as a glass-maker. "I'm firmly rooted in the applied arts tradition. I make domestic objects, not sculpture". She is a teacher, too. The Jerwood judges chose her, not only for her glass, but for her reputation at the RCA and Middlesex University's glass department - which has just closed down.

Prices: about pounds 1,000 for editions of nine, pounds 3,000 for unique pieces. Galleries: Clara Scremini, Paris (00 331 480 43 242), Von Bartha, Basel (00 41 61 271 63 84). Studio: 0181-985 5276