Paul Bailey looks at the mysterious work of Jean Tolkovsky


Jean Tolkovsky

Jean Tolkovsky.

Jean has always been an avid reader and having spent so much time reading to her children, she decided her work should focus on childhood memories and experiences that could be portrayed through the characters inspired by fairytales and nursery rhymes.  Her first step was to visit The Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, London, where she studied the way in which toys were constructed – the arms, heads, seams, fabric, ceramic, wood and wheels, etc.




Over time, Jean’s characters reappear but may have altered, and many new ones have emerged, as more of her own story merges with fairytales. New pieces may be inspired by a character, or maybe even a sentence from a novel, with music often influencing her mood.


Jean explained, “While my work may appear whimsical on the surface, there is usually a deeper meaning being conveyed in the story. Personal observations or emotions intermingle with fairytales or characters from a novel. Masks and anthropological characters ask questions about who we really are.”


Jean Tolkovsky Enchanted


For some people, the work is taken at face value, but others make a personal connection with it. Jean aims to produce emotive work that suggests a story (which may be a personal memory or experience) but allows the viewer to place their own interpretation on it.


When working, she uses Earthstone ES5 with 20% grog and bisque-fires to 1150°C, followed by 1000°C glaze firing. Usually, two firings are sufficient, although sometimes she fired for a third time if the colours aren’t right. Some pieces are further embellished with silver or gold leaf, which Jean usually sands back to give a distressed appearance. She commented, “All the work is hand-built either using hollowed coils for limbs, joined-up pinch pots for bodies and heads, or slabs for larger forms, with further modelling of features. The addition of nichrome wire and tacks adds a further dimension and adds to the toy-like appearance.”



‘Cats’ miniatures.

Jean once needed a special glaze and delved into the bucket of glaze tests saved from her time at West Surrey College of Art and Design (now UCA Farnham). A lithium glaze gave her what she was searching for – a dry matt finish that had the appearance of worn fabric. From this, she developed a soft palette of colours by adding oxides or underglaze colours.


Looking back at the creative process, Jean said, “Although I do have a number of sketchbooks, they are mainly filled with scribbled outlines and a lot of text. Often these ideas will remain unexplored for months or years but can suddenly emerge as a new character or piece of work. Right now, I have started to develop a new character inspired by a novel I recently read. I have already made a couple of shelf figures and a small bust of this character, but I plan to produce some larger pieces incorporating drawers and recesses to contain collections of objects related to the story.”

Other new pieces that emerged this year include the ‘Enchanted’ figures. These female figures bearing antlers evoke themes of enchanted woods, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or maybe Sleeping Beauty. With their closed eyes, they appear serene and calming. 


Jean Tolkovsky Jester


Jean Tolkovsky Marsh Girl

‘Marsh Girl’ bust.


You can find Jean’s work in galleries in London, Scotland and Wales, plus many of the major shows such as Farnham and Hatfield.


London Potters

Craft Potters’ Association

Surrey Artists’ Open Studios 

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