A Bouquet of Porcelain Flowers

Ellen McDermott © Mallett Antiques / Clare Potter

Artist Clare Potter’s lifelike sculptures display painstaking detail and sell out in a flash.

In the weeks leading up to a Clare Potter porcelain show at the Manhattan gallery of antiques dealer Mallett, director Henry Neville’s phone starts to ring a little more often. On the other end are fine-art collectors and members of New York’s social set eager to scoop up her latest sculptures of fruits, vegetables and flowers. “Everyone wants to know how much longer until they can buy,” Neville says.

The obsession with Potter’s work goes beyond the double take of disbelief that the ruffled leaves of a head of lettuce aren’t really wet with dew, or that the tiny bell-shaped blooms topping the stalks of a bouquet of lily of the valley aren’t filling the air with heady scent. It’s also the limited quantity: It takes Potter three years to create 32 pieces, and they sell out within hours of going on display. So hurry, her current exhibition closes November 2.

Potter’s work is often compared with that of Meissen or Sèvres, but “those porcelain manufacturers had teams of artisans applying themselves to different aspects of production,” says Neville. “One would do the sculpting and firing, another would apply the paint. Potter does everything herself.” She does not use a wheel or molds—instead, out of her studio on the Upper East Side, she painstakingly sculpts every leaf, bud, pea pod, fruit and stem, as well as all the various baskets and containers that hold her arrangements, from a solid block of clay. She fires her pieces only once, and after eight hours or so, she paints the bisque surfaces with watercolors, never using glaze. This accounts for the delicate, varied appearance of each object and detail she forms.

The sensitivity with which Potter invests her natural subjects is the result of her attention to the telltale minutiae of all stages of life and how the progress of time affects the outward appearance of every living thing. Each cherry in a basketful is expressing a moment—some are perfectly ripe, with deep crimson skins; others are on their way out, with almost black complexions. In her floral bouquets, the imperfection of flowers that have seen their peak still holds a proud place in the scheme of the total arrangement. You might even spy an insect making a home in one of the blossoms.

Each fragile curve and nuance in her work defines a mysterious world of its own. And that’s exactly her aim. “She is not producing product, and she refuses to do so,” says Neville. “She is creating one-of-a-kind pieces of art that happen to be in the medium of porcelain sculpture.”

Potter’s works, which start at $8,000, are available exclusively through Mallett, 929 Madison Ave.; mallettantiques.com.