This image, which has become iconic in the life of
The Circle Works, is one of the first things you see
when you enter our building in Bethnal Green.
A work of art in this circular form is called a tondo.
The pieces of broken pot that make up the Tondo were gathered by a nine-year-old
child – we’ll call her Lisa – who in her short life had already faced unimaginable
challenges. Jeannette was asked by the school to give Lisa some supportive space.
Jeannette would collect Lisa from her classroom each week. Each week, Lisa went
through the same ritual. She would untie an imaginary pony from its imaginary
tethering post, gallop down the corridor, and tie the pony up again outside the room
where they worked together.
During this time, Lisa and her brother and sister were told that they were being taken
into care and sent to three separate foster homes – though where they really wanted
to be was with their mum. Soon after, when Jeannette arrived at the classroom, Lisa
said she had something to give her, and when she opened her hand, it was full of
fragments of domestic china that she had dug up in the school garden. Would
Jeannette keep them safe?
Week after week the same thing was repeated. Week after week, the china was
carefully washed and dried, and the two of them would spend their time poring over
each piece and asking themselves questions about it. What had it been? Where might
it have come from? Who did it belong to? Why was there so much broken china in this
Jeannette had been entrusted by Lisa with the care of all the fragments, and for a while
she kept them in a bag in the boot of her car; but she soon began to feel quite strongly
that as a place of safekeeping this did not do them justice. One evening, when she
was on her own at The Circle Works, she felt she had to go out to her car and bring
the fragments inside. She felt a pressing need to honour them somehow, as a way of
taking Lisa seriously and paying tribute to their work together.
Jeannette emptied the pieces out of the bag on to a small round table, and examined
them. As she attended to the fragments in front of her, she found herself, without any
particular intention, beginning to move them about on the surface, and by the time
she left work that night, she had created the Tondo.
For several weeks, the pieces remained in the same arrangement on the table. Many
visitors were intrigued by them, and the story of their provenance was told many
times. We even had the image photographed professionally. But Jeannette was
struggling with serious doubts. Surely the fragments belonged to Lisa. Did Jeannette
have the right to use them in this way? Wasn’t she betraying the faith the child had
placed in her?
Lisa, meanwhile, never asked about the fragments. She was content to leave them in
Jeannette’s care until, not long before she was to leave primary school, she asked for
them back. She used the most colourful pieces for her own design, and returned the
rest to Jeannette. They remain to this day in a carved box at The Circle Works.
* * * * * * *
Years later, Jeannette was in the London Chest Hospital. Visiting her there, I couldn’t
help noticing the woman in the next bed. Large and loud, she was often surrounded
by visitors of all ages. Even in that setting, it would never have surprised me to see
her with a large drink in one hand and a fag in the other.
I was sitting by Jeannette’s bed one day when our quiet conversation was suddenly
interrupted by this woman’s voice penetrating the curtain. ‘Ere, is your name
Jeannette? My daughter reckons she knows you.’
Tentatively, a shy seventeen year old put her head round the screen. Jeannette’s face
lit up. ‘Hello,’ she said. ‘Geoffrey, this is Lisa!’
For a few minutes, Lisa and I enjoyed the company of Jeannette as if she were well
again, the Jeannette who was always at her warmest and most animated in the
company of the young, especially teenagers. As things turned out, it was to be the
final encounter in a lifetime of work with children and young people: and how strange,
and how right it was that out of the thousands of youngsters Jeannette had known,
it was Lisa, the muse of the Tondo, who said the last goodbye.