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Tompsett, Deborah - VM - Jonathan Evens

Deborah Tompsett: A Thousand Bottles of Tears

Eloquent Tears

by Jonathan Evens

‘I Can’t Cry Hard Enough’ is a song by David Williams and Marvin Etzioni that I first heard on a Victoria Williams album. It captures a common experience of grief and raises the question as to what happens to all those tears that we cry.

Deborah Tompsett began making tear bottles in September 2007 as a response to her wondering what sort of vessel could contain our most private prayers and expressions, that no one but God hears. Her inspiration for such a container originated with Psalm 56:8, ‘You number my wanderings; put my tears into your bottle; are they not in your Book?’ But, as she researched the idea, she also discovered the ancient tradition of pilgrims carrying tear-shaped vessels as they journeyed.

Deborah’s installation ‘A Thousand Bottles of Tears’ was first exhibited in 2015 in various parts of Chichester Cathedral and has since won the 2018 Chaiya Art Awards. Each of the tear bottles in the installation have been formed from a heart-shaped lump of clay, varying from the size of a baby's fist to that of a large male. An individual’s fist size is estimated to be the same as the size of their heart.

Deborah has used a variety of clays and mark-making techniques to ensure that each tear jar is individual – as is our experience of grief – and that the surface marks vary and intrigue evoking differing responses to grief. In more recent installations she has introduced a degree of visitor participation with words written on paper by visitors placed in chosen bottles and re-kilned. The process of re-firing transforms each bottle as the paper turns to ash within the bottles and some pots gain new markings, providing a visual and tactile record of the words offered.

Following the initial installation, Deborah has collaborated with TV producer John Forrest and his daughter Mandy Johnson to explore the emotional impact of the tear bottles and create ideas for future projects raising awareness of mental health issues and giving individuals opportunities to tell their stories. A tear bottles website ( takes this aspect of the initiative forward by providing opportunities to get involved.

Deborah began by seeking a vessel to hold our tears of sorrow and joy, our shouts of pain and grief, our questions and thanksgivings. As Williams and Etzioni state, now that our loved one is gone, we can't cry hard enough for that person to hear us now. Nevertheless our tears, as Washington Irving remarked, are not a mark of weakness, but of power: ‘They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition and of unspeakable love.’ That is why there is ‘a sacredness in tears’, a sacredness that is captured and held in this installation. ‘Hear my prayer, O Lord, and let my cry come unto thee.’


Deborah Tompsett: A Thousand Bottles of Tears2015, tear bottles from heart-shaped lumps of clay.

Deborah Tompsett, B.A Fine Art/Sculpture, is a Sussex-based artist whose work encompasses ceramics, sculpture and painting. She is strongly committed to working within her community, collaborating with schools, care homes and inter-generational groups to create works together that reflect the uniqueness of each setting and its participants. Her personal artwork continues this engagement with the world and the people around her, their contribution often extending and enriching the narrative of each piece. She embraces the accidental and experimental in the process of making art and uses the visual and tactile language of texture, colour, and light to explore the idea of 'the poetry of living space'. She is a judge for the Chaiya Art Awards 2020.

Jonathan Evens is Associate Vicar, Partnership Development at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, England. A keen blogger, he posts regularly on issues of faith and culture at His journalism and art criticism ranges from Pugin to U2 and has appeared in a range of publications, including Artlyst and Church Times. He runs a visual arts organisation called commission4mission, which encourages churches to commission contemporary art and, together with the artist Henry Shelton, has published two collections of meditations and images on Christ's Passion. Together with the musician Peter Banks he has published a book on faith and music entitled ‘The Secret Chord’.     

ArtWay Visual Meditation 16 June 2019