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Dennis China - collectible ceramics

Updated on July 1, 2012
source: google images
source: google images

For anyone interested in the world of ceramics, whether collector, enthusiast or dealer the names Richard Dennis and Sally Tuffin will be very familiar. Check your bookshelf and you probably have at least one ceramic or collectables book published by Richard Dennis. No doubt you've also bought, handled, or at the very least seen a piece of pottery designed by Sally Tuffin too. With a shared passion and expertise in the field of ceramics, this successful husband and wife team are the founders of Dennis Chinaworks.

Richard Dennis certainly possesses the business know-how when it comes to the ceramics industry and has worked his magic in marketing the magnificent range of wares that leave the doors of Dennis Chinaworks at Shepton Beauchamp, near Ilminster in Somerset. Although the idea for Dennis Chinaworks was Richard's, it is his wife Sally Tuffin who is referred to as the real inspiration and driving-force behind the creative company.

Sally, who originally trained at the Walthamstow Art School and then the Royal College of Art, became a leading fashion designer during the 'Swinging Sixties'. She set up a dress-making company with friend Marion Foale on London's trendy Carnaby Street. With her roots firmly in design, the transition from clothes to pottery was not too difficult. Sally explained that her fashion background helped enormously. "Once I had decided to treat the pot as a woman I could make the pattern to fit it using pattern cutting techniques. The big plus was being able to draw directly onto the pot - impossible on the body!"

Richard and Sally established the Dennis Chinaworks in Somerset in 1985. However, their own business venture was put on hold for eight years when they focused their attentions on the flagging Moorcroft factory in Stoke-on-Trent. Between 1985-86 Dennis Chinaworks produced two slip-cast fashion figurines and a Bonzo mug - items which are sought after by collectors in today's market. Richard and Sally teamed up with Hugh Edwards and his wife, Maureen, to invest in the renowned Moorcroft Pottery, a factory which was very much in decline during the mid-1980s.

While Richard concentrated his efforts on building-up the collectors' club, Sally took over design at the factory, encouraged in her work by the late Walter Moorcroft (son of William, the Moorcroft's founder). Speaking of her experience at Moorcroft Pottery, Sally said: "I was thrown in at the deep end, but luckily I love swimming. Walter was my lifebuoy and tutor."

She came up with fresh and creative approaches to the traditional techniques of slip-trailing and handpainting and by 1993 the Moorcroft factory was flourishing again. With the Moorcroft mission successfully completed, the Dennis' left the company in the hands of their partners in order to re-establish Dennis Chinaworks in Somerset. From 1993 onwards it's gone from strength to strength - expanding from a workforce of three (operating from a studio set up in the Dennis household), to 14 employees working from a production area and worksho in converted old stables in Shepton Beauchamp. When Richard and Sally were initially getting the Chinaworks off the ground they employed local studio potter, Rory McCleod, who already ran his own pottery studio. Rory helped Dennis China achieve its distinctive style and remains master potter with the company today, assisted by Chris Wright.

The Dennis pottery team is very close-knit. Decorators have direct involvement in the design processes, the creation of colour and pattern and are fully responsible for their pot. If you look at Dennis China you'll see the impressed date and painted designer's mark, for example Sally Tuffin will be 'ST. des.' The company is renowned as a producer of decorative pottery, with a contemporary approach to colour, pattern and design, reflecting the style and traditions of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

However, there is a wide scope of patterns to choose from, whether you have a taste for modern designs or the more traditional you won't have trouble finding something to suit. Inspiration has been drawn from William Morris, abstract art, textiles, ancient Egypt and of course nature. It's possible to find wares baring flowers, birds, insects, fish and animals, from zebras and lions to camels and kangaroos.

The colours used for each design provide the pieces with a common theme. Just look at the papery red of the poppy, the gritty texture of the elephant and the iridescence of the dragonfly. Colours are rich yet subtle and evoke a strong emotional response. Commercial colours and natural oxides are combined with continuing experimentation to create new colours, new effects and new finishes. This is what gives Dennis China a very distinctive and recognisable identity.

There's certainly a strong following of Dennis China, for both retail items and retired (secondary) pieces, with special limited editions being particularly favourable with collectors. There's such a wide range of Dennis China pieces out there, from larger pots, jugs and vases to lidded boxes, biscuit barrels and miniatures, and since 1993 approximately 125 designs have been produced.

Pieces that have become particularly scarce include the Green Poppy design (with inscription), Autumn Fruit and those designs based on William Morris and early geometries to name but a few. However, the most expensive Dennis China item sold so far is 'The Bee Pot', a special one-off commission piece designed by Sally Tuffin (but a piece that became very much a team effort at the works). The pot realised an impressive £13,225 on an estimate of a mere £800-1,200, at a Bonhams auction. The large covered vase (28cm high) is decorated with bees and honeycomb with additional modelled bees applied in full relief.

In the same Bonhams sale other Dennis pieces also did well. 'Green Koi', a large vase (37.5cm high) with several brightly coloured koi on a yellow ground was potted by Rory Mcleod and painted by Vanessa Whitmore. It sold for £978 on an estimate of £300- 500. 'Red Poppy', a lidded circular box painted by Michelle Sutton with red poppies and blue leaves on a green ground, baring the words 'Here is the Flower of Dreams for Thee, Then Will You Sometimes Dream of Me', sold for £633 on an estimate of £100-200. And a bulbous vase decorated by Heidi Warr and potted by Rory McLeod, known as 'White Lion' realised £1,093 on an estimate of £200-300. They may not quite match the performance of The Bee Pot, but that is a hard act to follow.

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