Through a Window · Sally Tuffin and the Dennis Chinaworks

By Louise Irvine

In the last year, many of us have watched the world through a window. Sally Tuffin’s lockdown experience was in a Victorian rectory in Somerset, England where she runs the Dennis Chinaworks. Her visions of the kitchen garden outside her window and the trees in the wintry woods beyond have inspired a new collection of pots, which are being made by her talented team now that England is opening up.

Sally Tuffin and her husband Richard Dennis moved from London to rural Somerset when their children were young. Richard was an antique dealer specializing in the Arts & Crafts era and they furnished their home with ceramic art by William de Morgan, the Martin Brothers, and Doulton’s Lambeth Art Pottery. I was a frequent visitor to this amazing home, where I researched Richard’s Royal Doulton discoveries for exhibitions and publications. Richard ran his art pottery publishing business from Somerset and launched many of his new titles at his Kensington gallery.

The Swinging Sixties

During the swinging sixties, Sally ran a fashion boutique in Carnaby Street with fellow student Marion Foale. Starting with just two sewing machines and a steam iron, the young fashion designers became a huge success and ultimately kept two factories busy with sales all over the world. Foale & Tuffin made fun ready-to-wear clothes for the new teenage “youthquake” market, including mini-dresses and cutting-edge pantsuits. As Sally once said, "There were no clothes for young people at all. One just looked like one’s mother!" Foale and Tuffin’s trend-setting designs were featured in Vogue magazine, and they designed costumes for pop stars and movie icons including Audrey Hepburn.

A Flair for Fashion

Following the birth of her sons, Magnus and Buchan, Sally began designing children’s clothes for Tuppence Coloured, her own mail-order company, which she ran from Somerset. I remember being dazzled by Sally’s orange and green studio which was decorated with Clarice Cliff’s Bizarre Ware and Goldscheider’s stylish Art Deco figurines that Richard found for her. Many years later, Sally was the star of the first WMODA exhibition A Flair for Fashion, which featured pots inspired by French couturiers such as Worth and Poiret. We also displayed Sally’s designs of the sensational dancer, Josephine Baker, including novel head-shaped pots, which can be seen today in our Carnival & Cabaret exhibition. This exhibition also features Sally’s Circus collection depicting famous clowns and acrobats performing.

Frocks to Pots

Sally became increasingly interested in pottery design thanks to Richard’s successful antiques and publishing business. Gradually, she switched from designing frocks to making pots and used her expertise with dressmaking patterns to create ‘outfits’ for vases. She decided to convert the stables of her home into an art pottery, but plans changed in 1986 when she and Richard invested in the Moorcroft Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent. Sally became the Moorcroft Art Director and her successful designs helped reverse the ailing pottery’s fortunes. Sally’s love of nature in all its forms shines through in her best-selling Moorcroft patterns, such as Violets, Finches, and Penguins, which can be seen at WMODA. Many of her pots were sold by Liberty’s of London, a pioneering retailer of Moorcroft and Arts & Crafts design in the early 1900s.

Seduction of the Flower

By 1993, Sally was able to concentrate on her own work again and established the Dennis Chinaworks with a team of local artists and craftsmen. For almost thirty years, Sally’s team has produced distinctive art pottery to her designs, which are hand-thrown and decorated using traditional techniques, including incising, slip-trailing, spinning, and floating color. Many of Sally’s designs have been influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement, including textiles by William Morris and ceramics by William de Morgan. Sally’s studies of flowers, birds, and gardens, including her iconic Sunflowers, were a feature of our second WMODA exhibition Seduction of the Flower and her butterflies and bugs landed in Christopher Marley’s Biophilia exhibit alongside real specimens in 2017. 

Magical Mice

The monumental Doulton stoneware fountain by George Tinworth, which once sat in Richard and Sally’s garden in Somerset, inspired Sally’s unique commissions populated with tiny mice, frogs, and fish. Alan Pepper created the sculptures and molds for all the tiny creatures which have added a novel third dimension to Sally’s designs. He also modeled Tinworth-inspired mice to create a Dennis Chinaworks chess set. Cute little fieldmice scurry through cornfields with poppies and embellish butter dishes, candlesticks, and other practical accessories for the home.

Splash!

Within a few years, Sally’s talents were required at the flagging Poole Pottery in the Dorset seaside town where she created several best-selling designs featuring fish, seagulls, and dolphins. British Airways chose one of her marine designs for their airplane tailfin as part of their Utopia project in 1997. After designing pots, Sally admitted that "Fitting the image to a Boing 757 the size of a three-story building was quite different...but I enjoyed the challenge." Sally often chooses the most unlikely subjects for her ceramic art as shown in our Splash exhibit in 2017 and in our current Dive into WMODA exhibit. Some of her octopus, jellyfish, and lobster designs are trials, which did not go into production. Arthur Wiener acquired many of these extraordinary pieces when we visited the Dennis Chinaworks together in 2012.

The March of the Penguins

Arthur has been a huge fan of Sally’s work since he started buying the pots that she made especially for the Bonhams auctions in London. Sally astonished collectors each year with her unique designs, which brought record prices. Her March of the Penguins featuring 40 tiny birds smashed all records when it sold for £15,720 in 2005 more than six times its estimate! In Arthur’s imagination, the tiny penguins looked like rabbis and he asked Sally to design a special penguin piece as a gift for his Jewish friends and family. This followed the success of Sally’s glittering gold Menorah design which she designed for Arthur in 2010. Sally began experimenting with gold luster decoration for her interpretations of Gustav Klimt’s famous paintings of The Kiss and The Woman in Gold. The stunning golden portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer has haunted Sally ever since it sold for a record price of $135 million in 2006, nearly a century after it was painted. She has revisited the Klimt theme in lockdown creating another magnificent tile plaque.

A Safari for the Soul

Sally’s remarkable journey of the imagination has continued despite the COVID isolation and her new collection includes a combination of nostalgic and innovative designs. She is fortunate to have the support of her family, including her son, Buchan, who now helps with design and production. Let’s hope that throngs of visitors will soon be returning to the Dennis Chinaworks to enjoy the beautiful location, watch the talented team at work, browse the bookshop full of Richard Dennis Publications, and take tea on the lawn. Look out also for some of Sally’s amazing animal pots which will be featured in our Big Five Safari exhibit opening on August 28.

Visit the Dennis Chinaworks virtually

See Foale & Tuffin fashions