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Feats of clay – a very personal collection of studio ceramics comes to auction

20 November 2019

After the multi-million-dollar sales of New York’s Impressionist, modern and contemporary art auctions comes a welcome reminder that works of art that are thoughtful, engaging, and often beautiful are still to be found for tens, hundreds or a few thousand pounds. On 5 December, Oxford auctioneers Mallams present studio pottery from the estate of the late Peter Dingley, MBE. Dingley, who died last year at the ripe old age of 95, was not so much a dealer or a collector as an institution, a pioneer who from 1966 until his retirement in 1991 promoted the very best of British applied arts – he would say crafts – from his gallery in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire. It was, as he put it, ‘a one-man crafts centre’, showing everything from studio glass to weaving, the furniture of John Makepeace and Alan Peters to the joyful automata of Sam Smith. The speciality of the house, however, was studio ceramics.

Dingley’s taste was for the understated and unpretentious. As the craft revival in Britain grew, and the debate intensified as to whether makers were craftsmen or artists, Dingley himself remained wary of work that aspired self-consciously to the condition of ‘art’. His instinct drew him to the tactile surfaces, subtle glazes and all-too-human imperfections of the handmade, and the understanding of how such pieces fed the soul in an age of mass production.

Stoneware bottle vase, c. 1960s, Lucie Rie. Mallams (£6,000–10,000)

Stoneware bottle vase (c. 1960s), Lucie Rie. Mallams (estimate £6,000–10,000)

Although he was a committed regionalist highly critical of the London-centric art world, Dingley’s vision was far from parochial. The great Austrian-born émigré potter Lucie Rie was included in his inaugural exhibition, as was the Japan-trained Bernard Leach, the man regarded as the father of British studio pottery. A Rie solo show reopened the gallery after its relocation in 1983; she claimed that her ceramics had never looked so good – the considered, elegant display was, as always, the work of Dingley’s partner, the textile designer Guido Marchini. The various vessels – now for sale – that were on the shelves of their sitting room are testimony to this and many other friendships, some of them undoubtedly presented as gifts.

Stoneware 'sack' vase, Hans Coper, Mallams (£15,000–£25,000)

Stoneware ‘sack’ vase, Hans Coper. Mallams (estimate £15,000–£25,000)

Striking for their pitted and textured white glazes, for example, are two of Rie’s stoneware vases dating to the 1960s (estimate £3,000–£5,000 and £6,000–£10,000), while a turquoise bowl with a dripped manganese rim is one of several reflecting the potter’s parallel aesthetic of refined forms and brilliant glazes (£2,000–£4,000). It was Rie who introduced Dingley to her one-time assistant Hans Coper, more of a market rarity than the prolific Rie and another star of this sale. He is represented here by a seemingly miraculously poised and balanced ‘Cycladic’ pot (£10,000–£15,000), and a stoneware sack form, its dark, disc-shaped rim in dramatic contrast to its incised and textured body (£15,000–£25,000).

Stoneware vase with metallic lustre glaze, Joanna Constantinidis (1927–2000). Mallams (£200–£400)

Stoneware vase with metallic lustre glaze, Joanna Constantinidis. Mallams (estimate £200–£400)

Dingley described his ‘lodestar’ potter as Joanna Constantinidis. Particularly delectable are two slender stoneware vases with a golden metallic lustre glaze, the smaller piece compelling despite its slug-like stance (£200–£600). Opening the sale is another hero, John Ward (b. 1938), a pupil of both Rie and Coper at Camberwell College of Arts (estimates from £1,000). This potter’s aesthetic is perhaps no more eloquently articulated than by Dingley himself. ‘His work promoted itself by its sheer quality and the affection that shone through it,’ he wrote. ‘The pots are all stoneware, all hand-built into apparently simple forms, and all with matt glazes applied in such a way that, more than any other potter I know, they belong absolutely to the particular forms they decorate.’ It might almost be expressing the raison d’être of the potter’s art.

Vase with matte white glaze with green lines, John Ward

Vase with matte white glaze with green lines, John Ward. Mallams (estimate £2,000–£4,000)

The 56 lots encompass more than 20 different makers, with estimates starting at just £40. ‘Here are some of the best names in studio pottery but they are still affordable,’ says Max Fisher of Mallams. The auction house’s Modern Art sale on 6 December also includes paintings and watercolours from the Dingley estate. Expected to fetch in excess of £100,000, the collection is being sold to benefit the Craft Pottery Charitable Trust and the Artists’ General Benevolent Institution.

For more information visit Mallams.

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