As we begin to chat in her studio which is brimming with her beautiful creations, Suzanne brings over three large books and explains that she has collected a record of all her commissions and creations over the years as a memoir not only to herself but for her grandchildren. She began by showing me a photograph of a ceramic cabbage, of all things! She told me this was the first piece she had ever made, at an evening class at the Addison Adult Institute in the 1970s. It was not what her teacher had asked her to create. Unhappy with the assignment, she had decided instead to make a cabbage (as you do). Her teacher was impressed and suggested she try and sell it. To her surprise the piece sold instantly and she was asked to make 15 more.
Suzanne found her niche in creating floral ceramic jewellery, which she made purely for fun and to wear herself. She was visiting Liberty’s one day and wearing one of her handmade necklaces when she was approached by a buyer for the company who asked her where she got her fabulous accessory. Suzanne explained that she made it herself and the buyer, Sue Walker, insisted she produce more and share them with the world, asking Suzanne if she would be interested in taking on a large commission for the department store. Unable to decline such a fantastic offer, she began producing her work commercially from her kitchen with a very modest kiln.
The necklaces became her stock in trade and it was ten years later, on a visit to choose the next consignment that Sue, who had become a good friend, spotted something else Suzanne was working on and persuaded her to move out of her comfort zone and try a range of plates for the store. Sue became something of a mentor, offering contacts and advice.
After visiting a trade show with her work in 1991 Suzanne was approached by the head of marketing for the Royal Academy, who ultimately commissioned a large order for her plates and accompanying exotic jewellery for the Fauve exhibition in the same year. This, she explained, was where her career took off. She was inundated with calls from glossy magazines and newspapers asking to interview her and further requests for work came flooding in from the likes of Laura Ashley, Harrods and Next. As the demand for her work expanded, so did her workspace. Suzanne moved out of her kitchen into a stable block, which became too small and so with the help and advice of Sue to source equipment from a breakers yard in Stoke, she moved the business into an old Walkers crisp factory in Northampton where she employed a whole team of skilled workers to produce her incredible designs. A second, larger factory was then needed in Stoke-On-Trent.
So popular, individual and distinctive is Suzanne’s work that the V&A have chosen several pieces to display in their permanent ceramic collection. But her career as an artist has not been without its difficulties. In 1996, with the business rapidly expanding, it all came to a screeching halt. She resigned from her own company over creative differences with her business partners. On 23 May 1996, in a board meeting worthy of The Apprentice for dramatic tension, she left the business just before her work was to be sold at the National Gallery. Gallery shops like to sell merchandise which reflect their exhibitions. She had been asked to produce tableware evocative of Degas’ ballet paintings. Her ceramics picked up the colour palette and the impressionist style, complementing the exhibition beautifully.
Leaving her company had been a big decision. It was a traumatic time and she feared for her future. But the success of the Degas collection brought other commissions from galleries and she found she was in great demand. Suzanne decided to go it alone, leaving mass-production behind. She had sufficient reputation that the offers came flooding in. She was approached again by the National Gallery and produced merchandise to complement paintings in the gallery’s collection of Cezanne and Gauguin.
As word spread of her original creations, so she developed a list of well-known private clients. David Moore, the owner of Pied a Terre restaurant in Charlotte Street commissioned Cover plates for his restaurant having seen Suzanne’s designs in the Royal Academy. His chef, Richard Neat, was a protege of Marco Pierre White, who commissioned plates for his own place, The Restaurant, and for Gordon Ramsey on the opening of his first restaurant Aubergine. Cameron Mackintosh dined at Pied a Terre, saw the plates and commissioned a dinner service decorated with a view of his house in Scotland and special commemorative bowls to give to all the production team and cast of the musical Oliver.
Today Suzanne makes beautiful individual pieces of ceramic tableware and jewellery for commission from her London studio. With an incredible past behind her, she is always in demand. Exploring her studio, I fell in love with a magnificently decorated floral ceramic bowl. To my delight, she then said I could have it as she explained that she was unable to sell it as the bowl had cracked in the kiln, a common problem for ceramic artists. I left her studio with a smile on my face from hearing these incredible stories from a talented and fascinating woman and the free bowl helped with that smile too!