The Connoisseur of Malvern studio, which was launched in England in the early 1980s, has a fascinating history. The quality of their porcelain sculptures is easily the equivalent of anything that came out of Royal Worcester – no surprise there, considering that the founders of the studio were alumni of that revered studio! Connoisseur operated under its original ownership for 15 years; what happened to it during the mid-1990s, however, was quite different.
In 2015, I created a separate informational/archive site about Connoisseur and its history. Given the recent and upcoming changes in the format of WordPress.com, I have decided to bring my research about Connoisseur back into my Chatsworth Lady site. Although it certainly qualifies as “Lost Porcelain Studio” (the third and final owner ceased any production in the early 2000s), there will be quite a lot of content; and so Connoisseur has its own ‘home’ (and custom page banner) within that category. However, unlike my other Lost Porcelain Studios profiles, this one will be continually updated as any new information or photographs are discovered, thus making it a real-time reference source similar to my Cybis Porcelain Reference Archive site..
1970s (Backstory) and 1980s (Launch)
These two decades include most of what I call the “Lewis Era”, i.e., when the studio was owned and operated by Diane and Terry Lewis.
Diane M. Lewis was a creative force and guiding light of the Connoisseur of Malvern studio. Born on September 24, 1937 as Diane Chance, she apprenticed at Royal Worcester as a young flower maker starting in 1953. Her talent was recognized there by Dorothy Doughty who became Diane’s mentor and oversaw her advancement to senior flower maker. In that capacity she worked on most of the Dorothy Doughty flowers and birds produced between 1955 and 1965. Her future husband, Terry King Lewis, was also employed at Royal Worcester; together they had two children (Martyn and Melinda.) In this photo, Diane Lewis is standing at the right.
Whilst at Royal Worcester during the late 1960s, Terry Lewis and two of his fellow employees began a small studio of their own, Cranleigh Art Ceramics, in their spare time; this story is more fully related in my initial Boehm of Malvern post. This venture happened to come to the attention of Helen Boehm, owner of the Boehm studio in Trenton, New Jersey, and the upshot was that the Cranleigh operation morphed into what became known as Boehm of Malvern.
The Malvern Boehm studio operated under the aegis of the Trenton operation but had its own directors, of which Terry Lewis was initially one. Diane Lewis was the head flower-maker.This photo shows Diane Lewis working on a Jenny Wren which was the Malvern Boehm’s first non-limited bird sculpture in 1971.
The subsequent history of the Malvern Boehm studio is more fully explored in my separate Lost Porcelain Studios series about them, but the relevant fact here is that toward the end of the 1970s, Diane and Terry Lewis left to form their own studio. It was incorporated on January 11, 1979 as Connoisseur of Malvern, Ltd. and assigned UK company code #01458486. The studio was located on Grundy’s Lane in Malvern. Diane M. Lewis and her husband Terry King Lewis were listed as two of the principals. In 1986 the studio relocated to nearby Ledbury, on Lower Road. Their first retail pieces appeared in 1980.
Diane Lewis’ special forte was the incredibly detailed and delicate flower sculptures she created. (shown: Yakusimanum)
Equines and human figures were the specialty of Richard Sefton, who also became renowned for his work in bronze. (shown: Windborn)
Christopher Ashenden’s designs of birds, cats, and animals are nothing short of spectacular. (shown: Chickadee Family and Poetry in Motion)
Freda Griffiths and Tracy Arrowsmith were two of the most talented painters that the industry has ever seen. All of the painting on this Ikabana plaque was done by Freda Griffiths.
The studio created an innovative method of marking their items which allowed collectors to know exactly which artists physically created each individual piece. No other porcelain studio ever did this, before or since, as far as I know; it will be described in a future post.
During these decades, Connoisseur’s sculptures were given as gifts of state on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the studio was much less known in the USA, owing to its exclusive distribution. Most of the retailers who sold Boehm and Cybis did not carry Connoisseur. This was by design, because Connoisseur’s work was definitely more upscale in both quality and price. Their limited editions were also much smaller. For example, a Boehm price list from 1976 shows the majority of their limited editions ranged from 300 to 500 pieces per design. Most Cybis limited editions at that same time were issues of 500, with some at 350. In contrast, Connoisseur of Malvern edition sizes ranged from a low of 10 to a high of 500, with most being in double digits rather than triple. Their prices reflected this. The studio went from strength to strength during these two decades which many consider to have been the ‘golden age’ of art porcelain (or the ‘bubble years’, depending on how one looks at it.)
This was a decade of great change for the studio and the art porcelain market in general. Very few such operations survived unscathed (if at all), and Connoisseur was no exception. One extremely interesting development was their arrangement with Disney, their venerable artist Carl Barks, and a new venture launched by Ray Blackman of Brielle Galleries and Bruce Hamilton of the Hamilton Galleries auction house. That company was titled ‘Another Rainbow’ and I will relate the amazing tale of its outcome in a separate post. But Connoisseur of Malvern also produced Disney sculptures for sale at the Disneyana Conventions as well. Other partnerships included Ted Turner (of CNN and MGM fame) and Andrew Lloyd Weber.
The increasing turmoil in the art porcelain market was mirrored by personal turmoil in the Lewis household as well. Although the details of the rift are private, the upshot was that the studio and its assets were sold in 1995 to David Parker, who had formerly been a collector. Thus ended 15 years of operation under Connoisseur’s original ownership.
Some of the artists and designers stayed on, but the most notable exit was Diane Lewis who then had her private ‘bespoke’ line of sculptures under her own names: Diane Lewis Chance and/or D by D (Diane by Design.) These ranges will be profiled in their own Lost Porcelain Studios post. Freda Griffiths continued to paint for Diane in these ventures.
Unfortunately, Mr. Parker had no real-world experience in operating a porcelain studio. He moved the kilns, molds, and everything else from Ledbury to a business park location in Staunton. They operated a studio there until sometime in the first half of 1997 but were gone by August. There were a few new designs issued, included the Staunton Church Rose (shown) and Green Cathedral; it’s likely that most of these were created by Wendy Green, who had started at Connoisseur as a flower maker and rose to become one of their designers. There are differences in the backstamp which allow a purchaser – if they are aware of them! – to determine whether a Connoisseur piece was produced by the original studio or not. This will be covered in a later post.
After the Staunton location closed, the timeline gets temporarily murky. Parker re-sold the studio to an American businessman named Kenneth Reasoner, and by some indications this probably took place in May 1998. This was the third and final sale of the business.
Shortly after acquiring ownership of the company, Mr. Reasoner incorporated it in Florida as Connoisseur, Inc. This is the most problematic part of Connoisseur’s history, in part because quite a few pieces made by the Reasoner-owned studio were re-issues/replicas of formerly-completed limited editions from the Lewis studio. Technically it was “legal” for the owner to do this, because he had purchased the rights to the Connoisseur name as well as all surviving physical assets such as molds. Typically, the replica was simply made in a different color and sometimes (but not always!) given a new name. For example, here is a study of a young Arabian colt:
This is the original Connoisseur Freedom, a 1985 limited edition of 100 that sold for $575.
This is the backstamp format on the original edition.
This is one of several different color re-issues of this piece, marketed as an edition of 250. The produced it as a palomino (original color), a chestnut, and a pinto. The only way to tell the originals from the later replicas is via the underside because the markings are very different.
Although the “Connoisseur” studio was set up in Malvern, an arrangement was supposedly made between them and the nearby Bronte Porcelain studio (of which Terry Lewis had become part of the management) whereby artists either moonlighted at Connoisseur or the pieces were actually made at Bronte instead. There are competing stories about this, as you can imagine, regarding who knew what and when, and who was clueless vs. turning a blind eye! Frankly, it’s unlikely that we will ever know by whom any of the post-1998 porcelain items that are marked Connoisseur were actually made.
Mr. Reasoner also owned a giftware company, RNR Gifts, that produced low-cost resin figures offshore during the early 2000s. He used the molds from at least three of the original, closed limited-edition early 1980s Connoisseur sculptures, to make resin knockoffs. He did not even bother to change the sculpture names: Crimson Spring, Fledgling Wrens, and Long Tailed Tits with Young.
The 1981 Connoisseur original, and the 2000s RNR made-in-China resin copy, of Crimson Spring. Enough said.
During this period, licensing agreements were reached with Warner Brothers by which the “new” Connoisseur operation produced figures of Popeye, Betty Boop, and others. In addition, some of the original Connoisseur molds were sold to the new (as of 2003) owners of Boehm, Home Interiors & Gifts, who had them reproduced offshore in ceramic and resin. A future post will look at all of these latter-day “Connoisseur” pieces which are a far cry from anything that the original Lewis-owned studio produced.
Kenneth Reasoner died in April 2007. His family consigned a large number of the finished inventory/stock to a Midwest auction house (DuMouchelles) who conducted several auctions in June and November of that year. Florida public records show that Connoisseur, Inc. ceased to exist as a corporate entity in December of that year. Pieces from the Parker and Reasoner era inventory continue to show up (often repeatedly) at auction houses, consigned by the same family member.
In late 2015, Martyn Lewis was successful in buying back the Connoisseur studio name from the heirs of the Reasoner operation. Thus, Connoisseur of Malvern, Ltd. once again exists as a corporate entity in the UK owned by the Lewis family, although not in any manufacturing capacity.
Additional posts in this series document the original Connoisseur studio’s work in various genres including roses and other florals, human figures, horses/equestrian, Disney subjects, hand-painted dimensional plaques, and special editions created for non-profit organizations such as the Rainforest Foundation. Other posts will explain how to distinguish original 1980s and early 1990s Connoisseur from later-ownership production. There is also a Sculpture Name Index.
If you have questions about Connoisseur of Malvern porcelain, please use the contact form on the About the Chatsworth Lady page.