Adrian Sassoon, one of the UK’s foremost ceramics dealers, has a recurring nightmare in which he finds himself showing objects to a client while dressed for bed. It’s revealing of the friendship that can develop out of a shared passion for porcelain and clay that Charles Pridgeon is the only collector to have seen him in his dressing gown. “Charles once rang my doorbell at 9am,” he says. “I’d happened to mention something to him, and he really wanted to see it. I work from home and I’m terrible in the mornings.”
Pridgeon, now chief investment officer of Allianz Real Estate, first became interested in porcelain while working for Deutsche Bank in London. On a business trip to Paris in December 2001, his interest was ignited by the sale of the remarkable collection of Charles-Otto Zieseniss at Christie’s, where he acquired his first Sèvres pieces. “It was a treasure trove,” interjects Sassoon. Pridgeon was captivated and “very cautiously” bought three cups and saucers, chosen “for their colour and detail. I didn’t have the confidence or knowledge to bid for a plate,” he says.
His scope became wider when he moved to Frankfurt in 2003. European hard-paste porcelain was first produced in Saxony in the early 18th century, so he began to acquire Meissen, Höchst, Nymphenburg and Frankenthal, “really as a way of trying to connect with the history of the country we were living in”. He was keen to expand his knowledge as well as his collection, and when he returned to London in 2008, a mutual friend, William Jay Iselin – a former head of furniture at Christie’s in Paris – suggested he meet Sassoon.
“There is a lot to know,” explains Sassoon. The language of marks, the techniques, the craftsmanship and “what distinguishes an ordinary piece from an extraordinary one. We understand forensically much more than we did 30 years ago. Even when there isn’t a mark, you can still usually place it within a range of dates, work out where it was modelled and who painted it” – all from the shape, style and way that the colours have been configured.
However, “the first thing that has to strike me about a piece is its beauty”, says Pridgeon. “I mean, look at the intricacy and detail here.” Before us on the dining table in the basement living space of his strikingly contemporary west London home is his first purchase from Sassoon: a refined Vincennes sugar bowl with a cover and stand, c1752-3, painted with imaginary birds amid elaborate rococo gilding against an intense lapis-blue background. As Sassoon points out, one of the most remarkable attributes of 18th-century porcelain is that, unlike paintings or furniture of that period, it retains the same strength and depth of colours that it would have had the day it emerged from the kiln.
“It’s incredibly beautiful,” marvels Pridgeon. “Look at the fine chain-link porcelain loop on the handle, and the way the gilding has been cut to give definition to each petal of the flowers.” Although you might expect someone whose career has been spent in asset management and property trading to focus first on facts, Pridgeon says: “The last thing I do with a piece I’ve never seen before is turn it over and look at the mark. It’s there to confirm what I think the piece is and who it’s by, not tell me.”
“That’s the mark of a true collector,” notes Sassoon. “Someone who trusts their instincts.”
Pridgeon continued to collect Sèvres, including a rare écuelle (lidded drinking bowl) with “exquisite chinoiserie detail”. But in time Sassoon, who also represents more than 20 studio potters, began to introduce him to contemporary work, notably by Briton Rupert Spira.
“His work is tremendously smart, intriguing and luxuriously made. For instance, that’s really fantastic throwing,” Sassoon says, gesturing towards a large, shallow bowl, the first piece of Spira’s that Pridgeon bought. Again, it was “the shape, the classical lines, the very delicate, very fine edges” that drew Pridgeon to it. “And something about its form and the incredible colour of the glaze,” he says, indicating the circle of inky purple inscribed within it. “I didn’t have anywhere to put it, but it was such a wonderful piece. I’d seen contemporary work displayed alongside Sèvres at fairs, so I knew they could look good together.”
One of the benefits of collecting works by living artists is the possibility of commissioning pieces straight from the source. Pridgeon’s second purchase from Spira was a set of four small bowls that the collector wanted made as a present for his wife, Caroline. Each is covered with intricate surface decoration scored into the glaze: rows of circular scratching that recalls delicate cursive handwriting or loopy embroidery, “almost like Cy Twombly”, acknowledges Sassoon.
Pridgeon has bought perhaps a dozen limited-edition works by Spira, mostly bowls, although there’s also a distinctive, straight-sided teapot with a handle of silver wire (similar designs available from Sassoon, from about £5,000). All were chosen for aesthetic reasons, rather than their investment potential. There is a secondary market for contemporary ceramics, but it remains relatively small. That said, when pieces by Spira, whose work can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum, come up for sale, they can realise five-figure sums. In 2010, for example, Sotheby’s sold a large jar of his for £12,500. (By contrast, rare and extraordinary pieces of Sèvres with impeccable provenance can fetch hundreds of thousands; although, equally, an 18th-century Sèvres cup and saucer can be purchased for around £1,000.)
Spira is not the only artist in the V&A whose ceramics sit on Pridgeon’s shelves. There are also pieces by Kate Malone, Walter Keeler, Chris Keenan and Junko Mori, as well as items he has acquired in Japan. “There is a good question for collectors to ask before they buy something,” says Pridgeon. And that is, “Is it good enough to be in a museum?”
As it happens, Sassoon and Pridgeon are involved with the Wallace Collection – one of the world’s great repositories of Sèvres – where Sassoon is a trustee and they both sit on the international council. “Otherwise, we don’t meet up enough,” says Sassoon.
In order to see more of one another, “Adrian’s been trying to get us to buy a house near to him in Devon”. It’s good cycling country, and Pridgeon and his wife are, according to Sassoon, “avid cyclists”. Indeed, last year they rode 630km from Berlin to Copenhagen to raise money for the Wallace Collection. “But I haven’t managed to get Adrian on a bike yet,” says Pridgeon.
It’s an ambition he’s unlikely to realise, Sassoon quips, “though at least it’s a kind of exercise you can do sitting down”. Rather, the passion they share is “trying to find beautiful things in life”. And that, says Pridgeon, “seems a very good philosophy to me”.