Text Robyn Alexander Photographs Warren Heath Production Sven Alberding
In South Africa’s Caversham Valley lies a very special farm on which creativity takes centre stage: this is where Ardmore’s whimsical, elegant and world-renowned wares are made.
Here, a mischievous monkey clambers up a chandelier; there, stately giraffes twirl their necks about a candlestick; and over on a table in the corner, elephants form a graceful, sculptural pyramid. Flowers and leaves take new form as tureen hand grips, while the elegant head of a crowned crane makes a unique handle for the lid of a sugar bowl. Everywhere, there is a feeling of delight in the marvellous abundance and fantastical variety of the natural sphere. This is the wonderful world of Ardmore, where makers of sculptures, ceramics and decor items infuse a sense of African joy and splendour into everything they create.
The Ardmore journey began almost 40 years ago when the brand’s founder and creative director, artist Fée Halsted-Berning, was living and working on a farm named Ardmore in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. She began making work collaboratively with her student and fellow artist, Bonnie Ntshalintshali – and the pair were soon producing remarkable ceramics that caught the eye of the South African art establishment. In 1990, they were jointly given the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist Award, which involved producing work for a commissioned show at the country’s premier arts festival.
A few years later, tragedy struck when Bonnie was one of the many promising young South Africans to contract HIV/AIDS, and she subsequently passed away from the then-almost inevitably deadly disease. In the wake of this very sad event, however, Fée resolutely continued to produce work, training many other youthful artists and eventually moving Ardmore to its current location in the Caversham Valley, also in the picturesque KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. “This area is very special,” says Fée. “Beautiful scenery surrounds us with a view of the Drakensberg mountains in the distance. We are located on a confluence of two rivers, and the constant flow of water gives tremendous energy and tranquillity.”
Ardmore’s location is also a key influence on the work its artists produce, which showcases their unique interpretations of the fauna and flora of southern Africa. Says Fée, “Ardmore is inspired by wildlife and flora, and the peace of the property is conducive to a happy work environment, which is very important to artists.” Around 70 sculptors and painters arrive to work at Ardmore each morning, where Fée – as creative director and lead – begins her daily round, checking on each artist’s progress and generally overseeing the production process.
Each and every ceramic piece the studio creates begins with an artist moulding a clay sculpture using white earthenware clay. When dry, the piece is bisque fired, then painted with underglaze paints, fired in the kiln again, and thereafter given a final layer of painted glaze and another firing. “We often do a combination of matt and glossy glazes on the artworks,” says Fée. And for pieces to which gold lustre is added, a fourth firing is necessary.
Fée is there each step of the way with the studio artists – checking on concepts and execution in the clay sculpting process, making suggestions regarding the painting of underglazes and details, and providing a supportive framework within which they can allow their imaginations and talents free rein. The end result is a delightful array of ceramic works that are recognised the world over as modern-day collectables and regularly feature in sales by auction houses such as Christie’s, Bonhams and Sotheby’s.
The Ardmore aesthetic is unique. Asked to sum it up in three words, Fée selects “elegant”, “quirky”, and “well-made”. Indeed, Ardmore’s works combine all of these elements, and the result is a world-renowned look that captivates an ever-growing legion of fans. As Fée also suggests, two of the animals that feature most frequently in Ardmore creations are vervet monkeys and African leopards, and symbolic dimensions of each – with “the leopard representing the elegance and sophistication of the brand, and the monkey adding mischievous nonsense that humanises us”, she explains – contribute keynotes to the brand’s overall feel.
While Ardmore’s creations have a collective identity that makes them unmistakable, in the studio, individual artists are given considerable scope to work in areas that particularly suit them. Each maker is also encouraged to develop their own recognisable style. “Some painters prefer to work in a realistic manner,” says Fée, while others “enjoy using flat shapes and patterns. Alex Sibanda prefers to model elephants, hippos and riders, while Moshe Sello really enjoys modelling monkeys – and Thulani Mntungwa loves creating lyrical vessels.”
In recent years, Ardmore has branched out beyond ceramics and sculpture and now produces upholstery fabrics, homeware items ranging from table runners and napkins to scatter cushions, and even fashion accessories and jewellery. These new lines of creation had their origins in Fée’s admiration of the Arts and Crafts Movement artist and maker William de Morgan, who believed in the importance of living with art.
First trialled as an experimental range in 2010, Ardmore’s textile designs proved so immediate a success that they became a permanent fixture in 2013, kicking off a multi-faceted future for the overall Ardmore Design brand. Its development also heralded the process of Ardmore becoming a family business, with Fée’s son Jonathan Berning and her daughters Catherine and Megan Berning, all taking on roles suited to their skills and training. “Now, Jonathan runs Ardmore Home, Megan runs Ardmore Ceramics, and Catherine is our brand custodian, brainstorming designs for the home and fashion lines, as well as being creative manager for our marketing,” explains Fée.
So it is that today, Ardmore produces teapots, sculptural pieces, silk scarves (in collaboration with Hermès), one-off ceramic chandeliers, wallpaper (made by British manufacturers Cole & Son), platters and bowls, candleholders, upholstery fabrics and much more besides. And while there are now a myriad ways for the brand’s devotees to add a touch of Ardmore enchantment to their homes, underpinning it all is the constant process of making and creating that quietly takes place each day on a peaceful farm in the heart of the South African countryside.