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Pure Brilliance: The History and Future of British Silversmithing

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As the annual Goldsmiths’ Fair approaches (25th-30th September, 2nd-7th October), Marianne Dick casts an eye over the history and the future of British silversmithing

The historical phrase ‘born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth’ implies that only the very wealthy could afford items made from the most reflective of all metals. In Britain however, silver has long been accessible to many, especially following the Industrial Revolution which began in the 18th century.

While broadening trends within jewellery, sculpture and interiors in recent decades mean that silver objects are less prominent than they once might have been, there is still a burgeoning community of skilled craftsmen that work with the material because of its appealing essential properties. 

Aug 29th 2018
Craftsmanship

“Whether it’s the inherent mysticism and beauty, connotations of wealth or the pure practicalities of being relatively non-reactive and ‘food safe’, everything looks better in silver,” says Sheffield-based designer silversmith Charlotte Tollyfield. It is also an incredibly soft and malleable element, so soft in its purest form that it must be combined with copper to make what is known as sterling silver. Only alloys that are 92.5 per cent silver can be stamped with the Goldsmiths’ hallmark: a rule introduced by King Henry II in 1158 as the legal standard required for British coinage.

Alex O’Connor, a silversmith who makes vessels inspired by her Cornish surroundings, describes the material as: “Bright and crisp as steel, or pale and softly fluid, silver talks to you as you work it; you hear it becoming work-hardened as you hammer it, or feel it start to ght back as you form it.You have a conversation with the metal.”

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PICTURED ABOVE: ELLIPTIC BEAKERS BY ALEX O'CONNOR (L) AND HEXAGONAL BOWL AND SERVERS BY CHARLOTTE TOLLYFIELD (R).

CONTEMPORARY SILVERSMITHING

Both Tollyfield and O’Connor will be taking part in this year’s Goldsmiths’ Fair, which takes place in the very building in London where hallmarking began: the Goldsmiths’ Hall near St Paul’s Cathedral. “There has been a robust silver tradition in Britain for hundreds of years. Since the late 1960s and 1970s, silversmiths in the UK have strived to develop a contemporary British style that foregrounds creativity and innovation balanced with a respect for heritage,” says David Mills, director of the Goldsmiths’ Fair. “In the past 20 years, it has become much more focused on a craftsperson working alone in their studio, rather than many people working on one object together. Also there has been a major influx of women into the trade,” he continues.

Indeed, the craft continues to follow social and political trends as it has throughout history and one significant change is the rise in female silversmiths. Abigail Brown has been producing contemporary silver jewellery and objects for 14 years, and in the past her gender was intrinsic to her work. “Today, my work is deeply rooted in my connection with the land but my earlier work was informed by the landscape of the female form, and was an acknowledgment of form and landscape,” she explains. “I think of the silver as a canvas, the tools are my paintbrushes and the techniques I use are the paint with which I illustrate my vision.”

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PICTURED ABOVE: JULIETTE BIGLEY, SIX BOWLS ON A BASE, STERLING SILVER AND PATINATED COPPER, 2017. PHOTOGRAPH BY NICOLA TREE.

Another important aspect of Brown’s work is where she sources her materials. Silver is a by-product from mining other materials such as copper and gold and historically, silver and gold were two of the rst materials to be recycled. Most precious metal in the industry is about 70 per cent recycled: work was often melted down and refashioned into more relevant styles.

“All craft ‘costs the Earth’ whether it is the clay or oxides that have been extracted from minerals or a diamond,” says Brown.“It is important to me what I do with the materials that I am privileged to work with. I believe the process of silversmithing is a spiritual experience, an honouring of the land and the natural world that informs my work, and as such it is important that the pieces I create are objects of beauty.”

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PICTURED ABOVE: ABI BROWN BELTAINE VESSEL (L) AND PENWITH JUG (R).

THE OLD AND THE NEW

Graham Stewart, who has had a workshop in Dunblane in Scotland since 1978 and has made pieces for everyone from The Queen to fashion designer Alexander McQueen, reflects on the changes he has witnessed throughout his career: “Being closer to the end than the beginning of my time in this brilliant industry, I’m very aware of the passage of time and how dramatically things have changed. I’d say the digital aspect of design and rapid prototyping is the most obvious game changer.” He adds:“I am very old school as I don’t do any design work on a computer. It still amazes me what is possible with a bunch of hammers.”

Another of the upcoming fair’s exhibitors and a relatively new face in the trade in comparison to Stewart is Aoife White. “I have a great appreciation of traditional techniques, in particular chasing, repoussé and engraving,” she says.“These are quite labour-intensive processes which I love. I want to keep the traditional craft methods as a predominant feature in my work.”

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PICTURED ABOVE: TIDE BY AOIFE WHITE

Shona Marsh however, who makes luxury dining ware, uses a variety of techniques from hand fabrication to laser cutting and CAD [computer-aided design] software. For Marsh, there are other changes within the industry that she believes are just as prominent.“We have had extreme price rises in our raw material, which makes developing new work difficult,” she explains. “Rising costs for studio spaces in London has been extremely detrimental to the set-up of new silversmiths who can’t afford the studio space to work in.

“However, despite the changes, we are seeing some very creative solutions to startups and learning, with the development of a strong community of silversmiths that work together. Contemporary British Silversmiths is a not-for-profit organization aiming to promote and support British silversmiths. Overall it’s encouraging to see such resilience in the trade.”

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PICTURED ABOVE: HAND BLOWN INK BLUE CRYSTAL BARWARE WITH STERLING SILVER DETAIL (L) AND SALT AND PEPPER PINCH POTS (R) BY SHONA MARSH.

The digital world continues to infiltrate every aspect of life, including some of the most historic and traditional trades, but it’s clear that within silversmithing, traditions are upheld while new methods invigorate. Ultimately, an extraordinary sense of community and camaraderie prevails across all boundaries – from gender to age – as they look towards the future.“In the long run we’re building and maintaining a collection, so we want to ensure we include all the signi cant precious-metal craftsmen working in the United Kingdom today,” says David Mills.

One of the highlights of the fair is The Nature of Silver exhibition, featuring an array of rarely seen treasures from the company vaults. In another century, there might be some of this year’s talent within the retrospectives. The new age of silversmithing looks bright and brilliant.

abigailbrown.co.uk / alexoconnorsilver.co.uk / aoifewhite.com / charlottetollyfield.co.uk / 

 goldsmithsfair.co.uk / juliettebigley.com shonamarsh.com 

 

 

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