A Feast of Silver
There is a surge of activity in silver and metalwork at the present time which has been evident in college degree shows, recent exhibitions in the UK and also in Prague where the British Council’s important survey exhibition ‘Metalmorphosis’ was first shown in 1998.
This timely exhibition ‘A Feast of Silver. . . ‘, the first of the new Millennium at Contemporary Applied Arts, is a collection of striking new work by seventeen established and emerging silversmiths. All were trained and now work in Britain, although five different nationalities are represented in the group. Not all these silversmiths are well known to exhibition visitors but their highly individual approaches to silverware should ensure that they command attention in the wider forum of the applied arts.
The exhibition was selected by the silversmith and teacher Simone ten Hompel, who also contributes a group of work. Her intention was to seek from exhibitors individual, useful objects connected with the preparation, presentation and sharing of food and drink; these could be either informal and domestic or suitable for grander occasions and locations. Familiar objects types have, as a result of the makers’ attitudes, been given unusual forms while, simultaneously, technical processes have been thoughtfully explored.
The conventions of a serving bowl were reconsidered by several exhibitors, Chris Knight’s deep soup tureen with a conical cover is enlivened by cherry-red polyethlene handles, a foot-ring and a super-tall, tapering knob; the highly polished silver body of the tureen acts as a reflector for the eye-catching yet practical features. The organic spun, cut and folded forms of Debbie Noble, by contrast, appear to hug the table surface, offering a cave-like refuge for fruit, nuts or savouries. Noble, whose silverwork is designed as much for ease of handling as for spectacle, is in the process of setting up her first workshop since leaving the Royal College of Art. Howard Fenn, an established silversmith, contributes a conical serving bowl raised on a rectangular piece of slate; he enjoys combining stone or glass with silver in a single design so that the materials interlock.
Presentation but minimal interference is the message behind the carefully engineered and balanced support for a single apple entitled ‘Sin’ by David Clarke. Clarke has abandoned hollow, silver-skinned forms in favour of trembling skeletal frameworks; in this composition he has softened the concept by attaching 9ct gold leaves to the apple; in much the same way John Creed has gilded the tip of his steel fruit stand. This massive ‘Helix Bowl’ is built of a forged spiral of blackened mild steel, enveloping a thick, planished silver disc which is in visual tension with the steel. In the exhibition there are many examples of non-precious metals, wood and stone worked in combination with silver. Newcomer Helmert Robbertson, who comes from New Zealand but studied in London at Camberwell College of Arts, exhibits a presentation piece which spells frailty. A halo of fragile, acid-etched steel surrounds a flawless shallow silver basin and is attached by simple colour-stained wooden pegs. These ingredients symbolise the old and the new, the passing of time and the advent of the new Millennium, but they also serve to make the piece dramatic and spare. It is the absence of vulgarity, or flamboyant craftsmanship, which marks a new mood.
Although many of these works demand a visual reaction, others are read largely through touch. Hiroshi Suzuki’s raised and forged carafe in Britannia silver is one such. The rippled patterning running over its body is entirely the result of the making process; construction and decoration are one and the same thing. Suzuki’s rapport with his medium was developed over the last five years at Camberwell and the Royal College of Art, from where he graduated in 1999. Simone ten Hompel, also concerned with tactile sensibilities, has used fine silver to make thick bowls, presented or ‘planted’ on pads of cream felt. The oval bowl, heavy and primitive, was formed by beating silver over a stone. She comments, ‘For me, silver has no meaning as a material; it is wonderful to work with but has no more importance than the felt.’
In concentrating on contemporary silversmiths’ involvement with form, materials and process one is in danger of ignoring the importance of imaginative design which draws its inspiration from function. For sheer efficiency and style one looks to Rebecca de Quin’s jug and beakers, for a reassuring link with the English silver tradition to William Phipps’s forged silver spoon, and for the sheer charm to Diana Greenwood’s cruet and condiments sets. To appreciate these and other rarities in the exhibition one must allow sufficient time; their accumulated richness might be too much to digest in a single viewing.
Margot Coatts 1999
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