March 2007 Update
After I had been in Catherine Mannheim’s jewellery class for a year or so she suggested that I should join the Sir John Cass School at the City of London Polytechnic in Aldgate, in the East End of London. In the 1980s the East End was full of Jewish eateries, the rag trade, and Bangladeshi refugees. The Cass was a whole new world for me, and it was difficult to choose which course to take from among all those on offer there enamelling, embossing and chasing, die-casting, diamond setting, engraving, silversmithing and many more. I chose silversmithing and engraving.
Silversmithing in England has been of a very high standard since the time the Huguenot silversmiths migrated here from France in the late 17th century. At that time English society was becoming rich with England’s increasing role in world trade. Tea, coffee and chocolate were introduced to the English table, for which elaborate silver services were designed. ‘Georgian’ silverware made in the 18th and early 19th centuries commands astronomical prices in the auction rooms and antique shops. The tradition of high quality work has been kept up through the guild system, and in modern times through schools like the Cass. There are British silversmiths today producing wonderful work which can be seen at the famous silver shops such as Aspreys, as well as at craft jewellery fairs.
Silversmithing, the making of silver boxes, bowls and table-ware was of course on a much larger scale than the goldsmithing that I had been used to. Much of the work was done with hammers, forming silver sheet over steel stakes into spoons and bowls. It was noisy but exhilarating to be working on such a different scale. John, our teacher, was an acknowledged expert in silver box making. He had a lovely West country accent, and was always asking me questions on Indian politics. In his class I learnt to make boxes from a single sheet of metal, and how to raise metal sheet into bowls and then use a caulking hammer to thicken the edges. The class was huge, about 40 people at individual workspaces in a large, well-lit space, with access to an array of metal stakes of different shapes. The soldering hearths were equipped with large torches and once I got used to working on a larger scale my jewellery too became chunkier. Using the large torches I made a pair of heavy armlets from 1 mm thick sheet, double the thickness which I normally use. Again, with the experience of silversmithing, I began to make 3-dimensional jewellery.
At the Cass I made a silver bowl, about 6” in diameter, and asked the head of the engraving department, Stanley Reece, to engrave it with an Arabic inscription. Stanley did a beautiful job, and I took the bowl to gold-platers to have the inscription plated. They said they would do it only if they did not have to do the stopping out. [‘Stopping out’ means protecting with varnish the areas that are not to be plated]. There was no option but for me to do it myself and a tedious job it was, because the whole bowl had to be varnished, with the Arabic lettering carefully outlined. It had to be done quickly in one go, because if it took too long the parts varnished first would crack before it was all finished. It took me several tries before I got it right.
The technique I couldn’t master was diamond setting, raising grains of metal from the base and then tapping them down to hold the stone. It needed muscle, and I didn’t have enough. Bob, the tutor, had rejected me at first: “I’m not having you in my class” he said in his London cockney accent. According to him I was not a serious enough jeweller, and he couldn’t be bothered with amateurs. Later we became friends through our shared Left politics. Like the other teachers at the Cass, Bob was well-known in his field, and one day he came in with a large gold eagle, about 18” between the outspread wing-tips and a foot high. He had been commissioned by one of the big shops to set it with 700 diamonds as a gift from a British businessman to an Arab from the Gulf.
What a pleasure it was to be part of a group of people who were all passionately interested in the practice of a particular craft and its techniques. Half the students were young apprentices on ‘day release’ from their regular employment: the government paid their employers to send them to class one day in the week. The other half were middle-aged independent professionals of varying degrees of proficiency, all of whom took their work very seriously, and who regularly produced highly original designs. In my first year I learnt a lot from my fellow students who had almost all been working for much longer than I had. How good it felt in later years to share that knowledge with newcomers. Practicing silversmiths, some of them ex-students, would come in now and then to get advice from the teachers, and we would all cluster round to look at what they had made. Some of it was truly awesome, museum quality work. I particularly remember an oblong silver box about 15” long and 6” wide, with rounded edges, embossed and chased with a design of hands at either end and elaborate figures along the sides. The craftsman had brought it in to ask John’s advice on how to fix the hinges and lid, and told us it had been months in the making.
[To be continued]