A reflection on studio enamelling in Britain

An essay written by Dr. Elizabeth Goring published in the catalogue produced for the exhibition ‘Surface & Substance’

British studio enamelling has a history that reaches back into at least the late 19th century. In his 1999 paper for the Journal of The Decorative Arts Society, Professor Stephen Pudney makes an eloquent case for the significant debt owed by enamellers in Britain to the brilliant Victorian artist and teacher Alexander Fisher.(1)

Pudney’s paper, the first to focus on this masterly pioneer, traces the extent and reach of Fisher’s influence through his teaching. In 1885 the young Fisher, then 21 years old, attended a series of twelve enamelling classes taught by Louis Dalpayrat at the National Art Training Schools in South Kensington. Fisher was the only one of the twelve students in attendance who went on to take up the technique. The outcome proved to be momentous for studio enamelling. ‘In the space of only fifteen years from the late 1880s,’ Pudney writes, ‘Alexander Fisher was almost solely responsible for a major innovation in English decorative arts: the establishment of enamel work as an important element of metalwork design, beyond its limited applications in the jewellery and watchmaking trades.’

The private tuition Fisher provided for wealthy patrons, and his involvement with the new Central School of Arts and Crafts and the Royal College of Art, are better known than his 22 years of teaching at the City and Guilds Technical College in Finsbury. Yet, as Pudney points out, among the 200 or so students who were taught enamelling by Fisher at Finsbury between 1893 and 1915 may be found some of the most important names of the Arts & Crafts movement.(2) It is largely due to Fisher that ‘Enamelling became an important part of the work of many silversmiths, from studio workers like the Dawsons, to large commercial firms like William Hutton & Sons. The revival of enamel was part of a widening of the scope of English [sic] silverwork, which has continued to this day.’(3)

Let’s fast forward to 1985: exactly a century after Alexander Fisher attended his first enamelling class, I was a young museum curator, three years into my first (and, as it happens, last) museum post at what was then called the Royal Scottish Museum. An archaeologist and jewellery historian by training, I had a particular interest in ancient goldwork, the subject of my PhD thesis. Within a year of arriving in Edinburgh I had also made my first tentative steps towards discovering the world of contemporary jewellery which has become my passion. By 1985, my twin interests had begun to come together. In April that year I began corresponding with Maureen Carswell, who had recently become the first Chairman of the newly established Society of British Enamellers (as it was then called; it later, very significantly, changed its name: see below). I was researching the remarkably early appearance of enamelling in Cyprus, in the Late Bronze Age, and she generously answered my technical queries and even initiated some experiments on my behalf. This was my ‘Fisher moment’, fusing an interest in the history of enamelling with its current practice.

I had made my first purchases of contemporary jewellery for the national collections in Scotland in August 1983 (at Dazzle, in the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms). By the following year, I had started to acquire cutting-edge work from both the UK and abroad. By the 1980s, artist-made contemporary jewellery and metalwork had made a long journey from the Arts & Crafts tradition that Alexander Fisher would have recognised.

In jewellery and metalwork terms, a further significant cultural distance separates the world of 1985 from that of 2011, and it is worth taking a brief look back to what was happening around that time.

Those working with precious metals had, not too long before, experienced the rollercoaster ride precipitated by the attempt by the Hunt brothers to corner the world market in silver. Between September 1979 and January 1980, silver prices had risen from some $11 an ounce to around $50 an ounce – and had collapsed again to below $11 an ounce two months later. In October 1984, the IRA had bombed the Grand Hotel in Brighton where the Conservative cabinet was staying for the Party Conference. In January 1985, miners’ leaders called off their bitter year-long strike. In March that year, Mikhail Gorbachev became the new General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, in the world of contemporary metalwork and jewellery, the Goldsmiths’ Company organised its second craft fair for silversmiths and jewellers in October 1984. Peter Gainsbury noted that the Fair ‘offers the retail trade and the public an opportunity to see jewellery, and more especially silverware, of types which can rarely be seen outside a very small number of galleries and specialised shops… It is a matter of regret to the Goldsmiths’ Company that the retail jewellers’ trade has up to now virtually ignored the existence of the wealth of talent of designer craftsmen, silversmiths and jewellers.’(4)

Two soon-to-be founding members of the Society of British Enamellers (SOBE), Maureen Edgar and Sarah Letts, showed at the 1984 Goldsmiths’ Fair. In 1985, the work of another SOBE founding member, Georgina Follett, was being shown in Old Romantics, an exhibition at Sharon Plant’s cutting-edge London crafts gallery, Aspects. At this time, Electrum Gallery in South Molton Street was preparing to open an exhibition of work by three innovative artist jewellers from Toronto: Kai Chan, James Evans and Louis Tortell. The invitation notes: ‘…they share common ground in their deliberate attempt to broaden the horizons of jewellery, willing to test new ground and express original ideas. They also share a preference for non-precious materials, partly because it allows them greater freedom in the formal realisation of their concepts…’ These materials included palm fibres, aluminium, silk and stainless steel.

In The Times of Tuesday 28 May 1985, Suzy Menkes published a full page feature article entitled ‘Extraordinary new jewels’, tracing what she described as ‘an explosion of interest in “New Jewellery’’ ’ that month. ‘A major show combining modern jewellery with avant garde fashion was put on at Goldsmiths’ Hall; an important exhibition of American jewellery opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum; a newly published book discusses the new trends in jewellery [Peter Dormer and Ralph Turner’s The New Jewelry. Trends and traditions]; last week a selling exhibition of young designers’ jewels opened at the National Theatre [Dazzle]; next weekend five metalwork students at the Royal College of Art offer their wares.’

The American jewellery exhibition was Masterworks of Contemporary American Jewelry: sources and concepts; and the SOBE’s Newsletter for 10 June 1985 noted that around a third of the exhibits were enamelled.

These exhibits included the work of Margaret Craver, described by Menkes as ‘delicate en résille enamel jewellery, the colours floating like oil drops on the surface… Beside it, is a case of 17th century jewellery, using the same technique.’ She noted the strength of enamelling techniques in the exhibition, drawing particular attention to ‘Collette’s cloisonné enamel in a mosaic overlay of rich colour and pattern; or William Harper’s striking tactile ‘charm beads’ neckpiece of champlevé and cloisonné enamel on three different metals.’

Less than two weeks later, the Sunday Times magazine published a long feature entitled ‘Baubles, Bangles and Bricks’, written by Georgina Howell, which commented rather tartly on the Dormer and Turner book. ‘You don’t wear these pieces, they wear you,’ she wrote, and went on to quote a pithy comment from Peter Dormer: ‘A jeweller’s function is to decorate. When you design something that’s difficult or impossible to wear, you had better be sure you are making a point worth making.’

The opening of the 1985 exhibition Contemporary British Enamels at the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead, a beacon of contemporary craft collecting from 1977, marked a particular milestone for British studio enamelling. The show, which ran from 22 June to 28 July, included the work of twelve SOBE members. Patrick Furse, Head of the Enamelling Section in the Fine Art Department of the Central School from 1962-1983 wrote somewhat bitterly in his Preface: ‘The Alchemy of the marriage of glass and metal, consummated in the fire, demands its Adepts, passionately committed to the twofold encounter with Matter and Meaning. Only then… can enamelling regain its past stature as a major art.

But so long as it is treated as a fringe activity, more so than ever in the present parlous state of art education, there is little opportunity for such Adepts to arise. And… they cannot practise without encouragement and an informed and critical audience. The present forum signals a welcome move in this direction.’(5) Frances Bugg, Craft Development Officer, agreed, though rather more succinctly. ‘Art colleges tend to restrict their enamelling activities to small scale work within jewellery and silversmithing departments. At present Central School
of Art is the only place able to offer a specialist enamels section where graduates and undergraduates can learn how to prepare and fire their panels… Nevertheless,’ she added cheerfully, ‘ enamelling is alive and well.’(6)

In 1986, the influential Oxford Gallery held an exhibition of contemporary enamelling from May to July that travelled on to the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh. The exhibition, selected by Valerie Stewart, was designed to illustrate contemporary approaches to different enamelling techniques including cloisonné, plique-à-jour and painted enamels, and included work by four SOBE members, Ros Conway, Georgina Follett, Fred Rich and Jane Short, as well as work by three non-members, Robin Banks, Kim Ellwood and Wendy Ramshaw. Kim Ellwood was the youngest exhibitor, and had graduated from Middlesex only the previous year. She was showing painterly work using matt industrial enamel on steel, and I purchased a brooch for the National Museums of Scotland collection from the show – my first acquisition of contemporary enamelling for the collection. Coincidentally, the SOBE’s Newsletter of August 1986 commented on the number of graduates choosing to use enamel in their work that year.

In October 1986 the SOBE decided to change its name from the Society of British Enamellers to the British Society of Enamellers (BSOE): this was a significant moment. The subtle but important distinction was an explicit recognition of the membership’s impressive internationalism. The succeeding years have seen the Society play an increasingly important role in both national and international exhibitions and conferences, and further broaden its already important international profile.

In May 1987, Electrum Gallery showed enamels by 24 members of the BSOE, with such success that in November 1988 a second show presented the work of 27. The exhibition poster noted that ‘almost half the participants… have their work represented in important public collections’ both in the UK and abroad.

Members of the BSOE had, for many years, been enthusiastically seizing opportunities to meet other enamellers in person in an international context. In April 1991, another major milestone was reached with the organisation of the Society’s highly successful 1st International Conference at Wadham College, Oxford. This event coincided with an energetic programme of cultural and social events for enamellers visiting from Russia. The presence of a significant number of overseas delegates at the conference was both inspirational and influential; there were around 60 enamellers from eight different countries, many of them from the USA and Eastern Europe. The conference was accompanied by Society exhibitions at the Oxford Gallery and Christ Church Gallery. The success of the whole event encouraged the organisation of further international conferences at Pembroke College, Cambridge, in April 1993 (with a linked BSOE exhibition at Cambridge Contemporary Art), and at West Dean in 1995 and 1998.

Studio enamelling in Britain had made huge progress in a very short time. The Minutes of the 8th Annual General Meeting of the BSOE, held in the V&A in 1992, noted: ‘In 1984, little was known of British enamels. In what is a comparatively short time, we have gained great ground in the acceptance of enamelling. In colleges, in the gallery system, BSOE is recognised as a body… Abroad we are now recognised as being one of the leading countries… we are now invited to exhibit in our own right in countries with a long established history of enamels.’

By 1994, BSOE exhibitions had been held at Electrum Gallery and the RIBA in London; the Peacock Gallery in Chipping Camden; the Light Infantry Museum & Art Gallery in Durham; the Oxford Gallery and Christ Church Gallery in Oxford; Facets in Dartmouth; Ruthin Craft Centre; Cambridge Contemporary Art; and overseas in Pittsburgh, PA and Ohio in the US, and Coburg in Germany.

In the second decade of the 21st century, enamel is certainly more visible. This year, for example, Flow Gallery in London has shown Fused: Contemporary enamel, while the highly-regarded Scottish Gallery gave a first solo show to the young enameller Stacey Bentley, who had graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 2008. London has, for several years now, had its own applied art gallery specialising in a contemporary approach to enamel. Studio Fusion, owned and run by Sarah Letts, Joan MacKarell, Louise O’Neill, Gudde Jane Skyrme, Elizabeth Turrell and Tamar de Vries Winter, maintains an active programme of special exhibitions by leading British and international artists and provides a central public focus for the medium.

Projects like The Enamel Experience. International Badge Exhibition curated by Elizabeth Turrell, have played an important dynamic role in linking the worldwide enamel community. This particular project, led by the pioneering Enamel Research Centre, part of the Centre for Fine PrintResearch at the University of the West of England based in Bristol, brought together the work of 23 artists from Germany, the UK and the USA, and toured to a number of international venues during 2008 and 2009. It developed out of an annual badge project initiated by the Enamel Research Centre which provided a cross- disciplinary forum for artists from a wide range of disciplines and media.

UWE also provided the home of ICVEA, the International Contemporary Vitreous Enamel ArchivIt is not all good news, however. It is desperately sad, and more than a little short-sighted, that UWE has recently decided to abandon its internationally renowned centre of excellence for enamelling. The loss of its highly skilled staff and specialised facilities will undoubtedly have immense impact on studio enamelling in Britain. Alexander Fisher, champion of teaching enamel techniques, would have been deeply dismayed at this withdrawal of educational support. Interestingly, this move comes at a time when general public interest in enamel has probably never been greater: enamelling classes are invariably over-subscribed.

In 2000–1, the National Museums of Scotland collaborated with Aberdeen Art Gallery and the Scottish Gallery to mount two complementary enamel exhibitions, Fired with Colour: Aspects of Enamelling in Britain, and Chance and Order. The former placed contemporary enamelling in its historical context, while the latter focused on contemporary British and international enamel jewellery with a more experimental approach.

Professor Elizabeth Moignard’s review of Fired with Colour noted, ‘One of the exhibition’s major virtues is that it demonstrates the abiding influence of the late 19th century practitioners who evidently liberated enamel from its cloisons, and painted; without them the big-scale pieces would not be there.’

So perhaps the eloquent and passionate voice of that 19th century pioneer, Alexander Fisher himself, should be allowed to have the last word here: ‘All the bewildering surfaces, all the depths and lovelinesses that lie darkly in the waters of sea- caves, all the glistening lustre of gleaming gold or silver back and fin of fish, the velvet of the sea-anemone, the jewelled brilliance of sunshine on snow, the hardness greater than that of marble, the flame of sunset, indeed, the very embodiments in colour of the intensity of beauty – these are at hand waiting for expression in enamel.

I have every confidence that enamellers today, imbued with the same passion that fired him, will continue to interpret his dream.

Elizabeth Goring 2011


1 Pudsey (1999), 71. (On the same page, Pudsey reproduces a wonderful photograph, ‘Fisher at work’, from The Studio 1896)
2 Pudsey (1999), 73 and 85
3 Pudsey (1999), 81
4 Goldsmiths’ Fair booklet, Introduction by Peter Gainsbury
5 Contemporary British Enamels, 2
6 Contemporary British Enamels, 5

For a complete bibliography see Surface & Substance catalogue ISBN 978-1-905865-40-6