Designs on Silver

Goldsmiths' Company Curator, Dr Dora Thornton, guides us through a new display for the Exhibition Room in Goldsmiths' Hall, Designs on Silver

Design drawings reveal a maker thinking aloud. Shown alongside the objects they inspire, they can offer an insight into the creative process. They reveal how a maker explores a range of possibilities through sketches of source material; how they find a motif, or translate or abstract a theme into silver. 

Theresa Nguyen’s delicate design drawing for her `Spiritus’ centrepiece from 2010 shows her analysing the motif of unfurling leaves responding to the sun’s rays. The radiating open structure and the surface treatment of each leaf is carefully highlighted by pockets of space.

Design drawings for the 'Spiritus' centre piece, 2010, Theresa Nguyen

Each leaf is folded and hammer-textured in Britannia silver, then soldered into place as defined in the design drawing. The interplay between the design and the finished piece illuminates her thinking: “As an artist silversmith, I simply love the creative process of designing and making an object for the first time. My desire is that a finished piece should feel like a beautifully-composed piece of music”. 

Theresa Nguyen, 'Spiritus', 2010

Some of the most attractive and painterly designs are those which show how a pattern will be translated into enamel. Rosamond Conway’s watercolours for her Wafer Box of 2008 show this artist enameller exploring her natural surroundings in Suffolk. The box, made by Clive Burr, opens to reveal a boxwood lining which is cut to hold wafers used in the Anglican Eucharist. 

Rosamond Conway, 'Wafer Box' 2008, painted design

The triangular form and detailing evoke Anglican belief in the Trinity or threefold nature of God, while the three fish at the centre refer to belief in the Resurrection of Christ. The painterly enamelling in basse-taille and cloisonné shows exactly-observed dandelion and wild carrot in an Autumnal palette, based on her delicate watercolours. 

Rosamond Conway, 'Wafer Box', 2008

Jane Short’s Speech Timer was made with Clive Burr as a Prime Warden’s Commission in 2014 for Michael Galsworthy, for use during speeches at dinners in Goldsmiths’ Hall.  2014. Galsworthy wanted to evoke the colourful seascape at his Cornish home, using sand from the beach inside the timer. 

Jane Short, 'Speech Timer', 2014

Short’s annotated designs in drawing and watercolour indicate the palette as well as the composition. She used two different enamel techniques: champlevé and basse-taille, in which the silver is carved with detail which shows through the transparent enamel layers laid over it. The inspiration moves from glinting seas engraved at the top, through the pebbles and seaweed on the beach, to the mackerel shoaling in the deepest blue enamel at the base. Short comments:

“I am interested in subtle harmonies of colour, reflecting observations from nature.”

Mackerel shoaling enamel detail on Jane Short's 'Speech Timer'

Jane Short's annotated designs for her 2014 'Speech Timer' commission

Different again, in evoking a whole landscape and its weather, is Sheila McDonald’s `Shetland Bird’ vase from 2013, which is inspired by the seascape of Shetland, where McDonald lives and works. The asymmetrical form suggests movement and flow. The surface of the vase is acid-etched to evoke cliffs, with enamelled seabirds wheeling in flight. 

Sheila McDonald, `Shetland Bird’ vase, 2013.

Successive firings of translucent enamel in grey, white and black have been overlaid with silver or gold foil, then scratched through, to convey the changeable light and weather of Shetland. McDonald comments:

“I like to work from my coloured source drawings and sketches [such as the pencil drawing of birds in flight], developing one idea into a whole range of possibilities.” 

Sheila McDonald’s sketches of birds in flight

Working drawings are often annotated with calculations, like Mark Nuell’s drawing which records the making of two sapphire rings in 2019. The Rubyvale sapphires are faceted in a freeform style which respects the natural beauty of colour and shape in each stone. The drawing records the changing angles of the facets as he cut the stones. 

Mark Nuell's sketches for two sapphire rings

Joanna Hardy, jewellery expert and Liveryman of the Goldsmiths’ Company, comments: “What I love about this ring is its honesty, for the sapphires have been left displaying their natural colour and Mark has cut the stones in unconventional shapes to show off the natural beauty of the stones, and then their shapes have inspired the setting. It is very rare to find a goldsmith who can cut his own stones and especially to this high level of craftsmanship and skill. “ 

Mark Nuell, 'Two Rings', 2019

Jocelyn Burton’s Pair of Candelabra from 2003 were a Prime Warden’s commission by Richard Vanderpump for use at Goldsmiths’ Hall. There is a wonderful sense of continuity here, in that their classic design was inspired by the antique candlesticks commissioned for the same purpose by the Goldsmiths’ Company from Humphrey Payne in 1740. Burton’s fine drawing shows how she approached the commission:

“Because my work is sometimes complex, an intricate design is pivotal. I make detailed pre-calculations and working drawings, some of which are considered works of art in themselves.”

Jocelyn Burton’s sketch for a Pair of Candelabra, 2003

Jocelyn Burton, 'Pair of Candelabra', 2003

The Goldsmiths’ Company now acquires drawings, models, video and digital images as an integral part of its commissioning process. These record the design concept and making of an object as a key element in our understanding of these objects and the ways in which we can interpret them, now and in the future.