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Arts & Crafts metalware

Designs fuelled by a rejection of industrialisation are back in demand – with an emphasis on handcrafted silver, pewter and copper. Katrina Burroughs reports.

January 01 2011
Katrina Burroughs

Our present passion for handcrafted homewares versus mass-produced, fast furnishings has reignited interest in the Arts and Crafts movement, the 19th- and early-20th-century social and aesthetic backlash against the Industrial Revolution. And many 21st-century collectors are setting their sights on the movement’s decorative metalware: stamped, hammered and cabochon-studded bowls, trays and lighting, in silver, pewter and copper.

“The thing about Arts and Crafts is that it went back to medieval principles of craftsmanship,” says John Masters, director of The Design Gallery, “and that resonates today. It’s design with real meaning to it. It was a rejection of mass production, though the idea of having individually made pieces for the masses didn’t work out: it was only the wealthy who could afford handmade.”

Masters illustrates his point with the tale of Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942), who formed the Guild of Handicraft in 1888. The Guild’s craftsmen were renowned for their stellar metalware, but the company went into liquidation in 1907. “Competition from factory-produced versions led to the demise of the small workshop,” says Masters. Nowadays, instead of the market keeping prices down, competition between collectors for the Guild’s work forces values up. In 2009, a 1903 two-handled silver bowl by Ashbee, studded with semiprecious stone cabochons, fetched £7,500 at Christie’s against an estimate of £1,500 to £2,000.

But not every collector restricts himself to original Ashbees. Charles Gillespie, who left a City post in insurance compliance to work in education, says: “I’m interested in the Liberty pewter and silver ranges made at the turn of the 19th century by designers such as Archibald Knox [1864-1933] and Reginald Silver [1879-1965]. It’s the Celtic designs I like – lots of flowing lines, leaves, trees and Celtic entrelac patterns.”

The two ranges Gillespie admires are the silver Cymric and the pewter Tudric. He tends to keep his spending to the low hundreds: a Liberty Tudric string box set him back just over £300. “Pewter was supposed to be the poor man’s silver, but over years it oxidises and takes on this fabulous patina,” he says.

It was London store Liberty & Co that introduced Arts and Crafts to a wider audience. Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843-1917) engaged the era’s most influential designers to create ranges of metalware that became the movement’s most familiar artefacts – its greatest hits. According to Patch Rogers, the dealer who has curated Liberty’s annual Arts & Crafts exhibition since 2004, top of the pops is the work of Christopher Dresser (1834-1904). “His work was probably the most progressive in its day, finding a harmony between the machine and the designer that hadn’t been done before,” he says. “The teapots for Dixon are the most sought after of his designs.”

An electroplated teapot dated 1879 fetched £94,850 at a Christie’s auction in 2004, and in 1999, a rarer model – one of only two made – was sold in a private deal for £111,500. As well as its sublime shape, Rogers says it’s a design milestone: “It’s one of the pieces that shows Dresser as a pioneer of modernism.” Iconic designs such as these only come onto the market once a decade, but Dresser’s less-well-known works can be found more easily, and regularly fetch five-figure sums. Last June, at a Sotheby’s New York auction, a silver claret jug designed by Dresser and produced by London makers Heath and Middleton, c1892, was sold for $21,250.

James Dixon, manufacturer of the Dresser teapot, also made high-quality pieces by unnamed designers, which can be had on a relative shoestring. When Christopher Nobes, professor of accounting at the University of London, was furnishing his 1930s weekend home in West Sussex, Arts & Crafts metalware caught his eye as the perfect finishing touch. “Somehow Arts and Crafts seem to fit better in a 1930s house. We bought a particularly elegant pair of silver candlesticks, plain obelisk shapes on square bases, made by James Dixon of Sheffield.” He found them at Bonhams, after a longish search. When he began the quest six years ago, they were fetching up to £400, and a pair now costs up to £600.

For many years, the warmer metals – copper and brass – were less popular than silver and pewter. “There’s a resurgence of interest in old copper now,” says Daryl Bennett, a retired civil servant who collects and writes on Arts and Crafts metalware. Bennett’s preferred school, the Newlyn Industrial Class, is still relatively unknown and, he believes, undervalued. In 1892, artist John D McKenzie invited John Pearson, leading metalworker of the Guild of Handicrafts, to teach his technique of beating copper to Newlyn’s fishing community. The Cornish artisans adopted Pearson’s methods and added their distinctive touches: motifs of fish, seaweed, seashells and boats. These local patterns, and the fact that every piece is entirely handmade, mean that Newlyn is particularly prized by purists such as Bennett. A cigarette box decorated with tulips was sold for £320 by auctioneer David Lay, while an original John Pearson will cost somewhere between the high hundreds and low thousands: a repoussé copper fender signed and dated “JP 1901” sold on eBay last October for £700.

Other fans of Arts and Crafts copper are drawn to the work of William Arthur Smith Benson (1854-1924). “People buy Benson for the aesthetic quality, but it is technically very accomplished too,” says Willie Clegg, owner of The Country Seat who has been dealing in lighting by the designer for over a dozen years. “Benson was among the first to encourage his clients to have electricity, and he developed designs that softened electric light.” Most sought after are the lights Benson created with his friend Harry Powell of Whitefriars glassworks, incorporating semi-opaque hand-blown shades. At The Country Seat, a ceiling light with six copper lotus leaves and four straw opal glass shades costs £4,500.