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Lustre for life

Commissioned, highly individual silver tableware is enjoying a revival and provides a legacy that will shine for generations, says Katrina Burroughs.

December 26 2011
Katrina Burroughs

From tumblers to claret jugs, teapots to pinch pots, there’s a renewed appetite for custom-made silver tableware. The present generation of silversmiths is recreating tabletop staples in this precious metal, inspired by themes as varied as liquid dynamics and Doctor Who. Collectors are falling in love with these modern, stylish forms, and are commissioning touches of luxury for everyday life that can be passed down for generations.

Rupert Hambro, chairman of JO Hambro, engaged silversmith Jocelyn Burton to make a set of wine goblets. “We commissioned 14, in pairs – seven different designs to do with my wife, our life and what we enjoy. It was great fun,” he says. “Jocelyn gives you a beautiful watercolour-and-pencil drawing of what she’ll make, and you decide if you’d like any changes.” Themes on the goblets include Hambro’s Italian olive trees, a lion and a unicorn to represent Britishness, two trophies depicting shooting and the arts, and a Pekingese in heraldic pose. But Burton drew the line at a maritime motif: “I explained that a boat is horizontal and a goblet is vertical,” she says. The cups were spun, hammered and gilded inside, some elements of the stem modelled and others fabricated, then all the detail was overchased – a traditional technique whereby the surface is given texture and definition with sharp, steel tools.

As a trustee of the Silver Trust, the body set up to commission tableware for 10 Downing Street, Hambro understood that the process involved delayed gratification – his commission took a couple of years to complete. “It takes patience,” Hambro counsels newbie patrons, “but when the finished product arrives, it’s thrilling. When people come to dinner – and we have a lot of dinner parties – the goblets are a great talking point. We have a round dining table, so everyone can see everyone else’s.”

Another surprise to the newcomer will be the shifting price. The cost of a silver commission is based on materials and workshop time, and the price of the precious metal fluctuates daily, so an estimate made one month will be out of date the next, when the silversmith will have to buy materials at a different – usually higher – cost. Burton says that, given the price of silver today, a single goblet in the same style as Hambro’s might cost £15,000.

Hambro’s cups – particularly the Pekingese design, one imagines – will be a joy to future generations of the banking dynasty. And that heirloom quality is what most patrons prize in their tableware, however contemporary it may be in style. One banker client had a dozen place settings of cutlery made by silversmith Rauni Higson, with the express intention that they later be split into two sets and inherited by her daughter and son. Three years ago, this patron and Higson met at Goldsmiths’ Fair (the annual event featuring over 100 artists, held at Goldsmiths’ Hall in the City of London), and the banker was struck by Higson’s original style. The Eucalyptus flatware she commissioned, almost two years later, has handles made by “fold-forming”. Higson takes a sheet of silver, folds it in two, then hammers it. When the sheet is opened up again, the fold has formed a rib that goes down the centre of the handles. “The hammer marks spread out sideways from the rib, making a leaf shape,” says Higson. “I like to leave evidence that it’s a handmade object.” The cutlery has turned out to be a canny investment. When the set was ordered, silver was $13 an ounce; now it’s over $30. Today, six settings of six pieces each, in a similar style, might cost from £21,000.

The new wave of silver commissions may be intended for constant, practical service, but many proud owners display them like artworks, at least during the honeymoon period. Edward Bolitho, Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, recently engaged celebrated silversmith Graham Stewart to make a bowl to mark his silver wedding. “So far, it’s been a showpiece,” he says. “We’re still rather proud of it and we have it sitting there to be admired. But it will look wonderful with some fruit in it.” Stewart has been making this style of bowl (Bird Song bowl, £5,000) for a couple of decades and it has an influential fan base – one is in use at Buckingham Palace. The plain-silver bowls have a gilded interior, are about 20cm-30cm across, and are hand-engraved with elegant cursive lettering – in Bolitho’s case, with his name and those of his wife, their three children and their family homes. “The simple lines and beautiful calligraphy, and the mix of modernity and traditional skills, appealed to us,” says Bolitho. “We live in a house that goes back generations and the bowl adds something else that my successors will be proud of.”

While stunning, Bolitho’s bowl is nonetheless a familiar form. Some of the latest commissions, however, come in shapes and textures limited only by the imagination of their makers. Ryan McClean is a young silversmith who lists among his influences “the cells inside a beehive, fluid dynamics, and [a volume entitled] Self-Organization in Biological Systems”. His Brain Coral bowls (from £3,000), for example, three of which he made for Sir Cameron Mackintosh, are deeply etched, silver vessels that mimic the texture of brain coral. Another rising star, Miriam Hanid, takes inspiration from swirling waters, perfectly capturing the movement of choppy East Anglian seas in her hand-raised, chased-silver creations. David Lamb, jewellery managing director at the World Gold Council, encountered Hanid’s work at last year’s Goldsmiths’ Fair and engaged her to make six silver tumblers with gilded interiors, as a splendid birthday gift for himself. The set of three pairs has themes of leaves, feathers and the sea. A similar commission today might cost from £6,000.

Kirsty Eaglesfield is another member of the talented new guard who, despite having only graduated in 2008, has already had her work shown at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. She designs vessels, in sterling silver and Scottish elm, based on boats and seaworn structures. Recent commissions include a Dory gravy boat (£1,250) with a fine, hammered texture that gives it a frosted appearance. Meanwhile, the quirky table candy by Rebecca Joselyn is inspired by discarded packaging – a clever meditation on throwaway culture crafted in precious metals. Collectors of her creations, which take the form of battered paper bags and dented tin cans (Crushed Can jug, £695), include the Duke of Devonshire. Mary Ann Simmons, on the other hand, makes luminous depletion-gilded boxes (an example called Cope Cube costs about £3,800), decorated with etching typically taken from a memento – one client brought letters handwritten by her mother in the 1960s to work into a design.

The shift in demand that has seen patrons buying silverware for daily domestic pleasure has revealed a particular enthusiasm for artefacts associated with tea making. Shona Marsh, a designer of stylish, informal tableware, numbers among her bestsellers plain, polished sugar bowls and milk jugs, set on a silver-inlaid sapele-wood plinth (£2,300).

The centrepiece of the tea ceremony is the teapot, and the range of designs that patrons are ordering run from the classic to the frankly funky. Adrian Hope, who created the silver cutlery for Bute House (the Edinburgh residence of Scotland’s first minister), is a virtuoso at combining elegant shape and tactile surface in simple forms that allow the beauty of the material to sing. “I’ve made more teapots than anything else – over 40 [from around £4,000],” he says. “People enjoy them because they’re something they can use every day.”

New kid Simon Pattison, who launched his first range of homewares this year at the Paris interiors show Maison & Objet, is also finding that his teatime designs are creating a stir. Pattison’s former background is in ceramics – he started training as a silversmith in 2008 – and his work is all about form and function. Whereas some makers inject wow factor with sophisticated ornamentation, Pattison keeps the surface clean, but plays with fanciful shapes. He recently worked on a commission for a tea set – teapot, sugar bowl, milk jug – in plain silver, with fluorescent plastic handles (£7,300). The bases have skirts that look, to any child of the 1970s, remarkably familiar. “I like Daleks,” he admits. And who wouldn’t love a Dalek on their dining table?

See also

Tableware, Tea sets