Silversmiths' Work Part 2 by Christopher Dresser

Tuesday, 15 October 2002 07:40 AM BST

Contributed by: Jerry Green

There are various modes of working metal. It may be cast, hammered, cut, engraved, and manipulated in various ways.

Little that is satisfactory can result from casting. Casting is a rough means of producing a result, and at best achieve the formation of a mass which may be less troublesome to cut into shape than a more solid piece of metal; but casting without the application of other means of working metal achieves little of an art nature.

Some of the fine iron castings of Berlin are wonderfully good in their way, and are to an extent artistic; and certainly they contrast strangely with the cast handles and knobs which we often see applied to vegetable dishes, and similar silver objects here in England; yet even these will not compare with works wrought by the hammer and the chisel. Thin metal hammered into form, and touched where necessary with the chisel, the graver, and the chasing tool, is capable of producing the very finest effects which can be achieved in metal-work.

Let the reader consider the beautiful vessels which Arabian metalwork presents us with: these are all formed by the hammer and chisel, with the assistance of the graver and chasing-tool, and how mavellously delicate and beautiful are the results! We have in these vessels beauty and dignity of form, richness of design, great intricacy and delicacy of detail, and altogether a refinement of effect which may long be considered and repeatedly enjoyed (Fig. 121).

Several, I may say many, of these beautiful objects are to be found in the South Kensington Museum, and it should be generally known that exact fac-similes of these lovely works, in the form of electrotype copies, have been prepared by Messrs. Elkington and Co., under the sanction of the authorities of the Department of Science and Art, and that these are procurable at small cost.

For purposes of study these copies are of almost equal value with the originals, and for the adornment of a sideboard they are hardly inferior. I strongly advise those who can afford to purchase these beautiful copies to garnish their sideboards with plate of this description rather than with the meretricious electro-plate which we often see in our shop-windows.

Having determined on the best mode of working the material, consider carefully the requirements which the work to be produced is intended to meet, and then strive to form the object so that it may perfectly answer the end proposed by its creation.

Let us take a sugar-basin. What form should it have? After much consideration, I have arrived at the conclusion that the two shapes engraved in Figs. 122 and 123 are those which best fulfil the requirements of such a vessel, for in these the sugar is always collected together, and the dust sugar seperates itself from the lumps.

The handles of a sugar-basin are often so small as to be partially or wholly useless. It not unfrequently happens that only one or two fingers can rest on the small handle, while the thumb has to be placed within the orifice of the basin when it is desired to move it. This should not be so; if a handle is to exist at all, it should be so formed as to be useful, and afford a means of moving the object with ease and comfort.

To form a handle as a mere ornament is an absurdity, for the handle is part of the vessel structurally, while the ornamentation is an after and separate consideration. In order to its existence a vessel must be constructed, but when formed it need not of necessity be ornamented; ornamentation must ever be regarded as separate from construction.

Such a sugar-basin as I have suggested would not stand without legs; it must therefore have them; but I see no reason why the legs and handles should not be combined; hence I propose two feet so formed as to serve as handles throughout their upper parts (Figs. 122, 123), they being convenient to hold.

Modern European silversmiths have fallen into the error (an error now prevailing wherever art can be applied to any object) of making their works of a pictorial, rather than an ornamental character - an error which the Arabians, Indians, and Japanese never perpetrate, while their works in metal are unsurpassed by any others, and equalled by indeed few. It is a mistake to cover an entire vase with figures in high relief; but wherever anything of the kind is attempted, care must be exercised in causing the groups to follow the line of the vase, and not to appear as irregular projections from it. As to the modes of decorating works in silver and in gold, they are many; of ornamentation by repousse work we have alreadsy spoken, and of chasing and engraving. But besides these there are other methods, and some of great interest, for there is damascene work, or inlaying, and applying colour, or enamelling, and niello work; jewels may also be added.

Damascene work is of great interest. metal of one colour is inlaid into metal of another colour. India produces, perhaps, the rarest examples of this kind of work, the Indians being experts at this manufacture; but the Indian work consists chiefly of silver inlaid in iron. The mode of work seems to be capable of producing many beautiful affects, as all who have examined the large inlaid hookahs of India will admit.

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