Benney & the Jets Post War British Designer Silversmiths
by Derek Styles
The Second World War had a disastrous effect on British silversmithing for several reasons apart from the obvious fall in demand. Many of the older professionals were used for precision work in other trades; the younger ones were called up for active service; supplies of precious metals had run low; Sheffield and London, including Goldsmiths Hall, had suffered severe bomb damage. Purchase Tax was increased to 110% even if you could find the items to buy. Just before the war in 1938 Edward Spencer (b 1873) of the Artificers Guild had died followed in 1939 by two of the most important pre-war British designer-silversmiths, Omar Ramsden (b 1873) and H G Murphy (b 1884) then Alwyn Carr (b 1872) in 1940. Some designer-silversmiths who were working before the war successfully revived their businesses when it was over, like R E Stone (1903-1990), Leslie Durbin (1913-2005), Dunstan Pruden (d 1974), Bernard Instone (1891-1987), George Hart (1882-1973) of the Guild of Handicraft and J P Steele (Picture 1) who was an artist/craftsmen working in Letchworth.
Others tried again without success like Charles Boyton (1885-1958) who had to close in 1949 due to lack of demand for luxury items and his Art Deco style was becoming less popular.
Picture 1 Silver Beaker J P Steele London 1946
Picture 2 Geoffrey Bellamy London 1954 & 1957
As we moved into the 1950's designers and craftsmen were looking for something new and both the Royal College of Art and the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London created an ideal breeding ground for some new talent. There was a feeling of optimism among these students with the Festival of Britain in 1951 encouraging modern design followed by the Coronation two years later. Professor Robert Goodden at the RCA was a catalyst for this and had some bright new stars under him including Eric Clements (b 1925), Gerald Benney (b 1930), Robert Welch (1929-2000), David Mellor (b 1930), Geoffrey Bellamy (1922-1997) (Picture 2), Anthony Hawksley (1921-1991) then later Stuart Devlin (b 1931), among many other notables.
Industrial design was encouraged in line with Government guidelines at the time so many of these students spent some time in the factories of Sheffield. Welch went to the cutlers George Wolstenholme, as had contemporary Geoffrey Bellamy; Mellor to Walker and Hall and Benney, (then later Devlin), to Viners. Here they were all able to combine the quest for the new with the functionality of use and the practicality of manufacture. Cutlery and other holloware items were later produced by these Companies not only in silver, but also in silver-plate and often in stainless steel, and many of them became Consultant Designers to these companies. Eric Clements designed for Mappin and Webb - Anthony Elson (b 1935) with William Comyns - Christopher Lawrence (b 1936) for C J Vander - Alex Styles (b 1922) (Picture 3) for Garrard's -and so the list goes on. Some, like Yorkshireman Brian Asquith (1930-2008) (Picture 4), made a name for himself in silversmithing yet also designed in many completely different fields. This led to many of these designer-craftsmen being able to set up independent and successful workshops under their own steam. Another silversmith from Yorkshire, Graham Watling (d 1996) (5), had a very strong independent streak like Asquith and spent many years working in Lacock, Wiltshire.
Picture 3 Lion & Unicorn Bowl Designed by Alex Styles made by Wakely & Wheeler for Garrard London 1953
Picture 4 Beaker & Salver Brian Asquith Sheffield 1974 & 1977
Picture 5 Bowl & Spoon Graham Watling London 1977
Picture 6 Box Grant Macdonald London 1972
Although many were taking their early inspirations from Georg Jensen, the Bauhaus and Scandinavia, they soon developed their own individual identities. This did not mean they were starting something completely new as for some it was a natural progression. Many of them took over existing silversmith's workshops thus continuing the tradition. Gerald Benney took over an established workshop just off Tottenham Court Road then moved to the South Bank and when he left for Berkshire, Grant MacDonald (b 1947) (Picture 6) moved in. Leslie Durbin had worked with Omar Ramsden and when Durbin left his own workshop Hector Miller (b 1945) moved in - Miller had previously worked for Stuart Devlin. The evolution continued with the assistance of the craftsmen who had gone before: Brian Fuller (Picture 7) had worked with Wakely and Wheeler before becoming Benney's manager - Christopher Lawrence with R E Stone before he too became Benney's workshop manager. Alan Evans had also been with Stone before enamelling for Benney. Desmond Clen-Murphy worked with Benney before setting up his own workshop in Brighton. Silversmithing, as in all art, uses the past masters to build a new future. However, coming in at a tangent was architect Louis Osman (1914-1996). His friend Gerald Benney had asked him to judge a competition at Goldsmiths Hall and felt all the entries were dreadful and that he could do better himself. So Osman became a goldsmith as well as continuing his successful career as an architect. Michael Bolton (1938-2005) (Picture 8) is another who came to silversmithing late and was self taught.
Picture 7 Cow Tazza Brian Fuller London 1994
Picture 8 Salver and Centrepiece Michael Bolton London 1989 & 1986
A major innovation to silver decoration at this time was Gerald Benney's use of a textured "bark" like finish (Picture 9). It has been said that his son Jonathon used one of his father's planishing hammers to 'mend' his bicycle and returned the hammer to the work bench. When Gerald next used the hammer it had been so damaged that it left an impression on the metal. He liked the surface decoration it created so he developed it to a full and natural conclusion. Of a chalice that Benney produced in 1957, Graham Hughes later wrote that this was "the world's first piece of modern textured silver." This is a signature of much of Benney's work although he did produce other fine work, particularly with the use of enamels. Within a few years the texturing effect was common place among smaller commercial companies in London, Birmingham and Sheffield as well as other designer-craftsmen who developed their own variations on a textured theme.
Anthony Elson's training as a silversmith started with his father's friendship with Gerald Benney's father, Sallis Benney, who was Principal at the Brighton School of Art. Elson's work often features textured surfaces that have been created by milling-machines or stand drills despite his training under Dunstan Pruden (Picture 10) who considered decoration on silver unnecessary.
Picture 9 Pair Peppermills Gerald Benney London 1973
Picture 10 Covered Bowl Dunstan Pruden London 1953
When Christopher Lawrence (11) first left Benney and set up by himself he was very much under his previous employer's influence but he was soon able to vary this to his own benefit and softened the texturing considerably and produced a never ending array of varied designs. By 1973 when Lawrence had a one man exhibition at Goldsmith's Hall, Hughes said "it was his silver tableware that astonished visitors to the exhibition." Another variation on a theme that Lawrence produced was his 'magic' mushrooms. Stuart Devlin had been very successful with his novelty surprise Easter Eggs and the Christmas boxes and Lawrence continued this with his 'mushmen' in various guises when you remove the top of the mushroom.
Picture 11 Ice Bucket & Tongs Christopher Lawrence London 1971/2
Of all the silversmiths at this time, Australian Stuart Devlin (Picture 12) probably produced the largest range of items, not only in silver but also furniture and jewellery as well as designing coins. He produced a lot of commissioned items but was an early master of the 'limited edition' - a run of maybe 100 or 300 numbered items with signed authentication certificate and original packaging. The art of the silversmith, from the textured surface to gilding; various forms of oxidization to achieve different coloured metal; enamelling, stone setting and pierced-lacework can often be seen in one small object.. These items were, and still are, very collectable. Devlin held regular yearly exhibitions to showcase his new creations.
Picture 12 Box Stuart Devlin London 1969
Apart from the obvious appeal to collectors of the limited edition another old favourite had quite a boost during the last half of the 20th Century - and that was the commemorative issue and this was ideally suited to the independent silversmith. We had the Coronation, death of Churchill, Silver Jubilee, Investiture of the Prince of Wales, his wedding, birth of his children and so the list grew and so did the pieces issued to remember these events. The Caddy Spoon Society and Wine Label Circle commissioned for many of these and some exciting designs were issued. Then from the 1960's onwards goblets were an ideal format for the designer-craftsman.By 1970 Graham Hughes, Art Director at the Goldsmith's Hall and Chairman of the Crafts Centre of Great Britain, initiated a series of one-man exhibitions celebrating the work of Benney, Devlin, Lawrence, Louis Osman and these continue to this day with Malcolm Appleby and John Donald being the last two honoured in this way. Goldsmiths Hall have also commissioned pieces over the years for ceremonial use or for their own permanent collection or for Livery and Hall Members. They have an excellent website at www.thegoldsmiths.co.uk which has extensive information on current silversmiths and publications they have for sale which are essential reading for anyone interested in this area, not only excellent value but well illustrated and very informative. Here you will be thrilled to discover, if you don't know them already, the work of Jocelyn Burton (b 1946), Wally Gilbert (b 1946), Alex Brogden (b 1954), Rod Kelly (b 1956), those mentioned already and so many, many more. The Hall also promotes the newer talent with an annual selling exhibition.Many of the pieces created in the 1960's and '70's are just starting to reappear on the market for the first time second hand as owners die or downsize creating a whole new collectable field. Many of the limited editions were over-subscribed when they first appeared thirty years ago and with editions of 100-300 there are going to be less available now that are still in pristine condition so it has to be a strong collectable area. We are also talking about quality designers and silversmiths rather than the limited editions that followed after the initial success of this genre.It doesn't have to be old to be good - don't forget that Paul de Lamarie, Paul Storr and Hester Bateman had their own patrons buying new silver from them.In the 'Swinging Sixties' Britain not only led the world in Pop music with the Beatles - Fashion Design with Mary Quant - Football winning the World cup - but also Silver Design with 'Benney and the Jets.'
Post War British Designer Silversmiths
by Derek Styles