August 26, 2011 10:03 pm

In praise of modest accomplishment

Being an artist seems to require a magnification of ego, but being a craftsperson involves its diminution
A silver spoon is being hammered into shape

Art and craft might be in their origins indistinguishable – the Greek word techne means art, and craft, and technique – but artists and craftspeople, at least in the past 100 years or so, have developed very different ways of behaving. The cartoon series Young British Artists in the satirical magazine Private Eye, featuring a group of foul-mouthed, self-obsessed and self-promoting yahoos, could not by any stretch of the imagination be called Young British Craftspeople.

For those who want to promote craft, I was thinking as I attended two craft-oriented events in recent weeks, this presents both an opportunity and a problem. Craftspeople are just too modest and self-effacing and even nice to be obvious subjects for the contemporary media circus, with its taste for extravagant and self-destructive lifestyles. Craftspeople are somehow less likely to produce scores of illegitimate children, in the manner of Lucian Freud, or to die in unexplained circumstances at 27, in the manner of Amy Winehouse, than artists. You might think that was a salutary thing but try telling that to a tabloid newspaper editor.

My first event was a silver spoon-making workshop conducted, under the auspices of the Goldsmiths’ Company, in south London. I had hesitated before accepting this invitation, for a number of reasons: I thought, wrongly, that it might be aimed at those who had been born with similar spoons in their mouths; I guessed, rightly, that my silver-spoon-making ability might be limited; and the trek out to the borders of Peckham and Camberwell seemed to involve a bus, a train, another bus, all on a fine summer evening which might have been spent playing tennis.

But the Vanguard Studios where Howard Fenn and Steve Wager have their silversmithing workshop turned out to be one of those charming and unexpected corners of London still haunted by a bucolic past. And though you might associate the Goldsmiths’ Company with rather grand people and fancy jewellery (wrongly, because the Company through its new charitable enterprise, the Goldsmiths’ Centre, is involved in the broad fostering and promotion of craft skills), there is nothing fancy at all about the process of silversmithing.

As our small group set to hammering and annealing (tempering by fire) the little silver bars destined to become our spoons I realised that silversmithing constitutes a link with an ancient past. The technical processes involved have altered little over the centuries, or even millennia; now you use a blowtorch rather than a charcoal fire but the hammering bit (by far the most important) has hardly changed since the time of Hephaestus. And I loved one particular detail: Fenn and Wager, in common with other silversmiths, use old tree trunks scooped with indentations to hollow out bowls and for the process of planishing, or giving a final smooth finish.

My spoon turned out to be by far the most eccentric and least regular and smooth-looking of all those that emerged from the workshop; but I am obstinately proud of its wonky, serpent-like handle, shovel-like bowl and rough, pock-marked surface. “It has character”, as the PR person for the Goldsmiths’ Company put it, with professional tact.

The atmosphere and feeling in the workshop, both noisy and quiet at the same time – loud with the sounds of hammering but otherwise remarkably peaceful – particularly struck me. What made it different from the atmosphere in your average office or newsroom was the sense of absorption in the matter at hand, rather than multiple distraction. You simply cannot hammer a small silver bar, held between your forefinger and thumb, while having half an eye on one or many screens – or at least not without risking horrible damage to your digits.

Whereas being an artist, in the modern world, seems to require a magnification of ego, being a craftsperson involves its diminution. Fenn and Wager are not only leading silversmiths but distinguished lecturers and freemen of the Goldsmiths’ Company; all the same they carry no aura of ego (Wager in particular is studiously downbeat); they would not stand out in a crowd, as I imagine both Lucian Freud and Amy Winehouse would have done.

I had the same feeling when I attended the presentation dinner for the inaugural Balvenie Masters of Craft awards, a set of prizes offered by the Speyside malt whisky distillery, which still employs its own coppersmith and coopers. The overall winner was the violinmaker and restorer Christoph Götting, who spent 20 years renovating instruments from the 17th and 18th centuries before embarking on making new ones informed by the methods of Stradivari. He seemed just as quiet and modest as the tapestry weaver Louise Martin, who happened to be sitting next to me. She spoke of the long but satisfying preparatory work over months, using both head and hand, and how it might take a day to weave a flower or a leaf – but a day well spent.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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