Saturday, 29 January 2005

Georg Jensen’s gems


Español | Deutsche | Français | Italiano | Português

by Christopher Proudlove©

The years 1890-1910 are known as the Art Nouveau period and the designs of almost everything took on a new artistic style that was in complete contrast to all that had gone before.

It was a combination of ideas inspired by Japan, nature and medieval history starting with fluid, whiplash lines and ending with taut, geometric symmetry that heralded the arrival later of Art Deco design.

Craftsmen of the period included Archibald Knox, Dr Christopher Dresser and Charles Robert Ashbee, all of whose work is now highly prized among a growing number of devotees.

Knox, who was born on the Isle of Man in 1864, is best remembered for the 400 or more designs he made for Liberty and Co.

They appear in Liberty's Cymric range of silver and Tudric range of pewter, which were launched in 1899.

Running through much of it is a Celtic art theme - Knox's parents were both Scottish.

However, it is difficult to attribute any one design to a particular artist since Liberty's employed several who were all influenced by Knox's talent.

Dr. Dresser (1834-1904) was another whose designs were manufactured by Liberty's, but silver was just one of his many mediums.

In addition, he designed furniture, textiles, pottery - he was involved with the Bretby Art Pottery Co., of Burton-on-Trent - and other metal work.

Stark simplicity

However, the common denominator to all Dresser’s designs is its stark simplicity.

He found his inspiration in Japan following a visit there in 1876 and later his company, Dresser and Holme, of Farringdon Road, London, imported and retailed Japanese art metal work.

Dresser himself began producing silver items on his own in the late 1870s and in 1881 produced perhaps his most famous design for a particularly quirky, angular toast rack, examples of which sell for £3,000-£4,000 today.

Ashbee, on the other hand, was far from quirky. He was born in 1863 and in 1888 founded the Guild and School of Handicraft in the East End of London.

He too was influenced by Celtic art, but spoke out vehemently against the excesses of the Art Nouveau movement. He died in 1942.

Today, one more name should be added to this roll call of greats: that of a Danish silversmith Georg Jensen, whose talent was until relatively recently overlooked by all but the cognoscenti.

A sale in New York last week devoted for the first time entirely to Jensen’s work not only marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of his company, but also a coming of age in terms of prices achieved.

The sale totalled £4.7 million, almost three times expectations.

Georg Jensen(1866 to 1935) was the seventh of eight children, born into a working-class family living in Copenhagen.

Up to his 14th birthday, the boy worked with his father who was a grinder in a knife factory but was then apprenticed to a goldsmith.

The boy also took art classes and passed the entrance exam for the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1892.

Jensen had married the year before his graduation and the couple went on to have two children, but his wife died in 1897, leaving him with responsibility for the two small boys.

He did go on to marry a further three times.

After an unsuccessful start as a sculptor and art potter, in 1901, he joined forces with a metalsmith, who taught him about Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts Movement.

In 1904, with financial backing from a Copenhagen businessman, Jensen opened his own workshop where he planned to produce commercially successful designs rather than reproductions of antique silver, a goal that was achieved by recruiting talented designers who shared his aspirations.

Best known among them was Johan Rohde whom he had met at the Academy and the two became lifelong friends and associates, Rhode designing the important Acorn pattern tableware which continues to be made by the Jensen company today.

Jensen was inspired by Danish silver from the late 16th century through to the Art Nouveau period, producing bowls, tea sets, vases and stunning chandeliers which were snapped up by an eager – but rich – but clientele.

Wide acclaim

The decorative motifs for which Jensen silver is renowned were drawn from his childhood love of nature including grapes, pine cones, blossom and berries.

Up until the outbreak of the Second World War, Jensen silver had won wide acclaim in every major international exhibition of the applied arts.

Its hallmark was the superb craftsmanship that only traditional techniques of hand and hammer, rather than mass-production, can achieve.

At first, designs leaned towards the naturalism of the Art Nouveau period, but later embraced angular, geometric Art Deco designs that hinted at Modernism.

This naturally went down well in America, and millionaire William Randolph Hearst was their first major patron there.

He bought just about all the wares the firm had on show at the 1915 San Francisco World Fair.

Marilyn Monroe was said to be another fan.

By 1920, a showroom had been opened on Fifth Avenue in New York and American silversmiths began copying Jensen designs.

The most successful imitator was the International Silver Company of Meriden, Connecticut, who were cheeky enough to stamp some of what they produced with "USA Georg Jensen Inc." which can mislead today's collectors.

Naturally enough, the work of such masters as Jensen, Dresser and the many other leading designers of Art Nouveau and Art Deco silver does not come cheap.

However, their uniqueness and originality, coupled with their insistence of quality of production will continue to ensure their saleroom success.

Products from such short but well defined periods in the history of design are becoming increasingly rare.

Judging by the success of the New York Jensen sale. the signs are that the price spiral can only continue.

Picture shows:

A silver flatware service designed by Georg Jensen, estimate: $20,000-30,000. Sold for $180,000 (£96,256).
Picture: Christie’s Images


Saturday, 22 January 2005

Hallmarks of quality

silver 140

by Christopher Proudlove©

HOME hint number one: next time you clean the family silver, stick a small strip of Sellotape over the hallmarks. Why? Quite simply to avoid them being rubbed away by over zealous polishing. Fact is, many people clean silver too often. It's a soft metal and untold damage can result.

Polish away the crispness of engraving or chasing on a salver or rosebowl or whatever, and its resale value is seriously affected. You might even rub a hole in an embossed area such as the back of a hand mirror or hairbrush.

Polish away at the hallmarks - every legal piece of English silver has them - to the point that they are unreadable and you'll live to regret it.

The value of all but early and rare pieces of silver could be reduced to what a buyer of scrap silver would give you for a chunk of the metal at so much per ounce. The price is presently around a measly £3.50.

So what's so special about hallmarks? Everything.

They are what you might call one of the earliest forms of quality control, because a piece that carries them will have passed the strictest tests to ensure that the silver content is up to scratch.

Moreover, they are a boon to the collector who knows how to crack the code. Understand them and overnight you become an "expert" at deducing where and when a silver object was made.

British silver has been struck with hallmarks applied at the Goldsmiths' Hall since 1478.

Most British silver objects have four small symbols punched into them that reveal an important amount of information.

Most important mark to identify is what collectors refer to as the lion mark - more correctly termed the standard mark.

This shows a lion as though the animal was walking to the left with one paw raised.

'Lion passant'

In heraldic terms, it is described as "lion passant". Quite simply, if a piece bears this mark, then, yes, the metal has been tested and found to be of sterling quality - that is 92.5% pure silver.

Next, look for the assay office mark - the symbol showing where a particular piece was tested and marked as having passed this stiff "quality control".

Hallmarking has been around since about 1300, and in those early days smiths' guilds were established in many parts of the country, each with a distinctive mark.

In time, eight major assay offices emerged: in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Chester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Dublin.

Today, only four remain. They are: London, represented by a leopard's head shown full face; Birmingham, anchor; Sheffield, today the York rose, but prior to 1975 it was a crown; and Edinburgh, a three-towered castle.

Chester's office, represented by three wheat sheaves on a shield, was closed in 1962.

Next comes the date letter, by which it is possible, with a good magnifying glass and a book of hallmarks*, to determine the date to the nearest year that a piece passed through an assay office.

Letters of the alphabet (but not all) are used in chronological order, changing annually, to represent a year. For example, in the case of the Chester Assay Office, A represents 1701, B 1702 and so on.

By 1726 it was back to A, as it was again in 1751.

The secret of how to break the code lies in the design of the letter and the shape of the shield in which the letter appears.

In other words, Chester 1701 was a capital A in a triangular shield, whereas in 1751, it was a small a in a square shield.

A degree of care is needed to differentiate between the styles of shields and lettering, particularly on small pieces.

But by referring to the handbook, it is possible to date a piece with little room for error. Simply match the date/letter and assay office mark to those in the book.

It should be noted that in 1975, the Hallmarking Act, passed two years earlier, came into effect. It simplified the symbols and made them easier to understand.

Main change, and the one which will be an aid to antique silver collectors of the future, was that the date letter became common to all four assay offices.

Thus 1975 was the letter A, 1976, B and back to A by the year 2000.


Last of the four marks is that identifying the maker. Generally speaking, these are initials and are further guarantee of fineness of silver and quality of workmanship.

Smiths can be identified by consulting reference books to be found in local libraries.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? And it is - with a bit of practice. But the problems start with the pseudo hallmarks that are found on electroplated silver.

While not necessarily meant to deliberately deceive, they can confuse, leading the uninformed collector to believe he owns something precious which is actually base metal.

Fact is, people have been confusing electroplated ware with real silver ever since the former was invented in the mid 19th century.

In fact, telling the two apart is simple: if the marks include the lion passant, then it's silver. If the lion is lacking, or if there are marks such as "A1 Plate" or impressed single initials each in their own hallmark-style shields, it's plated.

Man to blame for the confusion is John Wright, a surgeon, who spent several years experimenting following Michael Faraday's explanation of the laws of electrolysis in 1833.

Wright realised that by a process involving electricity, it was possible to remove a thin layer of silver from a pure block and deposit it over another metal object.

Astute Mr Wright sold the invention to Birmingham manufacturers George and Henry Elkington, not just for a lump sum, but also for the royalties on all silver deposited by his method and all licences granted to other manufacturers under the patent.

The Elkingtons, in turn, killed off any competition by buying the patents for other commercially useful electroplating methods taken out by other companies.

By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, electroplating was the recognised method of producing any item that had previously been produced in silver at a fraction of the cost.

Middle class families keen to display their new-found wealth, but unable to afford silver, were filling their homes with the ware.

Similarly, the advent of steam power and other mechanical advances in factories and the appearance of new alloys like Britannia metal (tin, antimony and copper) and so-called nickel silver (really nickel brass) added to the success of mass-production.

The result is a massive stockpile for today's collectors at highly affordable prices. Just don't pay the silver premium for it!

Picture shows: a large and imposing pair of early Victorian rococo revival silver sauceboats by John Hunt, worth £8,000-12,000. Look carefully and the hallmarks can be seen just below the lip of the sauceboat on the left. They are for Mortimer & Hunt, London 1839. The other sauceboat will have an identical set in the same spot.

Graphic shows a typical set of hallmarks. From left to right: leopard's head, town mark for London; date mark for 1801-2; sponsor's mark of Paul Storr; lion passant sterling silver mark.


Saturday, 15 January 2005

Moorcroft – it’s a tradition


by Christopher Proudlove©

What do Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Rod Stewart, Estée Lauder boss Leonard Lauder and the Sultan of Brunei have in common? Answer: They all collect Moorcroft Pottery. And they’re not alone.

Today, Moorcroft both old and new is more collectable - and collected - than ever. The Moorcroft Collector's Club was founded in 1987 and has a large international membership who flock to specialist auction sales and to fairs and markets, while specialist dealers buy and sell Moorcroft around the world.

Moorcroft continues to be made in Stoke-on-Trent, in Staffordshire, and founder William Moorcroft’s original bottle kiln is now a Grade II listed building.

Traditional production methods are still used. Pots are turned on a lathe to perfect the shape, and the distinctive tube-lining decoration is applied by hand on to the raw clay.

The colours are also still applied entirely by hand, one colour gently washed over another in order to enable them to blend together at high temperature.

A second firing produces the richness of colour that has been the hallmark of Moorcroft for the last hundred years.

William’s son, Walter, reminiscing about his early experiences working for his father, once described methods of manufacture as “highly secretive and most unorthodox”.

“My father’s methods were a law unto themselves,” he said. But it was an approach that proved extremely successful for more than 100 years and continues to beguile collectors today

The remarks seemed particularly profound when new owners of the company were attempting to modernise production techniques.

In the interests of progress, the old labour-intensive hand-thrown methods were streamlined and the number of designs was drastically reduced.

But modernisation was doomed to failure, as anyone who appreciated the hand-made appeal of Moorcroft’s work could have predicted, and ironically the experiment in 1989 took the company back into private hands.

From then until the present, Moorcroft has thrived and, of all the many early 20th century studio ceramics, it continues to be the most successful.

William Moorcroft was born in Burslem in 1872. He was the second son of a family well established in the Staffordshire Potteries and he inherited his father's interest in art and talent for design.

In 1897, he obtained his Art Master's Certificate at the National Art Training School in London, later the Royal College of Art, and also trained in Paris, absorbing the influences of Art Nouveau.

Returning to Burslem in 1897, he went to work as a designer for James Macintyre and Company, who wanted to start an art pottery department.

Moorcroft was inspired by William Morris and the Arts & Crafts Movement and preferred the distinctive Englishness of Morris’s elaborate but controlled designs to the prevailing fussy French Art Nouveau fashion.

Working for Macintyre, he followed on from Harry Bernard's Gesso Faience range, developing new shapes and patterns for both printed and enamelled ware.

His early designs carried the “Florian Ware” backstamp with his signature, although some transitional and highly sought after pieces turn up with the anomaly of Moorcroft's signature with the older 'Gesso Faience' mark.

The inspiration for the floral patterns stem from Moorcroft's interest in botanical studies and organic form.

Although pieces are valued by size and pattern, it is the complexity involved with linking the painted design to the potted shape that mainly determines price today.

Narcissi and cornflowers

The Florian range, based around designs of British wild flowers like narcissi and cornflowers, also features designs with butterflies and fish.

Moorcroft further experimented with landscape designs, and these are now highly sought after.

Moorcroft’s success encouraged him to set up on his own in 1910. One of the most memorable designs from this period often seen in dealers’ stock is the Claremont toadstools pattern, painted in shades of reds and yellows on a green ground.

Again the design was worked to fit the shape of the vases. Examples often feature large and small toadstools arranged in bands or clumps, while some vases are individually decorated with several bands of fungi.

Moorcroft continued to produce floral designs into the 1930s, using more exotic flowers. Waratah, a design based on an Australian flower (circa 1932) has particular appeal to Australian collectors, for example.

Introduced in 1910 and produced up to circa 1938, the Pomegranate pattern is one of the most prolific and collectable patterns, featuring on a large quantity of domestic and decorative wares. Well-painted examples are always sought after and a number of examples will feature on a number of stands at the NEC fair.

From 1910, Moorcroft’s company enjoyed success almost immediately and the firm began exhibiting in Tiffany’s in New York, and Shreve’s in San Francisco, as well as Liberty of London.

The company expanded in collaboration with Liberty, and a new factory was built at Cobridge, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1913.

In the boom years of the 1920s, Moorcroft Pottery grew in prestige and reached a height in popularity that was not seen again until the last few years.

The company won gold medals, both in Brussels and in Paris, and exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924.

In 1928, William Moorcroft received the honour of being appointed Potter to Her Majesty the Queen, by Queen Mary, who had been a keen collector of his work for some years.

Even during the depression of the 1930s, Moorcroft continued to pick up prestigious awards and was featured at the World’s Fair in New York.

William’s son, Walter, joined the firm straight from school in 1935. He took control of the business after his father's death in 1945, by which time Moorcroft was an established name of importance, featuring in museums across the United States, Canada, Germany and Italy, as well as in Britain

Walter's designs continued with the same quality of decoration and colour associated with Moorcroft, including the lily, hibiscus and magnolia designs.

The post-war years were successful and in 1961, Walter was able to buy out the Liberty interest, and the Moorcroft family regained total control of the company once again.

A retrospective exhibition of Moorcroft was held by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1972 to commemorate the centenary year of William Moorcroft’s birth.

However, the family business was entering a period of turmoil. In 1984, to save the company from liquidation, a controlling interest was sold to the Roper brothers, a company with extensive interests in the mass-production of earthenware.

The attempt to modernise production methods and take Moorcroft into the volume market was unsuccessful and the brothers withdrew, selling their shares, much to the relief of many ardent collectors and admirers.

The business passed into the hands of collector and enthusiast Hugh Edwards, and John Moorcroft, the younger son of the founder.

Walter retired as design director in 1987, after which Sally Dennis, wife of the collector and publisher Richard Dennis, took up the challenge.

In the same year John Moorcroft, the last family shareholder, became Managing Director. From the late 80s there was a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of Moorcroft Pottery. New designers were taken on and business rapidly improved.

Picture shows a group of Alhambra pattern Moorcroft vases tube-lined in salmon pink against a dark blue ground. They date from circa 1903 and each is worth £600-800 ($1,200-1,400)

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, 5 January 2005

Matchmakers on a plate

Coalportthincrown derbythin

by Christopher Proudlove©

Judging by the plaintive tone of a recent e-mail, one reader's New Year celebrations seemed to be in jeopardy even before December was out.

She wrote: "I wonder if you can help me. As long as I can remember, (50 years!) we have been using a blue and white dinner service, which is now missing many bits.

“Tonight, I broke a dinner plate and I'm trying to get a replacement. I've tried searching the internet with not much joy. Can you tell me more about my dinner service and how I can go about replacing the missing pieces?”

The e-mail goes on to give exhaustive details about the maker, the pattern, the back stamp and the trademarks, from which it is relatively straightforward to date the dinner service to around 1910. That's the easy part.

I know collectors who have spent a lifetime searching out a particular pattern or the work of a particular maker, not all of them with much success.

Indeed, the Business Manager and I found ourselves in just such a position when, on our marriage, my parents gave me six side plates - all that remained from a dinner service given to them by their parents when they married.

Now, some 30 years later, we have enough for 12 place settings! But we were lucky.

The first windfall came from a farm sale. Remember farm sales? On this particular Saturday there were two. The newspaper advertisement for one of them said "Large quantity of Royal Doulton".

Call it fate, but when we arrived there was a tea chest full of the stuff spread out on the farmhouse lawn along with the rest of the household contents and, since the pattern was a perfect match to our six plates, we joined in the bidding.

The second shipment came from nearer to home in our local saleroom and again we found ourselves bidding on a large collection, probably from a house clearance. We no doubt paid too much at the time, but what we bought is still in regular use.

Other bits and pieces - particularly the harder to find stuff such as the egg cruet, cheese dish and elegant coffee pot -- came from one or other of the countless fleamarkets we attended in the earlier days of our married life, but now, apart from the fact that we have no more room to buy more, the prices are way beyond our reach.

There are far easier ways to locate and replace missing pieces of porcelain. Indeed, if you have the money, there are people who will do it for you, although I think part of the fun is in the finding.

The first thing I would do if I were starting a search today would be to sign on with some of the local auction houses who either have internet pages of their own, or else have an online presence provided by a third party.

Such pages often give users the opportunity to create auction alerts which send out e-mails whenever something you've said you want turns up in one of the sales. Even if the auction house is miles from your home, it is still perfectly possible to do business there.

Having received an alert, simply phone the auctioneer and ask him for a condition report, that is his considered opinion on the quality and suitability of the lot, which he should give you without prejudice.

Should you choose to, you can place a commission bid with him, which he will execute on your behalf, buying the lot in the sale as cheaply as other bids permit.

In other words, don't imagine that leaving a bid of £1,000 on something which is estimated at £400 to £600 means that you're £400 out of pocket at the fall of the hammer.

On the contrary, if the bidding stops at £500, you'll buy it for the next bid -- £550 or £600, depending on the bidding increments.

Similarly, if the bidding stops at £300, the lot will be yours for the next bid, although chances are, it will have a reserve price, which is a confidential figure agreed between the owner and the auctioneer before the start of the sale.

The auctioneer cannot sell the lot below the reserve, unless he makes up the difference from his own pocket.

Most salerooms, but by no means all, set reserves below the low estimate and bidding generally starts at two thirds of the low estimate. But I digress.

Of course, the fun thing to do would be to go along to the sale and bid for yourself, although not everyone has the time and some people find it too stressful.

If the latter is the case, it often possible to find someone to bid for you, in either one of your friends or your friendly local dealer. However, he'll probably want a fee for providing the service.

All this assumes, of course, that you're dinner service is old enough to have found its way into an antiques fair or an auction room.

Sadly, pottery manufacturers find it necessary from time to time to stop making a particular line and withdraw the pattern from sale, usually because of lack of support for it in the marketplace.

This is particularly unfortunate when a pattern has been in production for a long time. Even though they might find themselves in a minority, customers become attached to it - perhaps they were given pieces as a wedding present or to mark on anniversary - and are upset when they learn that no more is available.

And of course tastes change. Factories need to produce new lines reflecting that change, clearing out all the old patterned stuff to make way for the new.

Fortunately, there are a number of china matching services which exist either literally on the high street or virtually on the Internet with the sole purpose of helping people either replace broken pieces or complete the service from patterns that have long since been discontinued.

I have a substantial e-mailable list of such companies across the country and I'd be happy to pass it on to any reader interested in receiving it.

Another way of finding the pieces you need is to place an advertisement for them in the personal columns of your local paper or in one of the specialist publications read by like-minded collectors.

Arguably the best is the BBC Homes and Antiques Magazine which has a column towards the back specially for the purpose. The cost of advertising in it is not expensive. Another one worth trying is The Lady.

The secret of success is to be patient and don't despair if a search seems fruitless. But whatever you do, don't stop using your priceless old dinner service just because you might break a piece.

Antiques were made to be used, so enjoy them in this new year and good luck in the hunt for additions to your collection.

Pictures show:

HARDEST: this charming porcelain desert service (left) came from the Coalport factory in about 1830. Known as a botanical service, each piece is painted with a different flower. Best of luck!

EASIEST: a 20th century Royal Crown Derby porcelain dinner service, finding replacements for which should prove simple. All you need is your cheque book!

Labels: , ,