The art of enamel magic
Clive Aslet discovers the alchemy of the enameller and the delicate craftsmanship involved in creating items of such irresistible luminosity
’ve always just loved the colour,’ explains Jane Short. She’s in her studio, which occupies the front two rooms of a house in Brighton, a space that is part alchemist’s study, part chemist’s shop. There are dozens of engraver’s burins, numerous pairs of pliers, several kilns, many books and sketches and a couple of hundred pots of glass ‘lump’. For what she describes as ‘down the rabbit hole’ pieces, she straps magnifiers and lights to her head, using equipment one would normally associate with surgeons.
Jane is an enameller who, this year, was awarded an MBE for her contribution to the craft. ‘It’s about putting ground glass onto a metal,’ she says disarmingly. One look at her studio tells you that there’s more to it than that. ‘enamoured’, an exhibition opening
Itoday at the Goldsmiths’ Centre, London ec1, will display the many ravishing effects that can be achieved using techniques that, in some cases, date back to the second millennium
enamel glows. The colours—flaming reds, autumnal russets, ultramarine blues, egg-yolk yellows, sappy greens, perhaps made even more sumptuous by the application of gold—have a luminosity that can only be compared to stained glass. enamellers can take advantage of the unique fluidity of their medium, as a result of the melting of the hot glass.
The scale can be big—in the 19th century, signs were often made of enamel, a durable material that didn’t fade (the London Underground roundel still is)—but, these days, enamel is more commonly employed to decorate silver or make jewellery.
Don’t think about becoming an enameller unless you’re neat, precise, reasonably tidy and very, very patient. ‘A lot of it is very time consuming,’ Jane tells me. ‘It isn’t something you can rush. Fortunately, I feel less need to rush as I get older.’
Jane currently favours the champlevé method. This involves engraving a piece of silver—those burins—with a design of different depths. To do this, the silver is attached to a wooden stump, which is then clamped in a vice. Beware the tiny mites of silver that fly from the end of the burin: ‘They can be extremely painful if they get into your shoes and stuck in your foot.’
Then, the colours are selected. Jane has been collecting lump glass since she was a student in the 1970s; some of it is irreplaceable, either because the company that made it has disappeared