LONDON — One of the oldest livery companies, or guilds, of the City of London is preparing to celebrate its 700 years of existence, with an emphasis on how to best present its industry for centuries more to come.
The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, generally known as the Goldsmiths’ Company, is unusual among its 11 peers for still being directly linked to Britain’s goldsmithing industry — through its assay office, which tests precious metals for sale; the Goldsmiths’ Centre, which provides professional training; and its charity, which awards about 4 million pounds ($5.3 million) a year in grants within the industry and to other educational causes.
The sprawling organization has said it is preparing for its septcentenary in 2027 by making changes that it hopes will erase any perception that its business — funded primarily by income from dividends and property investment, assay fees and venue hire — is conducted behind elitist, gilded doors.
“Its strength lies in its tradition and continuity, but the challenge lies in balancing that tradition against modernizing for a new era,” said Vivienne Becker, a jewelry historian and author who is an associate member of the company, a kind of honorary role.
One of the tasks is addressing diversity of age, gender and race within its 1,835 members and among the craftspeople and apprentices it supports. Women currently make up 29 percent of the membership and, in the 12 months ending March 2021, the company gained 39 new members, of which 19, or 49 percent, were women. The organization said it had been compiling information on age and race as well, but did not yet have details to share.
Also, it is creating a digital archive of its 12,000-piece, centuries-old collection of silverware and jewelry as well as its extensive accumulation of design drawings and management and apprenticeship records. “The collection and archive are the company’s hidden assets, and I believe they’re among the best privately held assets in the world,” said Lynne Brindley, the company’s 694th prime warden, or chair of its board of directors. She is the second woman to hold the position, which has a one-year term.
Dame Brindley seems well-placed to contribute to the effort, having been chief executive of the British Library from 2000 to 2012, while it was digitized. “Improving access to the collection will change the public perception of the company and the access to its vast knowledge and inspiration,” she said.
Dora Thornton, the company’s curator, describes the collection as already “very much a living, working one.” As well as being used for teaching students at the Goldsmiths’ Centre, for display in exhibitions and in academic research, the collection expands every year with the addition of commissions selected by the company’s contemporary craft committee. Dr. Thornton said selections were based primarily on an individual’s skills and creativity, but the company also was making a conscious effort to expand diversity, too.
This year, for example, the company paid £2,000 for a Caldera ring of gold and oxidized silver by Emefa Cole, a London designer-maker who uses the traditional lost-wax carving techniques of Ghana where she was born, combined with skills she learned at London Metropolitan University. “I am honored to join the collection,” Ms. Cole said, “and to be amongst incredibly talented makers of the past and present.”
Such inclusions, Dr. Thornton said, reflect the significant, creative contribution of immigrant craftspeople throughout the trade’s history in London — represented in the collection by work such as the creations of Protestant refugees fleeing persecution in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries; the contemporary jeweler Gerda Flöckinger, who came to London from Nazi Austria as a child; and Jeanne Thé, who fled the Indonesian purges in 1965.
Pieces by immigrant craftspeople and by female British designer-makers particularly have enriched the contemporary jewelry collection, which currently has 700 pieces, Dr. Thornton said. And while that number represents only a fraction of the overall collection, it is the fastest-growing category today, she added.
It was initiated by Graham Hughes, art director of the company from 1951 to 1981. And Dr. Thornton credits his “International Exhibition of Modern Jewellery 1890-1961,” staged in 1961 at the company’s Goldsmiths’ Hall headquarters, with kick-starting the modern art jewelry movement in Britain.
Mr. Hughes’s early recognition of jewelers like Andrew Grima, John Donald, Charlotte de Syllas and Ms. Flöckinger, who all became internationally renowned figures, set a pattern that the company said it tries to follow today in commissions and purchases. “We have supported people from very early on in their career,” Dr. Thornton said, “when they are experimenting in an outburst of creativity, and this is what makes this such an exceptional collection.”
The public’s access to the collection will be improved, too, when the Museum of London moves into expanded quarters in the West Smithfield neighborhood of central London.
In 2017, the company pledged £10 million to the project, which will include the Goldsmiths’ Gallery, a permanent home for pieces from the company’s collection, goldsmithing demonstrations and the museum’s own Cheapside Hoard collection of Elizabethan and Stuart jewelry.
To Hazel Forsyth, senior curator at the Museum of London and author of “Long Lost Jewels: The Cheapside Hoard,” the new gallery will underscore both the historic and continuing importance of the goldsmithing industry in London. “London’s goldsmith-jewelers had a pre-eminent role in the international gem and jewelry trade: a legacy which remains important to the economy, cultural diversity and skills base of the capital today,” she wrote in an email.
While the company’s rotating exhibitions at the Goldsmiths’ Hall or at the Goldsmiths’ Centre do attract visitors, the Museum of London drew almost 673,000 people to its current home in the Barbican in the 12 months ending March 2020, a significantly larger audience. “We have something that needs to be shared with London and the rest of the world,” Dame Brindley said.
The company has said it plans to expand its reach beyond London through online courses and improving its ties with entities such as the Sheffield cutlery industry and the Birmingham Jewelry Quarter. Also, while Dame Brindley acknowledged the ever-growing funding cuts and challenges facing arts education in Britain, she said she feels positive about a new generation that is growing up actively engaged in making and appreciating traditional crafts.
“There’s a real opportunity here. Kids today want to do things like this and develop practical, creative skills,” she said.
And while pieces from the company’s permanent collection have traveled the country as part of that effort to inspire, it is kept behind a high security vault door in an undisclosed location, an address that is not made public for insurance reasons. There, the shelves are crammed with everything from antique silver plates to contemporary silver sculptures, while drawers contain the modern jewelry collection.
A 16th-century cup said to have belonged to Queen Elizabeth I is one of the collection’s earliest pieces and also among its most significant.
According to legend, the newly crowned queen drank from the heavily decorated silver gilt vessel — measuring 49.3 centimeters, or 1.6 feet, in height — at her coronation in 1559. Known today as the Bowes Cup, it was the first piece of silverware recorded as a donation to the company, given in 1561 by Sir Martin Bowes, a prime warden and mayor of London.
Although there is no proof of its royal role, the story persists that Bowes received the cup from the queen in return for his duties as chief butler at the coronation. “The collection is part of the DNA of the company because it really does show who we are and what we do,” said Dr. Thornton, the curator.
On another shelf sat a similarly imposing but strikingly modern cup by R. Y. Goodden, the winning design in the company’s 1953 competition to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Once the queen had drunk from the cup, she gave it back to the company in remembrance of Elizabeth I.
Also in storage are the Court Cups, a selection of silver pieces that are the result of a company tradition dating to 1957. Each member elected to the board of directors, called the Court of Assistants, commissions a cup from a leading artist-maker for use when dining at the hall. One early and eccentric-looking, roughly textured silver gilt cup was designed in 1957 for Sir Henry Tizard by Louis Osman, who also designed Prince Charles’s coronet for his investiture as Prince of Wales in 1969.
In 2009 Dame Brindley commissioned hers from Jane Short and Clive Burr. A tall, elegant gold and silver cup decorated with waves of colorful enamel to represent her love of Cornwall.
Dr. Thornton observed that the stories of the craftspeople and their patrons are even more engaging than the pieces themselves. “It’s not about the bling,” she said, gesturing at the shelves around her, “it’s about the human connections behind all the things that you see here.”
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