Enamelling is a highly skilled technique in which coloured glass is fused to a metal base in the heat of a kiln to create glossy, vividly coloured metal objects. It has been practised for centuries, most famously in Limoges, France, but the years 1880 to 1920 saw a renewed interest in enamelling in Britain. Sparked by the expansion of museums and design schools, a new wave of artists turned their attention to enamelling as a means of artistic expression. Many of these were women, who began to use enamelling in new and exciting ways, under the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement, which championed individual, handmade objects.
So late as twenty years ago very little was known by people in general on the subject of enamelling; only the connoisseur and the antiquary in this country knew anything of what enamel meant … Now the word is in everybody's mouth, in all the shop windows.
At the forefront of this revival was Alexander Fisher (1864 – 1936), the son of a potter who had won a scholarship to study ceramics at the South Kensington School of Design in 1884. Fisher quickly turned his attention to enamelling, travelling to France and Italy to learn more about traditional techniques. Like many Arts and Crafts designers, Fisher looked to the past for inspiration. The Wagner Girdle, for example, incorporates seven painted enamel plaques, each depicting a scene from Wagner's operas in rich hues of red, amber and sapphire, revealing the contemporary fascination with chivalric romance and Arthurian legend.
Fisher's enamels often carry symbolic titles, such as 'In Praise of Womanhood', an enamelled plaque set in a tabernacle frame, which was inspired by a scene from Shakespeare's Two Gentleman of Verona. Following the style of Pre-Raphaelite painting, the plaque depicts four women dressed in medieval flowing robes with shimmering hoods created by using foils beneath the enamel.
The peacock – a medieval symbol of loyalty and devotion – was embraced by Fisher and his peers as a motif, as shown to spectacular effect in his sconce, or wall light, shaped as a peacock's tail. The enamelled plaques give a vivid impression of a peacock's feathers, in rich, deep hues of green and blue which would have glittered under the glow of the lights.
Through his teaching, writing and commissions, Alexander Fisher redefined enamelling for a new generation of artists and makers. Among his circle of students were Edith and Nelson Dawson, who collaborated to produce jewellery and metal objects, with Nelson creating the metal fixtures and Edith producing enamelled plaques. Their brooch made around 1900 beautifully demonstrates the harmony of the enamel and the fitting, where the flower petals at the centre are geometrically mirrored with silver botanical motifs either side of the frame.
Like Fisher, Edith Dawson also used the peacock motif, as seen in her small enamelled plaque in rich blues and greens, with details picked out in gold and the use of shimmering foils in the peacock's feathers. In 1901 Dawson was commissioned to write a book called Enamels, in which she wrote:
You watch it cool down slowly from white or red heat to deep blues, solemn violets, juicy greens, subtle lilacs, glowing orange, with a pure unbroken glaze for the surface, and then you know that your labour is not in vain, your work beautiful, it will never fade
Ernestine Mills (1871 – 1959) also studied under Alexander Fisher. Her glittering enamelled mirror frame shows Fisher’s influence, both in her adoption of the peacock motif, and in the careful layering of enamel to create depth of colour and the use of high kiln temperatures to achieve glistening, opalescent effects. Like many female artists and designers working in the early 20th century, she was active in the fight for women's suffrage, and used her enamelling to support the movement, producing badges in suffragette colours of purple and green as a way of raising funds.
One of the most original of this new wave of enamellers was the Irish-born artist Phoebe Anna Traquair. Traquair excelled in numerous forms of art and design – from illustration and bookbinding to mural painting and embroidery – but around 1901 she began to work prolifically in enamel, producing jewellery, plaques, caskets, and objects inspired by medieval and renaissance models, such as chalices and triptychs. Her triptych, titled 'Seek ye my face', dating from 1906, is typical of her work. It demonstrates her interest in devotional themes, mythology and symbolism, with the use of an intense colour palette. The plaques on the left and right refer to the sacraments, while the central panel shows a sleeping figure visited by an angel.
Traquair's work is characterised by rich, deep, vibrant hues of ruby, sapphire and amber, often outlined in gold, with the greens and yellows verging on 'day-glo' neon in their brightness. To enhance the visual properties of the enamel she added paillons, or foils, which she cut into small rectangular pieces and arranged almost like mosaic, producing shimmering effects similar to contemporary Viennese painting. This is shown to striking effect in her pendant depicting a mermaid and two ships, in which the waves of the sea are depicted in foil.
In the 19th century, Birmingham, in the English midlands, was a thriving centre of the jewellery trade, and the city developed one of the most progressive art schools for silversmithing and enamelling in the country. The Birmingham School of Art held enamelling courses from 1893. Two key figures in the Arts and Crafts movement in Birmingham were Georgie Cave Gaskin (1866 – 1934), and her husband, Arthur Gaskin (1862 – 1928), who had met as students at the School of Art. Initially their jewellery designs were relatively simple, typified by the use of wirework, but by the early 1900s their work become much more technically ambitious – encrusted with enamel and gemstones. The V&A holds a scrapbook of their designs which gives a fascinating insight into their process.
Enamelling flourished under Arthur Gaskin's directorship of the School of Jewellery and Silversmithing from 1900. Gaskin taught students such as May Hart (1881 – 1917), who specialised in jewellery and small-scale enamelled plaques and portraits. Her portrait of Mildred Brown was submitted to an exhibition at South Kensington in 1904 while she was still just a student.
A fellow student at Birmingham, Fanny Bunn (1871 – 1950), was also inspired by the romanticism of medieval legend. Her enamels are detailed and finely executed, displaying a richness of colour, especially in the vibrant blue and green tones in her large plaque depicting a scene from John Keats's poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Bunn won a gold medal and prize money of £25 for this piece when it was submitted for exhibition at South Kensington in 1902, where it was acquired for the museum collections.
By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the technique of enamelling had undergone a dramatic shift. While the Arts and Crafts movement provided the perfect environment for the art form to flourish, the upheavals of the First World War and subsequent aesthetic shift towards the clean, industrial lines of Modernism dampened this trend. But the beauty and significance of the work of Arts and Crafts enamellers is today clearly visible in our collections, remaining, as Edith Dawson hoped, "a joy to many long after the hands that worked in the making of it are at rest."