The treasure trail

At an exhibition of decorative designs of the 20th century Janet Fitch can see how historical and social events helped forge the styles of each era

With a millennial flourish, the strongrooms of the Goldsmiths’ Company, in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral have been opened up to show its unique collection of British designer silver, jewellery and art medals.

The exhibition is fascinating because a smaller discipline of design and decorative arts can provide an astounding insight into the shifting changes of style and the social influences behind them throughout the last century.

Of the 1500-piece collection, 569 exhibits – more than a third of the entire holding – have been selected by the enthusiastic and knowledgeable curator Rosemary Ransome Wallis to illustrate the role of the company as a patron of craft, as well as for the high standard of design and craftsmanship. More than 500 designers are represented, of whom 125 are still alive and working.

A century ago, the antique collection already owned by the company was augmented by new pieces, but mostly in traditional style – Georgian, Regency and English Revivalist – which satisfied the characteristic Edwardian love of grandeur. And it wasn’t until 1925 that a new policy of “educating the popular taste and showing itself as a patron of the best contemporary work” was implemented.

Craft associations, such as the Art Workers’ Guild, the Design and Industries Association and Royal Society of Arts received company support. The Arts and Crafts style is represented by pieces by the likes of Omar Ransden. Many pieces show the transition to the geometric lines of Art Deco.

In 1938 a huge, pioneering exhibition of modern British silver was held in the hall; 37 755 people attended, including Queen Mary, and posters advertising it by McKnight Kauffer were given free space on the London Underground.

The Second World War was no time for the luxury of silverware and jewellery. In 1941 the Assay office closed and Goldsmiths’ Hall was badly damaged during the Blitz. Huge efforts were made to ensure the survival of the building, and the 1950s saw an upsurge of talented young silver designers – there is work by Robert Welch, David Mellor, Brian Asquith and Gerald Benney, including the altar cross for Coventry Cathedral by Geoffrey Clark.

Silver in the 1960s was influenced by the geometric concrete vernacular, with highly textured surfaces achieved with skilful new techniques. In the 1970s, against a backdrop of strikes and the three-day week, the industry looked abroad for patronage, took a more realistic approach to commercialism and saw the beginning of designers such as Stuart Devlin and Benney creating their own personal brand.

Benney’s tenure as Professor at the Royal College of Art from 1974-1983 ensured the importance of its silversmithing graduates, with his emphasis on professionalism and a broad base of skills. In the 1990s silver came into its own, and there are many varied and beautiful examples of commissions – for York Minster and Lichfield Cathedral, for example. 1992 saw the commission for domestic silver from 16 silversmiths for a “national collection” to be used at 10 Downing Street.

The exhibition also includes spectacular new millennium commissions – including works by Malcolm Appleby, Jane Short, Toby Russell and Devlin. The collection of modern jewellery begun in 1961 is as covetable as it is representative of the works of great modern jewellers including Wendy Ramshaw, Andrew Grima, Jacqueline Mina and, latterly, Charlotte de Syllas.

Treasures of the 20th Century continues at Goldsmiths’ Hall, Foster Lane, London EC2 until 21 July, Monday to Saturday, 10.30am-5pm. Admission is free

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