Arts and Crafts designers produced functional but artistic wares in copper and brass, while elaborate art nouveau pieces were being wrought in pewter and silver.
The decades around the turn of the century were a period of great innovation in art metalwork, dominated by two significant design strands. One was the straight-line, avant-garde, functional style, which was the product of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain. The other was the curvilinear extravagance of a new style, art nouveau, which originated in France.
William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, believed that form should be dictated by function. William Benson, a protege of Morris, produced domestic objects in his factory in Hammersmith
- jugs and lamps, kettles and teapots, firescreens and trays, even thermos flasks - that were hugely influential and typified the Arts and Crafts style. They were well-made, simple, practical, elegant and - importantly - relatively cheap. This was partly because they were made from inexpensive copper and brass and partly because they were mass-produced.
Among craftsmen, Benson was almost alone in his use of mass production. One of the principles of Arts and Crafts was the supremacy of the hand-crafted over the factory-made. Typical of the period were the guilds and small workshops that were set up all over the country. Their hand-crafted work was, however, too expensive for most people.
C R Ashbee, one of the foremost of the new designers in silver and silver-plated wares, founded the Guild and School of Handicraft in 1888. Ashbee hated the factory finish and encouraged his silversmiths to leave hammer marks on finished articles. Repousse work metalwork designs hammered in low-relief was popular and images such as sea serpents, peacocks, galleons and stylized flowers adorned plates, dishes and copper panels.
The influence of art nouveau is visible in Ashbee's more elaborate silverware, with its use of gems and enamelling and the graceful wirework of its handles and finials. Here we can see how in the 1890s the rather severe Arts and Crafts style was yielding somewhat to the more decorative appeal of art nouveau.
In Germany, Kayser & Sons produced the Kayserzinn range of fine metalware, while Wurttembergische Metalwaren Fabrik (WMF) turned its production over almost entirely to the new Jugendstil, as art nouveau was called there. Its designs in pewter or nickel-silver, often with green glass liners, were ever more elaborate and sometimes almost kitsch.
In Italy the new style was called Il Stile Liberty, after the London store Liberty's. It was Liberty's that championed what in England in the 1890s was highly avant-garde. Their chief metalware designer, Archibald Knox, worked on a range of silverware called 'Cymric', and on 'Tudric' pewter. Both combined Celtic influences with art nouveau.
METALWARE COLLECTOR'S NOTES
There was a minor revival of interest in art nouveau in the 1930s and reproduction metalwork was made right up to the beginning of World War 2. This was sometimes produced from the original moulds, so some care is needed
and particular attention should be paid to any Hallmarks or touch marks.
Since the current trend for art nouveau began in the 1960s, there has been a good deal of reproduction, especially of light fittings and lamps. These are not generally intended to deceive and are often of high quality, though only of passing interest to the true collector.
The collector's life is simplified by the fact that the main mass producers of art nouveau metalware, Liberty's and WMF, stamped all their work with their name. In addition, Liberty's pewter was stamped 'Tudric' and some of their silver 'Cymric'. Most of Liberty's work was produced in Birmingham, so the Birmingham hallmark appears on their silverware. Work from Tiffany's in New York was stamped with the firm's logo and usually with the words
'Tiffany Studios, New York'.
Prices are rising all the time, but the wouldbe collector can always begin with some of the smaller, simpler items of, say, Liberty's pewter, which are still quite affordable.
The work of the Arts and Crafts Guilds is different because it was made by hand. The objects were usually stamped with the Guild's mark - for instance, 'G. of H. Ltd' for Ashbee's Guild of Handicraft. Expensive in their own time, these objects are now major collectors' items tending to command higher prices than, say, Liberty's metalware. In all cases, silver objects are more expensive than those in pewter or other base metals.