Silver City

How Brum became the world leader in crafting precious metal

Silver – a metallic element with the atomic number 47 and the symbol Ag from the Latin argentum. So, what’s new? You probably knew all that anyway. What you may not know is that Birmingham is Britain’s undisputed silver city, and has been for a couple of hundred years and more. The city’s status in making beautiful items in this precious metal is perfectly illustrated by a range of silver created in Birmingham in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement. The movement, influenced by the writings of John Ruskin and popularised by the designs of William Morris, advocated a return to traditional ways of working. It celebrated creativity and craftsmanship, encouraging ownership of work from start to finish from design to execution, and was a direct reaction to life in an increasingly industrialised society. Its mission was to give the artist/craftsmen a greater sense of pride and pleasure, in contrast to the impersonal nature of mass-produced machine items. In Birmingham, the Arts and Crafts philosophy was particularly influential in the metals and silversmithing trades. The Birmingham Kyrle Society, established in 1880 to provide education for working people, gave rise to the Birmingham Guild of Handicraft in 1890. It was the intention of the Guild to concentrate on hand-craftsmanship, to resist the demands of the market while also working within the principle of profit.

GROWING DEMAND

The famous London department store Liberty went into partnership with Birmingham silversmith William Haseler to produce the Cymric silver range from 1898 onwards. It was a great success, tapping into the middle-class demand for silver and metalware in the Arts and Crafts style. Another Birmingham craftsman, A Edward Jones, who studied at Birmingham School of Art, set up his own business in 1902 and made a name for himself with high-end commissions for church plate and ceremonial pieces. His craftsmen worked in the true Arts and Crafts tradition, creating the designs and making them with no division of labour. The work of these great craftsmen and many others is preserved in the valuable heritage assets of the Assay Office Birmingham. These include a private silver collection of 1,700 items which also features jewellery and coins.

See a selection from the Assay Office Birmingham’s collection at Antiques for Everyone Winter Fair – the largest vetted art, antiques and interiors fair in the UK – at the NEC, 1 to 4 December. www.antiquesforeveryone.co.uk