She Wields a Hammer
Five Centuries of Women Silversmiths, Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, till 31 July 2020
Think metalwork and you think of the segregated school classes of yore, with girls somewhere else doing domestic science, but the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield is rightfully showcasing silversmithing as an integral part of the metalwork industry.
Its exhibition sets out to shine a light on the output of female makers. The number of cases within the gallery’s metalwork collection devoted to these artefacts may be small, but their contents are scintillating in every sense.
One of the earliest objects on display is a sauce boat by Hester Bateman, dated 1779. She and her husband were prominent London silversmiths; when he died she registered her own hallmark.
The exhibition brings us right up to date, featuring numerous contributions from the V&A’s silver collection and winning entries from recent degree shows as well as Museums Sheffield’s own collection, and, of course, that of the Sheffield Assay office, which came into being in 1773. The displays inevitably document changing tastes and social mores – you will not find any 21st century sugar tongs on display and the teapots bear witness to how form has superseded surface decoration as the focus for creativity in objects for everyday use.
Together the objects reveal an extraordinary array of techniques, from the highly polished surfaces with delicate engraving familiar from traditional silverware to the rougher finish that deliberately exposes the marks of the hammer and the rhythmical patterns it creates on the surface.
A pair of square dishes made by Dutch silversmith Carla Nuis in 2000, based on a design for baroque Venetian velvet, are a triumph of the piercing technique, where a fine saw blade on a circular hoop is inserted through a piercing and used to create fine tracery. Yukie Osumi’s Heat Haze vase complements the spiral pattern of her hammering with a fine grid incised into the surface, with the resulting pattern of facets accentuated by the application of gold and lead.
As well as providing some long-overdue recognition for female silversmiths, the exhibition forms part of the V&A’s three-year flagship educational programme, DesignLab Nation, which is designed to bring secondary schools, local industry and regional museums together to bolster the teaching of art, design and technology, and to inspire a whole new generation of designers, makers and innovators.
Presiding over this treasure trove is William Rothenstein’s double portrait Buffer Girls. The models, Maggie Herrick and Jane Gill, were paid as much for each half day they sat for their portrait as they were for a whole week’s work. These women, responsible for buffing up cutlery and other products of Sheffield’s metalwork industry, may have been far removed from the artistic enterprise on display, but their contribution to the city’s wealth deserves no less recognition.
‘She Wields a Hammer’ is both a treat for anyone who loves shiny things, and a tribute to the women who have combined artistry, strength and stamina in working this most seductive of metals.