CONFESSION: until recently, I had dismissed contemporary silversmith Stuart Devlin as the maker of quirky novelties sold for lots of money as “limited editions” either by mail order or else in shops too exclusive for their own good.
You know the kind of things I mean. The Sunday colour supplements are full of them. Then I saw the massive centrepiece pictured here.
For a start, Devlin is primarily a designer, not a maker, and it was he who conceived this amazing, almost futuristic three-section candelabrum.
See a slidewho ow Devlin silver here.
A commission from none other than the late Duke and Duchess of Westminster,
the three massive silver and gilt candelabra have a total of 34 candle holders, the centre section alone measuring four feet across.
It was sold at Christie’s in June 2007 for an enlightening £45,600, more than twice the pre-sale low estimate. No wonder, as I learned later, that Stuart Devlin is regarded as a golden boy of the Goldsmiths’ Company. He was their Prime Warden from 1996-7.
It was them I turned to after seeing another candelabrum coming up for auction this week. A far more modest creation, it was designed as a group of 16 silver icicles, each topped by a candle sconce, arranged in three tiers and joined by pierced silver gilt panels.
Word also has it that interest in Devlin’s work is experiencing a renaissance. Prices are turning upward and now may well be the time to bag a bargain.
I’d assumed Devlin was British, but in fact, he was born in Geelong, Australia, in 1931 in the depths of the Great Depression. One of four boys, father was a self-employed painter and decorator and mother struggled to make ends meet.
At school, the boy elected to concentrate on “art metalwork” and subsequently won a scholarship to train to be an art teacher. He studied for three years, followed by a further two in an ecclesiastical silversmithing workshop, where he gained further experience.
His first job in education was at the age of 19, teaching metalwork to secondary school teachers who were themselves in training. In 1952, he began a five-year stint teaching art in Wangaratta, after which he obtained a post at a Melbourne college where he studied for a Diploma of Arts in gold and silversmithing.
The course should have lasted three years, full-time but he completed it in one, part-time, achieving the highest marks ever awarded.
On the strength of that, he was awarded three travelling scholarships, choosing to spend two years at the Royal College of Art in London.
The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths quickly spotted his talent. In an unprecedented step, they purchased most of the pieces he made during that time for their permanent collection and also gave him a major commission while still at college.
A table centrepiece to commemorate the Tercentenary of the Royal Society was the result, although a tall coffee service, without conventional handles, now in the Goldsmiths’ Company collection, was work which Devlin considered his best.
As a result of his extraordinary talents, he was awarded a further major fellowship by the Harkness Foundation of New York, which he won without going through the normal selection procedures.
On completing his studies in 1962, Devlin returned to teaching art in Melbourne, practising his sculpture in his spare time. The following year he won a competition to design the first decimal coinage for Australia and since then has designed coinage and medallions for more than 30 countries.
He moved to London to live full-time in 1965, founding a small workshop in Clerkenwell. It was around then that silversmiths found the big manufacturing companies who had previously commission their designs were rapidly going out of business.
Consequently, instead of designing anonymously, they began to develop their own personal styles, marketing and retailing their products under their own names.
Devlin was in the vanguard of this movement and he began to develop intricate and highly successful limited edition products, notably his Christmas boxes and Easter eggs which have now become collectors’ items.
In his own words, he wanted them to "delight, surprise, intrigue and amuse" his patrons. They did, and Devlin’s name became well known in the top people’s stores.
In 1973, he made a special egg encrusted with carved amethyst violets and diamonds. It opened to show a tiny vase of flowers made from semiprecious stones and each year after that, he made another and another.
The 1974 egg contained an opal mosaic and in 1977, his Silver Jubilee egg was well received.
Asprey displayed a Devlin collection which sold out immediately and then Collingwoods of Conduit Street in London’s West End set aside an entire floor exclusively for his work.
Such was his success that in 1972, he opened his own gallery on the ground floor of his Clerkenwell workshop, employing nine craftsmen to work on his designs full-time.
However, the showroom quickly proved to be inadequate and after striking a deal with the Duke of Westminster, whose family had been patrons and supporters of his work for many years, Devlin was able to open his own retail premises across the street from Collingwoods.
His reputation continue to grow, coming to the attention of the Queen who gave him his first royal commission to design and make a cigar box as her wedding gift to the Crown Prince of Jordan.
Interestingly, Devlin’s designs embrace furniture, interiors, jewellery, trophies, clocks, goblets, and insignia of all types. A mark of his work is the new techniques he introduced of producing silver with intricate and ornate carving and filigree, contrasted alongside textured surfaces quite unlike conventional finishes.
Devlin now works from home in Littlehampton, East Sussex using pioneering computer-aided design and sophisticated graphics. This enables his ideas to be realised and objects made in workshops around the country.
He said: “I hope that my work reflects four maxims: that the future is much more important than the past; that creativity is paramount; that skill is fundamental; and that the justification for being a goldsmith is to enrich the way people live and work.”