by Christopher Proudlove©
The years 1890-1910 are known as the Art Nouveau period and the designs of almost everything took on a new artistic style that was in complete contrast to all that had gone before.
It was a combination of ideas inspired by Japan, nature and medieval history starting with fluid, whiplash lines and ending with taut, geometric symmetry that heralded the arrival later of Art Deco design.
Craftsmen of the period included Archibald Knox, Dr Christopher Dresser and Charles Robert Ashbee, all of whose work is now highly prized among a growing number of devotees.
Knox, who was born on the Isle of Man in 1864, is best remembered for the 400 or more designs he made for Liberty and Co.
They appear in Liberty‘s Cymric range of silver and Tudric range of pewter, which were launched in 1899.
Running through much of it is a Celtic art theme – Knox’s parents were both Scottish.
However, it is difficult to attribute any one design to a particular artist since Liberty‘s employed several who were all influenced by Knox’s talent.
Dr. Dresser (1834-1904) was another whose designs were manufactured by Liberty‘s, but silver was just one of his many mediums.
In addition, he designed furniture, textiles, pottery – he was involved with the Bretby Art Pottery Co., of Burton-on-Trent – and other metal work.
However, the common denominator to all Dresser’s designs is its stark simplicity.
He found his inspiration in Japan following a visit there in 1876 and later his company, Dresser and Holme, of Farringdon Road, London, imported and retailed Japanese art metal work.
Dresser himself began producing silver items on his own in the late 1870s and in 1881 produced perhaps his most famous design for a particularly quirky, angular toast rack, examples of which sell for £3,000-£4,000 today.
Ashbee, on the other hand, was far from quirky. He was born in 1863 and in 1888 founded the Guild and School of Handicraft in the East End of London.
He too was influenced by Celtic art, but spoke out vehemently against the excesses of the Art Nouveau movement. He died in 1942.
Today, one more name should be added to this roll call of greats: that of a Danish silversmith Georg Jensen, whose talent was until relatively recently overlooked by all but the cognoscenti.
A sale in New York last week devoted for the first time entirely to Jensen’s work not only marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of his company, but also a coming of age in terms of prices achieved.
The sale totalled £4.7 million, almost three times expectations.
Georg Jensen(1866 to 1935) was the seventh of eight children, born into a working-class family living in Copenhagen.
Up to his 14th birthday, the boy worked with his father who was a grinder in a knife factory but was then apprenticed to a goldsmith.
The boy also took art classes and passed the entrance exam for the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1892.
Jensen had married the year before his graduation and the couple went on to have two children, but his wife died in 1897, leaving him with responsibility for the two small boys.
He did go on to marry a further three times.
After an unsuccessful start as a sculptor and art potter, in 1901, he joined forces with a metalsmith, who taught him about Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts Movement.
In 1904, with financial backing from a Copenhagen businessman, Jensen opened his own workshop where he planned to produce commercially successful designs rather than reproductions of antique silver, a goal that was achieved by recruiting talented designers who shared his aspirations.
Best known among them was Johan Rohde whom he had met at the Academy and the two became lifelong friends and associates, Rhode designing the important Acorn pattern tableware which continues to be made by the Jensen company today.
Jensen was inspired by Danish silver from the late 16th century through to the Art Nouveau period, producing bowls, tea sets, vases and stunning chandeliers which were snapped up by an eager – but rich – but clientele.
The decorative motifs for which Jensen silver is renowned were drawn from his childhood love of nature including grapes, pine cones, blossom and berries.
Up until the outbreak of the Second World War, Jensen silver had won wide acclaim in every major international exhibition of the applied arts.
Its hallmark was the superb craftsmanship that only traditional techniques of hand and hammer, rather than mass-production, can achieve.
At first, designs leaned towards the naturalism of the Art Nouveau period, but later embraced angular, geometric Art Deco designs that hinted at Modernism.
This naturally went down well in America, and millionaire William Randolph Hearst was their first major patron there.
He bought just about all the wares the firm had on show at the 1915 San Francisco World Fair.
Marilyn Monroe was said to be another fan.
By 1920, a showroom had been opened on Fifth Avenue in New York and American silversmiths began copying Jensen designs.
The most successful imitator was the International Silver Company of Meriden, Connecticut, who were cheeky enough to stamp some of what they produced with “USA Georg Jensen Inc.” which can mislead today’s collectors.
Naturally enough, the work of such masters as Jensen, Dresser and the many other leading designers of Art Nouveau and Art Deco silver does not come cheap.
However, their uniqueness and originality, coupled with their insistence of quality of production will continue to ensure their saleroom success.
Products from such short but well defined periods in the history of design are becoming increasingly rare.
Judging by the success of the New York Jensen sale. the signs are that the price spiral can only continue.
A silver flatware service designed by Georg Jensen, estimate: $20,000-30,000. Sold for $180,000 (£96,256). Picture: Christie’s Images