In treating of this important subject I purpose to address myself not to the reading public only and to art connoisseurs and artists, but also and chiefly to those young students of the schools who love enamelling for its own sake, and who know something about its essentials — form, tone, colour, design. My aim will be to give them, in a short and direct way, a complete account of my subject in its varied technical aspects; and some remarks will be made on its relation to a few of the more general and abstract truths that form a basis common to all arts.
In the education of art-students many important things have to be weighed and considered. What from a teacher's point of view, is the first of these things. It is not, I believe, the training of the hand, the acquiring of manual dexterity; rather is it the inculcation of such a general knowledge of art as should fire the students with enthusiasm for their calling, and with ardent respect for the kind and high office which they have to perform in its daily service. Let the study of technique go hand-in-hand with this stimulating appeal to the intellect; the craft must not be allowed to supersede the art, as it does usually in the thoughts of academic teachers and their pupils.
Even the humblest article of utility deserves to be made beautiful — yes, and ought to be made beautiful; and every student should be made acquainted with the full significance of that fact. He who transforms a common article of daily use into a thing of beauty discharges the same high function as he who is building the greatest temple or painting the finest picture. He is a true artist, that is to say. And yet, somehow, anyhow, he is often slighted, often snubbed, as by that coxcombry of inartistic prejudice wherewith so many painters try to assert their alleged superiority over other artworkers. One remarks, too, among those who are practising art, either as students, professionals, or sincere dilettanti, that the intellectual side of aestheticism receives not half the attention that it merits. There are some, indeed, who have no inkling at all of the practical bearings of philosophy upon art; and many students are not even aware that a work of art is a series of emotions made real to us and reproductive within us by means of an arrangement, sometimes of harmonious colours, tones and forms, sometimes of musical sounds, sometimes of proper words in their proper places.
Most readers will understand at once what is meant here by the word "emotion." It is not to be confounded with the psychical freaks suggested by the phrase "an emotional person." It is simply that aesthetic pleasure or pain, or mingled pain and pleasure, aroused within us by the impression of natural phenomena. This impression is received by sensation. In pictorial and plastic art, as in architecture, it is received through the eyes, by means of the sense of sight: but, when thus received, it frequently owes much to another sense. If, for instance, when standing before a beautiful picture you criticise it aloud, so as to put a name upon its special graces, the impression made upon yourself by your spoken words may not accurately describe, but it certainly intensifies, the aesthetic pleasure that moves you to admiration. As another example, one different in kind, wherein a great emotion is intensified by the charm of words, I give here a short quotation from William Blake, a rare and golden genius. Blake says: — "I am asked, on seeing the sun rise, 'Do I see a little round disc something like the size and shape of a guinea?' And I answer, 'Oh no! I see an innumerable multitude of the heavenly host singing Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty!'"
Of course, Blake did not mean that he with his physical eyes saw the heavenly host, and heard with his physical ears their singing. He meant that the poetic emotion called into being by the glory of the sunrise was of such magnitude that he could not choose but speak of it with a religious exaltation of spirit, as though the visiting radiance of the dawn were actually peopled with angels.
Such aesthetical emotions are psychical events, and every artist who tries honestly in his own way to give them imaginative expression, like William Blake, is certain to be individual. None can say with strict accuracy that he will reveal himself: for, as one element of nature combines with another to form a third that is different from either, so an artist's self, his personality, combines both with his acquired knowledge of external nature and with his new impressions of external nature, producing something that is neither himself nor what he feels and sees, but a transformation of each by each. That is to say, lifted out of his ordinary self by aesthetic emotion, beautiful things in nature — the productive agents of the emotion — cease to be as "airy nothings" to him; they charm him like sonnets, they become as poems to him, and, while he is giving them their enchanted existence in art, they pass through the alembic of his imagination and come out idealised. Only a man incapable of emotion, who would look at external nature with the impassivity of a camera, could with justice call himself a Realist! Art, inevitably, is an idealisation of the real.
This is why Goethe says that an artist's relation to external nature is a two-fold relation. "He is at once her master and her servant. He is her servant, inasmuch as he cannot choose but work with earthly things in order to be understood; but he is her master also, because he subjects these things to his higher intentions and renders them subservient." She inspires him in all his efforts, delights him with her varied magic, makes him her eager disciple; but she leaves him free to show in his own way that the most effective sunlight in art is — imagination. Consciously or unconsciously, he creates in and with his imitations of nature's products; and we may be sure that the worth of his creations will be commensurate with his knowledge and appreciation of her ways and works. He cannot have too much assimilated knowledge of any subject that has a practical bearing on his art, the needs of which are so vast and so varied. Among these needs, as Coleridge points out, self-study occupies a very important place, for tlie reason that no artist can hope to depict human passions if he be ignorant even of the incessant drama, played by his many incomplete selves in their own emotions, thoughts, impulses, and actions. It may be said that human nature is a sort of Pandora box, filled with winged banes and blessings. To open this box in art, and set free its winged agents of good and evil, you must know yourself. That is the key to it.
The foregoing remarks show that the study of art is not by any means so simple as teachers of the schools commonly believe. We may be sure that everything that enriches the mind, or kindles and stimulates the imagination, or develops and strengthens character, or keeps the intellect and the body in robust health, is more needful to art students than that dogged striving after manipulative skill that now occupies far too much of their time, greatly to the injury of the mind's higher aspirations. For this reason, and no other, I have thought it right and necessary not to begin this series of technical articles without some reference to questions of even greater import to students than are the implements of enamelling upon metals. In the arts of to-day there is a marked sterility of the imaginative faculty, and the explanation of this is to be sought in the trivial attention given in schools to art on its intellectual and imaginative sides. It is not too much to say that the stimulus of thought, of culture in its true sense, is urgently needed. Technique, of course, is a necessary servant in the domain of art; but the training now in vogue usually sets it to reign where it ought to serve. Students are not even taught the social and aesthetic history connected with antique sculpture. Their imaginations must not be excited, you see! Is it forgotten that craftsmen should be artists, as artists should be craftsmen? Be this as it may, enough has been said here to prove that I have no sympathy at all with such a maimed and haltfooted training. And so, without the least fear of causing anyone to rate technical matters at too high a level, I can pass on at once to questions of material.
Three views of The King's Gold Cup.
A student ought to "feel" his material as keenly as he does his subject. He must get inside it, so to speak, and live at his ease there within the bounds set by its limitations. He should be able to think in his material as easily as musicians do in sounds plus counterpoint and harmony, or as writers do in words plus grammar and syntax. And so, in order to understand what enamel is, he must first learn to feel it in all its special and peculiar beauty, in Its gemlike preciousness, in its unlikeness to anything else in art materials; and then, by practical experience in the use of enamel, knowledge must be gained of its capabilities.
Every form of art, as is well known, owes to its implements certain attributes of beauty that cannot be attained by means of other materials; and these attributes are often a joy to us even when viewed apart from subject and design. To see them at their best, in different and varied forms, we have but to study, say, the Elgin Marbles, the Tanagra terra-cottas, the old Persian tiles and carpets, the nobly pious simplicity of Mr. Whistler's portrait of his mother, and — not to multiply examples— the later pictures of Turner. In each of these manifestations of true art I am delighted by a complete expression of the materials employed. And this applies also to three of the old enamels which have been reproduced as illustrations to this article. I refer, first, to the Kings' Gold Cup: next, to the Textus Cover; then to the Jewel Casket. To be appreciated, of course, they must be seen in all their beauty of substance and colour.
Left: Textus Cover in repoussé gold and filigree, with plaques of cloisonné enamel. Right: Jewel Casket in enamelled copper (XVII century)by Jean Limousin.
Evidently, a complete expression of the material is of the utmost worth to every art, and in the art with which we are concerned here, the charm of preciousness is the first quality to command attention. Indeed, he who does not endeavour to attain this gem-like lustre of enamel should set himself to feel and think in a coarser medium. It has been thought that the preciousness of enamel, with its exquisite subtlety and radiance, seems to be most charming in small, if not minute, works of art. This is commonly true; but it does not follow that small enamels are precious merely because of their smallness. One admits, indeed. that the kind of work and treatment that would be most offensive in large pieces might be less disagreeable in enamels on a much smaller scale; and it is also perfectly true that rare and exquisite things ought not to be squandered over such a large surface as renders them fatiguing to an eye that is sensitive to their beauty and brilliance. The difficulty is to find the golden mean in this question of size. But one may advise every serious worker in true enamel not to go in search of the many dangerous pitfalls lying about the feet of those who wish to make their art a rival of fashionable portrait-painting in oil-colours.
On what is the quality of preciousness dependent? Upon the relation of line, tone, mass and colour to the special "genius " of the material. Now, there is one advantage that the quality of enamel possesses over all other pigments or materials used in art: it reigns supreme over them in luminosity, in transparency, and translucency. One need not make an exception either of stained glass or of glass mosaic, the conditions of their use being entirely different. In enamel, as you may observe, it is possible to reproduce the various play of colours in opals and in labradorite, the translucency of such stones as the onyx and agate, and a brilliance of reflection and transparency equal to that of emeralds and rubies, and almost comparable to the diamond's splendour. The truth is that a complete gradation from transparency to opacity can be achieved. The surface may range from the dulness of antique Roman glass to the greatest brilliance and clearness possible in art. These are the properties of enamel that enable an artist-craftsman to get such qualities of radiant preciousness as charm like gems.
Among the antique enamels still extant, there are some wherein the magic of this preciousness comes to me like a wind that has passed over far-distant lands of flowers, bringing with it their freshness and fragrance. Such to me is the famous Kings' Gold Cup now treasured in the British Museum; such, too, are the Jewel Casket and the Textus Cover in the Art Museum at South Kensington. In the Kings' Cup the result is mainly due to excellence of process and of craftsmanship. But I do not find that the colour-arrangement as a whole is on a par with the exceeding high merit displayed in the technical skilfulness.
Left Altar Cross in copper gilt with champlevé enamels Rhenish-Byzantine. Twelfth century. Right two: Small Crosses in transparent and opaque cloisonné enamel. Tenth or eleventh century. “In the South Kensington Museum” — i.e, the Victoria and Albert Museum.
This beautiful cup, "a relic of the sacred treasures of England," seems to have belonged to Henry V.'s treasury. It is enamelled with many scenes from the life of St. Agnes. Not ten years ago it was acquired for the nation from Messrs. Wertheimer, who sold it for £8,000, the price at which they purchased it from Baron Pichon. The Baron, who bought it from a Spaniard in Paris, got at the cup's identity from an inscription on the cup itself It is said to have belonged to Charles V. of France, and through his granddaughter to have come into the possession of Henry V. of England. The cup was certainly in the Royal Treasury before the days of the Tudors, and is mentioned in the inventories of Henry VIII. and Elizabeth. It is thought that James I. gave the cup to Velasco, the Spanish ambassador, as a memento of the friendly understanding between Spain and England that existed in the early part of his reign.
As regards the Textus Cover, illustrated on page 251 [see above], is it not a surprising work of art? In its border, and around the figure, some pieces of cloisonné, separated by fine gold lines, and rich with fortunate contrasts of opaque, pearly-white and translucent shades of turquoise and emerald, are as precious in their refinement as needs be. The whole work is a gorgeous example of the goldsmith's art, adorned not with enamels only, and with filigree, but with plaques of interlaced ornament in repoussé, and also with large stones set about the enthroned figure of Christ.
There are parts of later enamels, in what is known as the Limoges style, that do not lack the high quality of preciousness. This is true in the case of the Jewel Casket, to which reference has already been made. This casket, the work of Leonard Limousin, belonged to Queen Margot, wife of the French King Henry IV.; and, to my mind, it deserves to be looked upon as perhaps the finest work of its style at South Kensington. The white, as is generally the case in Limoges enamels, is too white, so that its tint is discordant with the rest of the colour-scheme; the transparent colours, too, are weak, are even rather insipid, being too transparent; and, again, the figures are not fine in form and drawing. But the arrangement and design are at any rate excellent, having each a frolicsome kind of elegance, such as should belong to the gay Queen Margot's jewel casket. In the enamel gallery at South Kensington there are many examples of the Limoges method of work, but, except here and there in details, beauty is sacrificed either to subject or else to process.
Left: Crucifixion in painted enamels by Jean Limousin. Right: Two thirteenth-century pyxes in champlevé enamel on copper gilt. Both in the V&A.
A few pieces of Japanese enamel possess the quality of preciousness, though they suffer not a little from their too imitative form and character. Still, taking the whole display of old Japanese and Chinese enamels, we see a great, even a consummate achievement in handicraft, as well as a beautiful arrangement of the colouring; and this is all the more noteworthy as none but opaque enamels were then employed in China and Japan.
The Indian enamels, which consist of champlevé, are mainly used as an enrichment for jewels, sword-hilts, horse -trappings, and the handles of daggers. In some very rare cases they are precious, but they have never the inwardness nor the restraint of the Textus Cover and Kings' Gold Cup; indeed, they are apt to be tawdry. Not seldom they look like mere toys, things of a moment. Now, the quality of preciousness has among its admirable traits the following characteristic: it is made to last, it is a delight for all time, a joy for ever.
It is not my intention to write an archaeological treatise on enamelling. That has been well done again and again; but it may be of use briefly to notice the changes which have taken place in its development. We know that enamel in its simple forms was in use among the Egyptians, the Phœnicians, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Etruscans; but that they knew all the processes now in vogue is a very rash assertion. The British Museum has a specimen of Egyptian work, a bracelet, upon which the opaque turquoise-tinted enamel is applied in the same way as gems might have been.
Left: Gold bracelet shwping wire setting for cloisons (B.C. II or III). Middle: Thirteenth-century chess board in champlevé enamel on copper gilt. Right: Copper box with coat-of-arms in opaque champlevé enamel. About 1290-1300). Right two in the V&A.
As regards the champlevé process, it seems to have had its origin in Britain, in days preceding the Roman conquest. Thence it passed to France and Italy, where it was used only for small articles of jewellery, if an opinion may be formed from the Castellani collection in the British Museum. In the eleventh century we find the same process in several countries, usually mixed with cloisonne; but one may note here at once that in all the earlier enamels the processes are employed from a goldsmith's and a jeweller's point of view, not from that of a genuine worker in enamel. It is not till we come to the twelfth century that the fine craft of enamelling begins to assert its independence as an art and its full capacity for change and progress. From that time onward we meet with enamel plâaques done per se.
In Christian times — probably as early as the eighth century — the Irish, from a craftsman's standpoint, employed enamel processes with remarkable success; and I wish to draw great attention to the unusual beauty of the interlaced patterns in their goldwork and silverwork, the work, the chief characteristic of which is a simplicity of shape and contour that contrasts admirably with the utmost elaboration and delicate intricacy of design. This, to my mind, gives their art a truly wonderful fascination; the style is so gallantly restrained, yet with so much life and vigour and ease. This Irish enamelling, specimens of which are to be seen in the Celtic room at the British Museum, was applied in a larger way to shields, helmets, fibute, and horse-trappings; as far as can be ascertained now, the enamels used were opaque. I should like to dwell upon this beautiful Celtic art, but it has really more to do with goldsmithing than with enamelling.
Byzantium and Ireland were long the two centres of learning, and in art they were unrivalled for the beauty of their enamels in doisoiuic and champkve The delicacy, the preciousness of their work is in many cases beyond praise. In form, in drawing, to be sure, there is a lack of the symmetry and grace that we find in the intaglio of the early Etruscans; but the work has a form, an expression, a magic, peculiarly right in champlevé enamelling. The graduated colouring between the metal lines, the tones of the whites, the yellows, and, indeed, of all the colours, are as beautiful as Persian tiles or as plates of Damascus. All these enamels have a kinship of colour, and here it will be noticed that the fructifying influence was oriental.
Some of the greatest charms of Byzantine work are due to the fact that the enamels are applied to metal in such a way that they seem to be a sort of natural metallic growth. In the gold jewels the fine gold straps keep the parts together in a manner as artistic as it is technical; the enamel and the metal are ground to the same level; and the polish on the enamel is of a piece with that on the metal's surface. Also it is worth noting that this deliberate choice of a most subtle surface proves, beyond doubt, that the Byzantine artists had a keen and wise appreciation of the refinements of their exquisite material. [end part I]
Fisher, Alexander. “"The True Art of Enamelling on Metals” The Studio Part I: 20-22 (1900): 242-54 University of Toronto copy made available online by the Internet Archive. Web. 25 January 2012.
Last modified 23 January 2012