Some nine years or so ago an enameller from Paris, by name M. Dalpayrat, gave a series of demonstrations, at Mr. Armstrong's initiative, before the students at South Kensington, and it was there that I received my first practice in enamelling, for I was at that time a national scholar. I had used enamels on pottery for some years before, as my father was an enameller on pottery, and this gave me an insight into the work of metal enamelling. After the term of my scholarship expired I followed up the craft, my first attempt being to mend an article before an ordinary kitchen fire. I received particular encouragement from Mr. T. Armstrong, the director at South Kensington, without whom I should many a time have despaired of success. I resolved from the outset to master the whole subject, and commenced to experiment on the making of enamels, so that I might understand completely their capabilities and how best to develop them. This was, needless to say, a very arduous undertaking, being more the work of a chemist than of an artist. Except for the scraps of information, often misleading, I obtained from old books, and from modern French and German authors, I worked entirely without assistance; and after innumerable failures I arrived at some degree of success. I now make all my best colours (and of course only for myself), though where I can buy any that are of use to me I do, for there are several enamels which require no special knowledge to make. I have enamels which when fired upon copper are equal to many of the best of other makes fired on fine gold. The varieties of enamelling known as champlevé, cloisonné, bassitaile, pliqué à jour, and Limoges I mastered in turn.
In these brief sentences Mr. Fisher tells the story of his art career. Those who saw the accomplished work in this year's Royal Academy little realise what has gone out of the man to reach this result. As an old pottery painter I can realise some of the disappointments that must have stood between Alexander Fisher and success, for where work has to be submitted to the trial by fire, failure, over which the artist has no control must — must often — be the enameller's only reward.
Mr. Fisher at work.
The first recognition Mr. Fisher's work in enamelling received was at the Armourers and Braziers' Exhibition, at which he was awarded a prize of ten guineas, disposing of one of his enamels in addition, the judge being Mr. Alfred Gilbert, R.A. Mr. Fisher read a short paper on enamelling before the Art- workers' Guild, and they did him the honour of making him one of their members. Mr. Fisher was recently invited by Paris enamellers to visit them and he speaks highly of their technical skill, less so of their aims.
If anyone questions the help such a Guild affords art-workers, they should know what Mr. Fisher has to say. It was through a member of the Guild that Mr. Fisher's work was in the first instance brought to my notice, and it is in this matter of mutual introductions which come of fellowship that a Guild can do much to help its members. Co-operation was Beaconsfield's panacea for social ills, and it is only by the uniting of craftsmen into a corporation that the power of the "firm" can be stayed and the art-workman obtain some recognition.
Sides and ends of a silver enamelled casket by Alexander Fisher.
I may now say a few words concerning the process of enamelling on metal. An enamel consists of two parts, the colouring matter, usually a metallic oxide, and a flux or fusible material which assumes its proper condition only when subjected to a heat sufficient to melt it. White is produced by oxide of tin, which mineral is also added to make enamel of any colour opaque; blue by oxide of cobalt; red by gold; violet by manganese; green by copper. An enamel may be either transparent or opaque, and applied to a vitreous surface, such as glass, pottery or china, or to metals such as gold, silver, copper, platinum or iron, though the first three are those most usually employed. These enamels are ground into a fine powder and are applied like body colour and are then fired in a muffle. Mr. Fisher uses one heated by gas, and the firing of an enamel is only the work of a few minutes. Indeed, on the occasion of a visit to Mr. Fisher's atelier he allowed me to do a small enamel myself which I brought away as a memento. The colours were mulled up in a mortar, and I put them on with a longhaired brush, using simply water to float the enamels on with it, for they must be put on as thickly as body colour and not merely as a wash. The enamels before they are crushed up looked like lumps of coloured glass, but are not necessarily the tint they assume when fired; thus a ruby may look an amber and a blue a dull yellow. When I say that the firing is the work of a few minutes, I mean that the firing of the pigment into glass is so; but one of Mr. Fisher's enamels is fired many times as one enamel is painted over another.
In all the most beautiful enamels both opaque and transparent colours are used, and it is on this blending of these two qualities that much of the effect depends. The metal showing through the transparent enamels produces the effect of a gem, and thin plates of gold and silver are fused to the copper to give particular qualities of colour to portions of the work. Enamels on gold yield the most beautiful result, but Mr. Fisher has enamels which look almost as well on copper. Sometimes an enamel will have transparent colours in the background while the design is opaque. This is the case in many of the old Limoges pieces where the figures are in white on a deep blue ground. An enamel may be, and usually is, fired several times, as one colour has to be painted over another, and to get finish and definition colours very similar to those used on china are employed, and in much the same way, and the effect of a miniature, so far as finish is concerned, is obtainable. Very great care has to be exercised in the firing, for some colours fuse at a lower temperature than others (these have to be put in last) and excess of heat changes the colour of others, so that it is necessary to draw the work from the muffle at the exact moment. The beauty of enamels depends upon their translucent, gem-like quality, and the design must be subordinate to the charm of colour, though, as may be seen from the illustrations given of some of Mr. Fisher's work, great beauty of design and high manipulative skill may accompany colour as beautiful as an opal.
Buckles in translucent enamel on silver by Alexander Fisher.
Enamels were added to gold and silversmiths' work from the fourth to the seventh century. It became of the greatest importance in Byzantine goldsmiths' work when Christianity became the religion of the State, and has been used by them continually down to our own time. An enameller is invariably a worker in metal, and Mr. Fisher is as much a modeller and chaser as enameller.
We will now glance at the various processes employed by enamellers.
Champlevé. — This is the simplest and probably the oldest form. It consists in cutting out spaces on a thickish plate of metal, and filling these in with powdered enamel. It is then fired and afterwards filed down even with the metal and then polished. The few specimens of Saxon work, such as King Alfred's jewel, are enriched in this way.
Left: Triptych of the Crucifixion Right: Memorial to the Late Earl of Warwick.
[Niello is the name given to a black composition made of silver, lead, sulphur, and copper, which is laid, in the form of powder, in lines or cavities prepared for it on a surface of silver. It is then passed through the furnace, when it is melted and becomes incorporated with the metal. It is mentioned as early as the beginning of the ninth century.]
Cloisonné is a similar process, except that the spaces are made by wire of gold, silver, or hard brass soldered on to the metal, usually copper.
These "enclosures" are filled with enamels applied in the form of a paste. The work is then fired and the surface given to it by rubbing the enamels over with stones until the whole surface is smooth. The best specimens are hand polished and should have a soft, precious surface like some beautiful fruit. Japanese enamels, almost entirely consist of this kind, and they are, without doubt, the greatest masters of this branch of the art, and the skill with which a Japanese solders down the filagree bands to form the enclosures (and the design) must be seen to be appreciated. Japanese Cloisonné is generally opaque.
Left: Portrait in Enamels Right: The Annunciation in champlevé enamel with gold background.
Bassitaille. — The space to be enamelled is beaten or cut below the surface of the metal and then carved or beaten in low relief, so that when the transparent enamel is placed over this the modelling is seen through it, giving an extremely beautiful brilliancy to the enamel, and at the same time a very fine sense of form to the modelling. This enamel had its origin in Italy about the thirteenth century, and some of the most beautiful pieces of goldsmith's work have parts or point coloured by this method. It was carried to perfection by Cellini and his pupils and contemporaries. One of the finest examples of this method is seen in the cup at the British Museum known as the St. Agnes cup, the enamel being of great splendour on fine gold.
Pliqué à Jour. — The pattern is just made in gold or silver wire soldered together, much in the same way as the lead in stained glass, but unlike the Limoges generally consists in a subject being painted in a semi-opaque white enamel on a dark ground in which the thickness and degrees of thin glass the enamel is fused into these spaces without a ground. This work is extremely delicate and fairy-like, and seemed to Mr. Fisher at one time to present an insuperable difficulty, but he at length overcame it.
Limoges generally consists in a subject being painted in a semi-opaque white enamel on a dark ground in which the thickness and degrees of thinness of the white give the light and shade. This is sometimes coloured with transparent enamel. The well-known Battersea enamels of the eighteenth century, many examples of which are to be seen in South Kensington Museum, were done by first covering the metal with opaque white enamel, and then firing it and painting on the vitrified surface in ordinary china colours.
The qualities which appeal to one most in enamelling of a transparent kind (that is, where the metal ground is distinctly seen through the enamel) are brilliancy and preciousness. This latter quality is almost entirely overlooked, and yet to my mind, it is the most exquisite of all. It is almost always found in early work, which is partly due to the love, the reverence, and the humanity of the ancient craftsmen. I mean by this the distinctly human effort as contrasted with the machine work of to-day. The Celtic and Byzantine enamels have all the perfection one can possibly desire in this respect. Mr. Fisher might have used the words of Rabbi Ben Ezra: not "on the vulgar mass called 'work,' must sentence pass, things done, that took the eye and had the price;" but that work, the outcome of the desire to express all that is in one which "the world's coarse thumb and finger failed to plumb."
Speaking of Pliqué à Jour, Mr. Fisher says: "There are many small specimens of this work, made principally in Russia, Sweden, and Paris, but they are almost invariably the work rather of a chemist or an ingenious mechanic than of an artist. The colours are of the brightest and crudest, and in most cases the form is very poor. This remark applies also to the enamel work of this country. The artistic, the beautiful, the precious use of enamel is nearly unknown, or at all events frequently absent, whereas the mechanical and chemical use of it is well understood and practised. There is no sense of colour, although the material offers the finest palette in the world to the artist. Instead, we see slabs of emerald, ruby, and blue on an engine-turned ground, worked in a poor design, in effect like a painted photograph."
There can be no question that enamelling is the fittest decoration for fine metal work. Being vitrified it is permanent, and being lustrous and translucent it gives a gem-like effect to the metal work it adorns. It is a colour-art before all else, but this does not prevent it affording ample scope for the finest designing and drawing, as a glance at the specimens of Mr. Fisher's work accompanying these notes will show; but what the illustrations do not even suggest is the gem-like quality of the enamels themselves. This could not be given of their transparence. No attempt to get the quality of an ivory miniature should be made, for a high finish of that kind would tend to destroy the brilliancy of the enamels.
In Cellini's work, and the jewellery of his day, we see how the touching up of the gold with coloured enamels brought out the forms and gave accent to the design. Yet in modern jewellery the weight of the metal used and the value of the gems alone give value to our gauds. Their worth as art is nil. Take the girdle band of beaten and chased steel with panels in enamels illustrating the Rhine legends made by Mr. Fisher for Mr. Horniman. Here the preciousness was in the work of the artist, and not in the value of metal and cut gems. The jewellery designed by Hans Holbein again is valuable much more for its workmanship than for its intrinsic worth, the metal being beaten out thinly with but few gems or pearls set in it. Again, take ecclesiastical metal work. What a scope is there here for an artist! As Mr. Fisher said to me anent his triptych: "This is the most sacred of all subjects, and I have endeavoured to do it in the fervent, sincere spirit of Fra Angelico. It seems to me that the precious material of enamel is most suitable to sacred subjects, and I would urge all who wish to bestow some ornament or emblem, such as a cross, crosier, tabernacle, chaHce, or whatever it may be, upon their church, to consider the extreme beauty and suitability of enamelled metal for that service." Fred Miller.
Miller, Fred. “An Enameller and his Work” The Studio 8-10 (1896-97): 149-56. University of Toronto copy made available online by the Internet Archive. Web. 23 January 2012.
Last modified 23 January 2012