Curator John Andrew reflects on how he became a collector.
It all started with half-a-crown – and an Irish one at that! It is now the largest collection of post-Word War II British silver in private hands with some 900 pieces. I had better explain. In the late 1950s, when I was about six, my father was annoyed as he had not noticed the Irish half-crown he had been passed in his change. He explained it was illegal to spend in the UK and was therefore useless. I asked to see it, expecting it to be awful (well it was illegal!). On one side there was a horse and on the other a harp – it was the most beautiful coin I had ever seen. ‘Can I have it – please?’ His agreement turned me into a collector.
I started with foreign, dabbled with Roman but concentrated on English and developed a penchant for Tudor and Stuart coins. In my teens an established local collector became my mentor and also introduced me to the world of antique silver. I became hooked and while I had a Saturday job I needed to earn more. Don’t laugh… at 18 I decided I would become a freelance writer. I got a weekly column on coins in the local paper. Eventually I my writing about coins was appearing in five countries, spread over four continents.
Chris Knight’s soup tureen and ladle
Chris Knight’s ‘Spiky Ladle’
I sold my coins just before I went to university but carried on with silver, adding tie pins, portrait miniatures and finally antique Fabergé to my collecting repertoire. The catalyst for change was Stuart Devlin, who had designed the Australian decimal coinage followed by coins for another three dozen or so countries. He was primarily a silversmith and it is through him that I first saw modern British silver. I liked what I saw and in my mid-thirties began to buy it. I found myself fascinated by the Renaissance that had taken place in British silver design after 1945. There was an explosion of creativity not only resulting in a diversity of shapes but also in an array of different finishes. Shiny mirror surfaces were no longer de rigueur. New techniques were introduced but not to the detriment of traditional craftsmanship.
By my late forties my tastes had completely changed. I no longer liked the traditional and antique.
Out went my safe and tested domestic silver, the Georgian snuff boxes, the portrait miniatures and thirty pieces of Fabergé, some with an Imperial provenance. Friends were horrified. I am probably the only person who has sold the work of Peter Carl Fabergé to buy modern and contemporary British silver.
This century I have been on quite a journey with the Collection. I am on a one-man mission to bring what is Britain’s best-kept secret to a wider audience. For six and half months from October 2018 to May 2019, part of the Collection was exhibited at SFO Museum based in San Francisco’s International Airport. The footfall through the gallery was 4.25 million of which 700,000 stopped to engage with the pieces. It was not only the biggest exhibition of modern British silver in the US, but also its largest exposure to an international audience – it still tickles me to remember that it all began with an Irish half-crown.
This year’s North Star Competition is now open! Enter now at www.goldmsithsnorth.com. It’s free, it’s easy and you could win a piece of jewellery or silverware worth up to £1,000. All you have to do is browse the Star Pieces on Instagram or here on the Goldsmiths North website, select your favourite and fill in our quick online entry form. If your entry form is drawn, that Star Piece could be yours!
*Header image courtesy of SFO Museum