LONDON – Dreweatts’ Thursday, July 7 sale will feature a collection of works by Gerald Benney (1930-2008), the most important designer in the revival of British silversmithing in post-World War II Britain. Born in Hull, East Yorkshire in 1930, Benney’s career lasted more than half a century, and in 1995, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to art, due to his unique style and the exceptional quality and finish of his pieces. The Benney works will be offered as a highlight of Dreweatts’ auction of Fine Jewellery, Silver, Watches and Luxury Accessories. Absentee and Internet live bidding will be available through LiveAuctioneers.
Among his many commissions was the altar plate in Coventry Cathedral, and his popularity with the royal family meant that he became the first ever craftsman to hold four royal warrants at the same time in the 1970s and 1980s. These included being goldsmith and silversmith to the Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen, the Queen Mother and the Prince of Wales. Benney’s impact on the art of silversmithing was so significant that his works can be found in many important collections, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Goldsmiths’ Company and the Crafts Council.
Commenting on the works going up for auction, Dreweatts’ Deputy Chairman, International Head of Jewellery, Silver and Watches James Nicholson said: “It is exciting to offer this collection of Gerald Benney pieces, which show the evolution of his craftsmanship and design from the 1960s onwards, and his determination to save the almost extinct art of enameling. The importance of Gerald Benney’s contribution to post-war British silversmithing is beyond question.”
Benney came from an artistic background. His father was principal of Brighton Art College and a painter, and his mother was a talented silversmith in her own right. After attending Brighton College of Art, and later the Royal College of Art in London, he set up his first silver workshop off Tottenham Court Road in the early 1950s. Throughout the 1950s, Gerald’s reputation grew. He received numerous commissions from corporate and private clients, and he became a design consultant for Viners cutlers and silversmiths in Sheffield.
He began to create huge silver bowls with free-form pierced covers, which became one of his specialities; he produced more than 50 of them in varying designs during his career. Dreweatts will offer one such bowl in this sale. It features a stunning removable gold-colored and aquamarine brooch at its center, set with a removable circular cut aquamarine. It also features a sleek polished border and an openwork center with silver-gilt stacked batons at intervals, and its textured arrow and ribbed panels add to the decorative effect. Dating from 1965, the bowl is estimated at £4,000-£6,000.
During the 1960s, a workshop accident caused by using a damaged hammer head while hand-raising a cup bowl led Benney to discover one of his most distinctive decorative features. The damaged hammer head created a textured bark finish on the pieces, rather than a plain polished surface. Benney incorporated this finish into many of his objects, which ultimately became known as the Benney bark finish.
There are several pieces in the sale with Benney’s bark finish, including a striking set of six silver goblets, dating from 1968 and 1969, which carry an estimate of £3,000-£5,000, and a charming pair of silver cylindrical salt and pepper cellars dating from 1969 / 1972, with an estimate of £300-£500.
In 1964 Benney and his family moved to Beenham House near Reading, enabling him to create an additional studio workshop in the house. It was at Beenham House that he began producing his signature enamel boxes, and by the 1970s, enamels were added to a whole range of his pieces.
Enameling had almost become a lost art by the 1970s, but Benney persuaded Norwegian master enameler Berger Bergersen to come to England to teach him the ins and outs of the technique. Bergersen had learned his enamel craft at Bolin in Stockholm from some of Faberge’s enamelers after they had fled to Sweden following the Russian Revolution. Through much experimentation and practice, Benney and his team undertook the most complicated enameling techniques on the most technically demanding surfaces, with outstanding results.
The most popular of his enamel works were small boxes, for which he became synonymous. One such example in the sale is an 18K gold, enamel and opal oval box that he produced in 1975. It features green translucent enamel over a diamond pattern ground, and the cover is set with an oval opal. This beautifully intricate vibrant green box is a spectacular demonstration of his skill and is estimated at £5,000-£8,000.
Another delightful example is an 18K gold and enamel circular box with master enameler’s marks for Alan Alfred Evans. It features red translucent enamel over a sunburst ground and also dates from 1975. It is estimated at £4,000-£6,000.
A colorful pair of silver gilt and enamel goblets by Benney feature a green and red translucent enamel over a bark-effect textured ground. With ivory-colored stems and sitting on circular feet, they bear the master enameler’s mark for Robert Vidal Winter, London 1971, and are estimated at £2,500-£3,500.
The current rate of exchange is £1 = $1.23.
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