Over a 30-year career, enameller Jane Short has risen to become one of our finest artist-craftspeople, with pieces in collections across Britain
High above Brighton town centre, the hilly 19th century streets are home to artists and craftspeople. Enameller Jane Short lives and works here, with her partner Robin Morley and their two teenage sons. ‘Working from home is ideal for me,’ she says, ‘because I have to stop to cook dinner and to make time for my boys. Combining a family with a career has been my biggest challenge.’
On weekdays, when the boys are at school and Robin has retreated to his office in the garden, Jane can turn to her other, equally demanding role as an enameller at the top of her profession. Her workshop occupies what would have been the front room and the parlour of their early Victorian house. It has a homely feel, with rugs on the floor, books stacked up on shelves, and a comfy chair.
Dotted here and there are sources of inspiration, such as the two magnolia leaf skeletons pinned to the wall. ‘Aren’t they wonderful? I’ve made a silver bowl in a similar shape,’ remarks Jane. And behind a picture frame is tucked a large, curved tail feather. ‘It’s from a cockerel; you can imagine him strutting about with it. I love the colour and patterns of feathers – I have boxes of them.’
An original design for one of her most celebrated pieces, a large enamelled silver charger, commissioned by the Goldsmiths’ Company for its landmark show, ‘Treasures of the 20th Century’ held in 2000, hangs above a plan chest. The commission, to mark the Millennium, sums up how her designs come about. The swirl of orange flames, sparkling stars and blue sky was, in part, inspired by a family holiday, camping in the Rockies. ‘I spent a lot of time looking at water and rocks, and that was my starting point. I like to walk, looking at the detail and texture of things.’
Tapping into talent
Last year Jane won the Jacques Cartier Memorial Award, given by the Goldsmiths’ Company for a piece of outstanding contemporary silverware – it was an engraved and enamelled silver tazza bowl, described by the Roadshow’s Alastair Dickenson as ‘a fabulous thing’. As well as having work in the Goldsmiths’ permanent co
llection (alongside makers such as Stuart Devlin, Malcolm Appleby and David Clarke), she is represented at the V&A, the Crafts Council, the Ashmolean Museum, the Fitzwlliam Museum, the National Museum of Scotland, and Lichfield Cathedral. This sizeable canon of work on public display shows just how far Jane has come since her student days.
She grew up on the edge of Exmoor in north Devon, in a family where knitting and dressmaking were everyday activities. ‘We were always making things, and I’ve always loved pattern,’ she recalls. A talent for drawing and painting got her into art college at Bideford, and from there, aged just 17, she won a place at the Central School of Art & Design (now Central Saint Martins) to study jewellery at degree level.
In her second year she was introduced to enamel. ‘Enamelling was used a lot in Victorian jewellery in the second half of the 19th century, especially during the Art Nouveau period, but then it went out of favour,’ she explains. ‘I was fascinated by the first piece of enamelling that I tried – a silver cube that I decorated with feather patterns and mottled colours. I liked the rich quality of the colour and the way the light reflects back through it. I fell in love with the technique.’
She took an MA at the Royal College of Art and in 1979 went professional, teaching part-time at the Royal College and setting up a workshop in London with two other makers, including fellow silversmith Clive Burr, who still makes many of the bowls and dishes that Jane engraves and enamels.
The creative flow
Although Jane occasionally makes enamelled jewellery, it is these larger pieces, mostly made to commission, that occupy most of her time. Each design begins as a drawing, which in itself can take up to three days to complete – there are leaves and flowers, feathers and stars, waves, birds and hills. It then progresses to a three-dimensional model made out of card or turned wood. ‘It’s very difficult to see how a pattern is going to work without seeing it in 3D,’ she explains.
Once the design is agreed, Jane will have the basic form made in silver by Clive or one of her design is agreed, Jane will have the basic form made in silver by Clive or one of her associates. Then the intricate process of engraving can begin. The technique she uses most often is called ‘champlevé’, where she uses engraving tools to cut into the surface of the silver to a shallow depth of between 0.3 and 0.4 of a millimetre. Jane cuts out the design and then engraves it further with more textural lines and ripples. Once the engraving is done, which can take many weeks, it is ready to be enamelled.
Jane has a palette of over 150 colours to choose from and blend. In the raw, enamel is coloured glass, supplied as small lumps, which have to be ground down to a fine, sand-like consistency and mixed with a tiny amount of water before they can be applied to the engraved area of the silver. Favourite colours are the rich shades of blue, turquoise, grey, green and umber that she grinds up in a pestle and mortar. ‘I wouldn’t use less than three colours, but most of the time I grind up to 11. It takes me a day to prepare all the enamels before I am ready to decorate,’ she says.
Applying the colours is a painstaking job, and
she uses the quill of a feather or a small brush or a spatula to poke the tiny, wet grains into place. Once every area of enamel is complete, the piece goes into a kiln to be fired at around 800°C for up to 10 minutes. This process can be repeated three or four times to build up the layers of colour, which are rubbed back to be level with the silver. ‘The enamelled areas look textured even though they are smooth, because the engraved detail shows through the transparent enamel,’ explains Jane.
One of her recent designs was a series of four beakers for Goldsmiths’ Hall. ‘I made one that represents lichen and stone, another fish scales, another leopard skin, and another snowflakes. Enamel is a very descriptive medium,’ she says as she pores over her detailed drawings.
With small bowls starting at £1,500 and some commissions nudging £20,000, Jane is often booked up a year ahead. Her beautiful jewellery (available through Studio Fusion at the Oxo Tower), is made in any ‘spare’ time, and is a particularly good buy, with prices from £300 for a pair of earrings. Surprisingly perhaps, she is reticent about her success. ‘I haven’t stopped learning yet,’ she says modestly, happiest when she’s busying away in her Brighton backwater.
COLLECTING JANE SHORT ENAMELLED WARES
To me, Jane is the most exciting enameller since the Art Nouveau period,’ says Alastair Dickenson, who first came across Jane Short’s work at Goldsmiths’ Hall, where he is a liveryman.
‘Her work is so detailed and elegant, she has a rare talent. She and Fred Rich – the two top enamellers in the country – have taken enamelling to a new art form. I love the way Jane blends and balances colours, and the way they flow into one another. The sheer beauty and originality of her work are
big plusses. If I had the funds I would love to commission her – somebody of her talent will almost certainly live on.’
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FEATURE: Caroline Wheater
PHOTOGRAPHS: Alun Callender