The Australian With The Midas Touch

30 Oct 2012

Author: Kevin Murray

Photography: The Pearson Silver Collection

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Since he created Australia’s decimal coinage nearly 50 years ago, Stuart Devlin has built a reputation as the pre-eminent designer of precious objects and has been described as ‘arguably the greatest living silversmith’.
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Though Stuart Devlin has based his career in London, he is proudly Australian. As part of a generation that included opera singer Joan Sutherland, dancer Robert Helpmann, actor Peter Finch and writer Patrick White, he played an important role in showing that Australians could lead on the world stage. Devlin says, “Apart from the obvious reason that London is the best place for a silversmith to become known … my acceptance here reassures people in Australia that Australians are capable of international success.”

Now in his early 80s, Devlin retains a strong presence in the UK. The torch for the recent London Olympics was designed as a tribute to ‘“Stuart Devlin” style British craftsmanship’. The celebrations that were part of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II included a London exhibition of his silverware. And he has produced a new series of mint coins featuring the capital cities of the UK.

All Australians now have their own Stuart Devlin collection – in their pockets.

But more precious than Devlin’s glittering works is the opening this year of the Goldsmiths’ Centre. This confident new facility in central London for nurturing new talent is the realisation of a personal dream. The traditions that he has so capably mastered now have a secure future.

Despite the international renown in which he is held, Devlin is actually a man of humble beginnings. He grew up in Geelong, a working-class town south-west of Melbourne, in a poor but respectable family. His father was a perfectionist home painter and decorator, while his mother instilled a strong work ethic in her four children.

Devlin’s rare combination of talent and industry was soon apparent. As head prefect at school, he was encouraged by teachers to aim high. He chose a career in metalwork, winning a scholarship at age 13. He became an art teacher and obtained a post with Melbourne College where he completed a three-year Diploma of Art in just one year part-time, winning the highest marks ever awarded. This record enabled him to receive three scholarships to study at London’s Royal College of Art (RCA).

There was no silver spoon near Devlin’s mouth as a child, but now he would learn to make one – perfectly. At RCA, he was the only student to obtain two honours diplomas after only two years of study. On the strength of this, he received a Harkness Fellowship to study at Colombia University.

In 1962, he returned to Australia to fulfil his contractual obligations with the Department of Education, subsequently achieving the position of Inspector of Art Schools. But his creative instinct would not rest. In 1964, he won the competition to design Australia’s decimal coinage.

All Australians now have their own Stuart Devlin collection – in their pockets. Devlin set new standards for coin design. The 20 cent piece is a particularly gorgeous work of art. The lines of water rippling over the platypus create the illusion of three dimensions.  

His success did not go unnoticed outside Australia. Devlin has since gone on to design coinage for 36 other countries, including Singapore, Ethiopia and Angola.

The dye work necessary for the Australian currency took him back to London, where he remained for the rest of his career. He soon completed a number of distinguished commissions, such as the ceremonial maces for the universities of Melbourne and La Trobe; altar crosses for Canterbury Cathedral; trophies for the Duke of Edinburgh; cutlery for Viners of Sheffield silver; and a fine silver sculpture for Ford of Britain.

It has been impossible to ignore Devlin’s presence in London. In 1967, the exclusive West End department store Collingwood’s set aside an entire floor for the display of his work. In the late 1970s, his patron the Duke of Westminster helped him obtain a shopfront in Conduit Street off New Bond Street, which displayed six windows of Devlin silver.

His workshop soon expanded to 60 skilled workers. Devlin himself was a tireless employer, arriving at 7.30 am, taking a break for dinner, then working until midnight. The quantity of his sales was matched by the titles of his clients. In the 1970s, Queen Elizabeth commissioned Devlin to design and make a cigar box for the wedding of the Crown Prince of Jordan. In 1980, he was made Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George for services to the art of design. And then in 1982, he was granted the Royal Warrant of Appointment as Goldsmith and Jeweller to Her Majesty the Queen.

For Devlin, relationships with patrons are an important creative stimulant. His rosewater dish for Lord Astor of Hever is a masterpiece of his craft. He has even developed new surgical instruments for a client in the profession.

Devlin’s success has been underpinned by a relentless pursuit of innovation and a capacity to embrace change beyond the bench itself. In 1971, he was already using computers for stocktaking and logistical management.

His distinctive style is often showcased in works that combine rough and polished textures to dramatic effect. The iconic spherical ‘violet bowl’ featured a mottled and punctured gold top inspired by the 1969 moon landing. In 1973, he began his series of Easter Eggs, which are a match for Fabergé in their invention. His first egg was encrusted with carved amethyst violets and diamonds. It opened to show a tiny vase of flowers made from semiprecious stones.

As a designer, Devlin’s key word is ‘enrichment’. On arrival in London, he felt that the English were eager to leave behind the years of austerity that followed World War Two. He sought to uplift this world. “My aim is to enrich the way people live and work. If in the process I can also make them smile, intrigue them, surprise them or bring other romantic notions such as prettiness to their lives, I am doubly pleased.”

Devlin had little time for the minimal aesthetic coming out of Denmark and Sweden. He tells the story of being at a dinner and needing to turn over a fork to see if it was made of silver or steel. “People don’t buy silver to look like stainless steel. They buy it to enrich their lives. I think the Scandinavians had something to teach us about pure form and function, but they almost completely discarded one important feature of design – richness.”

The worst crime for Devlin is to be boring. In his younger days Devlin would recharge his creative energies on regular trips to the West Indies island of Mustique where he and his North American wife Kim have a house. “When I run out of ideas, I simply go for a swim, let my mind go blank and it fills up again as I walk back up the beach.”

In 1986, Devlin was honoured by his peers and elected to the court of Goldsmiths. He eventually achieved the distinction of becoming its Prime Warden in 1996, an office usually given to bankers. He used this position to support young practitioners through the London Guildhall University.

Devlin’s Australian sense of ‘fair go’ is evident in the respect and support he has shown for craftspeople. He was the first master goldsmith in modern times to allow artisans to include their individual marks on pieces they made to his design. He ensured that the names of all his workers were printed in catalogues.

While no-one has matched Devlin in his craft, he has always encouraged excellence in others. The Stuart Devlin Award in Australia helped launch the careers of many designers, such as the jeweller Susan Cohn who subsequently worked with Alessi.

Devlin also helped Emeritus Professor Ray Stebbins follow his path from Melbourne to the Royal College, and on return re-establish the international reputation of RMIT’s Gold & Silversmithing department. Stebbins believes “he is undoubtedly the pre-eminent goldsmith of our time”.

This opinion is widely shared. The queen’s jewellers at Collingwood’s described him as “the greatest designer in gold and silver since the incomparable Paul de Lamerie in the 18th century”. The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in the City of London christened him as the designer with the “Midas touch”.

These honours seem especially grand for someone who was born on the other side of the world to the traditions on which this craft is based. When she was Goldsmiths’ librarian, Susan Hare observed: “What makes him unique on the silversmithing scene is that he has no European background and tradition.”

For Stebbins, Devlin is the product of an Australian way of doing things. Without the large scale of English manufacturers, Australians used the studio model of production, where designers have to solve problems themselves. The English system relied on a more formalised hierarchy. His Australian background gave Devlin the independence to make the most of English traditions.

Credited with the revival of spoon-making – the quintessential craft of silversmithing –  Devlin continues to exert a powerful influence. Recently, a three-section parcel gilt silver candelabrum centrepiece commissioned by the Duke of Westminster in 1976 sold for A$82,000. And now, as Postgraduate Programme Director of the new Goldsmiths’ Centre, he will pass on his skills. The impact of this Australian will continue to be felt not only in the auction houses, but also in the generations of fine craftspersons to come.

Kevin Murray is an independent writer. He is Adjunct Professor at RMIT University and online editor of the Journal of Modern Craft.