by Erika Speel
Travelling Icon, 1897, by Alexander Fisher
Alexander Fisher, silversmith, was a leading artist working with enamels. He taught at the LCC Central School of Arts and Crafts from 1896-1898 and later at other London Schools. He also had several private pupils. In the spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement, he advocated that every artwork should express a particular idea and should be designed and worked through all its stages by one person.
His 1896 summary of the art of enamelling included the following:
'The varieties of enamelling known as champleve, cloisonne, basse taille, plique-a-jour and Limoges painting, I have mastered in turn... all these methods were used formerly before the present revival; but they were not so completely understood or carried so far as they are today, nor were the whole methods practiced by any artist as they are now.'
In 1906, Fisher wrote:
'...enamels should never be copies of anything in nature nor of any other processes of painting in art. They should be creations. They are for the representation and embodiment of thoughts, ideas, imaginings, and for those parts of a world which exists only in our minds.'
Seated girl by a follower of Fisher
Fisher made specimen pieces demonstrating his mastery of various techniques. These included a large silver and plique-a-jour tazza with pierced-out openwork, a series of profile portraits following the traditional Limoges style, and a few large scale enamel paintings as fire-screens. The colourful composition entitled The Wagner Girdle (1896) with steel links and painted plaques showing scenes from the opera Tristan and Isolde, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum Jewellery Gallery, demonstrated his skill in making small scale figural pieces. His plaques generally measured up to 18 cm x 10 cm (7 in x 4 in) and were of silver, or copper covered partly with silver or gold foil. His figural compositions are extremely graceful and romantic in choice of colours, with blue, green and purple predominating, and with soft pink or white opalescent enamels representing the faces and flesh areas. His works in this genre were designed as pieces of fine art. He considered the considerable output of the many trade enamellers working at this period as being frivolous and lacking in individuality.
Fisher was a very influential teacher. His pupils mainly followed his painting technique, working with translucent colours over silver or copper covered with foils, and with compositions based on a central figure and specific theme. Among his students were Nelson Dawson, who taught his wife Edith Dawson, John Eyre, C. Watts, his daughter Kate Fisher, Lady Carmichael (who taught Phoebe Traquair and the Hon. Mrs Madeleine Wyndham, to whom Fisher dedicated his book), Miss Swainson, Miss McLaren, Ernestine Mills (two small pieces by her are in Leighton House) and Henry C. Cunynghame. He also had students who subsequently worked in the USA.
In 1909, Fisher wrote of his work:
'The method that I have found of late years to suit the particular qualities that appeal to me, differ greatly from all others ancient and modern, so far as I know them. To me the colour property of enamels and the translucent quality are all-important.'
Design for a Yachting Cup in silver and enamel
Fisher had attended Louis Dalpayrat's series of lectures on Limoges-style painting with enamels given in 1885 at the Royal College of Art in London. He followed up with his own experiments and went to Paris to study enamelling. By the 1890s he was recognised as the leading innovator in art enamelling. By 1906, when his book The Art of Enamelling on Metal was published, he had for more than a decade been a regular contributor to the leading art journals and had exhibited his pieces at the Royal Academy and many exhibition societies. He was the expert witness in 1910 on behalf of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in the case brought by Peter Charles Faberge, the Expert Examiner to the Board of Education in London, and a gold medallist of Barcelona.
Tryptych: Life of St Patrick
Fisher's work is largely in private collections. However, his Wagner Girdle is in the Victoria and Albert Museum Jewellery Gallery, and the important Jewel Casket: Fortune's Treasure Chest is at the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford.
Erika Speel's Dictionary of Enamelling, History and Techniques is published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Gower House, Croft Rd, Aldershot, Hants, GU11 3HR England. email firstname.lastname@example.org
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