Terry Grimley is impressed by the spectacular display of contemporary silversmithing on show at the Gas Hall
The Honourable Company of Goldsmiths has been promoting the craft of silversmithing since 1327, but it was the Paris decorative art exhibition of 1925 which inspired it to start collecting contemporary silverware.
Although this is now one of the most comprehensive collections of its kind in the world, there is no public gallery permanently dedicated to it, so the only chance to see it is when it goes on tour.
The selection which has just gone on view at the Gas Hall, covering the last 25 years, is supplemented by silver bought for Birmingham's own collection through the Contemporary Art Society's Special Collection Scheme between 1998 and 2005, plus work specially commissioned to celebrate ten years of the Association of British Designer Silversmiths.
Adding together all three elements, this amounts to one of the largest exhibitions of contemporary British silverware ever held.
The timing is right, because this is a time when the medium is bursting with new ideas and talent. As various works from the Goldsmiths' Hall collection demonstrate, the association of silverware with ecclesiastical use and secular pomp still continues – Stuart Devlin's Millennium Dish, representing various buildings in the City of London, is a spectacular example of the latter – but silver has also taken on a less formal guise and allied itself with parallel modern crafts. This is a relatively new development, as the youth of the Association of British Designer Silversmiths would suggest.
Stars of British silver-making since the 1980s have included Gerald Benney, a pivotal figure through his role as head of department at the Royal College of Art, and two makers who did their early training in Birmingham, Michael Lloyd and Rod Kelly, both of whom specialise in the form of surface decoration known as chasing.
The final showcases reveal that British silver-making is now an international affair because so many aspiring makers from abroad are attracted here to train – particularly at the Royal College of Art. At Thursday's preview the Danish silversmith Ane Christensen told me that Britain is now much more receptive to new ideas than Denmark, which is stuck in its golden age of design, the 1950s.
Christensen, who began as a jeweller before discovering silversmithing, bends and shreds silver like paper in her sculptural pieces, which are represented in both the Goldsmiths' and Birmingham collections.
In her Birmingham piece, two distinct forms – a bowl and its base – are cut continuously from the same sheet of silver, in a way reminiscent of Bill Woodrow's sculptures. You could show this alongside Patrick Hughes' reverse-perspective paintings (now exhibited at the Waterhall) in an exhibition devoted to visual paradox.
Others bringing new ideas from abroad include Hiroshi Suzuki, from Japan, whose forms have the look of paper lanterns, and Sidsel Dorph-Jensen, from Sweden, who makes vessels which are akin to ceramics. A playful punning on analogies with other materials seems to be a characteristic of work being made at the start of the 21st century.
It's interesting to see the work bought by Birmingham alongside the Goldsmiths' collection, and indeed many names are common to both. Apart from Christensen and Suzuki, other foreign-born, British-trained makers in the Birmingham collection include the Germans Andreas Fabian and Simone ten Hompel and the New Zealander Helmert Robbertsen.
There are also important British names like Malcolm Appleby and the previously mentioned Birmingham graduates Michael Lloyd and Rod Kelly.
An unusual recent addition to the Birmingham collection is an installation arising from a project undertaken in 2001, when ten silversmiths were introduced into a field in South Oxfordshire and handed raw materials and minimal tools. Perhaps unsurprisingly what they came up with is not that great, but reportedly the experience proved quite influential for a number of them. It's an indication of how open silversmithing is to new ideas and influences at the start of the new millennium.n Treasures of Today: Silver from Goldsmith's Hall, London; TEN, work by 40 members of the Association of British Designer Silversmiths celebrating its tenth anniversary, and contemporary silver from Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery's permanent collection is on view at the Gas Hall, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, until January 14 (Mon-Thur, Sat 10am-5pm; Fri 10.30am-5pm, Sun 12.30pm-5pm; admission free).