Malcolm Appleby


Retrospective Exhibition at Goldsmiths' Hall, City of London
 19 May  to 1July, 2006

Review by Maggie Snell

A Goldsmiths' Hall exhibition called "Precious Statements" is celebrating the lifetime creative output of two of Britain's finest artist-craftsmen, silversmith/engraver/jeweler Malcolm Appleby and jeweler John Donald, with a sparkling retrospective of their distinguished careers.  The exhibit runs from  Friday, May 19 to Saturday, July 1, 2006.
Malcolm Appleby is the subject of this first part of a two-part review of the exhibition by Maggie Snell. The second part will feature John Donald.

Appleby, who has lived in Scotland since 1969, makes all manner of tableware, medals, seals, and works of art as well as more modest beakers and bowls, kilts, belt-buckles, and jewelry. And then there are his grand scale, large, high-profile commissions for public institutions, such as the dramatic centerpiece he designed and made for the opening of the Scottish parliament.

He is internationally feted for his outstanding ability as an artist engraver who works entirely by hand using sharply pointed steel tools. He is fascinated by the combination of surface detail and form, which he achieves by not only using skills such as engraving, carving, and chasing but also by mixing metals, texturing, and hammering.

18 carat white and yellow gold, moonstone, walnut
 Commissioned by Goldsmiths' Hall to celebrate the Millennium


Appleby designed this casket to hold wild flower seeds to be sown in the millennium year as a symbol of regeneration of our precious planet earth in the 21st century. It is engraved with high tides of the equinox and solstices. The lid depicts storm clouds over the southern ocean. The moonstone is evocative of the moon's influence on the tides and enhances the imagery of the fundamental elements needed for life, of fire, water, air and light.
 It was made by Hector Miller.

Most of the guests at the preview day of the Goldsmiths' Hall Precious Moments Exhibition dressed to impress, but one of the two stars of the show made his own statement - wearing a pale blue jacket, pink shirt and no tie.

Malcolm Appleby (famously) belongs to no school, describing himself as a "post-post modernist multi-media maximalist with minimalist overtones." Here he is seen with what he calls "that darned jumper." It's made up of natural and synthetic yarns, shoelaces, hairpieces, tinsel, etc, and he's worn it on and off for more than 40 years.

The man is workaholic--his output prolific.  If he ever decided to give up his day job, night job, 24/7 job as a craftsman/silversmith/jeweler and engraver extraordinaire, Malcolm Appleby would have no problem as a raconteur on the lecture circuit. Boy, could he talk!

"This is a very carefully selected exhibition," he claimed, "it isn't a total representation of the scope of my work. There could have been another 400 items here and many that should be here are not." He was particularly thinking of the impressive table centerpiece he made for the residence of Scotland's First Minister after the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.
One of his earliest professional engagements was to engrave a royal object--the orb on a coronet designed by Louis Osman that was made in 1969 for the investiture of the Prince of Wales. Another collaboration with Osman was a model of the moon that was presented to the astronauts who made the first moon landing.
Malcolm was thrilled to see that one of his early works from the 1970s was prominently displayed. It is part of a centerpiece--a steel, shield-like disc with an abstract spiral landscape that he engraved with hammer and chisel and, in order to add color, fired with gold.

Following its sale, the piece was thought to have been lost for many years, but it turned up unannounced and unrecognized at a provincial English auction where it sold for about £50/$90 and was rescued from oblivion by a knowledgeable antiques dealer.  "It's worth at least 50 times that much," declared its maker. "When I made it, the piece rested on a big silver base. That has probably been melted down for scrap but can be replaced if necessary, but I'm glad the important piece has survived."

An early Appleby piece, ca. 1970, that was thought lost but was rescued from oblivion by an observant antiques dealer

Private commissions for plate have played an important part in Appleby's career as a silversmith and engraver. One of his most innovative techniques was developed using simple silver bowls. In the early 1970s, he began to investigate what would happen if he engraved bowls before raising them--the opposite of the conventional process. The idea came after he tried rolling pennies through a rolling mill, and found it was impossible to erase an image of the queen--although she was stretched into some unusual shapes.
With the help of silversmith Peter Musgrove, he produced bowls whose engraved designs grew with the pieces rather than simply resting upon them. Similar experiments lead to the creation of quilt-like beaded bowls, whose subtle forms were made by soldering studs onto the silver prior to Musgrove's expert raising with a traditional wooden mallet.

Despite his remote location, Appleby does not work in isolation and his collaboration with other craftsmen has often inspired new ideas.  These quilt-like beaded bowls, whose subtle forms were made by soldering studs of 22 carat gold beads onto the silver, were raised by  expert silversmith Peter Musgrove with a traditional wooden mallet.

In 1978, the Goldsmiths' Company commissioned the pair to make a commemorative double bowl to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the London Assay Office. Musgrove made the bowl itself in Britannia silver and gilt and Appleby engraved its five scalloped sections--with almost cartoon-like characters--to illustrate the changing fortunes of the historic leopard mark.

An inscription round the base reads: "I have served London for 500 years. I was the standard mark until 1543. Now I am the town mark from 1696 to 1720. I became the lion's head erased. I lost my crown in 1822."  With a self-deprecating shrug Malcolm, confessed that "Some bright person pointed out a spelling mistake, so I had to chisel it out and correct it..... this made a dent on the inside so I engraved a tired-looking leopard to hide it."

A storyboard describing this piece states that it demonstrates how his detailed narrative engraving actually lends itself to corporate commissions which often need a story or record on historic events. And though his patrons and clients are invariably delighted by the results, Malcolm often throws a spanner in his work. In this case the piece commemorating 500 years of hallmarking in London carries an Edinburgh hallmark.

Commemorative bowl (with leopards) made by Peter Musgrove and engraved by Malcolm Appleby
Britannia silver

Commissioned to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the
Establishment of the London Assay Office at Goldsmiths Hall in 1478

Malcolm Appleby's objects have been called "magical." Intricately engraved pictures which adorn nearly every piece give his work a sense of meaning and significance which goes far beyond its practical purpose. This element is important to him as he imbues his designs with comments on the environment, history, mythology and politics.

Standing cup and cover
 ca. 1989
 Raised, engraved, and pierced silver with a crystal and gilt interior

 In the collection of the National Museums of Scotland.

He has a quick wit and macabre and satirical sense of humor - in the tradition of great early British political satirists such as the Williams Hogarth and Blake--who also interpreted their eras through their barbed engravings. You can't separate the man from his work. He makes visual political jokes in his work thinly (and sometimes heavily) disguised as myth and fable. He is a natural rebel who doesn't accept limitations toward the conventions of both techniques and design--and the expectations of his patrons and clients.

Witness the Condiment Set he designed and made in 1988 for use in 10 Downing Street where Margaret Thatcher then lived as incumbent British Prime Minister. Appleby said the original commission--by the Silver Trust-- was for about 10 such sets. But he took the lady at her word--business is business--and quoted a price that took account of the hundreds of hours it would take to personally design and hand-engrave the sets.

Only one set made it to the table. It bears images of Eve (who's naked and wears a horse's head) handing an apple to a grotesque Adam figure who is carrying a dying-ash staff. "There was some controversy over the images. But they knew what they were getting as I gave them very detailed drawings in advance, though I'm not sure they understood the meaning behind the imagery." So, for the benefit of Modern Silver readers, here's Malcolm's explanation:

The Adam and Eve figures in the drawings are based on ancient morris dancers who wore animal heads during their presentations. Margaret Thatcher was known as the first lady, which matches up with Eve. She often spoke of her "special relationship" with then-US President, Ronald Regan, "who became Adam" he giggled, or was it a guffaw?

The Condiment Set was designed at the time Star Wars was being discussed and reminds its powerful users of the dangers of war. So we have Eve handing Adam an apple that explodes into a mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb. The apple is the top of the pepper pot," so guests to the Number 10 table were peppering their food with nuclear fallout--hot stuff, huh .... ?"  Malcolm said the ash staff is symbolic of a yig drisol tree. "What's that and how do I spell it?" I asked. "Look it up," he said."

I guess the purpose of mythology is that we are meant to figure some things out for ourselves. A quick Google search in Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,  revealed that Yig (the Father of Serpents) is a deity that appears as a serpent man or as a giant snake ... Yig often sends his serpent minions, the children of Yig, to destroy or transform his enemies. To Native Americans, Yig is regarded as "bad medicine."

Not all objects referred to in this article made it to the exhibition. Although Downing Street is only a short taxi ride from Goldsmiths' Hall, the Condiment Set wasn't on display. But the detail drawings you see here were reproduced on one of the numerous printed storyboards mounted around the walls.

Although many Appleby items are made to order, he sometimes makes things because the idea appeals to him. One work in progress - "haven't got a sponsor yet, I'm looking for someone with the nerve to take it on" - is an engraved dish he calls Hurricane George.
His Propaganda pieces are conceptual. He thinks he might do a spin bowl and/or an eighth pillar of wisdom engraved with the catch phrases of past (British) prime-ministers, such as: "You have never had it so good;" "the lady is not for turning;" "peace in our time;" "weapons of mass destruction;" "education, education, education." Possibly an Australian newspaper magnate would be an appropriate contender for this gem.

No matter how high and mighty his patrons, Appleby still interprets their commissions his way. He hasn't smoked since he was 14 so, when the heir to the British throne asked him to make a cigarette box, he engraved it with anti-smoking slogans. He depicted Charles's personal badge of office, the fleur-de-lys-style Prince of Wales Feather insignia that has been used in royal heraldry since the 14th century, as three cigarettes pluming smoke with a ribbon and motto: "HM Government health warning --smoking can damage your health."

"Baa Lamb Beaker"
Sterling Silver, gilt
 ca. 1986

Another Musgrove/Appleby collaboration, Peter making the beaker and Malcolm
engraving it. 

"Each of the sheep engraved onto this beaker has its own personality though none looks as mischievous as the wolf hiding amid the flock."



Appleby also designed medals and a group made between 1972 and 2005 from various metals including steel, gold, silver, and Britannia silver is on display at the exhibit.

In the middle of one display is the model for the "Horrors of War" medal that shows how Appleby "melted plastic toy soldiers to produce the gruesome realism of that medal."

Born in 1946, Malcolm Appleby's interest in metalwork began at an early age through family contacts with long-established gun maker John Wilkes. The young boy became fascinated by the intricate patterns which traditionally decorate firearms. Between 1961 and 1968, he studied at five different art colleges and also worked for Wilkes as a gun engraver--a demanding discipline that gave him the technical rigor and precision that characterizes Appleby designs.

This interest continues to the present day. His most recent offering, called the Dragon Gun, after the dragon-skin design engraved onto the metal, was only finished in 2005. The 20-bore sporting gun pictured here was made of walnut and steel in the workshops of David McKay. Two other Appleby-engraved guns are also displayed, but they aren't just showpieces and are often used on the Scottish moors during grouse-shooting season.

"Dragon Gun"
ca. 2005

 Silver trouser buckle
The design originated from a test plate for one of Malcolm's
 the "Dragon Gun"

For a man just turning 60 with nearly 40 years in the business, he shows no signs of slowing down. Last year he took only two days off work. And though he promised his wife Philippa a longer holiday, he said "I say that every year."

When he was starting out, the Goldsmiths' Company awarded him £100/$185 as a scholarship. He used the money to travel to Scotland where the peaceful and inspirational grandeur of the Scottish countryside captured his imagination. He decided to leave the rat race of London and, in 1970, bought, a disused railway station where he worked and lived until 1996 when he designed and built another home for himself and his family.

And let's not forget the displayed mummified cat that intrigued him during a museum visit on that first Scottish visit. He put the cat among the hallmark leopards on the 500th anniversary bowl commissioned by Goldsmiths' Hall as a thank you for helping him on his way to an illustrious career that culminated in this retrospective exhibition.

Soon after starting engraving at the Central School (in 1964) my mother knitted me a plain green jersey. I wore it intermittently through my art school days and when I moved to Scotland it started to have holes. I darned them and imagined what it would like in 30 year's time. I added curtsying tabs and thick padding round the shoulders, later adding silver buttons and epaulettes. It's a matter of more is more than less is more."



Article by Maggie Snell
With assistance from Amanda Stücklin, Press and Marketing,
The Goldsmiths' Company
Photos courtesy of Goldsmiths' Hall, London and Maggie Snell
Web design by Marbeth Schon

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