Gerald Benney: Distinguished goldsmith

Gerald Benney was one of the most outstanding and influential British goldsmiths of the second half of the 20th century. During a career spanning more than 50 years, he was the first British craftsman to hold four Royal Warrants simultaneously. His work has had a major impact on the survival of domestic silver in Britain.

From 1946 to 1948, Benney trained at Brighton College of Art, where his father was Principal. He was taught there by Dunstan Pruden, the Roman Catholic ecclesiastical arts and crafts silversmith, and a member of the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic near Ditchling on the South Downs, founded by Eric Gill. At this period, the young Benney's work was initially influenced by the arts and crafts style of his teacher and later, for a brief period, by pre-Second World War modernism.

After military service, from 1948 to 1950, Benney studied at the Royal College of Art. In 1952, a four-piece tea service and tray secured him the Prince of Wales Scholarship. In his last term at the RCA he purchased a plating business off Tottenham Court Road, as the premises were ideal for a workshop. He persuaded the proprietor to stay to run the business for three years as a financial buttress for his fledgling commercial silversmithing enterprise.

During the 1950s, young designers and silversmiths sought to create pieces that were totally new and identifiable as being of their time. In his early years, Gerald Benney was no exception, and he was influenced by the purity and minimalism of Scandinavian design. For him this translated into a range of domestic silver notable for its clean, simple lines.

By the early 1960s, the style of Gerald's work became instantly recognisable as "Benney". His designs have strength and dignity, an aura of splendour without ostentation. Indeed, his work is dramatic because of its simplicity and scale. The textured surfaces that have long been a feature of Benney's work first appeared on a piece of his silver at this time by accident. While hand raising the bowl of a cup – that is, taking a flat piece of silver, placing it over a variety of shaped stakes and hitting it steadily and consistently with hammers until the desired shape is achieved – he inadvertently used a hammer with a damaged head. After half a dozen blows, what should have been a smooth surface had a pleasing pattern imposed on the silver. Benney filed the hammer's head to emphasise the pattern and continued the experiment.

Pleased with the result, he produced beakers and goblets to test his invention. Not only did texturing work technically and aesthetically, it also became a valued and unique expression of his skill on his own work. Emulation is said to be the highest form of flattery. It was not long before a large part of the industry was imitating what became known in the trade as "Benney Bark Finish".

Clearly, texturing looks good and in its early days, being regarded as an artistic novelty, the style certainly boosted sales. It soon became apparent that there was a practical advantage too. Handle silver with a polished surface and fingerprints immediately appear. These marks, which are caused by moist skin, also cause tarnishing. However, with Benney's texturing, the fingers do not press continuously on to the metal's surface, just the textured high points, and marks are not visible.

Although renowned for his domestic silver, Benney was also an outstanding box maker. Although he made boxes from the 1950s onwards, it was in the mid-1960s that he started a range that added new dimensions to the genre. Always of good gauge, the sides invariably bear his distinctive bold texturing. That is, however, where their uniformity ends. The patterns on the surfaces of the lids were skilfully tapped in with a chasing hammer, and colour, in the form of 18-carat gold, was usually added to the surfaces.

In the late 1960s Benney noted a revival of interest in objets d'art. Feeling that his work needed colour, he decided that it was time for enamelling to blossom again. He therefore journeyed to Zurich to search for craftsmen who had worked for Burch-Korrodi, the last well-known firm of fine enamellers. Burch-Korrodi had obtained some of his skills from Fabergé's craftsmen. While walking along the city's main shopping street Benney slipped and sprained his ankle outside Türler's, the jewellers. Herr Türler came to his assistance. While Benney was recovering he revealed his mission. By chance, Türler knew Burch-Korrodi's head enameller, the Norwegian Berger Bergersen who had also worked for Bolin, a rival of Fabergé who had fled to Stockholm after the Russian Revolution.

Bergersen was persuaded to travel to England to advise on enamelling techniques. The slow process of reviving a virtually extinct craft began. Bergersen stayed for several months, teaching the team in Benney's workshop everything he knew. However, Benney naturally developed contemporary designs and managed to cover even larger surfaces than the House of Fabergé.

Benney also turned his attention to the mass markets. From 1957 to 1969 he designed stainless steel cutlery for Viners. His most popular design was "Studio" – it is still traded on eBay today. He negotiated a royalty payment as opposed to a flat fee, a very astute move.

In 1973, Benney's former professor at the RCA, Robert Goodden, was due to retire, and asked Gerald if he was interested in the post. While flattered by the invitation, Benney felt he would not have sufficient time for teaching, having recently undertaken some demanding new commissions. A compromise was reached, with the appointment limited to two days a week. Benney became Professor of Silversmithing and Jewellery, holding the chair until 1983.

The Benney workshop moved from London in 1974. However, 20 years later, Gerald's son Simon Benney opened a shop in Walton Street in Knightsbridge to retail both his own jewellery and his father's silver. Upon Benney senior's retirement in 1998, Simon also took over the silver side of the business. I last saw Gerald Benney in January when Simon unveiled a client's commission, "The Three Sisters" candelabra, at Goldsmiths' Hall. Weighing over 50 kilograms, it is the largest piece of silver to have been made in Britain for many years. Benney was quite rightly very proud.

Adrian Gerald Sallis Benney, goldsmith and silversmith: born Hull, Yorkshire 21 April 1930; Professor of Silversmithing and Jewellery, Royal College of Art 1974-83; CBE 1995; married 1957 Janet Edwards (three sons, one daughter); died Cholderton, Wiltshire 26 June 2008.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
food + drink
Life and Style
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
tech
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
fashion
News
news
News
people
Travel
Warner Bros released a mock-up of what the new Central Perk will look like
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Website Editor

£15 - £17 Per Hour: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently r...

Primary Supply teaching jobs in Stowmarket

£21552 - £31588 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

Year 1 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Birmingham: The Job An inner city Birmingham sc...

Year 2 Teacher - Maternity cover

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Year 2 maternity cover, startin...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments