Leslie Durbin

Innovative silversmith and designer for the Royal Mint

Leslie Durbin was one of the most admired silversmiths of the 20th century. His commissions ranged from work on the "Stalingrad Sword" presented by King George VI to the city of Stalingrad in 1943 to early designs on the pound coins in the 1980s. He designed processional crosses for Coventry and Liverpool cathedrals and parliamentary maces for the newly independent former colonies, and modelled the Queen's head for the Silver Jubilee hallmark of 1977. He was disappointed when his design for a Millennium £5 coin, executed when he was in his late eighties, was turned down for its overt Christian symbolism.

Leslie Durbin, silversmith: born London 21 February 1913; MVO 1943; CBE 1976; married 1940 Phyllis Ginger (one son, one daughter); died Kew, Surrey 24 February 2005.

Leslie Durbin was one of the most admired silversmiths of the 20th century. His commissions ranged from work on the "Stalingrad Sword" presented by King George VI to the city of Stalingrad in 1943 to early designs on the pound coins in the 1980s. He designed processional crosses for Coventry and Liverpool cathedrals and parliamentary maces for the newly independent former colonies, and modelled the Queen's head for the Silver Jubilee hallmark of 1977. He was disappointed when his design for a Millennium £5 coin, executed when he was in his late eighties, was turned down for its overt Christian symbolism.

Durbin was born in Fulham, south-west London, in 1913, the son of Harry Durbin, a railway clerk, who died in the great flu epidemic of 1918. His mother, Lillian, had to return with Leslie and his handicapped younger sister to live with her parents. She took in dressmaking to earn money: Leslie's first job was running errands for her.

At the age of 13 he won a London County Council Trade Scholarship to the silversmithing class at the LCC Central School, where he remained for three years, attending normal school lessons in the morning and silversmithing in the afternoons: he was soon taught to engrave. The Head of the Department, Augustus Steward, was asked by Omar Ramsden, the leading silversmith of the time, to recommend an apprentice for his Fulham workshop: Durbin was proposed, but when he found that his training there would be restricted to chasing, engraving and decorating he returned to the Central for evening and Saturday classes in order to continue more general training. His mother's faith in him was rewarded when in 1938 he won a Goldsmiths' Company scholarship for a full-time place at the Central School.

There he won a competition for an altar plate for Guildford Cathedral; a less momentous commission was to mend the silver clasp on the handbag of a fellow student, Phyllis Ginger, five years his senior, who specialised in drawing, watercolour and printmaking. Their romance was interrupted by his travelling scholarship from the Goldsmiths' Company: he went through France to Italy and Germany, Hungary and Sweden, treating the journey, with the encouragement of H.G. Murphy, the Central's Principal, as a Grand Tour.

As the threat of war loomed he returned to London and thanks to the generosity of another silversmith, Francis Adam, was able to complete commissions including a commemorative dish with a map of North America for the 1939 visit by the King and Queen, in a workshop in Lambeth. His call-up papers for the RAF arrived, precipitating the decision for him and Phyllis to get married, in October 1940.

They moved to Titchfield Road, St John's Wood, into a studio which had once belonged to the artist Harry Furniss, from where Phyllis operated as an unofficial war artist with a permit to sketch in London. When bombing increased she was invited by a friend to stay at Keynsham, between Bath and Bristol. While Leslie was away she completed an impressive body of work for the Pilgrim Trust's "Recording Britain" scheme, creating records of the townscapes that were under threat from bombing.

Leslie Durbin was meanwhile seconded from the RAF to assist with the commission won by R.M.Y. Gleadowe for a sword to be presented to the Russians to commemorate the victory at Stalingrad: Durbin's role was to make up the silver and gold parts and to accompany it on its tour through the UK (policemen shadowed their every move). The sword was presented to Joseph Stalin, in Tehran in November 1943, by Winston Churchill on behalf of the King. Durbin never went to the Soviet Union to see the sword in place, but his mother followed its progress closely, cutting out the many articles that appeared.

After the end of the Second World War Durbin went into partnership with Len Moss and they set up a workshop at 62 Rochester Place, which continued until Moss, a specialist hammerman, retired in 1970. Durbin taught part-time at the Royal College of Art and Central School at first. Omar Ramsden's widow sold him some of her husband's casting patterns and encouraged his new business by recommending former customers. George Hughes, the Clerk of the Goldsmiths' Company, introduced a commission from the Bank of England for an inkstand to commemorate the 250th anniversary of its foundation.

Sir Stephen Courtauld was one of Durbin's first private patrons: in 1948 he commissioned a silver beer jug engraved with a map of the world to commemorate a world tour. Later he was probably responsible for the commission from the Anglo-American Corporation for a pair of silver-gilt salts to commemorate the Queen Mother's opening of the Kariba Dam in Africa in 1960.

Durbin's reputation flowered: as Susan Hare writes in her introduction to the Goldsmiths' Company exhibition "Fifty Years of Silversmithing", held in 1982, "Durbin's designs in the early 1950s were like a breath of spring air in their innovative quality, while still retaining a strong feeling for the symbolic." Many of his commissions - such as the maces for Sarawak or the Nigerian House of Representatives or Coventry Cathedral's processional cross - could not be borrowed back for that exhibition as they were in such constant use.

Collaborations included two important pieces in the Royal Collection made with the glass designer Laurence Whistler: the first a casket of glass he engraved enclosed in an architectural framework in silver gilt presented by Queen Elizabeth to the King for Christmas 1949 (it took three years to create); the second in 1972, an engraved-glass plaque showing an aerial view of the flight-path above Windsor, in a silver frame by Durbin, presented by the British Airports Authority to the Queen. In 1951 Professor Robert Goodden of the RCA was invited to design a tea service for the Festival of Britain and asked Durbin to work on it with him.

In 1970 he designed a chain of office for the National Chairman of the Townswomen's Guild and in 1979 a silver oar for the Admiral of the Cinque Ports, presented, to replace one that had been stolen, to the Queen Mother when she was installed as Lord Warden at Dover.

The natural world, particularly animals, remained an important feature of Durbin's work, particularly inspiring his highly original chasing: he was rare among establishment silversmiths in applying his individual style to his modelling techniques. He would visit London Zoo repeatedly and his use of wax modelling created organic and spontaneous pieces.

In 1977 the Assay Office commissioned Durbin to model the Queen's head from which the special Silver Jubilee marks used by all UK offices was to be used: a paperweight is in the Royal Collection.

Durbin then decided to run down the workshop at Rochester Place and, hearing of this, Hector Miller, a younger silversmith who needed to expand, approached Durbin although he could not afford to pay a going rate for the freehold. He describes how, after only a brief meeting, Durbin was offering him a mortgage himself. Miller took over the workshop and for a year or so they overlapped. Miller tells an anecdote of the making of a film about the lost days of Agatha Christie, Agatha (1979), starring Vanessa Redgrave, whose opening frames show Leslie Durbin engraving a cup with the words "Agatha" in a cobweb-filled garret: Durbin was proud of the Equity membership that resulted.

He became an adviser to the Crafts Advisory Committee, the forerunner of the Crafts Council, and continued to work assiduously from home. In 1984, the year after the pound coin was introduced, he created the first of four designs for the Royal Mint for the "tails" side of the coin, one each for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In 1990 he made a $1 coin for Bermuda to celebrate the 90th birthday of the Queen Mother, in 1994 a £2 coin for the Bank of England and in 1997 a gold £5 proof coin.

Durbin kept a detailed diary up until the late 1950s and it is hoped that this could be published within a catalogue raisonné which could redress the balance on this self-effacing but exceptionally dedicated and generous craftsman.

Magdalen Evans

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