When one watches the fire-flame leaping round the crucible in the enameller’s furnace, caressing the inert mass of silica and lead, giving it its own life and brilliancy, one’s thoughts revert to that great furnace of nature below us, which gives the black carbon its white gleam and makes the diamond,“with all the beauty that we worship in a star.” And so the enameller, watching over his little fire, unconsciously fulfilling like laws and methods common to the universe, in earth and sun and stars, gives the world an array of colours that is matchless in the realms of art. This thought leads one to wonder who was the first to discover this beautiful art. Perchance by accident, in a dim remote age, un- known, unrecorded, when the making of glass was in its infancy, a glass-worker was stirring his pot of “metal” — as it is called — with a copper or bronze rod, and in withdrawing it observed, first, that the glass adhered to metal, and, secondly, that it gave a colour which it had not before. He may then have endeavoured to cover pieces of metal with the - glass, and perhaps to have made a pattern with it.

Damascened Steel Casket with Enamel Panels

Damascened Steel Casket with Enamel Panels. Click on images to enlarge them.

However, the discovery at its inception was not carried very far, or, if it were, then it was allowed to fall into disuse. For many centuries elapsed, the Egyptian, the Greek, and Roman civilisations passed, without the artist-goldsmith paying much heed to enamel — not because he did not love colour, but partly perhaps on account of the initial difficulties to be overcome, and, again, by failure to perceive its great possibilities. So we find that not until the eighth and ninth centuries of the Christian era did enamelling play any important part in the decoration of metal-work, when we have Byzantine and Celtic enamels, both of a very high order, most beautiful in execution, and of extremely simple workmanship. [127/128]

From that time, principally at Limoges — the home of enamelling — there Was a steady progress in art until the fifteenth century, when, owing to the renaissance of all the arts, together with two important discoveries in the method of work, a great change and a great advance took place. The two discoveries were these. First, it was found that by covering the back of a piece of metal with enamel as well as the front there was no necessity to carve out spaces to make the enamel adhere; and, secondly, that white enamel could be painted over a ground of enamel in different thicknesses, giving it the effect of a black- and-white drawing; and, further, that this white Would receive coloured enamels. Up to that time the processes of champlevé, cloisonné, and bassetaille had been exclusively used, with the very rare the exception of the beautiful process called plique-à-jour. The initial difficulties are enormous, as all who have ever tried to work them out have found.

Gold and Enamel Book Cover . (Reproduced by Permission of the Hon. Mrs. Percy Wyndam.)

To state some of these difficulties at the very outset in the making of enamel may be interesting. It is comparatively simple to make a glass or enamel of almost any colour, but to make such an one that will not crack and peel off when applied to the surface of metal is by no means an easy matter. For one must bear in mind that the expansion of metal —— with the exception of platinum — is enormous by the action of heat, whereas the expansion of enamel is practically nothing; so that in the cooling the contraction of the one and the non-contraction of the other appears to be a difliculty which it is impossible to surmount.

Belt in Steel and Transparent Enamels Subjects from Wagner’s Operas. (Reproduced by Permission Mrs. Elmslie F. Horniman.)

Nevertheless, it is overcome, as we all [128/129] know. The next thing to be considered is that iron, copper, standard silver and gold — not fine gold — develop a large amount of oxide when put in a furnace. Now, as all enamels depend upon metallic oxides for their colouring matter, it will at once be perceived that here We have another gigantic obstacle to conquer, especially when transparent enamels are used; so that what is required in the manufacture of enamels — which are by no means perfect to this day—is, first, that they shall adhere; secondly, that their colour shall not change by the influence of an additional and different oxide to the one already used in its composition; and, thirdly, that no action of damp, of air or water or gas, or length of time, shall have any deleterious effect upon them. It took me some years to understand and estimate these various points at their true value, and to get over them. And it is with no small wonder, and in some cases with profoundest admiration, that I regard the achievements of the old enamellers, who had none of the advantages which modern science has so lavishly laid at the feet of all earnest workers.

Left: Memorial Portrait of the Late Lord of Warwick. Enamel transparent and en grissaille. (Reproduced by Permission of the Dowager Countess of Warwick.). Right: Gold and Enamel Pendant. (Reproduced by the gracious Permission of H.M. the Queen.)

Copper is, and has been, used more than any other substance for enamelling upon. It is in its pure form extremely beautiful and pliable, and capable of a very high degree of polish. Its one great drawback is that it oxidises very rapidly under heat.

Silver and gold have also been very largely employed. All enamels are coloured by the oxides of metals, as I have previously stated. From oxide of copper, red, blue, and green are obtained. The red is an opaque Indian red; the blue a turquoise blue; and the green ranges from pale emerald to deep olive, from a light-yellow green to a dark-blue green. The oxides of iron and copper used together give another green and another red; from antimony, a yellow and orange; from iron, orange, a brown and red; from manganese, a violet; from gold, a ruby; from cobalt, a blue; from tin, a white; and from iridium, a black enamel. The oxides of these various metals are combined with silica, minium, and potash to form an enamel. Many of them require the greatest possible care and experience both as to temperature, length of time in fusion, and exactness of proportions in their manufacture.

Regarding these difficulties at their true value, we find the reason of the methods employed from the earliest times up to the present hour. It has never been so much a question of what the artist wished to do as of what he was able to do. And for this reason we find the first attempts were naturally in the simplest of all forms. The method called “champlevé” consists of a plate of metal carved out into little cells, which are afterwards filled with enamels; this, being the simplest, was therefore the first discovercd. The enamels at this time were always opaque. We find this so in the Byzantine crosses, pyxes, and chaliees; we see it in the Irish brooches, the horse-trappings, the many bronze ornaments which adorned the shields, swords, and helmets of the warriors and the costumes of the women.

Then it must have been after a considerable lapse of time that an interesting departure took [129/130] place. For the metal cells were prepared in quite another way. Thin strips of metal were bent and soldered on to the ground to form the pattern, which was afterwards filled with enamel. It may have been suggested by the way in which paste gems were cut to fit into such a pattern. This method is called “cloisonné,” and is the one invariably employed by the Japanese.

Many centuries passed ere it was discovered that by placing a thin layer of enamel on both sides of the metal they both adhered without further assistance, and simultaneously it was found that a pattern might be formed without cloisons or carved cells. The whole surface was covered with enamel, and figures and ornament and landscape Were painted in white on a dark ground, generally black, the whole being modulated, giving the effect of a shaded drawing. This is the method known as grisaille, and was very greatly used during the fifteenth century, the names of Penicaud, Leonard and Jean Limousin being the foremost artists of that date. To connoisseurs and collectors the history, the antiquity, and above all the extreme difficulty of a process have very strongly appealed.

Left: Painted Enamel Portrait in Silver Frame. (Reproduced by the Kind Permission of H. R. M. the Prince of Wales.). Right: Enamel bracelet.

Left: Figure on Rearing Horse. Right: Angel looking down at infant,

The execution of the work, the originality of the design, and the artistic merit of the whole have never been so much thought of. And perhaps that is the reason why some of these enamels in grisaille or black and white have always commanded such enormous prices. There is no question of the difficulty of this process. But where enamel, of all things in the world, is capable of giving the most beautiful colour, that mere black and white should be the form in which it is most prized is a great unappreciated mystery to me. Fortunately for us, we are not all collectors, or at their mercy either; nor, again, are all collectors of enamels so devoted to this style that they are blind to every other. We have at this same period a great range of lovely colour, of most exquisite design and feeling. It is the one manner of all others where beautiful draw- ing, expression, and colour are possible—where the art has a freer life, and is no longer arbitrarily dominated by the exigencies of material require- ments. Still, for all this, it has limitations sufficient to compel the artist to be more or less decorative and severe. So we find that while the draperies are gorgeous and luminous, lit up with gold, the hands and faces are generally cold white, which was no doubt owing to the fact of the inability of the artists of that date to treat them in a warmer and richer colour.

Silver and Enamel Boat. “Birth of Aphrodite”. (Enamel encrusted on the Figures and plique-à-jour on the Sides of the Boat.)

There are two other ways that are quite distinct and unique; they are known as “bassetaille” and [130/131] “plique-à-jour.” The word “bassetaille” is descriptive, meaning “low-cut,” and this method is generally on gold or silver. The word refers to the way the metal is prepared, and not to the enamel. The ornament or figures, or whatever the subject may be, is carved below the general surface of the metal, in exactly the same way as an Egyptian bas-relief, which is afterwards covered over with transparent enamel, the different heights of the relief giving the effect of light and shade through the colour, which is very splendid. Here the goldsmithery plays as important a part as that of the enameller. The St. Agnes Cup at the British Museum is the most perfect piece extant of bassetaille. The other method, known as “plique-à-jour," has been developed very greatly these last few years. It is a beautiful process, and has all the appearance of a cloisonné enamel without the metal ground. It is like a miniature stained-glass window more or less, the main difference being that, whereas in the stained glass the pattern consists of separate pieces of glass which are held together by means of the lead divisions, and which cannot follow the outlines minutely, here the “cloisons” or metal divisions follow the pattern, and the whole is fused together. This is the last, and in some respects the most enchanting and fascinating of all the methods.

In presenting to my readers the few illustrations of my own work, I trust they will view them in the spirit with which I show them, as though they came on a visit to my studio and workshop, where I should endeavour to explain the various processes and illustrate and elucidate them by examples. The subject of enamelling on metal is one that would fill many volumes; to deal with the history, the manufacture, and the art in one article is, of course, impossible. I have confined myself chiefly to a description of the methods, to enable those who were not cognisant of them to enter into Some knowledge of this side of the subject. It is one of the most beautiful as well as one of the most difficult arts to acquire, and the knowledge and practice of it so rare that it is to be hoped the public will cherish and foster it, so that it may never again sink into obscurity and oblivion.

Last modified 19 January 2018