A s we sit in his glossy new Chelsea Barracks headquarters, Theo Fennell could not be more eager to talk about silversmithing. Despite suffering from a heavy cold when we meet, he holds forth with passion and conviction Because Fennell thinks there has been a great injustice done to the silversmiths of Britain.
‘British craftsmanship, without being jingoistic about it, is – to use a French term – sans pareil. There's no way to even approach it. But the great sadness is that people's recognition of great craftsmanship has, for a long time, evaporated. We're so bad at blowing our own trumpet. Yet we’ve probably produced the greatest silversmithing the world has ever known – and still do.’
Of course, you’d expect him to say that. After all, his Chelsea workshop is home to some of the UK’s greatest craftsmen, from sculptors and setters to polishers, engravers and, of course, silversmiths, working together to produce his instantly recognisable silverware and jewellery. And while we’re here to talk about a selection of his silver objects in A Toast To Sport during December 2022 – there’s no doubting his sincerity on the wider state of the nation’s silver. Indeed, he talks passionately on the subject for an hour, with barely a prompt.
Fennell’s fame as a jeweller is indisputable. Pieces range from red-carpet-ready gems to extraordinary flights of fancy, such as his Slain Gladiator ring – an 18ct gold Colosseum that opens to reveal a microscopic dying gladiator created by the sculptor Willard Wigan MBE, in a bespoke wooden Pantheon box, with an elaborate black-diamond-encrusted magnifying glass.
And he unequivocally considers the silver objects he creates – commissioned by ‘everyone from royalty to rock stars’ (Elton John is the only customer he names, but Wikipedia helpfully reveals that Lady Gaga, Madonna and Joan Collins are amongst his clientele) – worthy of being called ‘art’.
‘The art world has done a blinding job in promoting artists’ work, and you’ll find that a well-sculpted horse's head or a jaguar in bronze can fetch unbelievable amounts of money,’ he argues. ‘But the same thing in silver, ludicrously, is still often thought of as a decorative piece of silverware rather than a sculpture.’
'I don't see why a really great figurine, beautifully sculpted, is any less a work of art than a life-sized sculpture.’
It’s certainly a compelling argument, when you consider the skill and artistry with which Fennell’s tableware, objects and curiosities are constructed. Even more so given that historical silver and goldsmiths, from Hans Holbein the Younger to Paul Storr, are accorded the reverence that modern silversmiths are often denied.
‘I think it’s because it's a very modest trade on the whole, and the people who do it are extraordinarily skilled but, by their nature, modest,’ suggests Fennell. ‘They're not gregarious or self-advertising. But it is sculpting, and I don't see why a really great figurine, beautifully sculpted, is any less a work of art than a life-sized sculpture.’
Earlier this year, Theo Fennell published his autobiography, I Fear For This Boy: Some Chapters of Accidents, a colourful collection of anecdotes and tales rippling with wit, following the jeweller through a peripatetic childhood to art school to working in London’s jewellery quarter, Hatton Garden. It was here that the young Fennell first discovered his love of silver, after his Great Aunt Mary set him up with an interview at Edward Barnard, a now-defunct firm that was, he says, probably the best silversmith in the world at the time.
Starting work at the front office (he claims to have been ‘far too unwieldy’ to be an apprentice), Fennell began a journey that continues to this day. ‘It was unbelievably Dickensian,’ he recalls. ‘I sat on a sort of high Uriah Heap-type bench with a leather ledger and a dip pen, noting the items that arrived to be restored.’ Through that ledger, he enjoyed a rapid immersion in 500 years of design history, handling items from 16th century chalices to the FA Cup.
'I started looking at silver in a different way, and realised it was a genuine cultural phenomenon. And I realised it could be very cool and have modern applications'
‘Like most people, I’d never really thought about how a candelabra became a candelabra – it just appeared, shiny and gleaming. But [then] I started looking at silver in a different way, and realised it was a genuine cultural phenomenon. And I realised it could be very cool and have modern applications.’
When he was finally allowed into the Barnard workshop, he experienced another revelation. ‘It really was a Damascene moment, seeing this extraordinary collection of people, all with different skills, but working as one to produce something really superb. It was this wonderful absence of ego, the concentration on making something very fine, that perhaps set it apart from the immodesty of branding.’
Fennell launched his eponymous brand in 1982 in London’s then-unfashionable Fulham Rd. Success followed and, apart from a regretted period when investors owned his name, ramping up production in search of commercial success, he has worked relentlessly to design everything from extravagant gifts to heirloom tableware.
Today, in his 70s, Fennell has a consistent stream of discerning patrons and is bristling with ideas and energy. He is heartened by the renewed interest in the craftsmanship that he has loved so much for decades – and, despite having his name above the door, he is never less than generous about the craftspeople who populate his airy workshops above the showroom, reflecting the respect he learned all those years ago at Edward Barnard.
Master polisher Stephen Goldsmith, who worked with Fennell for 18 years until his retirement, recalls, ‘Theo used to call us his orchestra. He’s generous with it – you wouldn’t get anyone else that would give so much credit to the people in the workshop. The workshop is the thing he protects most. And everybody in there is the best of the best.’
While some of his silversmiths have been with him for decades, he is also a keen supporter of young talent, from the apprentice Jordan Kippax, creating her Masterpiece in his studio, to Tabitha Charlton, a Central St Martins graduate whose scrimshaw collection caught his eye and with whom a project is currently in the works.
These infusions of new talent into the very traditional crucible of craftsmanship at the heart of Fennell’s practice, only reinforce his strengths. Nothing poorly made will ever leave the Theo Fennell workshops. Teapots must pour perfectly. Knives must balance beautifully on the plate edge. Necklaces must sit correctly. And everything must take design beyond the obvious to become extraordinary and beautiful, whether it’s the straining muscles of a running greyhound, or the infinitely fine chasing of a bird’s feathers.