Antiques Column with Michael Dowse: Metalwork in a class of its own
In 1890, John MacKenzie founded the Newlyn Industrial Class in Newlyn, Cornwall. Along with other talented local artists, he took on unemployed fishermen and taught them to work with copper.
John Pearson, co-founder of the Guild of Handicraft (1888), came to work with him at Newlyn in 1982.
As a master craftsman, he was the man who taught the men their skills while MacKenzie supplied the majority of the early designs.
Newlyn used the ancient craft of repousse; the process where copper plate is laid on a bed of pitch or lead and hammered from the back to create designs.
It is understood that the practice of beating on lead instead of pitch was actually devised by Pearson himself and was a trade secret of the Newlyn School for many years.
Newlyn is not always easy to recognize as not all pieces were stamped.
The stamp used was generally the name ‘NEWLYN’ although there are six, or possibly seven, different variations on this stamp size and occasionally pieces will bear other marks such as a date or designers name or the phrase ‘Newlyn Industrial Class Penzance’.
Newlyn made a huge variety of things from domestic items such as dishes, trays and coffee pots to more decorative items like vases, panels and picture frames.
Designs largely featured marine subjects such as fish, crabs and seaweed but birds, fruit, landscapes and flowers also feature.
One of the great appeals of Newlyn copper is the high quality craftsmanship, which incorporates quality of construction as well as brilliant design.
Particularly close attention was paid to the hinges and seams, which is in keeping with the Arts and Crafts movement’s thinking that construction should be part of the decorative features of any piece.