Metalsmith ’85 Winter: Book Reviews

This article showcases the book reviews for “Enamels, Enameling, Enamelists” by Glenice Lesley Matthews and “The Nature and Art of Workmanship” by David Pye published in the 1985 Winter issue of the Metalsmith Magazine.

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Enamels, Enameling, Enamelists
by Glenice Lesley Matthews
Chilton Book Co., Radnor, PA, 1984
177 pages, 263 black and while and 21 color illustrations
$21.95.

Glenice Matthews has written a book about enameling that is at once detailed and comprehensive, and one which should prove eminently useful to both beginners and more experienced enamelists. It is filled with practical information and instruction, written with unusual clarity such that it will be understood by one just starting out in the medium. And as the first comprehensive book on the subject to appear in more than a decade, it includes some current material not presented in previous books.

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The opening section of Enamels, Enameling. Enamelists explains in detail the rudiments of enameling — the characteristics of enamel powders, the metals with which they can be used, the supplies and equipment needed, the cleaning and preparation of the materials, and the firing procedures and pitfalls. Included is a discussion of safety precautions, not contained in earlier books we are familiar with, reflecting the growing safety-consciousness of today’s craftworkers. The beginner may need to return to these opening chapters more than once in order to fully absorb and comprehend them; the more experienced enamellist may find much useful information here as well.

After laying this foundation, Matthews Presents six step-by-step projects introducing the new enamelist to relatively simple, basic enameling techniques. These are the use of graffito and stencils, wet packing, “threads and blobs.” Limoges, rendering with ceramic underglaze pencils and cloisonné. The projects are well selected to expose the beginner to a variety of technical experiences and potential imagery, and one or two of them should provide the struggling newcomer with some needed “instant gratification.” The text for these projects is clear and easy to follow; unfortunately, however, it is not always adequately illustrated in the accompanying photographs.

The book also presents, in its final section, a description of more than 20 additional approaches to enameling. These include such time-honored techniques as basse-taille, champlevé and grisaille; such modern developments as silk-screening, raku and fuming; and the use of such additional materials as decals, foils and metal oxides. With a few exceptions, no effort is made to explain “how to” use these techniques or materials. But some of them are not even described in any previous book, and their inclusion here should serve to confront the reader with the vast and varied potential of the enamel medium and to stimulate further exploration and development.

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No book on enameling would be complete without advice on how to avoid or remedy the most common technical problems encountered at one time or another by anyone who works in the medium. Matthews has included a “Trouble-shooting” chapter, subtitled “don’t give up — there’s always hope.” Both the beginner and the more experienced enamellist will find useful material here. Not only are there tips on how to deal with such problems as cracks and bubbles, firescale and burnout, but there is here and there an explanation of how the properties of enamel and metal contribute to these disasters.

Elsewhere in the book there is useful material on such matters as stoning and finishing, ways of mounting enamels and making color samples. One of the best suggestions of all appears near the beginning, under the heading “Starting a personal enameling record.” A notebook for sketches, ideas and jottings on how a particular result was achieved can be a great asset to anyone, whether novice or accomplished artist.

Of course, no single book — not even one as detailed and comprehensive as this one — can cover all one needs to know in learning to enamel. (Matthews wisely includes a good bibliography.) Enamels, Enameling, Enamelists should be used as a guide and a reference along with other books. Each will add something to the enamelist’s knowledge. In Matthews’ book, for example, there is little discussion of the characteristics and uses of the various fluxes, or the characteristics of many enamel colors which cause them to react badly with silver.

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Some enamelists, moreover, will find a few topics overstressed. The instructions and admonitions on cleanliness seem excessive in their detail and repetition; many enamelists take satisfactory short-cuts. The book’s list of supplies goes well beyond a beginner’s requirements. What one needs to buy is ultimately determined by the direction taken in one’s work: an inexpensive “hobby kiln,” for example, is adequate for small work and has many advantages over larger more costly ones. Even the safety instructions, welcome as they are, seem excessive; safety gloves, for example, are needed only when working with large kilns.

As Matthews herself says, she presents “a way” not “the way” to enamel. Beginners must not be put off by some of her more elaborate instructions. The novice should read her book and then plunge in. In the end, there is no substitute for experimentation and experience.

Finally, it seems that books on enameling inevitably focus on technique. But technique, after all, is simply the means for realizing artistic goals. One always hopes, therefore, that even a technical book about enameling will take the time to encourage good design and stimulate creativity. The text of Enamels, Enameling, Enamelists does not attempt to do this. But the scores of photographs, some in color, that the book contains constitute a marvelous survey of the diverse art being created by contemporary enamelists (though not, regrettably, the rich enamel art of the past). One hopes that this visual stimulus will have a lasting impact on the reader.

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– Belle and Roger Kuhn

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The Nature and Art of Workmanship
by David Pye
Cambridge University Press, 1968
$11.95

The Cambridge University Press is not exactly what you would call “heavy into crafts.” It’s a good bet, then, that when they offer a work for our field, it’s going to be something special. This small volume fulfills that promise.

In this compact gem of a book, Professor Pye (Furniture Design, Royal College of Art, London) presents a well-reasoned treatise on the philosophy of objects and distinctions pertaining to them. With the precise stepping-stone logic of classical Philosophy, Pye moves economically from observation to definition to resolution with an intellectual grace that is a pleasure to watch.

In my opinion the strongest passages are to be found in the first half of the book, though the latter half is worth the time spent there. The author begins by dismissing the word “craftsmanship” as lacking a satisfactory definition, and suggests instead the word “workmanship.” He divides this term into categories involving risk (situations where the maker’s abilities are open to success or failure, cases where the product is at risk), and the workmanship of certainty, as in factory manufacture, where the result is predetermined and without risk. These valuable terms are enlarged and serve as door-openers to a host of clear postulations. The author leads us through the difference between “free, rough, precise, and regulated” work, stopping along the way to clarify the uselessness of “handmade” and “machine-made.”

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While it’s true that semantics play an important part in this book, the text goes far beyond the limits of an academic exercise. By prodding the reader to reexamine traditional terms, the author offers a practical resource for designers. Clear, meaningful definitions can lead to a precise understanding of an idea. And clear thinking is the best starting point for meaningful design.

Not everyone will take to the painstaking, scholarly style of The Nature and Art of Workmanship. I think Pye has created a very readable text, but it’s not the sort of thing you breeze through over breakfast. To me this is a testament to its concentrated intensity. Another tribute to the depth of this book is its ability to reflect the thoughts of its readers. When I first read this book two years ago I was very impressed. After recently rereading it, I am again impressed, and I find that my now-changed perceptions find new meanings in the text. It’s a book I’ll want to read again in a year or two, to see what other insights are waiting to be found.

– Tim McCreight

By Metalsmith Magazine
Metalsmith Magazine - 1985 Winter
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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