Silver Thomas keeps an old craft alive

IN Londonderry you'll find the finest collection of ecclesiastical silver on the island of Ireland.

You'll also find one of that dying breed of master craftsmen, the silversmith.

There is a connection between the two, for English silversmith and jeweller David Thomas, based in the city since 1992, has recently assisted in researching the history of that wonderful silver collection, belonging to St Columb's Cathedral, as well as refurbishing it for an exhibition in 2008.

"People used to have silver teapots, now they have 40 inch plasma TVs", says David Thomas, explaining why there is less demand these days for the craft in which he has a masters degree from the Royal College of Art in London.

It's a great loss, as he demonstrates, taking out an exquisite silver teapot he made himself at his Pump Street workshop and shop.

The ancient craft which produces these sublime items has changed little in many centuries.

"This started out as a flat sheet of silver, hammered into shape through heat and soldering, with the design chased into it", he says. "We still work through the traditional ways, whether it's the jewellery, which is the main part of our business, or the silversmithing.

"Even though I haven't done so much in recent years, it's something I've always loved. It's more sculptural, three dimensional and expressive than jewellery making."

Starting out at a workshop in London's Soho, David moved gradually northwards in England before coming to Londonderry in 1992 and setting up his workshop four years later.

He points out there is a strong connection in the city to goldsmithing as the Goldsmiths Livery Company, the guild for goldsmiths, silversmiths and jewellers, which still carries out its ancient functions today, was one of the companies responsible for setting up Londonderry in the 17th century.

Over the years David's commissions have included candelabra, a silver box with diamonds for the Victoria and Albert contemporary silversmith collection, and, more recently, two pieces of work for the Mayor of Londonderry - extending the links of his chain of office and creating a special brooch based on a neolithic artefact found at excavations on the Culmore Road.

"I like to work with interesting colours and shapes," David says. "It's when I see the materials in front of me that the design comes to me. I'm not one for being inspired by something I've seen in the natural world. We also work with a wide range of stones, like amethyst, beryl, opal and diamonds."

He buys his stones from itinerant stone dealers who go off to Thailand or India, as well as companies from Germany who pick up high quality stones and cut them.

His simple, sculptural style is more akin to the simple, classic style of Germany than the richer designs coming out of Italy, while he has used traditional Celtic patterns on some of his wedding rings. Whatever the design, his methods remain unchanged.

"We're keeping the craft alive, " he says, "working in the traditional way with tools that haven't changed much in centuries. You can design jewellery on a computer these days, but I find it quicker to work something with my hands, than play around with a computer. If you can express yourself that way, why change?"

David still gets commissions for silver-smithing, including commemorative plates, like the one he made for Thornhill School before they moved to their new location, as well as candlesticks and trophies.

Recently David's skills were fused with those of other contemporary craftsmen in Northern Ireland working in traditional design to create a range of furniture used in corporate settings, in a project run by the University of Ulster called Corporate Crafts. David's contribution was the metalwork for a tray.

"I augmented a beautiful glass tray with the metal parts. Crafts people tend to work in isolation so this was an idea to bring people working in different mediums to work together. It created some lovely pieces".

One of his most enjoyable commissions was to research, value and refurbish the fabulous silver collection of St Columb's Cathedral for their Walled City Silver Exhibition in 2008 at the Cathedral's Chapter House Museum.

Highlights of the exhibition included the Promise Chalice, sent over from London in 1613 by the Honourable The Irish Society as a symbol of their promise to build a Cathedral for the new city, to more modern pieces. It also contained an early example of hallmarked Dublin silver in the Wandesford Chalice of 1642.

"It's a huge collection and a fascinating one," David says. "There were wine vessels, huge plates with beautiful Celtic style decorations and some of the earliest examples of Irish hallmarked silverware anywhere in the world.

"Two flagons made in Dublin in 1655 are the only pieces of Irish silver known to have been hallmarked in that year. I did a lot of research into the collection, found out who donated the pieces, who they were in Derry society and where the silversmiths were from (usually from Dublin). You build a bigger picture.

"The oldest piece was medieval. It was valued by the Antiques Roadshow at several hundred thousands pounds. I actually repaired it before it was valued. It had a hole in the bottom so I solded it until it glowed red hot. If I'd have known how expensive it was I might not have risked it, but it worked out beautifully."

"I'd like to think the bid might lead to a more enlightened and open attitude to the crafts here. Specifically, I would like to see more examples of contemporary silverware come to Derry for exhibitions.

"We don't get nearly enough exhibitions of textiles and ceramics here either. Perhaps that's because Irish culture in the arts tends to be focussed more towards theatre and music and also because there does seem to be a bias towards Belfast in that respect too.

"But it would be marvellous to see a greater appreciation of silversmithing and the beautiful work it produces".