And Then There is Alchemy
The transmutation of matter. It’s much like life, really. An errand boy for the Co-op in Hartlepool then, by some happy chance, I was tapping out Morse code in the wireless rooms of cargo ships in tropical storms. When ITV started, they grabbed anyone with practical electronic skills and so into the engineering of TV studios I dropped. Thirty years later, the excitement and glamour of TV had faded – so I left.
Early retirement is fine, but a man needs to use his hands. I tried silver-smithing. On the workshop bench stood an enamelling kiln that nobody used. Twelve months later the tutor complained that I’d spent the whole time with the kiln and made not a single silver item. ‘But, it’s fabulous’, I said. ‘This furnace transmutes crude copper and glass into such beauty – it’s all I want.’
That was twenty years ago. I’ve made some awful, burnt and blackened things since then, but I learned to work intuitively, not try to control too much, and allow the melting glass to express itself. On an enamel conference, an accomplished enameller lectured us: ‘You people should stop agonising about whether enamel is craft or art. It is neither of those – it is alchemy!’
I was startled – yes that is what we do – alchemy!
Look at this enamel, ‘His First Snow’. It begins as a sheet of copper, 130×200 mm and 1mm thick. Lead-free white glass and clear glass, milled to a fine flour and mixed with water until it’s like pouring cream, is swished and streaked over the copper with a cheap brush. When it is dry, it goes into the kiln for 60 seconds at 950 C. The glass melts and fuses to the copper.
It goes in again for another blast. The swishes and streaks are now a subtle mix of whites – with greens, reds and golds where the copper oxides have migrated into the glass and expressed themselves.
Now it is dusted with a dry powder of clear, leaded glass flux and fired again – to seal and preserve the elusive colours of the first coating. Choose the type of flux carefully and those reds, greens and golds will be all the lovelier as the light bounces and refracts through the layers of fused glass.
There is the alchemy – now for the art. Dip a brush into the ‘pouring cream’ white and quickly paint a simple tree, a bit of foreground and two figures standing. Let it dry. It goes in the kiln for about a minute . . . open the door and take a peep. Is the white tree showing cracks? Yes? Take it out, quick! It is now white hot – so let it cool.
As it cools, watch the colours slowly emerge. Crackling has appeared spontaneously on the tree trunk and foreground – we have a silver birch! This magic is due to the different expansion rates of leaded and lead-free glass; a technical effect – but you must catch it as if it were a passing butterfly.
If it is a success, you are allowed to say: ‘Aah!’
Look at grandmother gesturing to the little boy, and how his arms are held out. We will call it, ‘His First Snow’.
Harry Nicholson C.G.E