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

His First Snow

About Harry Nicholson

I once bred Beveren rabbits in all colours. Today, I'm an enameller who works with a kiln, fusing pictures in glass onto copper. On Amazon is my novel, 'Tom Fleck', set in the North of England of 1513 - the year of Flodden. A sequel to 'Tom Fleck' is 'The Black Caravel' published in 2016. My anthology of poems came out in 2015: 'Wandering About.' Recently I published memoirs of my time in the Merchant Navy: 'The Best of Days' and 'You'll See Wonders" I've a blog of poems, stories and art at:
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4 Responses to Alchemy

  1. Susannah says:

    What a fascinating piece of writing, you really made it come alive! Like Viv it made me excited and have the urge to try it too, what a wonderful way to create. 🙂

    Thank you very much for your visit to I Saw Sunday, I really enjoyed the writing you left there. I left you a comment at the I Saw Sunday website.

    It is really nice to meet you and great to have a chance to see your work.

    I hope you join us again.

    Susannah 🙂

  2. vivinfrance says:

    Harry, this is a superb piece of life writing which draws the reader into your creative excitement. More please.

    And now I want to try it! Do you give lessons?

    • Yes, in the garage/workshop, on the rare occasions there is interest. The ‘Alchemy’ piece is a sort of lesson.
      Look here:
      for a world wide look at different styles.

    • I forgot to mention that the ‘Alchemy’ piece was written at the request of ‘Valley News’, a monthly journal that serves upper Eskdale. It is out now – so I can paste it up here. The editor has asked for a piece on the writing of the novel; I’ve done that and it will be in the Feb. edition. I suppose this is a tentative step into the pool of publicity.

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