In 1982 and 1983 the Gallery made two significant additions to its small collection of contemporary Australian silver – a coffee service by Ragnar Hansen and a teapot by Hendrik Forster. These exemplary works by two outstanding local silversmiths have been acquired through generous endowments made to The Art Foundation of Victoria by B.P. Australia Ltd and Mr Hugh Morgan, assisted by the Crafts Board of the Australia Council.
The four piece coffee service, made in 1982–83 (fig. 1), is a splendid example of Hansen’s strongly personal style. The coffee pot, milk jug and sugar bowl are conceived in a series of undulating planes, their forms swelling and receding with a vigour reminiscent of 18th century French silver Rococo style. Structure appears to dissolve in the distorted reflections of the mutating surfaces, yet each conformation is tightly controlled. The elegant coffee pot is designed to pour from two sides, the rim and lid forming two labiate openings at their juncture. An ebony handle carved with the same sensuous rhythms as the vessel forms a strong diagonal accent against the body of the pot. Meticulous finish and detailing characterise each item of the service, down to the silver and ebony sugar spoon. In perfect complement to the holloware, the reverse of its bowl is articulated by shallow undulations which are amplified in the curves of its handle.
Hansen was born in Fredrikstad, Norway in 1945. He trained locally in all the traditional techniques of silversmithing at Plus Workshop, an important centre for Norwegian craft since the 1960s – with studios in ceramics, textiles, woodwork, gold and silversmithing. A legacy of his four year apprenticeship is his expert control of the hammer and stake which has enabled him to achieve complex forms without resorting to other technology, such as electroforming. He has, however, devised his own fabricating technique. This involves breaking the design into two halves which are joined after being individually shaped and planished on wood and steel stakes. The original designs are modelled first in clay, the plasticity of which Hansen emulates in metal.
Hansen decided to leave Norway in order to break with the stylistic conventions of Scandinavia and to realise his potential as a designer-maker. Within a few years of his arrival in Australia in 1972 he was evolving a most distinctive style, which reaches its mature expression in the coffee service and is seen at an earlier stage of its development in the pair of lady’s travelling flasks, 1978, (fig. 2) acquired by the Gallery in 1979. Although a little more restrained than the coffee service, the convoluted surfaces and irregular outlines are energetically defined. In section the flasks are quite shallow suggesting that the forms have been stretched. Despite their eccentric design, the vessels are functional, shaped to be held and enclosed in the palm of the hand. This reconciliation of a strident individuality with the demands of utility is the consistent strength of Hansen’s work.
The second major purchase made through The Art Foundation of Victoria is a silver and blackbean teapot by Hendrik Forster (fig. 3). The squat octagonal body with its definite planes and edges is tightly contained within the angular projections of spout and handle. The form can be broken down into four geometric units – octagonal body, conical spout, square handle and circular knop – which together create a dynamic whole.
This emphasis on simplified basic structures begins with the working process. Rather than using drawings, Forster assembles three dimensional models in card which he progressively modifies until a satisfactory form emerges. If any aspect of the design can be eliminated without damage to the whole then it is omitted. In a similarly reductionist vein, he avoids all surface decoration. The geometry is enlivened by the interplay of reflections on the multi-faceted form and the subtle details of construction. Every element is hand-made down to the nut and screw which secure the knop to the lid.
The simplicity and the proportions of the vessel recall those of a Georgian octagonal teapot. This resemblance is not fortuitous, for Forster was introduced to the subtleties of classic 17th and 18th century English silver during his three years in the Gold and Silversmithing Department of the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich, There he trained under Professor Franz Rickert, a prominent German silversmith and an advocate of traditional forms. A year after his graduation in 1973, Forster migrated to Australia.
Forster’s inventive reworking of traditional styles can be seen in other examples of his work held by the Gallery, such as a silver plate made in 1979 (fig. 4) and a silver and jarrah teapot of 1980 (fig. 5). The shallow octagonal form of the plate with its insistent horizontal planes is reminiscent of Queen Anne or Early Georgian types. Forster has enriched the plain surface by a subtle texture produced by the planishing hammer, and has added a single engraved line at the rim. The piece served as the prototype for an edition of twenty plates commissioned by the Prime Minister’s Department as a wedding gift for Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.
The silver and jarrah teapot, 1980, with its cubical body, square handle and conical spout, displays the most emphatic geometry. But underlying its apparent modernity is the hint of other traditional sources. The square body and raised circular lid recall the lines of a Chinese tea caddy while the bail handle also suggests an oriental influence.
Contemporary Australian silversmithing is the province of a select group of professionals working in diverse styles. Many, like Hansen and Forster, hold teaching positions and their influence will undoubtedly burgeon in the new generation of metalworkers. The generous sponsorship of this area of the Gallery’s collection by The Art Foundation of Victoria and the Crafts Board of the Australia Council can serve a valuable purpose in fostering a wider appreciation of the best in modern Australian silver.
Judith O’Callaghan, Curator of Metalwork, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1983).