Dorothy Hogg MBE: a Portrait

Tue 19 Feb 2013

Dorothy Hogg MBE is widely recognised as one of the most important designer jewellers of the last half-century. Having already been awarded an MBE in 2001, she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Medal at the 2010 Goldsmiths’ Craft and Design Awards in recognition of her “outstanding contribution and commitment to the craft and industry of silversmithing, jewellery and the allied crafts”. Tom Bowtell spoke to Dorothy at her home in Scotland, finding out about her journey through jewellery, her passion for teaching and why she really hates copper.

Written by Tom Bowtell for Who’s Who in Gold and Silver.

Dorothy Hogg is undeniably eminent, but hides it well: she is instantly approachable, self-effacing, mischievously humorous and scrupulously polite. There is no obvious sign of an ego and while she’s undoubtedly proud of the success of her personal making career, she clearly takes just as much delight in the success of the students she has taught; of the talents she has crafted as a teacher.

Dorothy’s fascination with the creation of small metal objects reaches right back to the start of her memory and her earliest days spent in the jewellery shops run by her father and grandfather in the Scottish seaside town of Troon:

“As far back as I can remember I helped in both shops, and would have much preferred to spend time there than attending the grim and uninspiring local primary school! I was immersed in an environment where adults around me made things on a small scale at work, and at home where the women of the family were also involved in detailed knitting and embroidery. I was fascinated by the way my father and grandfather’s skill was focused through an eyeglass on the small beating heart of a watch, and the tiny coordinated movements associated with that discipline.”

While this early immersion in jewellery and silversmithing roused Dorothy’s passion for art (her brother is an architect so there is definitely something in the genes), she was not immediately convinced that she was destined to enter the family trade:

“We always made things and drew things at home, and it became apparent very early on that art was going to be my thing, but it wasn’t necessarily jewellery – I was (and am) interested in the whole spectrum of art, particularly drawing and painting, and I still draw, going to life drawing classes and filling endless sketch books.”

Unlike her father (who she believes would have been a very fine artist if given the chance), Dorothy had the opportunity to go to Art College at the Glasgow School of Art; an opportunity she seized with alacrity but without, as she cheerfully admits, anything resembling a plan:  “We were SO naïve back then, you’d just go to art college and not really think about what you’d end up doing. We didn’t think ahead. Career advice hadn’t been invented.”

Exasperated that she was timetabled to do embroidery (“I already knew how to do that”) Dorothy persuaded her tutors to allow her to take jewellery instead – a piece of deft negotiation which probably altered the entire course of her life. While it was only for one day a week, this initial taste of jewellery making was enough for Dorothy to be ‘hooked’.

Her earliest jewelling days were rich in experimentation, but not overly high in achievement, and Dorothy candidly discloses that the first piece she ever made, a moonstone ring, was “just awful”. One amusing discovery Dorothy recalls from this period was that “kirby grips were really useful for hanging things from in order to solder them”.

Although Dorothy confirms that, sadly, the Kirby technique is no longer in her repertoire, the ethos of experimentation has remained right at the heart of her practice, and she recognizes the importance of failures alongside successes: “I can remember making a lot of mistakes along the way. In general, you always learn from your mistakes. You make something in a silly way and then look at it and think: ‘heavens! You should have made it that way!” 

This experimental process rapidly began to yield more successes than failures for Dorothy, who progressed to the Royal College of Art before embarking on a varied career which has encompassed exhibitions around the world, hundreds of commissions, a mantelpiece-worth of of awards and several decades of teaching.

Although still very much immersed in her making career (she is currently working on pieces for a pearl exhibition at the Scottish Gallery prior to a solo exhibition there in October 2014), Dorothy now finds herself in the intriguing position of being able to look back over the vista of her career, and see what patterns and themes have emerged:

“I have a strong thread between the expression of my subconscious, and a fascination with geometry related to the human form - making an object to be worn is the raison d’etre for me: I always see my work in relation to the body.”

Dorothy seems rather surprised at one particular way in which her subconscious has expressed itself in her work: 

“My work seems to naturally develop in response to my life: it is sub-consciously autobiographical with a lot of hidden symbolism which I wasn’t aware of initially but which is actually quite embarrassing now!”

While I don’t pry too hard into this, Dorothy illustrates her point by explaining a little about how a particular series of work reflected her life situation at the time, without being too embarrassing:

“The hollow-form neckpiece with four pods, are a series of pieces about balance and equilibrium, and thinking about them now I suppose they reflect my situation at the time, trying to balance a busy teaching life with making work and having a family.”

This series of work was of further significance to Dorothy as it represented the beginning of an extensive exploration of pieces which hold and contain space:

“I remember that the first time I managed to make these hollow forms, albeit in quite a primitive way, was quite a major moment.”

Dorothy also feels that her body of work reflects a strong silversmithing influence: she was taught largely by a silversmith and there is a clear sculptural aspect to many of her pieces. It has been written elsewhere that Dorothy is a ‘silversmithing jeweller’ and she doesn’t quibble with the description. She does underline that the emphasis should be on silver, her fascination with which has perhaps been the most constant thread running through her career:

“Silver’s kind of a blank page, it doesn’t have as many implications and resonances as gold. It’s white, reflective… and it’s good for you because it has an oligodynamic effect on water – it purifies, that's why it is used in antibacterial dressings etc.”

It is clear that it is these aspects of silver – its artistic and aesthetic elements – which compel Dorothy, and she has little interest in its intrinsic monetary value; although she does acknowledge the fact that, because she has to make all of her test pieces out of silver, it can makes things expensive:

“I find test pieces don’t work in copper. I don’t like copper. In fact: I hate it! It’s too soft and I don’t like the colour. So I’ve really got to fiddle about in silver…”

It is around this point on our conversation that I glibly mention something about Dorothy not choosing the commercial path in her making career. Very gently, Dorothy interrupts me, to point out that this isn’t really true:

“I was interested in the commercial world – and I still am. When I was at the RCA in the late 60s and early 70s, I did projects exploring larger scale production. I went to design for a commercial company, Shetland Silvercraft, when I left the RCA, and I’m still interested in that and I’ve done production runs of collections and designs for industry.”

The fact that she has always had to make her living from her work is undoubtedly part of the reason why Dorothy has remained so grounded, although she does admit that she realised at a fairly early stage that she wouldn’t be fulfilled by an entirely commercial career:

“You need the balance, I could never just design for production, although I do still find that world intriguing.”

The breadth of experience Dorothy has harvested in her career, ranging from creating collections for production to one-off commissions from museums is one of the many things which makes her such a valuable, and successful tutor and teacher: she recognises the necessary tension between artists being artists while having to pay the bills. She even acknowledges that a small motivation behind her becoming a teacher was the additional income it would provide, although a much greater motivation was an instinct that it would be something she would adore:

“I do find that teaching is a great pleasure, I have a huge enthusiasm for that, whereas when you’re making your own work, you’re pulling ideas out of yourself, and you need to have the discipline of meeting deadlines and that’s not easy! With teaching you can get caught up in the enthusiasm of other people and it feels like a natural process.”

Dorothy is definitely a jeweller and a teacher as opposed to a jeweller who sometimes teaches. Intriguingly, just as her father was a guiding influence on her development as a jeweller, her mother was a teacher, making her career a pleasing synthesis of her parents’ professions.

It has already been mentioned, but is worth underlining again the unfettered joy which Dorothy takes in the success of her students, and the unabashed fondness they have for her. In our interview she talks ebulliently of the satisfaction she gleaned from helping to shape natural talents such asAndrew Lamb (himself now a successful designer maker and fellowWho’s Who in Gold and Silversubscriber).

“I remember Andrew in his first year, working on the first piece he made: he was drilling a hole through plastic, and when you drill plastic without lubricating, the inside of the hole becomes white. Most people wouldn’t even notice this, but Andrew came to me and asked ‘how can I polish up the inside of that hole?’ And I thought: ‘wow here’s somebody who sees beyond the normal’ – and it’s great when you come across that amazing kind of understanding.”

She admits that working with so many students has been beneficial to her career, and unthinkingly equates the delights of teaching with those of making:

“There’s totally just as much excitement in teaching as with making. It’s fantastic when you are there to discover someone with that innate understanding.”

For 22 years, Dorothy was the course leader on the Silversmithing and Jewellery course at the Edinburgh College of Art, between 1985 and 2007. During this time she oversaw the blossoming of an array of designer makers who have gone on to successful careers including Anna Gordon, Kaz Robertson, Donna Barry, Beth Legg, Jenny Deans, Sarah Hutchison, Grace Girvan, Ann Little and Dr. Coilin O'Dubhghaill. In addition to tutoring her students, and providing support after graduation, Dorothy also regularly forwarded them opportunities which came her way. One of these opportunities was to become the first ever Jeweller in Residence at the V&A’s s newly-opened Sackler Centre for arts education:

“When the opportunity came into my email inbox I thought ‘now, who would like to do this?’ and then I paused, and thought ‘well…I would!’”

Dorothy applied, was accepted, and looking back now she feels that she was in exactly the right place for a new challenge, ready to shift her focus from honing the skills of soon-to-be professionals to guiding shaking hands hammering their first piece of metal:

“I’d been working in a very rarefied atmosphere with art students, so I was worried about how I was going to deal with this change of location. But I loved it! I loved working with people where I could open their eyes to possibilities, in very simple ways. And I’ve carried on since – I’ve done a lot of work in museums and I’ve learned that you can distill simple processes, simple tools and simple methods and do something quite magical: and people go, ‘wow! – I did that!’”

The challenge of making the thrill of silversmithing accessible to everybody clearly appealed to the problem-solving side of Dorothy’s artistic brain. Her solutions included the creation of a series of metal stamps based on iconic objects in the museum, such as Queen Victoria’s lips, and allowing people to stamp the images onto metal: “I had a rule that I would never have anyone come and visit the studio without them making something”.

Dorothy’s experience at the V&A has led to a whole new branch of her education career, although she has not entirely severed her ties to academia:

“I do still teach at the college, I work with Masters students, so on one end I’m working in Edinburgh with masters students and on the other I’m working up in Inverness with school kids, disabled people – I’ve got a good balance.”

Indeed if one were foolish enough to attempt to sum up Dorothy Hogg’s astonishing career in one word, ‘balance’ would be a good place to start. Dorothy has, it seems, managed to strike a balance between commercial production and commissions, between work and family and between making and teaching. While she has strong opinions, she is also balanced in the way she sums up the current state of the jewellery world: she has clear concerns about some recent developments, but is open to the possibilities of the future, aware that things need to change to remain fresh, and excited by the ‘new aesthetic offered by technology.

I walk away from our hour-long conversation in no doubt that 50 years into her making and teaching career, Dorothy Hogg MBE is proud of what she has done, delighted by what she is doing, and excited by the possibilities of what she might do tomorrow.

Click here to visit Dorothy Hogg's Who's Who in Gold and Silver page.