A Beginner's Guide to Enamelling with Alexandra Raphael

Tue 23 Apr 2013

Since her earliest enamelling experiments in the 1970s, Alexandra Raphael has established herself as a modern master of the notoriously difficult arts of cloisonné and plique-à-jour. Tom Bowtell visited Alexandra at her London home to find out how the intense frustrations and rich rewards of enamelling have enraptured her for more than 40 years.

Interview and article by Tom Bowtell

Within minutes of arriving at Alexandra Raphael’s rather splendid Kensington flat (which comes complete with workshop and enamelling studio) I find myself in the midst of a conversation about film poster design, and wonder briefly if I’m talking to the wrong person:

“I recently got to know a film director from LA and he sent me the script and an idea for the poster. I said: ‘I didn’t see it like that’ and he said ‘show me how you did see it’ so that’s what I’m doing.”

While she is a lifelong film lover, Alexandra’s experience of drawing is negligible (“I don’t even draw my work before making it”) and she is working at an unfamiliar scale:

“My work exists in miniature: if you ask me to draw a stamp, I’ll be fine, but ask me to draw anything on a piece of A4 paper and I freak out!”

Why then, one might reasonably ask, is Alexandra (whose enamelling career already requires her to put in fairly inhumane working hours) indulging in a project which actively freaks her out?

“It’s very unexpected, but in a nice way. When you get to a certain stage in your work, it’s good to take a diversion which takes you right out of your comfort zone. I’ve never done it before, it’s totally new.” 

This, as rapidly becomes clear during our conversation, is classic Alexandra Raphael. She seeks out all-but impossible creative challenges and then, with heroic relish, attempts to find a way to pull them off. There is absolutely no doubt that alongside the beautiful objects it produces, the considerable technical challenge posed by the enamelling process is a big part of its appeal. As she herself pithily puts it: “you need to be a bit of masochist to do what I do…”

Glossary Intermission

Before we explore Alexandra’s career and her vibrant approach enamelling, it might be helpful to define a few terms. I know that prior to interviewing Alexandra I had a little fuzziness about exactly what they all refer to and suspect that even Who’s Who in Gold and Silver’s famously knowledgeable readership might appreciate a quick refresher. To begin simply, enamelling is the process of fusing coloured glass to metal through firing it in a kiln. There is a wide array of enamelling techniques, with Alexandra specialising in cloisonné(French for ‘cell’) where thin wires form a raised lattice of cells on the metal, which are then filled with enamel and plique-à-jour (French for ‘open to daylight’), where the enamel is applied in cells, similar to cloisonné, but without a backing, allowing light to shine through the translucent enamel, giving a stained-glass effect.

Alexandra Raphael can genuinely not remember a time when she wasn’t fascinated by jewellery, and certainly had a passion for it long before she knew she had a talent for creating it:

 

“We were going through my parents’ things in the attic after they passed away and I found all these drawings of mine my mother had kept. Now, my mother never wore jewellery, but in one drawing I did of my mother as a 4 year old, I gave her a diamond collar and ruby buttons, so jewellery caught my eye very young: I was sort of like a magpie!”

In addition to jewels, the young Alexandra was compelled by stories, and her most iconic jewellery range, featuring various expressions of a winking enamelled moon, were inspired by James Thurber’s tale the Princess and the Moon as read to her by her mother. Alex parents, both of whom were artists, had a further significant influence on her development with their perspicacious choice of summer holiday destination: 

“We spent our vacations in a place called Chautauqua, New York. It was a sort of artist colony, and Syracuse University had an art school there. They had all kinds of classes for children and adults: offering painting, ceramics, ballet and opera. It was fascinating. I wanted to do jewellery classes but I was only 13 and it was an adult-only course. So they said ‘well, we’ll give her a week and see how she does, but we don’t take children.’ So, I did OK and by the time I was 18 I was the tutor’s assistant and, well, I just took it from there.”

These summer schools gave Alexandra the basics of her craft. It was there where she first began enamelling onto copper bowls and developed the essential techniques which underpin her practice. She has never studied enamelling formally (although she did study diamond mounting and silversmithing at the Cass) preferring instead to work her methods out for herself.

Much of this early experimentation took place in the creatively inspirational, but geographically challenging environs of a “cottage on top of a hill in Ireland” where Alexandra moved to from America after getting married in the early 1970s:

“We had no electricity or mains water and while it was beautiful, it was incredibly isolated, so I thought if I didn’t do something I’d go bonkers. So I bought a kiln, and we bought an electricity generator. However, the generator could only run the kiln if all the lights and everything were turned off, so I had to get the work ready before using the kiln at night… It was an interesting way to start.”

It was during these formative years of hilltop development that Alexandra made a serendipitously significant discovery: 

“One day I found a small Japanese plique-à-jour bowl sitting upside down in a dusty case in an antiques shop. It was in perfect condition so I bought it for £80. I took it home and I sat and looked at this beautiful thing and said to myself: “I can do that.” 

This proved to be the trickiest nearly-impossible challenge yet, and it took “several years, many problems and endless mistakes” before Alexandra succeeded in making her own plique-à-jour bowl. As ever she worked out the process alone in her hilltop cottage, piecing together the puzzle of how to make such an impossibly delicate object. 

“The next bowl I did, was better: I put it into the Goldsmiths’ Craftsman of the year competition and it won second prize. I think they were quite surprised when it came in as there aren’t many people making them! It then went to an exhibition in Limoges and was purchased by the Museum of Clocks and Enamels in Geneva: and that was the beginning.”

At this point, Alexandra beckons me through into her workshop and carefully takes her very first plique-à-jour bowl from a drawer. While it isn’t quite the near-perfect masterpiece she exhibits today, and features a few wonky edges, it’s instantly recognisable as a Raphael original. It’s also clear from how she holds and talks about it, that she has a particular fondness for this bowl: “everything was wrong with it, but I learned so much”. Alexandra goes on to show me various other ‘mistakes’ and failed experiments which she has kept, speaking about them with at least as much enthusiasm as she does her exhibition pieces, and outlining how each one was an important staging post in the slow process of working out how to make the work. While she admits that mistakes are “expensive” she also stresses that they are absolutely essential to what she does.

When someone first encounters Alexandra’s work, particularly the plique-à-jour bowls, they invariably (and understandably) ask her how they are made. While she can outline the fundamental basics of the process, it isn’t a question which can be answered with a 30-second soundbite:

“They are ALL experimental, every bowl is different. There isn’t any book which will ever tell you how to make them. You have to do it by trial and error. If you do enamel, there’s actually a lot of logic to it, so it can be done. Also, because I’ve never been formally taught, and have worked it out myself, I have discovered things which makers are supposed not to do, which do actually work.”

While it undoubtedly enriches the end result, Alexandra acknowledges that this trial and error process means that making enamel work, particularly plique-à-jour, is extremely time consuming:

“Each bowl takes about 4-6 weeks, and I need to work very, very long hours: as most self-employed people do. In the old days, I’d often be up until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. Because there are certain stages in the processes where you cannot stop, where the work has to fired. The trouble is, when you’re firing things at 4 o’clock in the morning you’re much more likely to melt the damn thing.”

This inherent risk, with every piece constantly teetering on the cusp of destruction, lies at the heart of Alexandra’s enduring passion for enamelling:

“I love that danger. If it were boring, if it were easy, I’d have given it up years ago. I’ve been doing this for more than 40 years. I’ve never got bored, I’ve never stopped learning because each piece will lead you on while you work on it to the next idea, the next phase. As you do one thing you think ‘oo, I’ll do that next time.’ Sometimes the colours can be really disappointing, but then you try the same thing another time and it works out wonderfully. And while you have an idea of how it will come out, you never really know until you’ve fired it. It has drama.”

This is third or fourth time in our conversation that Alexandra has mentioned the length of her career. There is nothing boastful about this; it seems more that she is just genuinely surprised that a single profession has kept her imagination engaged for so long.

And for now, at least, Alexandra’s fascination shows little sign of abating. While her new film project intrigues her, she still has unfinished business with enamelling: “I’d love to go into film making, but that’s a whole new world and if you diversify yourself, you might do three things OK. But I want to do one thing well: which is why I’ve done enamelling as long as I have.”

When I ask her what this unfinished business is, her answer is immediate: “I want to make the perfect plique-à-jour bowl. There have been some that are close, but I haven’t made the perfect one yet.”

Take note of that ‘yet’ – for Alexandra Raphael, it’s all just a matter of time.

Alexandra Raphael will be exhibiting her work at Goldsmiths’ Pavilion at Somerset Housefrom 26-29 June 2013 and in Week One of Goldsmiths’ Fair at Goldsmiths’ Hall from 23-29 September 2013.

Please click here to view Alexandra’s Who’s Who in Gold and Silver profile
Please click here to view Alexandra’s personal website.