Meet the Maker: Sian Matthews

Tue 02 Apr 2013

Tom Bowtell catches up with award-winning silversmith Sian Matthews to talk about instinctive vision, paternal bonding, and the importance of saying yes.

Interview by Tom Bowtell

Whenever I interview silversmiths and jewellers, I often begin by asking them how they discovered their profession (or how their profession discovered them). Over the years I’ve heard an array of splendid answers to this question, but none have been quite as delightful as that told by Sian Matthews, who found the joy of making things out of silver as part of a teenage daughter-father bonding exercise: 

“I did an evening class in jewellery making with my Dad – it was in those teenage years when you realise you need to a bit of parental bonding! I really enjoyed it, and came away full of ideas about the things one can make out of silver.”

While Sian’s father’s own jewelling career has not so far taken off (there’s still time, Mr Matthews), Sian does credit him with at least one important contribution to her silversmithing journey: the passing on of his practical, creative genes: 

“I was always a child who made things. If there was a project at school which involved making something, that was what I focussed on, rather than the academic side! The making instinct was there.”

This instinct was remarkably prevalent during Sian’s early career, and as she recounts her development it almost seems as if her philosophy and design aesthetic were there from the start; fully formed and waiting to be uncovered. This is borne out when Sian tells me about the first piece of silver she ever created, a rudimentary experiment which nevertheless led her towards a realisation of the sort of silversmith she wanted to become:

“The first project I did with my BA involved me being given a small square of metal and told to go away and make it into something, without any training at all! I made lots of cuts into the sheet with saw piercing which I then formed up into a container. It was very basic, but right away I was interested in the idea of starting with just a plain piece of metal and turning that into something which could be used in the home.”

On her website Sian sums up her philosophy that her silver needs a function by explaining that it is essential that her silverware is “used, treasured and enjoyed in interiors and homes today.”

While she quotes this rather neat line back to me word perfectly, she then goes on to drill a little deeper into her thinking: 

“Silver is such a precious material, and it will always be treasured, being passed down from generation to generation. But traditionally it was also used, and I want to make bowls and beakers which actually serve a purpose in the home. There’s sometimes a fear that silver is something precious which should just be displayed in cabinets – but I felt very strongly right from the start that it also needs to be used.”

This unusually rapid realisation of her artistic philosophy doesn’t in any way mean that things came easily to Sian. While it’s true that many of her core ideas were in place at an age when many silversmiths are still working out which end of the hammer to hold, there is a big difference between having an idea of the type of objects you’d like to make and actually making them. Indeed, it wasn’t until she began her MA that Sian could begin to fully realize her vision of creating intricate, delicate, patterns on the surface of classically simple forms:

“I know what I wanted, but it wasn’t until I arrived at the Royal College of Art and was taught photo-etching that I was able to push that forward. Photo-etching offers me the crispness I wanted, the clean line and defined pattern I’m looking for.”

While Sian undoubtedly “knows what she wants” with her silver, another key part of her design ethic rests on her ceding control of the use, and indeed the intrinsic meaning of her work to the people who commission and buy it:

“One of the reasons I’m really drawn to making bowls is because they don’t have a specific function. There’s an openness to how to use them. Some people buy my pieces and use them purely decoratively, others will put them by their bedside and use them to keep knicknacks in. I really like that people add to my work, incorporate it into their lifestyle and lend it some of their personality. It completes the pieces in a way.”

Rather thoughtfully, she then adds:

“This also takes away my responsibility to be too precise, I don’t have to say: ‘you must use it for this!’ I enjoy that process. I make the work, and it goes to a client and they take over and make it part of their home and life.”

While she doesn’t rule anything out, Sian feels that this sort of openness, where she creates simple forms which lend themselves to a variety of uses, is unlikely to evolve into the creation of entirely abstract, purely sculptural pieces. She is also confident that in silver, she has found her ideal medium:

“It’s obviously beautiful, but what inspires me about silver is the sheer range of different techniques it lends itself to. With one piece I can polish the outside, then create a white finish where I have done the etching and a brushed finish on the inside. It’s exciting that one piece, one metal can offer such a depth of tone and colour.”

One area Sian is interested in exploring further, although she is not immediately sure how, is the world of interior design. She is already fascinated by creating pieces which become part of an interior, and becoming more involved in crafting that space intrigues her:

“The inspiration for my patterns often come from research I’ve done into interiors and domestic prints. Currently I make pieces which complement interiors, but should something arise where I could work on a larger scale for a whole environment that would be a really exciting avenue to explore.”

For now, however, Sian’s exploration of intricate patterns on classical forms is providing her with all the creative challenge she needs. The contrast at the heart of her work – delicate, intricate patterns photo-etched onto bold and simple forms – was in part inspired by her explorations of the V&A museum, where one gallery was packed with luxuriant decoration, and the next was starkly minimalist. As we have seen, the discovery of photo-etching was a key moment in her quest to master this technique, and since then her professional highlights have been the moments where she has mastered the challenges of forming silver into objects without marring or distorting the pattern: 

“Once the silver metal is photo-etched, the surface can’t be raised as the process is too harsh. So I started experimenting with spinning the patterned sheets and when that process worked it was really satisfying.”

In recent years, Sian has also discovered that she can use a hydraulic press to form her fragile sheets of etched silver into bowls, and in order to talk to me she has literally downed tools from her experiments with a very old hydraulic press which she has recently acquired:

“It's a great tool with huge potential for making forms, however there is a lot to learn with the technique and approach to using such a powerful machine - lots of copper test pieces before any silver comes close to it!”

As her copper comment attests, rising silver prices mean that modern silversmiths need to be economical with their experiments. But then, having graduated in 2005 and been still trying to establish herself when the economic crisis struck in 2008, Sian is no stranger to working in tricky financial times. Indeed, Sian’s continued existence as a maker here in 2013 should reassure soon-to-graduate silversmithing students that it is still possible to forge a successful making career without compromising artistic vision. 

Discussing her journey through those tricky first years, Sian acknowledges the benefit she gleaned from renting a workspace at the workshop of fellow silversmith (and her former tutor) Rebecca De Quin, who was able to offer advice and free use of equipment. She does, however, point out that would-be silversmiths should be prepared to compromise in some areas:

“You have to be realistic. After graduating I worked three days a week at the Electrum Gallery, which meant that I wasn’t solely relying on silversmithing – which at the time I couldn’t. But that job was really valuable as it was in a very relevant field and brought me into contact with interesting artists. Finding a job that compliments your own work is really useful – and can even lead to other interesting avenues.”

This brings us to another of Sian’s unofficial tips to prospective young silversmiths:

“There’s a benefit in being open to every enquiry or opportunity which comes along. Give every commission everything, even small ones, because they might come back next year and buy something bigger – it’s thrilling when that happens because it means you’re doing something right!”

This happy scenario, where customers buy something small (Sian has a collectible range of silver caddy and ice cream spoons), before returning to buy something larger the following year, is one that Sian has experienced several times at Goldsmiths’ Fair, where she has exhibited for the last 7 years, and which she speaks about in glowing terms:

“It’s a great Fair, and you see people come back year after year. It’s the only Fair which is specific to silver and gold. The people coming already know that precious metals are being used, so you know that the audience have already got that degree of appreciation. It’s also a really good experience for us makers, silversmithing can be quite a solitary lifestyle so it’s always nice to meet up with people who you might not have seen since the year before.”

Sian first exhibited at Goldsmiths’ Fair when she was offered one of the coveted Goldsmiths’ Graduate Bursary free stands. Now, with pleasingly serendipitous timing for this article, she is taking part in the Growing Talentexhibition at Goldsmiths’ Hall, where all bursary recipients exhibit an early piece alongside a new object:

“The new piece I’m showing is a bowl from the droplet collection… you can see it on the poster for the exhibition!”

(A glance at the image to the right will confirm that this is absolutely true – Sian’s bowl is the one having the jewel dropped into it by the gentleman in the splendid shirt.)

Please click here to read more details of the Growing Talent exhibition
Please click here to visit Sian’s Who’s Who profile
Please click here to visit Sian’s own website