Icons from the view of the Master Craftsman

Lawrence, Ian Phillips

Soon after we opened our gallery in Curzon St., London, I was approached by a Swiss agent for a merchant wishing to influence some officials in Moscow. His client would like to order four modern portable icons in gold! As the money side of such things are always protracted I had time to do some prelimary designs which allowed us to cost the job. As the money available did not give us sufficient margin I persuaded him to have the same icon in a limited edition of four - as this gave us the possibility of casting from a single master, so reducing working time and wastage.

At the costing stage decisions have to be made that will form the framework within which the design has to be conceived. They would be in 14crt gold, made in two colours, be 8cm square and each cased in a gold tooled leather box. Adding to this specification the design would be made in semi-relief using a 'cut-card' technique we had pioneered in the mass casting of short run silver jewellery. It was perfect for reducing weight and giving a sharp outline at every level of the relief. It was this specification that met me as I set about designing and making the original casting pattern - a job which is so much of the design process I keep it for myself.

How is one to begin to design this gold icon? Not only does it have to contain the essence of that sacred visual art form but have a high quality of its own in a modern style. As with every other distinctive art work you start by looking at the best examples you can find and hope they will speak to you of their essence (and sometimes of their 'objective' message). Such was the apprenticeship of the master builders of Chartes or of the great Cathedrals in England. Such was the apprenticeship of the superb Huguenot silversmiths and of the divine painter Raphael.

It is at this stage that the designer has to work. The language of that visual art has to be learned. In any language there are huge differences in quality - in England the grunts of the man in the gutter to the sublime plays of Shakespeare. But one cannot learn a language this difficult in great detail. To find the essence - and then look for detail to realise the design, is the only way forward. And then the question 'what is it about those icons considered the best that sets them apart?' In finding this one finds the key to the ethnic appreciation that will most please the person who receives the gift. This is what sets the successful designer apart from the mere journeyman. How often does he thrill his client? For example, for all the many styles of silver vessels and plate made in England over one thousand years there is a style period of just fifty years that most appeals to English taste. And so it will be with icons in Russia.

Beyond this is a phrase used by the master craftsman - it 'works'. This means that the result is fit for purpose in every sense. It is the right size, the right weight, the right visual harmony, the right amount of decoration to space and it has been costed right with profit for all concerned. All of the ingredients above are placed in the cauldron of the inventing mind and one begins to draw.

Invention takes place in two stages - the first is to draw up a detailed pattern - the second is to make the pattern, where many small changes are made as the reality of different levels of relief and metal colour are revealed in making. One of the things Gurdjieff speaks about is art in relevance to different man numbers - in his system of centre orientations. He speaks about the possibility of 'objective art' where conscious individuals can give a message of help through their artefacts. One of the tests of the 'objective' is whether it appeals to all people. But I believe this applies to the level where a master craftsman can say a thing 'works' rather than 'gives a message'. Once a thing meets this criteria it is then possible to 'add a message' by invoking the proper cosmological patterns to the construction. I am sure that there are 'objective' icons that speak of spiritual realities - because I have heard them.

The end of this story is that my Angel Gabriel icons were well received. But I heard that some years later the merchant who commissioned them from us went to live in Siberia.

Copyright Ian Phillips Lawrence
Founder and chief designer of Lawrian Goldsmiths