insight - Stuart Devlin, gold and silversmith
Written by Ron Toft
When former art teacher Stuart Devlin moved to London from his native Australia in January 1965 to fulfil a long-held dream of setting up his own gold and silversmithing business, he effectively put his neck on the block, for he had no way of knowing how his venture would fare.
But Stuart, who had recently won a financially lucrative competition to design Australia’s first decimal coins, needn’t have worried; his embryonic business – based in a small workshop in a Clerkenwell back street – developed rapidly.
“I started by employing one craftsman and bought the machines I needed second-hand at auctions,” he reflects. “As work increased, I took on more and more people.”
Within a few years, Stuart employed around 60 craftsmen, roughly half of whom were niche specialists in jewellery and related disciplines, and operated from not one but seven workshops.
Eggs and Christmas boxes were a regular source of work for Stuart in the early days. “I started making these as one-offs, but then decided to create limited editions. I made about 300 copies of the first limited edition, of which I sold more than half. The following year I produced another limited edition, which was superficially similar to the first but featured a different design, and it sold out completely. After that, I produced several different kinds of limited editions of some of them every year – not just eggs and Christmas boxes, but also other things.”
Today, nearly half a century later, Stuart is one of the greatest – arguably the greatest – living goldsmith and silversmith. He has designed and made literally thousands of ornate and exquisitely crafted objects during his long and highly productive career.
Bowls, candelabra, candlesticks, carriage clocks, coffee pots, cutlery sets, coins and medallions for nearly 40 countries, eggs, maces, pillboxes, rings, rose bowls, salvers, table centrepieces, teapots, trophies, and tumblers; Stuart has made them all, and more, as well as a variety of specially commissioned one-off pieces, one of the most recent being a Holy Communion flagon now regularly used in services at Westminster Abbey.
“You name it, I’ve probably designed and made it,” says Stuart proudly. His commissioned pieces grace the homes of royalty, nobility and celebrities all over the world. “Unfortunately, I am not at liberty to disclose the identity of most of my clients, but I can tell you that they include some very well-known people indeed.”
One long-standing customer, whose identity can be revealed, is HM Queen Elizabeth II, simply because Stuart has been the monarch’s sole official goldsmith and silversmith, since being granted the Royal Warrant of Appointment in 1982.
Her Majesty became aware of Stuart’s work during his association with London jewellers Collingwoods, where an entire floor was set aside exclusively to showcase his works and hold regular exhibitions.
Stuart’s first royal commission was to design and make a cigar box as Her Majesty’s wedding gift to the Crown Prince of Jordan. HRH The Prince of Wales also turned to Stuart when looking for a gift to mark his parents’ silver wedding anniversary in 1972. “He opted for a nest of four boxes, each one engraved with a different royal palace.”
Another royal with whom Stuart had a close working relationship, was the father of the current Duke of Westminster. “His family were patrons and supporters of my work for many years.”
Silverware and goldware designed and made by Stuart have ranged in size from intricate pieces of jewellery to a huge silver candelabra, about three metres long, originally designed and made for the Duke of Westminster and recently sold at auction for £56,000 – a record for a living designer.
Stuart has exhibited all over the world, but the biggest and most prestigious display of his works was at a retrospective exhibition at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London under the auspices of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, of which he was prime warden in 1996–1997.
He is still involved with the Goldsmiths’ Company through the Goldsmiths’ Centre and Institute – a new education and training facility that aims to support the development of the next generation of goldsmiths and silversmiths – which Stuart helped to establish.
In September 2011, Stuart suffered a major stroke. “It couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” he says, “for it took place on the last day of final interviews for a very high-powered course, on which there are only six places.”
Fortunately, Stuart has been able to conduct tutorials with his students during the past five months.
When Stuart woke up in hospital after his stroke, the two things he wanted to know immediately were: could he think and could he see? “I found I could do both, despite the fact that at least a quarter of my brain had been shot to pieces. At first, I couldn’t even write my name. My memory was worst affected by the stroke. I used to be a hotshot on the computer with computer-aided design (CAD) and I was often invited to America to give demonstrations of how to design ‘live’ on screen. I am currently using software to enable me to regain as much of my former capability as possible. I now feel confident I can draw simple things again in front of students.”
Stuart, 80, no longer has workshops in London. Instead, he works from a studio in a penthouse apartment in West Sussex, where he lives with his incredibly supportive wife, Carole, who has helped to run and promote his business for many years.
Stuart doesn’t consider himself to be talented in any way. “I don’t believe in talent. What I do believe, however, is that one can nurture and develop a creative ability – and that’s what I hope to continue doing with postgraduate students through the Goldsmiths’ Institute in the years ahead.”
Stuart is clearly an exceptionally good – he wouldn’t want to be described as gifted – master of his craft. One thing is certain: the countless people who have bought or commissioned his works through the decades will wish him well and hope that he will continue to inspire the next generation of craftsmen and craftswomen for many years to come.
After gaining a Diploma of Art in Gold and Silversmithing in Melbourne in 1957, high-flying student Stuart was awarded three travelling scholarships to study at the Royal College of Art in London for two years. The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths was so impressed with Stuart’s work that it took the unprecedented step of acquiring for its permanent collection most of the pieces he made during his time at the college, and commissioned him to design a table centrepiece to commemorate the tercentenary of the Royal Society.