The pairing of fine porcelain with metal components instantly creates a dichotomy: Here we have one of the most fragile of man’s creations combined with one of the most durable – especially if the metal happened to be bronze. The use of certain metal components often allowed artists to create elements that would have been impossible to execute in porcelain, while at the same time not distracting from the overall design. Some studios added precious metals and/or gems into their designs as accents. In fact, the whole concept of “porcelain plus something else” is rather fascinating. This is the first in a series of posts that will look at what some studios accomplished with these unusual pairings during the art porcelain heyday decades.
I was recently very fortunate to connect with Antony Halls, one of the artists at the Boehm of Malvern studio in England during the 1980s. He was a vital part of all stages of production but was especially involved in the creation of Boehm’s many porcelain-and-bronze pieces. Malvern Boehm had a leg up on most other studios because in 1982, Helen Boehm purchased a metal foundry in Wales (whose story is told here) and thus Boehm did not need to outsource any part of their production.
Antony graciously agreed to be interviewed by email regarding the process by which Boehm created their porcelain-and-bronze sculptures.
Q. Antony, my first question is about the very first phase of production. Did all of the Malvern-produced porcelain/bronze designs originate in Trenton, or in Malvern? Who would have been the originator of the idea to make an individual piece, or a multi-piece series, as a combination of porcelain and bronze rather than entirely in porcelain?
A. All the porcelain/bronze designs originated in Malvern. The top managers would have monthly meetings to thrash out the future creative lines. I remember the head studio manager of both site (Don Cameron) and my department manager (Dave Whatmore) coming to me because at that time I headed the technical department at the Howsell Road studio. I was asked to prepare for the assembly of the new idea and told that Helen Boehm had acquired the bronze foundry in Wales. Howsell Road had the room and the capacity to handle the new project. Both the Tanhouse Lane and Howsell Road studios were dedicated to their own areas with regard to production pieces. Howsell Road seemed perfect to operate the porcelain/bronze production, as well as the current lines being worked on.
They then employed the services of David Fryer to conceptually design all of the pieces. David had designed for Boehm of Malvern during the early to mid 1970s. From concept to final piece, David was there to oversee it all. It was only when production was up and running that he then left the project. He knew that once the initial designs had been perfected, any future designs could be worked on by him outside of the Howsell Road studio.
Q. Wow, I had no idea that David Fryer was connected with Boehm in any way, or that even the porcelain/bronze Boehm pieces that say ‘Made in USA’ were actually designed at the British studio. Once the design was finalized, what was the next step? Was the Llandow foundry given design sketches and told “cast this in bronze” whilst you in Malvern were told “create these components in porcelain”? Or did you wait until actual castings came in from Llandow to begin producing any of the porcelain parts?
A. David created an initial sketch for the opening pieces and on approval, each one was mocked up. From the mock up stage he then created each of the bronze components using Harbutts Plasticine. This was the preferred medium for most sculptors of that era. It was a malleable material which could be manipulated at will to change shapes. The flower makers would then, once they had seen the scale, make the flowers. After firing, they could be handled to sit on the proposed bases, where any tweaking could be done before the Plasticine parts were taken to Llandow. The flowers could always be reconfigured, even after the final bronze was ready for receiving them, because being hand made petal by petal, you could alter sizes at will. This did happen a few times.
The final part of the assembly puzzle was Boehm employing the skills of Ken Hirschfield. He came on board to assemble all of the component pieces. Every leaf spray, stem, or any other [bronze] component was delivered in its raw state. Ken then, along with David Fryer overseeing, welded the component parts to produce a ‘standard’ (the word used for anything that had to be replicated; this model was then used to follow each time.) Once approved and patinated to produce the rich chocolate brown finish, the flowers were worked out [in porcelain] and a set placed on a standard. Once happy with the scaling, a decorated set of flowers were glued onto a bronze. All pieces were then approved by Mrs. Boehm and the involved management team.
Q. Let’s take as an example the Gardenias with Wisteria. What would be the steps involved in assembling something like this? And as a general rule of thumb, how long would it take from the time that the process first began (not counting the time it took to get the casting from the foundry)?
A. The Gardenias with Wisteria pieces were time consuming, but we would always be working on more than one at a time, very much like painting models. There would be the component parts for at least 12 units. There were four of us assembling and we would each be working on different designs at the same time. From memory, I could assemble the 12 units in a day. Other designs were much more simple of course and you could assemble many more units in a working day. Such was the demand in the early days of production, that we got overtime. Twice hourly rate on a Saturday and triple on a Sunday.
Q. What sort of adhesive was used to permanently attach the porcelain component to the bronze casting?
A. We used two types of adhesive at Boehm. The design requirement per piece dictated the type used. Where a large flower was attached to a bronze sepal, the sepal received the glue and the flower was placed onto the sepal making contact. The glue was a Bostik, water-clear and applied from a squeezable plastic bottle. Once the flower was in the correct position, an accelerator was sprayed onto the base of the glued flower making contact with sepal. Setting was almost instant, resulting in the placing of each flower having to be accurate. There were times, unfortunately, when the flower had moved ever so slightly, hampering the placement of a neighbouring flower. This usually resulted in having to destroy the entire flower and drilling out the glue, starting over with that component.
We soon realised that you had to have two pairs of hands working on certain pieces. The Gardenias with Wisteria piece is a perfect example of one of those. The gardenia’s petals were tucked under each neighbouring gardenia. The Bostik was squeezed, flowers placed and then held by one person. When happy with positioning, the other person would apply the accelerator which was in an aerosol can. Within a few seconds, the gardenias were set and we would move on to the next. Flowers like this always had to be played around with because each one was hand made. The flower makers would follow a standard, but some of the petals might move in the kiln during firing, so no two flowers were ever exactly the same. So when assembling, you had to make sure the gardenias were facing the correct way to at least keep a consistency.
The other type of glue was called ‘Eastman 910’ and was used when you needed a little more time with very small component parts. The wisteria flowers were small and the gluing had to be more precise. Once all the flowers were in place, you had to paint over the glue to disguise the joining of the mediums. Boehm had a paint department who technically created all paint, whether it was powder for painting the porcelain parts, or coloured non-firing paint to use on glued assembly pieces. For the bronzes we used artists burnt umber tube oils. Into the oil paint was mixed a blended solution to accelerate the drying time. It was amyl-acetate-based and smelled like pear drops. I still have a small jar of it which is now 30 years old but I could still use it.
Q. Here is the Songbirds of the Four Seasons bird series, each of which is about 12” high. Three of them look as if they should be dangerously top-heavy but I assume they are not; is that mostly due to the weight of the base area? But the Bluebird doesn’t have a thick base like the others; how did the designers know that something like that would not be ‘tipsy’?
A. You are right, they do look top heavy but David Fryer would purposefully have designed it like this to add drama and balance to the design. The mock up would always indicate if the idea was able to fail in production. It was always about counter-balancing.
Q. How in the world did you manage to securely attach the owl to the bronze part of Little Owl with Fly Agaric?! Is there a hole in the owl’s side into which a section of the bronze leaf goes?
A. This is a case of a hidden shaped pin; here is an image where I have tried to show the type of pin involved.
This pin would be cast into the leaf at Llandow. In the side of the owl’s body would be a short slot at the top and a pin hole below it. On many occasions I had to (re-)drill the holes on the porcelain body because they partly closed up during the bisque firing. This sometimes resulted in catastrophe if the hollow diamond-tipped drill bit caught and jammed. It would send a vibration through the piece and on occasion I ended up with a wing or two falling off. Thank goodness it only happened twice. (Not as bad as one time in the packing department where £35,000 worth of damage was done in two seconds: One of the packing chaps dropped an Osprey on top of a Golden Eagle!!!!!!)
This Owl or the Marsh Harrier [below] would be placed against a large surface-area leaf as well.
The leaf was important as a gluing area. This is one instance where I would have used Eastman 910 glue. The glue was in bottle form and water-clear. You then added a ceramic powder formula which was mixed into the 910 with a small spatula. The more you added, the thicker you could make it. Adding more powder gave it less setting time, so you had to work fast. The Owl, for instance, had to be propped in place. You just had to use anything to hand; sometimes some flowpack polystyrene chips in a bag from the packing department.
Q. On more or less the same subject, here is one of the miniature owls that was done in the mid-1980s as part of the North American Owls series. There were eight owls, all about 3″ high. Clearly the owl’s feet are part of the bronze casting, rather than being porcelain. Were there ‘nubs’ of bronze that went into holes in the owl’s body and then the area was painted (rather sloppily, in this case, wouldn’t you agree?) to cover whatever was used to secure the porcelain and bronze pieces together?
A. Yes, there were bronze pins that would locate inside corresponding holes in the owl’s body. Eastman 910 glue would be used here. You could manipulate this glue in smaller areas, even trimming ‘set’ glue with a diamond cutting tool if needed on an overspill. With regard to the sloppy painting, you are right, it doesn’t look good. This was the responsibility of the quality control department which was the final one prior to shipping. This either slipped through the net or it might have been repaired at a later date by someone else. There is no excuse for poor finishing.
Q. I was surprised to see several huge-edition-size (9000+) multi-piece porcelain and bronze series – for example, that miniature-owl series was advertised as an edition of “9800 sets of eight owls”, plus they were also available for purchase individually. That’d be almost 80,000 owls to make!
Did the Malvern studio really produce and assemble tens of thousands of porcelain-and-bronze pieces, in addition to the ‘normal’ limited and open editions of Boehm porcelains each year? If so… when did you all have time to eat and sleep?!?
A. Numbers wise, I don’t think they ever reached that quantity of set numbers.
Q. I’ve only seen a few Boehm pieces where the bronze is gilded. One is the Miniature Birds series which was another series of tinies (3″ high) and then just one Green Cymbidium Orchid from 1984 which was a stand-alone open-edition piece. Do you recall doing any other Boehm pieces with gilded bronze elements?
A. I fitted many of the minis series. The 24k gold plating was always difficult to match with a cold-painted pigment on the Eastman 910 area; there would always be a white residue showing where the glue had set. The colour department had created a gold pigment, but even today, paint pigments are never really as pure in colour and finish compared to real gold. I think I may have applied a tiny amount of varnish when the gold pigment had set.
A. I can only ever recall assembling the Cymbidium Orchid with the gilded finish. This appeared for the first time in the 1984 catalogue. Its description alongside the image reads Cymbidium Orchids on doré. They were very beautiful to look at, but expensive to produce. Perhaps that was the reason for a stand alone design in that finish.
I do remember one other thing with the bronzes. Later in the production process, Boehm used to colour an entire bronze cast with coloured paint, then add the porcelain flowers. I remember seeing Convolvulus models decorated like this once.
Additional information about the pieces illustrated above:
- Gardenias with Wisteria is 9” high and 9” long.
- Songbirds of the Four Seasons was made as a promotional series at the request of the American Express Company in 1985 and was an edition of 2500 sets.
- The Marsh Harrier with Water Lilies is 26.5” high; the Little Owl with Fly Agaric is not much shorter, being 25” high.
- The North American Owls miniature series was offered by Brielle Galleries in 1984 at $1080 for the complete set of eight plus the special wood display stand gratis, or $135 per individual owl.
- The Miniature Birds sold for $95 each in the 1980s and were advertised as having “24k vermeilled bronze” bases. This was incorrect, because technically “vermeil” is a plating process – not a painting process – of gold over sterling silver. The correct term for a kiln-fired gold amalgam overlay upon bronze is either “gilt bronze” or “bronze doré.”
- The Green Cymbidium Orchid is 6.5” high.
Again, many thanks to Antony Halls for his invaluable help and insight into how these unique sculptures were created!
More posts in the Porcelain Plus series: