Like any thoughtful husband about to celebrate his 25th wedding anniversary, England's Prince Philip wanted to present to his wife the most exquisite silver object that he could find. Being a member of the Royal Family, he didn't look for it, of course, he commissioned it—two pairs of architectural candlesticks and a candelabrum, combining shiny, smooth bases and cups with finely ribbed stems. That textured "bark" finish is the hallmark of master silver- and goldsmith Gerald Benney, who created it, quite by accident, in the 1960s.
Before Benney, silver was smooth, reflective, and unfortunately, easily tarnished. But that was its beauty—the sheets of malleable alloy shaped, or "raised," by hand with the craftsman's hammer into sensuous curves, which were then polished to bring out their luster.
When he stumbled upon the look that would make him famous, Benney was working on a cup. Unbeknownst to him someone had used his silver hammer to pound a few nails, scarring the surface of the hammer's peen, or head. When Benney began to raise the cup, the hammer ribbed and rippled the surface like the bark of a tree. Graham Hughes, the author of Gerald Benney Goldsmith: The Story of Fifty Years at the Bench, likened it to "dapples and grooves, like the skin of a lizard."
Now another silversmith would have thrown out not only the man responsible for ruining his hammer but the cup as well. Benney, however, looked at that cup and saw the future. A post-World War II student at the Royal College of Art, Benney became interested in playing with silver's surface, and he tried oxidizing and applying enamels to it. By the late fifties his experimental designs had earned him a reputation among British aristocrats and corporate lions, who eagerly commissioned his work. So, with a file, he systematically gouged his hammer even more, and with piece after piece began to refine the texturing technique until he made it his own. Frequently imitated—rarely credited—the Benney bark finish changed the way that silver was smithed. Bark was not the only surface Benney applied to his beakers, bowls, coffee and tea services, and flatware. But it is his most memorable.
"If . . . older masters were the Lutyens of silver," says Graham Hughes, "then Benney was the Corbusier." We think he still is. Now 70 and retired to his country home, Cholterton House, to paint, Benney has turned the reins over to his son, Simon. A designer of silver tableware and jewelry who learned the art from his father, Simon has moved the Benney showroom to London. Here Gerald Benney's designs seem as piquantly modern as ever, the aloofness of their clean lines and simple shapes subtly overtaken by their come-hither textures.
Gerald Benney's designs are available through the London showroom at 73 Walton Street; 44-20-758-97002; fax 44-02-07-581-2573.