By The Goldsmiths’ Company Curator, Dr Dora Thornton
John Donald belongs to that select group of London-based designers who led the revolution in designer jewellery from the 1960s. It is exciting to realise that we have many of his rare, innovative early pieces in the Goldsmiths’ Company Collection – including some surprises – which document his career. Brooches were always at the heart of it.
John studied at the Royal College of Art in London alongside Robert Welch and Gerald Benney before setting up as a jeweller. He was to set up in London – in a shop at the end of Foster Lane, near Goldsmiths’ Hall – and in Geneva, gaining an international reputation, with influential patrons such as HRH the late Princess Margaret.
The Goldsmiths Company supported him from the very beginning, when he was struggling to establish himself in a very difficult world. Metals and makers had been diverted to the war effort in the Second World War; food rationing was still in place; and there was a prohibitive Purchase Tax on new luxury goods which reached 125% at its peak. John recalls in his autobiography, Precious Statements, written with Russell Cassleton Eliot:
“When I started in the mid-to-late 1950s, there were very few new things being made in jewellery…Innovation just hadn’t happened for 20 years, partly because of the war, so in design terms one could do anything at all. It was a completely open book.”
Gold was out, and he started by experimenting with chenier bullion or tubing: “First I looked at all the products of the bullion dealers and then itemised them ie: round, square, oval rods; round, square, oval tubes and varying thicknesses of sheet metal. From these various forms I cut square rods, oval tubes at angles and into small pieces, beginning to make three-dimensional forms.” Two leaf brooches in the Goldsmiths’ Company Collection are rare surviving examples of this early work, one in silver-gilt made from angled tubes formed into a leaf, the other cut from oxidised silver sheet with triangular shaped blades set as a 3D leaf form. Another uses 9 carat gold wires and tubes of bullion cut into different lengths and soldered to create a 3D star, one of his early experiments with geometrical form.
These three brooches from the late 1950s were John’s response to a design challenge from Graham Hughes, Art Director and Curator at Goldsmiths’ Hall: “Having been asked for designs by Graham Hughes, I returned to my work bench to approach the three-dimensional problem of jewellery, intending to achieve a new concept in the forms of metalwork. Some of these designs were then bought for the Company’s Collection. As one can imagine, this was an enormous boost to my confidence and, of course, gave me a small amount of money with which to continue experimenting.” Many of these pieces, made in silver-gilt or gold, were only hallmarked years after they were made, which makes dating difficult. What is clear however is that the Goldsmiths’ Company was to be his principal patron, acquiring twenty-eight jewels between 1958 and 2002.
Graham Hughes was intrigued by the early brooches. John won the design competition in 1959 for the new Warden’s badge—a heraldic piece in a modern idiom with an abstract irregular textured rim. Then, in 1960, he was awarded a special commission, to make a Court Wine Cup for the distinguished physical chemist and Nobel Prize Laureate, Sir Cyril Hinshelwood. The Cup is unusual for its date in that it was both designed and made by the same individual, and that a jeweller. It has a silver spun bowl with a gilded interior, and the stem is cast from sterling silver with a crisscross pattern running towards the foot. Engraved on the front of the cup is the Goldsmiths’ Company crest within an oval lozenge, with Sir Cyril’s arms on the other side. It is a piece which is distinguished by its simplicity and by its perfect balance in the hand.
Brooches however take us to the heart of Donald’s creativity and craftsmanship. A photograph from around 1962 shows him holding one of his early brooches set with iron pyrite – perhaps the very one in the Goldsmiths’ Company Collection.
In a sense he grew up with brooches – he writes in Precious Statements about a peacock brooch that his mother wore, which fascinated him as a child. His first jewel, made in 1952, was a silver brooch set with pastes in the form of a pencil sea urchin which he had seen at the Natural History Museum – a source of continued fascination throughout his career as a jeweller.
He drew inspiration from the past, claiming a particular affinity with Victorian jewellery. An early research visit to Italy allowed him to visit cathedral treasuries, where he admired church silver—especially monstrances, theatrical display pieces to preserve and show wafers consecrated at the Catholic Mass. Monstrances often have radiating bejewelled spokes to draw the eye to the centre, where the consecrated wafer is shown encased in rock crystal. A Spanish example from around 1620 in the Victoria and Albert Museum gives an idea of the kinds of pieces John Donald saw and remembered from this study trip. He later translated these influences into brooches, see especially his gold and rose-quartz brooch with radiating rods included in the online brooches exhibition.
His brooches from the 1960s were artistic statements. As part of the research for the Fair exhibition, I wrote to him and his wife Cynthia to ask him what it was about the brooch as a form which appealed to him. His answer reveals his creative vision as an artist:
“Designs were always experiments in form; small sculptures or three dimensional painting. In the early days, there were times when I thought to supply an appropriately sized picture frame where the brooch could be pinned and viewed as pure artwork, without reference to or influenced by the wearer.”
When I asked him about the special challenges of designing brooches, his reply was equally thoughtful and revealing: “When designing specifically for clients, I would take into account their personal details such as colouring, size and personality. Often they would either choose from style and texturing of existing gold work or they would be happy for me to go through the drawing/design process, which also then led to a model being made before the final decision – of course, at this stage, the size of stones etc. could always be altered and a final costing reached.” No wonder that few Donald brooches appear at auction, as their owners tend to hold onto them as modern classics which remain wonderfully wearable.
Finally, a rediscovery in the Goldsmiths’ Company Collection. We recently identified a bracelet in our Reserve Collection as an example of John’s student work, which he tells us he made in his third year at the Royal College of Art.
It is made of inexpensive materials – simulated white opals, silver and nickel – but each element is ingeniously designed and made to form a bracelet which curves to the wrist. Even the toothed edges of the links are curved upwards so as not to snag the skin or delicate clothing. The gilded collets mirror the opals and the interlocking links and the catch work well. It was Joanna Hardy, jewellery historian and special adviser on our Contemporary Craft Committee, who thought of asking John if the piece was his. His wife, Cynthia, wrote back excitedly explaining what it was and that he had thought the piece lost.
I was delighted during lockdown to recognise the bracelet in John’s Christmas advertisement from 1962, which was published by Graham Hughes in his history of jewellery in 1963. It shows how important it is for a curator to look and look again as you continually reappraise a collection—and how wonderful it is to have the help of the makers themselves in doing so.
With special thanks to John and Cynthia Donald, Russel Cassleton Eliot and Joanna Hardy.
Object photography by Clarissa Bruce and Richard Valencia.
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