Sian Elizabeth Evans, Coppersmith

Ornate cross by Sian Elizabeth Evans, coppersmith

Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowship, an unmissable opportunity

When I applied to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for a Travelling Fellowship in 2010, it was with the hope of enriching my knowledge of my own craft, coppersmithing.

After studying at John Cass Art School in the 1980s I trained as an apprentice with Sussex coppersmith Sam Fanaroff. Following ten years raising my four children, I returned to the craft I so loved in 2004 by completing an MA in metal at London Metropolitan University � supported by a scholarship from QEST. Now, having successfully established a small business as a coppersmith, I was looking to discover more about the origins of my ancient craft, learn new techniques and discover some modern contexts.

My Travelling Fellowship took me to France, Greece and India, and I met some extraordinary craftsmen.


Europe Trip July 2011

The trip began in Villedieu-les-Po�les in Normandy, famous for its tradition of coppersmithing dating from Norman times. Here there are many workshops, the largest being l’Atelier du Cuivre - where I was to spend three days. Founded in 1830 it specialises in copper culinary ware, namely tinned copper pans formed on lathes. Larger pans are hammered over stakes to create patterned surfaces, which also add strength and durability to the pieces.
I was introduced to master craftsman Jean-Pierre Couget - Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France - the recipient of a highly prestigious national award recognising the finest craftsmen in France. After two days observation I was given an unforgettable masterclass by M. Couget, during which I was shown dinanderie - a way of shaping sheet copper over a ground-anchored stake to enable much larger pieces to be formed.
The workshop also accepts specialist trophy work, with fine repouss� decoration. Interestingly, a new partnership has being formed between l’Atelier and a hospital at Rambouillet. Copper is a sterile metal and toxic to MRSA bacteria, so the hospital has commissioned copper furnishings for the entire building. Initial results are extremely promising.

Nearby is the Fonderie Cornille-Harvard, where bronze cathedral bells are cast using an ancient lost wax casting technique. The work here was not directly related to my own, but proved highly educational and informed my later expeditions to Athens and India.

The next stage of my trip was to Greece for a ten-day stay at the British School at Athens. I had hoped to meet two coppersmiths who worked for the Greek Orthodox Church, but by the time I arrived they had both, sadly, gone out of business. As the July temperatures rose, I changed my plans and spent days studying in cool museums, amassing a visual library of over 700 images ofancient metalwork.
What was striking was how unchanging coppersmithing tools and techniques were throughout the millennia. Many ancient pieces were actually mass-produced and I realised I had become a bit of a purist about producing everything by hand. I realised these craftsmen faced similar dilemmas and I felt connected to them by the language of craft. A visit to the temple of Hephaestus � the god of coppersmithing also gave me time to contemplate my own connection with the past.

I realised I had been harbouring the notion that there had been a “golden age” of coppersmithing. It may be true that certain times proliferated great craftsmen and actively, yet the vast quantity of work in museums speak more of the enormity of time during which these skills had been practised.

India January 2012

My trip began in the Himalayas to visit the Norbulingka Institute - a centre dedicated to preserving Tibetan culture, near the exile home of Dalai Lama. Heavy snow meant the craft workshops were quiet during my stay, but I met eight or so coppersmiths working on tiny devotional repouss� statues and they were most forthcoming when I asked them about their work. What was striking was the way in which their craftsmanship was so inextricably bonded with their cultural identity as Tibetan Buddhists. Sitting on cushions, the young apprentices worked on their laps whilst listening to music or chatting on phones. Close by, there was a temple with a beautiful repouss� 14 ft. Buddha sculpture, created in this workshop. The previous summer master craftsman Pemba Dorje had died and whilst the sense of loss was still palpable, plans are afoot to extend the workspace so larger commissions can be undertaken.

Having read accounts of the traditional coppersmithing to be found there, my next journey was to Varanasi. Upon arrival however, it became clear that there was little evidence of craftsmen. Eventually I met Jivan, who said he could show me where the metalworkers were. Beyond the spice market we found a group of aluminium casters working on earthen floors in shops. These men were casting machine components in frames of silt from the mud floor having pressed master components into them. Molten aluminium was then poured in after being heated in a hole in the ground filled with burning coal. This process was far from ideal, and, despite their skill, casts came out flawed only to be hammered into pieces and re-melted.

It was impossible to imagine how hard these peoples’ lives were as I watched them with fumes and smoke filling my lungs.

Later, on the banks of the Ganges, I got chatting to a chap called Rahul who said he knew of other smiths.� He led me through crowded and now increasingly dark alleyways, and at the very moment when I wondered if I’d been foolish to follow him, I began to hear the thrilling sound of distant hammering. There, in an almost deserted alleyway were men were smithing in the doorways. They chose to work at nighttime � partly so they could see the flames of their torches better, and partly so that they would draw less attention to themselves. Like every smith I have ever met, their fear was that their store of metal would be discovered and stolen. When I said that I had been told there were no smiths left in Varanasi, they smiled and said, “Good”.

Here I was to meet Ashok Kumar and his family. An extraordinary silversmith, he had worked with non-ferrous metals all his life. He showed me his tools and I showed him pictures of mine, telling him that I had inherited my mallets from my grandfather. His had belonged to his grandfather too. After a while of clumsily speaking through the Rahul’s translation, something else took over. Sitting beside him, as he shared photographs of his work, I realised we were communicating perfectly by speaking in our own languages and miming with the tools. As I replay the memory, I can’t remember not understanding what he was saying, because I know we “discussed” the similar ways we block out bowls in an iron former, the kinds of hammer blows we use to do so, and the identical way we set stones. I was so touched by his work and by his kindness and I hope I meet him again.

Finally I flew south to Tamil Nadu, to see the famous bronze Chola statues inHindu temples and museums, and to meet the people who had made them, using techniques of lost wax casting unchanged since the early Chalcolithic Period some 6500 years ago.

Upon finding the Sthapathy family workshop I was greeted very warmly, having introduced myself with photographs of my work. I was invited into the workshops and carefully shown the processes involved in statue casting, as well as the beautiful repouss� work, which was also taking place, similar to those I had seen in Normandy.

The sculptures are first made as wax pieces, entirely by eye, and then encased in moulds of fine indigenous river silt and charred coconut husks. These are then allowed to dry in the sunshine before being heated, which allows the wax to melt and run out. The moulds are then buried upside down in the ground outside and the molten bronze poured in.

Having read that Chola statues are cast in tune with lunar phases, I timed my visit to coincide with the full moon. This paid off as casting had taken place that very morning, and I felt extraordinarily privileged to witness these bronzes being exhumed from the earth. To the Hindu faithful, these Chola statues are the embodiment of the gods they represent and, as tiny heads and feet emerged, I realised I was indeed witnessing a kind of birth.

I was also seeing a process unchanged since the very birth of my craft.

I have so much in common with all the craftsmen I met. We each fear we may be the last coppersmith in our line. We all feel a debt of honour to the master who taught us. And we all want to pass our skills on.

I return from my Travelling Fellowship with a strong agenda for future fair-trade partnerships and shared projects, but my next job is to go back into my own workshop, try out all those amazing techniques I discovered on my travels, and keep them alive.


Coppersmithing by Si�n:
My Fellowship report:
The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust:
The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust:
L’Atelier du Cuivre:
Fonderie Cornille-Havard:
Norbulingka Institute:

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