ON THE UP
By Julie Carter
The internationally recognised Australian designer has always been successful with his commissions - but now his work has gone public.
In the area of post-war design, it's an Australian who rates as one of the best-known contemporary gold and silversmiths in the world today. His name is Stuart Devlin, and it's a sure bet that even if you've never heard of him, you've handled some of his work. That's because he's also acknowledged internationally as the world's foremost coin designer of the twentieth century.
Born in Geelong in Victoria in 1931, and one of four boys, Devlin was remarkable from an early age. He won his first scholarship - to the Gordon Institute of Technology - when he was thirteen, and when he completed an Art Diploma at Melbourne College in 1957 it was with the highest marks ever awarded. He followed this with a scholarship to the London Royal College of Art in 1958, and a two-year fellowship in the United States at Columbia University. Devlin returned to Australia in 1962, taking up a position as an art teacher in Melbourne, and in 1964 he won a competition to design the first decimal coinage for Australia, due to be introduced in 1966. During his presentation to the Numismatic Association of Victoria, Devlin said, "It was decided to get away from Australian motifs that had been used before. The five coins could be used to give an overall picture of what Australia is like." But the five coins did far more than that; they launched Devlin's stellar career as a coin designer.
You will all be familiar with the designs Devlin used; some of them have been in production for more than forty years. He wanted a depth and feeling of movement, which he felt he best achieved with the 20c platypus, which presents the idea of looking through water at the platypus swimming into the third dimension. If you've never before thought of those coins in your wallet as being mini works of art, you will now!
In the 46 years since winning that competition, Stuart Devlin has designed coins for 36 countries around the world, with the most recent being a commission for the Royal Mint (UK) limited edition £1 London coin in gold and silver, part of a four-coin Cities series that is being released over the next two years. But he is far more than a coin designer.
After his success with the decimal coinage designs in Australia, Devlin moved to London in 1965. He started a small workshop in which he adopted and devised techniques based on traditional methods that enabled him to create a wide variety of textures and filigree forms, producing intricate and highly successful limited edition products. In his own words, he wanted to 'delight, surprise, intrigue and amuse' his patrons with his work, something he achieved brilliantly with his range of decorative Easter eggs, the first of which was launched in 1967. A different egg followed every year, each with an innovative and intricate design; one of the most notable appeared in 1973. Encrusted with carved amethyst violets and diamonds, it opened to show a tiny vase of flowers made from semiprecious stones. The next year the egg contained an opal mosaic. Both eggs are highly sought today.
Devlin's designs were so successful that in the early 1970s, the department store of Collingwoods in London's West End set aside an entire floor for the exclusive display of his work. By 1972 Devlin had expanded to open his own gallery on the ground floor of his workshop, where he employed nine craftsmen to work on his designs. But even this wasn't enough, and soon after he opened retail premises opposite Collingwoods.
In the late 1970s the Queen commissioned Devlin to design and make a cigar box as her wedding gift to the Crown Prince of Jordan, and in 1982 he was granted the Royal Warrant of Appointment as Goldsmith and Jeweller to HM The Queen. From 1996-97 he was also Prime Warden of the Goldsmith's Company. Although he has since closed his London workshop, Devlin continues to design from a home workshop in East Sussex, UK.
Over the years, Stuart Devlin has designed furniture, jewellery, trophies, clocks, centerpieces, candelabra, bowls, commemorative medallions, ecclesiastical and ceremonial gold and silverware. He's even turned his hand to designing safer instruments for minor surgery. And whilst some of his creations - such as the Devlin eggs - have always been collectable, the majority enjoyed commercial success primarily through commissions. Until recently, that is.
In the past two or three years, the gold and silver designs of Devlin and several of his contemporaries, such as Gerald Benney and Anthony Elson, have been gradually attracting buyer interest. "In the 1970s and '80s you couldn't give it away," said Bonhams' post-War silver specialist Ellis Finch in an interview in the UK trade newspaper Antiques Trade Gazette. "The trade didn't recognise it, and it was making no money at all." Fast forward to 2010, and the story is very different. In March of this year, for example, an 18ct gold egg pattern box dated 1969, and estimated at $4500, sold for $11,500. Two months later, a parcel-gilt silver pepper grinder from 1968 sold for $1700 against an estimate of around $600. At the same May sale, a parcel-gilt silver jug from 1969 brought $4700 against an estimate of $2200, and two months after that a set of silver wine goblets from 1973, also estimated at $2200, sold for the same amount.
The highest auction price so far for a Devlin commission was achieved in June 2007, when a three-section parcel gilt silver candelabrum centerpiece commissioned by the Duke of Westminster in 1976 sold for $82,000. "The majority of these commissions...are rare to find on the open market today," said Finch. And not many of us could afford something at this level even when they do appear. But if a Stuart Devlin original is out of your price range, don't despair - you've already got his designs in your pocket.