Friday, 20 February 2015

Seven Days of Creation

MoDA’s new Collections Manager, Sam Smith, discusses his first month in post and a selection of designs by Arthur Silver for a gesso panel entitled ‘Days of Creation’.

Getting to grips with new policies and procedures, dealing with data-backlogs and tying up historic loose ends has proved to be a great way of exploring the collections at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MoDA) at Middlesex University.

Of the items I've been working with, some of the most interesting are designs relating to a gesso chimney panel that was influenced by William Blake and Japanese art.

One of the preparatory sketches for the gesso panel, Silver Studio design
SD3374 Museum of Design and Domestic Architecture

The panel, which was designed by Harry Silver and executed by Harry Napper, was exhibited at the Arts and Society exhibition at the New Gallery, London in 1893. For the exhibition, Silver described the panel as:
"of Hungarian ash which possesses a weird grain and is stained green. The work is in Gesso and the subject is a decorative suggestion of the 7 days symbolised by seven discs on a winged spiral implying infinite progression…the order of the discs which commence at the right hand bottom corner and proceed in a spiral progression to centre is thus - 1st Light. 2. Division of Waters. 3. Dry Land & vegetation. 4. Sun. Moon. Stars. 5. Fowls & Fish (animal kingdom). 6. Man 7. Rest."
The design reflects Silver's interest in the work of William Blake, Burne-Jones and Baroque Art, with his draughtsmanship anticipating the Continental Art Nouveau of the late 1890s.


A reproduction of the gesso panel that appeared in the Builder magazine in 1893. MoDA holds unbound editions of the Builder spanning the period 1912 to 1956. The Builder was a weekly publication containing a mine of information on domestic and foreign building developments from the perspective of the architect, engineer, constructor and art historian.

There are 19 preparatory sketches for the design of the panel at the museum, all at various stages of completion. The sketches are in pencil and charcoal, and some – those which are on copy paper – are extremely fragile. They are currently being catalogued in readiness for conservation students from Camberwell College of Arts, who will produce a report on them as part of their coursework.

There is also a design for the panel held in the collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Photograph of the gesso panel, now in a private collection, taken in 2012

As well as the designs, MoDA holds a photograph showing the panel in situ at the Silver family home at 84 Brook Green, Hammersmith, London in 1900. The photograph shows the panel as part of the fireplace, and is one of several in the museum’s possession which help to provide a social and design context to the Silver Studio Collection that is housed at the museum.

The gesso panel in situ in the Silver’s drawing room. Photograph BADDA 4602.1 Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture

The photographs show that Silver, like many of his contemporaries, was strongly influenced by Japanese art. As well as his collection of Japanese prints, which are displayed along the top of each wall, the photographs of the Silvers' drawing room show a Japanese-inspired cane chair and a vase of chrysanthemums positioned on top of a piano.

As well as illuminating the design process, the sketches for the gesso panel also impart something of the significance of the collection – both in terms of the uniqueness of its constituent parts, but also how comprehensive and interrelated the collection is when examined as a whole.

Part of my role as Collections Manager is adding value to the collection by making those connections, documenting how the collections are used  for example by the students at Camberwell College of Arts  and eventually helping to build up a community of interest and specialist knowledge around them.

I am looking forward to getting to know the collections better and making many more such discoveries in the stores!

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