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18th-century enameling thrives in modern-day England

Reviving the 18th-century craft of enameling in modern-day Britain has engaged Susan Benjamin in one of the most exciting adventures of her career. For years Mrs. Benjamin has specialized in 18th-century English enamels in her antiques shop at 14 Brook Street in London.

This expression of Georgian craftsmanship flourished in England for a hundred years after 1740. When the last recorded 19th-century enameler closed shop in 1840 the craft disappeared, the victim of fading fashion, shoddy manufacture in the last decades of its popularity, European wars, and the coming of the Industrial Revolution, which attracted workers into new, industrial factories.

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''Antique enamels had become increasingly scarce as more and more people discovered their charm and began to collect them,'' Mrs. Benjamin explains. ''And it bothered me that all the English arts of the 18th century had endured to the present except enameling on copper.''

In 1968 she met Kenneth Marshall, who with his two sons and son-in-law owned a factory in Bilston that manufactured enamel powder for industrial products such as cooking ranges and refrigerators. The Marshalls were also fascinated with 18th-century enamels and had begun to experiment with the old techniques in a special laboratory.

Bilston, a village about 200 miles northwest of London, had been one of the leading 18th-century English enameling centers, along with Battersea, Liverpool, London, and Birmingham. The French enamelers who had settled there about 1745, along with the English craftsmen they trained, helped supply the aristocracy and the affluent social elite with fashionable enamel snuffboxes and a variety of other ''trifles and trinkets'' and delicately decorated objects.

Many were adorned with nymphs, scenes, floral sprays, birds, cupids, animals, fruit, and mottoes and other inscriptions. Small ''Bilston boxes'' became keepsakes, exchanged by friends as tokens of esteem and affection. Fad, fancy, and fashion kept all English enamelers busy fulfilling the demand that came from Europe, Russia, and Colonial America as well.

Mrs. Benjamin and the owners of the Bilston factory (then called Copper Enamels) entered into a joint venture called Halcyon Days Enamels to see if they could revive 200-year-old techniques to produce what she describes as ''precious hand-decorated enamels, particularly small boxes, in the spirit of the 18th century.'' The venture was to blend Mrs. Benjamin's long experience with antique enamels and her special knowledge of Georgian design with her partners' technical expertise.

The new partners then recruited and trained a work force to master the intricate skills of an earlier age. ''We started from scratch,'' Mrs. Benjamin remembers. ''We tried people to see what skills they possessed and what could be cultivated. We asked artists to come and work with us, and we trained them as well. I knew the look I wanted to achieve, and it was simply a matter of trial and error until we got it right.''

Meanwhile, the Marshalls began developing techniques in the factory in much the same way, by experimentation and trial and error. ''Those earlier-day enamelers had, unfortunately, left us no records, no instructions, no help,'' Mrs. Benjamin explains. ''That is why our initial efforts were completely simplistic transfer-printed designs. Techniques of multi-coloring, stippled and checkered backgrounds, and application of gold were developed as we went along.''

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Today the factory employs 50 craftsmen, not including outside artists, who continue to refine and develop techniques. Apart from the use of electricity instead of solid fuel for heating the kilns, the complicated manufacturing processes now employed in copper enameling are similar to those practiced 200 years ago.

''These are about as far from mass production as you can get,'' says Mrs. Benjamin, who commutes frequently to Bilston and is today responsible for design , marketing, and administration at Halcyon Days Enamels, now sold all over the world. Success, she believes, has come from a genuine understanding of the Georgian period and the original process, and from absolute insistence on high-quality manufacture and decoration. Most designs are made in small or limited quantities.

''It was propitious,'' Mrs. Benjamin contends, ''that the revival was to take place in Bilston, an area in South Staffordshire that has historically bred dexterous and artistic people. We have, with their help, produced small boxes of over 400 designs and in many sizes and shapes. Over the years we commissioned original drawings from many talented artists, instead of reproducing old patterns, and we have also faithfully reproduced some great artworks.''

Last year the company, in association with the London Design Council, sponsored a design competition. Contemporary designs of prizewinners are now being produced. ''I was steeped in the 18th century and felt we needed to encourage some new, young talent,'' Mrs. Benjamin says. The interest of young artists was phenomenal. We received 632 entries. The ideas presented were fresh and delightful and will give our production yet another dimension.''

Many boxes have been specially commissioned by such well-known museums as the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert in London, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York.

Halcyon Days has for many years been royal warrant holders by appointment to Queen Elizabeth II and to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. The company also makes enameled thimbles, needlecases, photograph frames, beakers, music boxes, and clocks and watches.

Scholarly research in museums all over the world and consultation with other experts has brought a depth of knowledge to all facets of Susan Benjamin's career, from dealer in both antique and contemporary enamels, to designer/manufacturer, to author of two books on the art of enameling - ''Enamels,'' part of the Smithsonian Illustrated Library of Antiques and ''English Enamel Boxes From the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Centuries'' (Orbis Publishing Company, London, 1978).

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