(Excerpts from a press release in 2000)
It all began with the vision of one woman.
Elegant 18th century English enamels have always been a source of wonder for Susan Benjamin. As a young girl, she spent many London afternoons examining the delicate hand-painted brushstrokes on the pieces of her mother's collection.
The enamel boxes were treasured possessions; each was decorated with flowers, portraits, or a miniature of a master artwork. "They were simple pieces, mostly chipped, since the old enamel was soft and damaged easily," she recalls. "But they were still lovely."
Unknown to Mrs. Benjamin at the time, her childhood fascination would evolve into a rewarding lifework.
"During school years," she says, "I used to go to the Victoria and Albert Museum to look at the world's greatest collection of 18th century enamels." Inspired by the centuries-old enamels, Mrs. Benjamin studied art to develop her innate artistic ability. She learned fashion design, believing it would be a good match for her talent.
"My first job was as a designer for an English courtier in 1948," she continues. "I liked the designing, but found I preferred the antique business. On free weekends, I accompanied an antique dealer friend on buying trips. That gave me the flavor."
In 1950 Mrs. Benjamin opened a small shop in London to offer collectors a variety of 18th
century English objets d'art, specializing in the rare enameled boxes.
She named the shop Halcyon Days from the Greek legend surrounding a "halkion" or kingfisher who laid its eggs in a nest that floated on the sea. Poseidon calmed the waves to prevent them from being broken, and the period became known as the days of tranquility and peace.
Since the antique business was run mostly by men in those days, a woman proprietor and the shop's d6cor caused quite a sensation. "The shop looked like a sitting room with lots of flowers and pictures, and tables just cluttered with nice things," she notes. "It was no clever sort of move, it was done very naively."
Now guardian of the family legacy, Mrs. Benjamin decided to display the antique collection at Halcyon Days. She discovered many shared her enthusiasm for the diminutive art form. "Within a few weeks of our opening, Princess Margaret visited the shop," she states. "She was immensely popular so it was written about everywhere, with photographs and so forth."
Word spread throughout the United Kingdom to the Continent and then across the Atlantic to America. Patrons from all over the world came to visit the tiny shop, overflowing with splendid examples of the lost craft. Rare "finds" were quickly purchased. "Suddenly it became a serious business, and it was marvelous." says Mrs. Benjamin. "Halcyon Days took off like a space rocket."
"One thing always puzzled me," she remarks. "I wondered why everything I sold had continued to be made in some form or another except for the enamels."
The Revival of an Art Form
During the 1960s, demand for the antique enamels eventually exceeded their supply, and Mrs. Benjamin had another inspiration. She located a manufacturer in Bilston, one of the original centers of the craft, where enameling skills still survived.
Two artisans crafted eight samples in white, pink, blue and green to showcase Mrs. Benjamin's drawings of birds, flowers, and messages of love. Following traditional enameling techniques, hand-painted images captured the qualities of the beautiful copper enamels of 18th century England.
Many months of work had gone into preparing the boxes. Unsure if she could sell many in her shop, Mrs. Benjamin introduced the enamels at a major gift show in Blackpool. "Not one person looked at, asked about, or seemed even to be aware of them," she admits. "It was devastating."
Disappointed yet determined, Mrs. Benjamin had five of the enamels photographed, then sent the pictures to six newspapers. "A leading publication in England ran the story with a headline announcing 'The Revival of a Traditional English Craft,'" she states, adding that several major publications in the United States also picked up on the celebrated news of the art form's revival.
The unique pieces quickly gained recognition in collectors' circles with their imaginative designs and impeccable craftsmanship.
In 1970 Halcyon Days and a company now called Bilston & Battersea Enamels began a new chapter in the history of English enamels. Susan Benjamin's design artistry combined with the manufacturer's expertise to revive the 18th century craft that produced the first Halcyon Days Enamels collection.
Enthusiasm for Halcyon Days Enamels has brought the product the highest form of recognition through its acquisition by Royalty, Heads of State, and collectors worldwide. As evidence of this special status, in February 1999 Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the first woman Prime Minister of England, officially opened the first gallery in the United States. Located at Randall Morgan Stationers in Dallas, Texas, the 400 square foot gallery is the largest and only location in this country dedicated to the sale and display of the entire enamels collection
The History of English Enamels
Small boxes enameled on copper were first made in England in the 1740s. Examples from the period are not only rich in design, they also embrace a fascinating history of craftsmanship.
As highly decorative objets d'art, the enamels were used by the aristocracy of 18th century England for a variety of practical purposes: to contain snuff and patches - 'beauty spots' made of black paper or taffeta - and cachous to sweeten the breath. Boxes intended for breath mints, called bonbonnieres, were made in sculptural form with a porcelain lid and an enamel base.
Toward the turn of the 19th century, the industry began to decline due to the effects of the Industrial Revolution, political factors, and the waning popularity of both snuff and patches. The little boxes simply went out of fashion, and by 1840 production of English copper enamels had ceased. The craft lay dormant for 130 years until the skills were reborn in the 20th century.
Rebirth of a Tradition
Susan Benjamin, assisted by a team of artists, creates each Halcyon Days Enamels design in her Brook Street, London studio.
The exceptional variety of the designs is inspired in part by historic artifacts. Inspiration might be a detail from an ancient tapestry, a famous painting, a motto or quotation, or an original 18th century enamel from Halcyon Days' private collection. The relationship with leading international museums including the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Smithsonian, and the An Institute of Chicago provides license to copy master works on the enamels.
Mrs. Benjamin is personally involved in the design process from initial inspiration to the final approval of the master sample. A proposed design is reviewed and amended at least six times before the artwork and color choices are finalized.
One-third of the collection is retired each season to make room for over 120 new designs introduced annually. Including corporate and other special commissions, Susan Benjamin has created over 6,300 unique pieces since 1970.
In recognition of excellence for service and quality, Halcyon Days has been granted the maximum number of Royal Warrants a business may display - four. Only eight English companies in the world have achieved this honor.
Following Mrs. Benjamin's precise specifications and the traditional enameling process, Bilston & Battersea Enamels produces the collection. Six separate inspections in the production process ensure each piece meets the strictest standards of quality. The process is extremely labor intensive and to achieve the renowned mellow, creamy finish of the pieces, each must receive numerous firings. Beginning with two artists in 1970, the factory now employs over 150 artisans who craft and paint each design by hand.
Over a four-week period, each piece will pass through at least thirty separate skilled hand processes before it is ready to leave the factory.
Endorsed by the Royal Family, Halcyon Days Enamels is the only collection in the industry granted the privilege to display the Queen's Royal Warrant - HM Queen Elizabeth II - on the base of each design. A booklet explaining the history, revival, and production method accompanies each piece (See related articles).
Halcyon Days Enamels also offers special limited edition designs; pieces that require the highest level of hand-painting skills due to their complexity. Each limited edition in the collection is numbered and includes a corresponding numbered Certificate of Authenticity.
With the success of Halcyon Days Enamels, Susan Benjamin spearheaded the revival of yet another rare 18th century English art form: the bonbonniere. First introduced in 1997, this popular collection offers 24 new handcrafted sculptural designs, including the piece entitled Scarecrow. The traditional dress of this smiling farmer's ally is embellished with hand-painted patches. Straw tufts poke from tatters in the jacket, and a small woodland friend rests by the scarecrow's side. Halcyon Days' sculpturals are marked with the Halcyon Days' emblem - 'HD London,' together with the artist's initials.
In addition, the number of ornaments and boxes handcrafted to enhance the holiday continues to grow. Limited to 750 pieces, this year's Wrapping the Presents is the third Christmas tree ornament in a series of three spheres that feature Victorian children enjoying activities of the season.
A number of commissioned pieces are also designed by Mrs. Benjamin to benefit charities, honor commemorative events, or given as corporate gifts. Halcyon Days Enamels may be individualized with special messages and "Works of Art" - the reproduction of a personal photograph onto an enamel box.
... And the beauty of the enameling technique has been applied to other products in the collection. This includes desk accessories, cufflinks, clocks, watches, plaques, and photograph frames ... all produced with meticulous care and to the same exacting standards, and all destined to be cherished antiques.