The creation of the Bristol Cup and Wycombe Prize by Dr Kenneth Sanderson
I regard it as an honour and the highlight of my career as an amateur silversmith to have been commissioned to create the two academic trophies of the British Association of Dermatologists. The skills of the silversmith are not generally understood and in this account of the genesis of these trophies I am also giving an outline of the techniques I used in their making. The prizes were the brainchildren of the late Bob Warin and of Darrell Wilkinson; my involvement was almost accidental, as I shall explain.
When I was Honorary Secretary from 1975 to 1980 the BAD was just emerging from its cottage industry phase. Before I took office it had been run from the Harley Street rooms of the Honorary Secretary with the help of both his private secretary and wife. My predecessor, Joe Pegum, arranged with the RSM that I have a small office and part time secretary in the premises then used by the RSM Photographic Department off Bond Street. The day-to-day business was run from there until we moved to the basement of Blackwell’s London offices; the Annual Meeting however was organized by the President and Local Secretary in their home city. If this were outside London I would be invited to visit the President and Local Secretary to discuss the plans several times before the meeting.
Thus it was that in the autumn of 1976 I went with my partner Jane, later to become my wife, and her two young daughters to spend the weekend with Bob and Anne Warin at their lovely house in Clifton. Jane was wearing a silver bracelet and an ankh pendant that I had made for her. As we sat having coffee Bob and Anne admired Jane’s jewellery and Bob asked in some detail about how I had learnt the craft and how one obtained a maker’s mark. At that time I had been attending evening classes for about seven years and I explained that getting a maker’s mark was nothing like the MRCP, that one merely applied to the Assay Office and paid for punches of the maker’s mark to be made. Thereafter any article one made would be hallmarked, providing scrapings from it contained the correct proportion of fine silver and one paid the assay fee.
The reason for Bob’s interest then became apparent. He thought there should be a trophy for the academic side of the Annual Meeting to match the sporting trophies. In particular he felt that those who presented a poster received inadequate recognition for the work involved in its preparation. He wondered if I could make a silver cup to be presented for the best poster. The Warin Cup, I suggested, but he was adamant that it should be the Bristol Cup to commemorate the city of the meeting over which he was to preside. We agreed the size and shape and I undertook to have it finished for the meeting, which was a rather rash promise, as until then I had made mainly jewellery and spoons.
One traditional way of making a vessel like a cup is by ‘raising’ a flat disc of thin silver or other metal. The central point is marked with a punch and concentric circles are scribed in pencil. Starting from within, the metal is compressed by hammer blows following each circle, the disc being held at an angle against an iron stake. The edge of the disc is forced towards the axis of the cup and a skilled craftsman can vary the shape at will. Silver is made malleable by annealing – heating to a dull red with a blowtorch and then pickling in dilute sulphuric acid to remove the residue of flux and the oxidized copper that stains the surface. Hammering hardens the metal and annealing has to be repeated after each course of raising.
I knew all this as I had made a copper fruit bowl some years before, my only exercise in raising to that time. In the event I achieved the shape I had planned for the bowl of the cup and worked the surfaces smooth with file and abrasives of increasing fineness, a very time-consuming process. The stem was made from a piece of tubing, expanded at each end by hammering it on to a tapered brass rod and finished on my small lathe. The base was shaped by ‘dishing’ a disc of silver sheet between a domed wooden mallet and a hollow gouged in the end-grain of a block of hardwood. I made a ring of Victorian ornamental moulding to stiffen and decorate the base. I had planned to have a ring of the same moulding at the top of the stem but it looked fussy and I removed it. Before assembling the cup the pieces were all smoothed free of hammer marks and scratches, ready to be polished after the assay.
Uniting parts with silver solder requires skill and planning. The melting point of the solders varies a little to enable serial multiple joints to be made without the earlier ones falling apart. However all solders that will pass assay melt not far below the melting point of sterling silver and to get a good joint the whole piece must be raised to the melting point of the solder. The surfaces to be joined must be free of grease and coated with a flux, fit perfectly and be held tightly together while the piece is heated. I was greatly relieved when this stage was finished, the cup was upright and symmetrical and I could send it for assay to the London office in the Goldsmiths Company.
An article that passes assay is returned marked to show the sponsor (maker); the year of marking; the Assay Office; and the metal and grade of fineness. One that fails is returned cut into pieces. The Bristol cup was returned with my mark, my initials in a clipped rectangle and the three other marks at the rim. I had only to remove the scratches where the Assay Office had removed the silver for assay from several places and to polish it.
Polishing is done with a buffing wheel made of many circular discs of cloth rotating at high speed and dressed with an abrasive powder embedded in tallow. Silver is polished with very finely powdered iron oxide (rouge) that is applied to the rotating surface of the wheel. As with the other processes of the silversmith it is simple in concept but not in practice. I had learnt to avoid the beginner’s error of not gripping the object firmly and having the wheel wrench it from you and hurl it across the room. Awkward areas like the beaded moulding were finished with a rotating brush dressed with rouge. When I was satisfied with the polishing I sent the cup to an electroplater for the inner surface to be gold plated and all was done.
I think Bob Warin was pleased with the result. Compared with the sporting trophies it is small but a handcrafted cup, even when made by an amateur, has a feel that is absent from those that are made commercially. I remain happy with it, the more so as my old friend Bob Bowers who was a skilled cabinet maker in his spare time, created the case that has held it almost ever since Bob Warin presented it to the first winner. The Bristol Cup is a memorial to two fine dermatologists who represented our specialty so well in the West Country. The meeting in Bristol stays in my memory as one of the happiest I attended.
Darrell Wilkinson is one of the towering figures of twentieth century British dermatology and is proud that his achievements have been based on working in a District General Hospital. His presidency was three years after Bob Warin’s and came at the end of my term as Honorary Secretary. He decided to institute an award, the Wycombe Prize, for the best contribution to dermatology from a dermatologist who worked, as he did, in a non-teaching hospital. High Wycombe, where he worked, was renowned for its furniture makers. He asked me if I could reproduce in silver an apprentice piece characteristic of the area, a miniature Windsor chair, as the prize. I accepted the challenge.
I foresaw no difficulty in making the legs and spindles as, like the chair makers, I had a lathe, although a very small one. My lathe converted to a pedestal drill that could accurately drill the angled holes in the seat, on the upper side for the spindles and bow, and on the other for the legs. I knew the soldering might be difficult, certainly much more so than gluing was for the chair makers. Without much further thought I marked out and made the pierced back panel in sterling silver. It was then that I realized there might be a problem with firestain.
Pure or fine silver is too soft for most purposes and is therefore alloyed with copper, sterling silver having 7.5% copper. When sterling silver is heated to anneal or solder it the copper near the surface forms a dark oxide. The surface layer of copper oxide is dissolved by the sulphuric acid pickle but that below is revealed by the finishing process. The more often the silver is heated the deeper this ‘firestain’ becomes. It can be removed by filing, but that would not be practicable with spindles and legs. The commercial answer is to anneal in an oxygen-free atmosphere and to reduce the proportion of oxygen to gas in the blowtorch when soldering. The cheat’s answer is to silver plate the article.
In the case of the chair I had another option: I could use a finer grade of silver. I therefore made the seat of Britannia silver (4.1% copper) and used fine silver for the legs, spindles and bow. The softness of the metal was not likely to compromise the function of the chair, as it would have done with the cup. By this means I avoided firestain, which would have been appreciable because of the number of joints that had to be soldered.
The legs and stretchers were soldered in place without difficulty, as were the bow and back panel. The spindles were the problem; they were insubstantial compared to the seat and before the seat could be heated to melting point of the solder the spindles tended to melt. I had a lot of advice but no real help from the other members of the evening class, who regarded my project with amusement and mild contempt, they being mostly women devoted to jewellery. After a number of attempts I thought I had succeeded with all the joints, but some years later one became loose while John Cotterill was the holder of the Wycombe Prize. He rang and asked me if I wished to do the repair. I gladly accepted his alternative suggestion that he get a professional to do it. Soldering silver is rather like playing a musical instrument; one needs to keep in practice to do it well and I was out of practice by then.
The chair is housed in a splendid cabinet made by Brian Styles one of the few furniture makers in Wycombe. On it are silver plates, one recording the winners of the prize, the other the donor and the maker. I am proud that my name is in this small way linked with that of Darrell Wilkinson who has done so much to encourage dermatologists and to advance dermatology.
Dr Kenneth Sanderson