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From Back to Front


While browsing a recent antique show, I discovered a delightful little copper box with what looked like an embossed design. The dealer told me it was probably made around the turn of the 20th century or at least before World War I. She said the design was repoussé on copper. I’d like to know more about this repoussé technique. Can you give me a bit of history and an explanation of how it’s done?




There are two techniques for hammering copper—chasing and repousse. The difference between the two is that chasing pushes the metal in from the front side while repousse pushes the metal out from the backside. Both techniques frequently employ a semi-soft backing to support the work material and confine the movement of the metal to the immediate area around the tool.

While the word repoussé comes from the French word repoussage, meaning "pushed up," the word chasing, which also derives from the French word chasser, meaning ”to drive out.” Repoussé is a metalworking technique in which an artisan shaped a malleable metal by hammering from the reverse side to create a design in low relief. Chasing is a similar technique in which the piece is hammered on the front side, sinking the metal. The two techniques are often used in conjunction. Many metals can be used for chasing and repoussé work, including gold, silver, copper, and alloys such as steel, bronze, and pewter. Toolmarks are often intentionally left visible in the result.

With the simplest technique, sheet gold could be pressed into designs carved in intaglio in stone, bone, metal or even materials such as jet. The gold could be worked into the designs with wood tools or, more commonly, by hammering a wax or lead "force" over it.

Both techniques date from antiquity and have been used widely with gold and silver for fine detailed work, such as the burial mask of King Tutankhamun, and copper, tin, and bronze for larger sculptures, such as the Statue of Liberty. Both methods require only the simplest tools and materials, and yet allow great diversity of expression. They’re also more affordable, since there’s no loss or waste of metal, which mostly retains its original size and thickness.

Before the use of repoussé, ancient artisans pressed gold sheet into a die to work it over a design in cameo relief. Here the detail would be greater on the back of the final design, so some final chasing from the front was often carried out to sharpen the detail.

In 1400 BCE, ancient Egyptians used resin and mud as a softer backing for repoussé. The use of patterned punches dates back to the first half of the 2nd millennium BCE Craftsman made the simplest patterned punches using loops or scrolls of wire.

By 400 BCE., the ancient Greeks had begun using a combination of punches and dies on a beeswax backing to produce repoussé on their bronze armor plates.

The largest known sculpture created with this technique is the Statue of Liberty in Upper New York Bay. The French artisans formed the statue using copper repoussé in sections using wooden structures to shape each piece during the hammering process.

The Keswick School of Industrial Arts
The resurgence of repousse and chasing first occurred in England during the late 19th century. Most notably was the work produced at the Keswick School of Industrial Arts, founded in November 1884 in Kewwick, Cumbria, England, by Canon Hardwicke and his wife, Edith Rawnsley. They originally set it up in the Crosthwaite Parish Rooms as an evening class in woodwork and repoussé metalwork under the supervision of a professional woodcarver and a local jeweler. Hardwicke designed the curriculum to teach new skills to unemployed workers during the winter months.

The landscape and history of the English Lake District provided inspiration for the students’ copper work. They borrowed interlaced patterns from 17th-century carved oak furniture, believing that they were Norse motifs.

The school prospered and swiftly developed a reputation for high quality copper and silver decorative metalwork. By 1888 nearly 70 men were attending the classes. By 1890 the school was exhibiting nationally and winning prizes; With the number of students increasing, the school had outgrown its cramped home in the parish rooms, and Rawnsley raised funds from the sales of the school’s products for a purpose-built school nearby.

The Newlyn Industrial Class
The Newlyn Industrial Class, later renamed the Newlyn Art Metal Industry, established in 1890 by John D. Mackensie, was similar to the Keswick School with which it shared a common philanthropic purpose. Inspired by the teachings of John Ruskin, it aimed to provide a source of employment in small communities where work came and went with the seasons. At the Newlyn classes, held in a net loft above a fish-curing yard, the students were mainly fishermen, while at Keswick, pencil makers joined laborers, gardeners, shepherds, and tailors learning new skills.

Both metal workshops specialized in the production of repoussé copper work, The fact that this technique and material were popular with amateur craftsmen and women across the country shows it was easy to learn. The students turned copper sheets into simple three--dimensional objects either by folding or using wooden forms and molds.

Mackensie taught repoussé work at the Newlyn School bringing many of his favorite decorative motifs with him, such as fantasy creatures, galleons, and suns. But the wildlife of the local coastline provided an abundant source of imagery.

The Glasgow School
The Glasgow School of Art played a fundamental role in the development of art metalwork in Scotland. Under the directorship of Francis Newberry, instructors such as William Mellock Brown and Glasgow School graduates Peter Wylie Davidson and De Courcy Lewthwaite Dewar taught repoussé metalwork and enameling. The school equipped its students with the skills necessary to establish their own independent craft studios, many of them based on Hope Street in Glasgow.

In Glasgow, women dominated metalwork. One of the Hope Street studios belonged to sisters Margaret and Frances MacDonald. Another was the studio of sisters Mary and Margaret Gilmour on West George Street. Both studios specialized in hammered copper and brass work. Marion Henderson Wilson also produced fine repoussé work. These Glasgow women were both designers and makers who used base metals, including tin and lead as well as brass and copper, to produce striking effects. The dullness of the beaten tin and lead contrasted with the brightness of vivid enamels, especially on picture frames.

The Technique of Repoussé
Depending on the size and complexity of the piece, the technique of repousse could be quite complex. To begin, an artisan turned over a copper plate and firmed it again over the pitch with the back side up. He or she would then perform the main repoussé work, using a variety of punches.

Once the artisan had completed the main repoussé design, he or she would release the piece by heating it. Then the artisan filled the cavities on the back side, created by the repoussé work, with melted pitch. Once that filling had hardened, the artisan again turned over the metal and placed it on top of a layer of softened pitch. Once the pitch had hardened, he or she refined the design by chasing. These procedures could be repeated several times, alternating between repoussé and chasing until the artisan had achieved the desired effect.

Punches for both repoussé and chasing were usually made of steel, especially tool steel—a hard alloy that could keep its shape even after years of use—forged and tempered at the tip. They usually had a beveled rear end, to better handle the hammer blows. They could be purchased and used as such, modified by the user to suit the needs of a specific work, or made by the user from steel bar stock.

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