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Kevin Coates: A Hidden Alchemy. Goldsmithing: Jewels and Table-Pieces

Book  /  ArtistsArnoldsche
Published: 04.06.2008
Kevin Coates: A Hidden Alchemy. Goldsmithing: Jewels and Table-Pieces.  © By the author. Read Copyright   .
Elisabeh Goring
Helen Clifford
Nel Romano
Text by:
Sir Roy Strong
Edited by:
Arnoldsche Verlagsanstalt GmbH
Edited at:
Technical data:
316 pages, hardcover clothe bound, 670 colour illustrations, text in English, 21.5 x 32 cm
from $ 54.75
Kevin Coates: A Hidden Alchemy. Goldsmithing: Jewels and Table-Pieces.  © By the author. Read Copyright   .
Newton’s Apple
Mounted pin-brooch, 2007
20ct. gold, carved and engraved coral (re-cycled), carved apple-green jade, 18ct. red gold, 18ct. white gold pin; mount: mixed media
H. (without pin) 34 mm, W. 24 mm
Signed and dated
Photo: Clarissa Bruce

The greatest scientists, like our equally visionary poets, have always made their leaps of understanding (and their subsequent explanations) through the mercurial mental process of metaphor. The genre-defining ‘Eureka’ moment was, of course, when Archimedes understood the displacement theory of bodies (his own, in the bath) as a means of determining density through volume related to mass. This was, as legend relates, a problem arising from the royal distrust of a goldsmith, so out of ancient guild-loyalty I shall not dwell further on this particular example. Perhaps, then, the second most memorable recorded thunderbolt of enlightenment was another of science’s most pivotal moments: the understanding of the Laws of Gravity and the Forces of Attraction revealed to Isaac Newton by the falling of an apple lit by the sphere of the moon which, significantly, did not fall.
I hope my pin proclaims this understanding: the apple bearing this beautiful thought, expressed through the ‘musical’ notation of Algebra, is forever held, arrested, in a second fall into grace by the hand of Newton himself.

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“Hidden Alchemy” is the first comprehensive publication on the work of Kevin Coates. Known to many as Britain’s “archimagus” of goldsmithing, he has created tableware and art jewellery for almost four decades, working as far out of the limelight as possible. His work is independent and untouched by fleeting fashions.
Although Kevin Coates is known for his consummate workmanship as a goldsmith, what matters most to the discerning viewer is the intellectual and spiritual approach to jewellery-making which informs each of the artist’s pieces. Kevin Coates is inspired by music, the theatre, painting, literature, mathematics, mythology, science and nature. And his creativity, his “arcane alchemy”, transforms his works into superlative icons of contemporary gold-smithing. Celebrated works of his, such as “The Amity Cup”, the “Queen of the Night” diadem, the “Charter Bell” and Downing Street’s “St. George Centrepiece” are in leading public and private collections in Britain and are known worldwide. Coates is a scholar, whose PhD thesis was on the geometry of numerical proportion in musical instruments, and an accomplished professional musician specialising in Baroque and early Classical music. Concerts in which he has played have been broadcast throughout Europe. Kevin Coates is a Liveryman of the Goldsmiths’ Company and a Fellow of the Royal College of Art. He was recently appointed Associate Artist with the Wallace Collection in London.

A first, sumptuous overview of Kevin Coates’s stunningly independent œuvre: surveying not only jewellery and tableware the publication introduces his exquisite jewellery series (“The Birthday Jewels”, “The Mozart Jewels”, “Fragments”, “An Alphabet of Rings” and “A Notebook of Pins”). 

With a foreword by Sir Roy Strong. 
Kevin Coates: A Hidden Alchemy. Goldsmithing: Jewels and Table-Pieces.  © By the author. Read Copyright   .
Oedipus and the Riddle of the Sphinx
Brooch on stand, 1991
18ct. gold, turquoise, coral, slate; stand: jasper, gold leaf
H. 46 mm, W. 55 mm of brooch, H. on stand 146 mm
Signed and dated on reverse of brooch and reverse of plinth, figure initialled
London Hallmarks for 1991 on brooch back plate
Illustrated in David Thomas (ed.), British Goldsmiths of Today (Goldsmiths’ Company, London, 1992), p. 18; cover for SPHINX: A Journal for Archetypal Psychology and the Arts, Vol. 7, 1996.
Photo: Ian Haigh

Commissioned by a couple with a profound interest in the classical world, this extraordinary sculptural work presents a monumentality seldom found, and not usually looked for, or expected, in the world of jewellery. Both content and presentation make playful reference to the owners’ important collection of antiquities: thus the Sphinx has been reduced by Coates to the minimum necessary to ask its question – a fragmentary mouth which, to judge by the exquisitely modelled, listening, Oedipus, would come from a figure of truly gigantic proportions.
This is a stone Sphinx of vibrating blue turquoise, breathing its mystery into the intense golden figure clinging so closely, mounted on its stand in the manner of a museum specimen, a gesture simultaneously undermined by the presence of the evidently living Oedipus. Coates makes further play with our acceptance of the Sphinx’s lips as ‘genuine’ fragment by inlaying into its surface two unexpected intersecting lines of red coral, which divide the carving into asymmetrical fields, the vertical line being extended, in colour reversal, into the dado of the plinth. The significance of these lines has been explained elsewhere by the artist*1: they represent for him the weft and warp of Greek Time – the horizontal Chronos and the vertical, mythic, Kairos. This last line of Time – the Time of myth – leads us literally into the earth-based plinth, where, in the cryptic form of symbols engraved and gilded in the slate of the base, Coates, in the rôle of Sphinx, asks us: “which creature in the span of his day walks first on four legs, at midday on two legs, and into his evening on three?” F.C. 1992

*1 See introductory ‘Statement’ in Kevin Coates, Kevin Coates. Goldsmith (Goldsmiths’ Company, London, 1991); and Fragments (Arsenale Editrice, Venice, 1999).

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Kevin Coates: A Hidden Alchemy. Goldsmithing: Jewels and Table-Pieces.  © By the author. Read Copyright   .
Ring, 2005
20ct. gold, baroque pearl, mother-of-pearl
H. 33.5 mm, W. 25.5 mm, D. 33.5 mm
Signed and dated
Photo: Clarissa Bruce

A few years ago, I received one of those intriguing little boxes in the post which usually celebrate the remote cutting of a wedding-cake. Upon opening it, the box, bereft of nuptial crumbs, cradled instead a lonely baroque pearl, shyly featuring not one, but two, ‘nipples’. The charming accompanying note from a fellow jeweller, well-known for her wonderful work with pearls, said that she thought that I may be able to think of something to do with it. It remained fallow, but not forgotten, for some time, until the idea for this ring about Yseult (for Wagnerians: Isolde) occurred.
I bisected the orphan gem in order to liberate the two wanton nipples, and although the refractory qualities of mother-of-pearl differ from the superficial aspects of pearls themselves, I managed to find a good colour and nacre-density match from which to carve the segment of face.
The power of drapery to conceal and reveal, to reserve and to promote, is immense – here I also wanted it to stifle and restrict, to reflect Yseult’s fatal love for Tristan. That was a passion destined never to be celebrated with its wedding cake…

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