Enchanted glimpses & the enduring wonder of plique-à-jour

Article  /  MargaretWest   CriticalThinking   Debates
Published: 26.09.2013
Margaret West Margaret West
Margaret West
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 (for Merilyn)

Rainbows enchant us.  We know something of the science behind them; but they still fill us, if not with wonder, then with a sense of magic, of experiencing a privileged moment in the natural world.  We also know the moment will pass; the illusion will evaporate.

Yet more enchantment is provided by the dragonfly — by the shimmering fragility of its wings — which must be tougher than they appear, for those multi-mythologized flying marvels predate even the dinosaurs. Inevitably, too soon, the creature will fly on its way, before we have become accustomed to its presence, and, in spite of its years of development from egg to aquatic lava to nymph, it lives only a few months as a winged adult, unless caught by a predator.  However, aspects of this wondrous beauty, both the allure and the potential disappointment of which is its fugitive nature, were captured in the exquisite plique-à-jour Dragonfly Woman corsage made by Renee Lalique, said to have been inspired by the great dame Sarah Bernhardt, as well, presumably, as by the dragonfly.   rene lalique dragonfly brooch     

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Look!  look!  there! — a rainbow — there-there, on the wall!   Small.  Intense. Captive. The sun strikes the edge of the mirror and the miracle is on our wall.  We can put our hand out and there is the rainbow in our hand.  Stand in it.  We are multi-coloured.  Move and we change, chameleon-like.  We are wearing Joseph’s technicolour dream coat . . . Yes, objectively, we have at least a basic understanding of the science of light, of the wavelengths of various colours, of how a refractive prism, a reflective edge, or droplets of moisture break light up, casting rainbows for our delight.  We know about the prismatic effect from the bevelled edge of a mirror; nevertheless, a small moment of enchantment is born.                                      

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Now, think of the almost transcendent affectiveness of certain stained glass windows: those of Chartres Cathedral, the architecture of which was adapted to accommodate them, illuminating and transforming, even from the great height of the clerestory, the otherwise sombre and cavernous spaces, providing glimpses of a divine firmament, and splashing affirmations of colour on the stone walls and floors; La Sainte-Chapelle the exquisite little medieval Gothic chapel, on the Île de la Cité in Paris —  a breathtaking miracle of coloured light; the beautiful the Art Nouveau stained glass cupola above the restaurant in Printemps Haussmann in Paris  — paradoxically, perhaps, still uplifting, celestial, in the midst of the conspicuous materialism of that temple to consumerism. 

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There is magic in coloured light — in colouring light.  We play with coloured cellophane when young (and older). Amid smiles and crackling, we remove it from the presents it wrapped and hold it up to allow the sun shining through it to colour patches of the world, or we view through its interference with the wavelengths of light the world turned red, blue, green, purple, amber (as well as, pleated, crunched, crumpled) to see and to show faces transformed through the intrigue of transparent color.  Years ago, I watched a friend cover an old black and white TV screen with multi-coloured patches of cellophane — transforming it to coloured telly for the children. The children were not impressed; the adults — mostly artists of various stripes — were diverted.

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For centuries jewellers have delighted us with their use of coloured transparent gems — those capable of transmitting light with minimal diffusion: garnet, amethyst, aquamarine, citrine, diamond (of course), emerald, ruby, sapphire, topaz . . .  Perhaps this enchantment arises in part from their ability to invoke the vision of the rainbow, to summon up our individual or collective memories of wonder at its appearance.  

Sometimes described as miniature stained glass, plique-à-jour (French for “letting in daylight” or “glimpse of day” ) is a form of enameling in which vitreous transparent or translucent enamels are fused into the openings of a filigree metal matrix to produce an effect similar to stained glass.   It is a demanding technique, requiring meticulous particularity, patience and considerable skill, so it’s not surprising that it is employed by just a few passionate artisans. However, it provides the potential to use larger areas of more transparent colour than gem-stones, thus giving jewels and other objects such as bowls a heightened impression of light and colour and diminishing the opacity and visual weight of metal, however light reflective that metal may be.  

There are several techniques of plique-à-jour. The filigree (Russian) plique-à-jour is particularly labour intensive, requiring numerous firings. The design is created shaping precious metal wires over a form, which are then soldered together; each cell or cloison, is then filled with powdered enamel and the work fired in a kiln. In pierced (Western) plique-à-jour the design is pierced from sheet of gold or silver, and the cells are filled with enamel powders, then fired.  In the Japanese technique, known as shotai-jippo, the wire cell outlines are fired onto a flux base and then filled with coloured enamels. When the firings are complete the copper foundation is etched away leaving the light shell of coloured enamel. The process can also be done using mica as a base, which is abraded away after completion.  

The technique/s of plique-à-jour were developed by the artisans of Byzantium in the sixth century, introduced to its trading partner, Russia, where its delicate intricacy was enjoyed by the aristocracy until the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century, when the skills were largely lost.    In 1123 Theophilus Presbyter, who is thought to have been a Benedictine monk, outlined the principles in his latin text De diversis artibus (On Divers Arts), and Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) elaborated on the process in his famous Treatise on Goldsmithing.  However, it was practised only spasmodically in various parts of Europe and was revived during the nineteenth century, especially in Russia and Scandinavia, to reach what some regard as its artistic pinnacle in France during the Art Nouveau period with the work of Renee Lalique.


Recently, when visiting Stanley Street Gallery in Sydney to collect some of my work, following participation in a group exhibition , I was shown some beautiful plique-à-jour bowls and jewellery — the work of Sydney artist, Merilyn Bailey  Although durable and meticulously crafted, the bowls seemed to be made of light and air — appearing to float on their delicate bases.  As I admired their particular combination of form, colour and light, I was reminded of those ephemeral glimpses of enchantment to which we occasionally exposed — rainbows, dragonflies, a moment of green foliage against the intense blue of a summer sky (you can almost hear the cicadas), the brief russet flutter of autumn leaves.  I thought then how privileged are artists like Merilyn Bailey to have the imagination and insight, the skill and tenacity to enable them to capture those moments, to transform those fleeting delights into something enduring, and to present them for the continuing delight of others.


Imagine —a tiny window at the top of a dark prison cell.  The occupant presents the archetypically poignant image of a face upturned and hands up-reaching, turning from the desolation and opacity of immurement towards the meagre and unattainable glimpse of light.  We crave the view — the experience of daylight.  It has been demonstrated that people confined indoors by reason of their occupation or poor health fare better when in the vicinity of  window.  Hospital beds next to windows have better healing rates. We not only crave light, we need it for our health and well-being.

Somewhere between the almost euphoric delight we can experience in the presence of a magnificent rainbow and the desolate opacity of darkness is a whole world of light  and of colour — both the work of nature and the work of artisans.  We can be grateful for that.

About the author

Margaret West is an artist who sometimes makes jewellery; she writes - mostly poetry and essays; she is also a gardener who admires both roses and dandelions. She was born in Melbourne, and studied Sculpture and Printmaking at RMIT in the 1950s, then Ceramics, Painting and Gold and Silversmithing at RMIT in the 1970s. She has also studied philosophy and music - piano, oboe and viola. In 1979 she moved to Sydney to take up a position at Sydney College of the Arts where she taught until 1999. West has exhibited widely in Australia and overseas and is represented in major national and international art collections. Her poetry and essays are published in journals and anthologies and on the internet. She has published several artist’s books which develop a dialogue between text and image. Her work is informed by interests which range through literature, art and music, philosophy, science and technology, archaeology, geology, botany and gardening. Concern about political issues is often a springboard for the development of work.
West employs a variety of materials and processes in her work, as dictated by the matter in hand. These, in turn, play their role in determining the focus and form of the work. Since 2000 Margaret West has been on location at Blackheath in the Upper Blue Mountains of New South Wales.