Volume 14 Number 2
The Silver Couple
01 April 2001

As Jan and Anneke van Nouhuys from the Netherlands approach their silver wedding they tell Kenneth Noble about the highs and lows of Jan's calling to be a silversmith.

Jan van Nouhuys is one of the Netherlands' leading silver artists, with his work displayed in London's Victoria and Albert Museum, but if he and his wife Anneke had listened to their accountant's advice 15 years ago there would almost certainly be no silversmiths producing contemporary designs in his country today.

In 1991 the Dutch government commissioned him to design 30 table bells to be given as gifts to the European leaders taking part in the Maastricht Summit on the future of the European Community. In 1999, when he exhibited at the Spring Olympia Fine Art and Antiques Fair in London for the first time, Karen Falconer wrote in The Independent that his pieces are seen as the possible antiques of the future. 'In a field with a history of the ornate,' she writes, his silverware is 'modern and geometrically based'. She quotes David Beasley, librarian at the Goldsmiths' Hall, as saying that van Nouhuys's work blurs the line between the contemporary and the classical. 'He is acceptable by both ends as he follows traditional silversmithing ideas of function and object, but his work has a pleasing, soft quality and is less angular than some of our British cutting-edge modernists.'

Van Nouhuys learned some of his skills at Wackely & Wheeler, the London silversmiths, and he says that a clear line can be traced from the conventional work he was doing there to his recent modernistic works.

Jan van Nouhuys did not start out with the intention of being a silversmith. Born in 1949 in Amersfoort, the son of a civil engineer, his desire was to go into teaching and drama. (He has played a convincing clown in amateur settings.) Not having the necessary qualifications, he decided to try and seek direction from God--an idea that had 'absolutely fascinated' him when he came into contact with MRA. 'A simple thought came: why not go to gold- and silversmithing college?' So he spent three years in the department of jewellery at the College for Gold- and Silversmithing in Schoonhoven, a historic town on the banks of the Rhine which has long been known as the silver capital of the Netherlands.

There followed three difficult years of repairing jewellery at a shop in the Hague--difficult because: 'I enjoyed the work but I didn't want to do it for the rest of my life. I felt trapped.' At one point, in desperation, he prayed and he felt as if a gentle voice was saying to him, 'Be quiet, you, trying to do things on your own. Just make the best of your gifts.' This made sense to van Nouhuys. He felt at peace and ever since that moment, even when circumstances have been difficult, he has felt certain about his calling.

It was in the following year that van Nouhuys went to London to broaden his experience. There he discovered that he loved silversmithing. The work was repetitious, making many examples of each design. But he learned new techniques and how to work quickly--and, just as important, he gained confidence from the way in which his foreman and employer appreciated his work.

In 1975, he returned to the Netherlands, and at the same time got engaged to Anneke. Together they decided that he should open a workshop in the Hague. With his training and the mass-unemployment at that time, it seemed the only road ahead.

Just a few days later van Nouhuys was offered a full-time job teaching goldsmithing (which, he explains, is as different from silversmithing as is plumbing from being a dentist). 'We felt called to turn down the offer and to give the workshop a chance,' says Anneke.

It was a risky venture. Silversmithing requires a large workshop with many hard-to-obtain tools, anvils and machines. And the raw material is expensive. With a big bank loan and high outgoings, it was a struggle to keep afloat. 'Jan would cycle to all sorts of jewellery shops asking if they had any work,' recalls Anneke. 'He started repairing antique silver. When jewellers asked if he could do a job, he always said "yes", even if he didn't have a clue how to go about it.'

When work was slack, van Nouhuys designed and made his own pieces, though they did not sell. The public was not yet ready for them. The fact that his individually designed, and therefore more expensive, creations were displayed among conventional silverware in jewellers' shops did not help.

In 1978 the college in Schoonhoven asked van Nouhuys to teach silversmithing for two days per week when someone fell ill, and this time he accepted.

In 1987 van Nouhuys was lucky to survive an attack of meningitis. This made them decide to move to Schoonhoven and put down a deposit on their present unpretentious but comfortable house. 'It was a big risk,' explains Anneke, 'because it meant cutting ourselves off from most of Jan's work in the Hague. We had some very lean years.' She considered getting a job herself, but decided not to because of their three sons and also because of the role she played in supporting Jan, both practically--she does most of the administrative work--and emotionally.

In between teaching, van Nouhuys had plenty of time to execute his own designs in the workshop he set up in a former telephone exchange building.

When asked whether he ever doubted his calling van Nouhuys replies simply, 'No.' What about his wife? 'I never had doubts because I believed that Jan was making beautiful things,' she replies.

But their business remained in a parlous state, not helped by a tax system that charged even for unsold products. When their accountant advised the van Nouhuyses to close, Jan was 'shocked and frustrated. I went up to my room paralyzed. Then I had a little rest and the thought came to me, "Go on! Go on! Go on!"'

A breakthrough occurred in 1988 when a dealer in antique silver from the Hague said that he thought he could sell a pitcher of van Nouhuys's. 'How much do you want for it?' he asked. Van Nouhuys named a price which Anneke felt was very high. 'You should charge double that,' said the dealer. Later he phoned van Nouhuys: 'It's been sold.... I've bought it myself.'

The van Nouhuyses started to exhibit at art fairs as there were no galleries selling contemporary silver. Slowly but surely people started to appreciate the work as art, not just functional silverware--though he insists that functionality is the fourth dimension of his work. 'Eighty per cent of the buyers of my work have had nothing to do with silver,' he explains. 'They are interested in art.'

Gradually he built up a clientele--to the point where he recently declined an invitation to exhibit in New York because he could not meet any increase in demand.

It bore in on van Nouhuys that none of the students graduating from the silversmithing course in Schoonhoven were becoming silversmiths--the obstacles were too great. So in 1990 he and Anneke decided to organize five series of master classes over the course of a year under the title of Silver in Motion. Their aims were to stimulate and guide promising designers and silversmiths and also to promote contemporary silver nationally and internationally.

At the end of the year some 40 artists of all disciplines produced designs for silverware which van Nouhuys and others executed. They held a joint exhibition in a museum in Rotterdam, and this led to an invitation to exhibit in Ghent, Belgium. Silver in Motion started a dialogue about contemporary silver and helped to bring silver back into the arena of the arts. It also sparked similar initiatives in other countries.

Although it was never the intention, Silver in Motion helped seven or eight silversmiths to get started in their careers. It was wound up in 2000 but its legacy includes an attractive exhibition centre and three workshops in a belle époque watertower that dominates one part of Schoonhoven. Two of the three resident contemporary silversmiths currently have apprentices, as does van Nouhuys himself. So the van Nouhuys' initiative has created competition whilst at the same time increasing appreciation of and demand for his art-form.

He has also spent time in New Delhi where he was asked by an Indian businessman to set up a silversmithing workshop, train some 20 local craftsmen and produce designs for them to make. They find a ready market in India, says van Nouhuys.

He sometimes works from a drawing. At other times 'I allow things to happen.' As he told the German publication Schmuck (June/July 1997), 'During this phase of my work, I'm involved in such an intensive dialogue with the materials that they seem to take on an independent life of their own.' He talks of his inner drive to make visible an idea. But he is not consciously trying to express a message--that would be to lose authenticity. 'Art and craft is a message,' he says. 'It reminds us of God as the creator. A craftsman is not just taking part in a production process, like building television sets. He is starting from scratch and seeing the creation of a design through to the end. It reminds you of how the creation of man could have been.'

He feels that craft in general has something important to say to today's society where everything is measured in terms of speed, efficiency and results. 'My work as a silversmith is inefficient. When someone buys one of my objects, he buys a piece of inefficiency.' Places like his workshop--'islands of inspired anarchy within a highly regulated state'--are needed as a reminder that there are other values, he says.

'The essence of art,' he insists, 'is not trying to create something beautiful, nor even trying to be authentic, it is being who you are and doing what you are called to do. In that sense every person is, to my mind, called to be an artist. Silversmithing happens to be my medium.'

On his website (, van Nouhuys writes: 'Why am I doing what I do? Basically I do what I like, with an attitude of joy. With a love of form, the search for beauty and surprise, with a keenness of adventure in the process of designing and making.' This May, Jan and Anneke will celebrate 25 years of marriage--25 years that have, indeed, shown 'a keenness of adventure'.
Kenneth Noble

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