Rauni Higson: Making art out of a precious metal

By Simon Hart

‘I see what I want in my mind’s eye and it just comes out and I’m able to make it happen’
By Rauni Higson’s estimate, this country has some 200 professional silversmiths – a scarcity which makes her a source of intrigue. ‘Usually people find it incredibly romantic,’ she laughs. ‘But they also probably don’t understand it.  The first thing when people think of silver is probably jewellery but silversmithing, strictly speaking, is objects, not jewels. It might be tableware or sculpture so yes, it’s a niche. There aren’t that many of us.’
When Rauni, the artist responsible for the Metropolitan Cathedral’s new processional cross, adds that it is ‘not an easy way to carve out a living’, it calls to mind the lyrical description she gave BBC Radio 4 earlier this year of ‘hammering, filing, stoning, shaping, forming, soldering’ – in short, the physical challenge of working on one of the large, flat sheets of silver which arrive at her studio in a converted chapel in Snowdonia’s Nantlle Valley. ‘It’s more physical than people might think. Just because silver is a precious metal, people think of it in terms of being small but if you’re working on a big scale it is like blacksmithing in a way, albeit more refined and cold.’
It was in December 1997 that she started out as a full-time silversmith. Once a lab technician, Rauni had taken a different path after being made redundant, her four years of training including three at the Lahti Design Institute in Finland – her mother Pirkko’s home country and source of her own unusual first name. A limited understanding of Finnish was no impediment given it led to ‘a lot of observation and understanding the feeling of what was going on’ – vital skills when working with silver. She explains: ‘It’s a beautiful material and it bewitches you because it’s so malleable. There is nothing you can’t do with silver, you just have to take the time to bend it to your will, as it were. It’s extremely malleable and ductile, it has plasticity.
‘When you change the shape of silver, by hammering generally, you’re putting time and energy into moving it and it gets hard as you’re working it. You can soften it by annealing it, which is heating it with a blowtorch till it’s red-hot, and then it relaxes to where it was and you start again. Incrementally you change the shape and as long as you do that enough times, absolutely anything is possible.’ Including her seven-and-a-half-foot cross for the Cathedral. ‘To be trusted with that was quite a big deal for me because I’ve got some idea of how much people are invested in that type of object,’ adds Rauni, though that trust reflects the recognition she has earned for her sculptural work inspired by nature.
One notable example was the rosewater dish she had commissioned by the Goldsmiths’ Company in London in a ‘watershed moment’. She explains: ‘It was massive, 50cm in diameter. At the time it was by far the biggest thing I’d done. Myself and a friend, Angela Cork, were the first two women to have been commissioned by the Goldsmiths’ Company to make something for their showpiece display. It was a commission for Lord Sutherland who, sadly, has now died but was a great lover of the wilds of Scotland and I was able to incorporate my love of mountains into the piece.’

The mountains of North Wales, to be precise, though for Rauni there is nowhere quite like her studio – at least not on those days ‘when everything flows and you just get lost in it, and I see what I want in my mind’s eye and it just comes out and I’m able to make it happen in three dimensions in the real world.’ Intriguing indeed.