June 17, 2010
For a Canadian woman in the late 1940s to be attracted to silversmithing in the Design Department at the University of Kansas is not very remarkable. But for that same woman, Lois Etherington Betteridge, to have forged a successful sixty-year career as a silversmith and become a leader of the studio craft movement in Canada is worthy of great admiration.
After graduating with a BA from Kansas, Betteridge entered the fledgling Canadian arts scene in 1952 with studios first in Oakville and then in Toronto where she made both jewellery and hollowware. Liturgical commissions were particularly important as she worked full-time to support herself in a conservative city then known as Toronto the Good. On Sundays the curtains were drawn on department store windows in order not to violate the Sabbath. It took both pluck and vision to compete in a male-dominated profession that had barely enough clientele for the few craftspeople already active. Silversmith Harold Stacey and Goldsmith Hero Kielman, both among the founders of the Society of North American Goldsmiths, welcomed her. Kielman with his Dutch training gave her instruction in chasing and repoussé and it soon became her favored technique.
Cranbrook Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, awarded Betteridge a scholarship in 1955 and she spent two years there studying under Richard Thomas, a strict but encouraging mentor. Betteridge found herself happily influenced by the fluid lines and flowing surfaces of the International Style and Scandinavian modernism as she worked in the beautiful buildings designed by Eliel Saarinen.
Marriage to British veterinarian, Kieth Betteridge, led to a period of six years in England that offered opportunities not only for bearing two children, but for continuing her craft, registering her maker’s mark at the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, London, and exhibiting annually at the Bear Lane Gallery in Oxford. When the history of women silversmiths is updated it will be interesting to read the stories of how Twentieth Century women managed households that included not only nurseries and kitchens, but carpools and studio practices.
Returning to Canada in 1967, Betteridge began receiving important commissions for presentation pieces from members of the Canadian government. A series of sterling silver letter openers reflects the harmony of her hammer and chasing tool at that time. Betteridge’s ability to satisfy the needs of the client and her own design aesthetic have been important over a lifetime of commission work. Standing her in good stead have been her direct and friendly manner and the guarantee that if the client did not like the piece, it could be returned – an offer that has yet to be taken up.
Stylistically her smithing has changed with the zeitgeist and as she interprets life in metal. At times, textured surfaces are important. At other periods, it is the idea of the volume of the piece that holds sway perhaps in contrast to a chased element. She is best known for her celebratory objects – teapots, brandy snifters, spice shakers and honey pots. Raising silver from a flat sheet into a three-dimensional work is her forte. To find silver controlled and moved in so masterful a way in our machine era is like coming across a finely embroidered napkin in a fast food outlet.
It is not that she avoids faster methods of construction, but her personal satisfaction lies in the symmetrical rows of planishing marks on a satisfyingly heavy piece of silver. Her surfaces are richly reflective. Herein also rests her reputation for high quality craftsmanship. No shortcuts are allowed that would detract from the final finish of a piece. Details are relished – screws and bolts are handmade; stones are set in hidden places. Function is important, but may be disguised or embellished so at first glance a teapot is a bird.
If a piece of silver can speak something of its time, Betteridge’s would talk of the freedom of a woman artist to imagine strong fanciful forms that function with flare for owners who relish the tradition of wrought objects. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of her career is that she was able to work in an uncompromising way, secure in her own aesthetic.
Canada is richer not only for Betteridge’s body of work, but for her passing on of traditional silversmithing techniques and her enthusiasm for the field. She taught for almost 20 summers at the Haliburton School of the Arts, Sir Sanford Fleming College, Ontario, and has given countless workshops and lectures in jewellery and metal departments in Canada and abroad. Perhaps the most magnanimous teaching has occurred in her own studio where apprentices lived the life of a silversmith from talking ideas to cleaning the polishing machine. One apprentice, Lisa Ridout of Ontario, attributes her own learned perfectionist tendencies to Betteridge’s “high benchmark” of quality craftsmanship.
Contemporary silversmithing has a presence in Canada today that is surprising given the population of the country and its historic indifference to handmade silver objects. Betteridge has bred a community of makers of hollowware who have banded together to organize exhibitions across the country. For her 70th birthday, the MacLaren Art Centre in Guelph, Ontario, staged an exhibition of her work. In her generosity Betteridge asked other silversmiths to exhibit with her, and a permanent collection of silver work was established by the Centre. Her 80th birthday brought about a similar exhibition at Jonathon’s Gallery in London, Ontario. Another exhibition of silversmithing is planned to coincide with the 2013 SNAG Conference n Toronto.
Aside from the talent, vision and drive needed for sixty years of continuous making, physical stamina and fun have also been essential to Betteridge’s success. Whatever ailment came her way, she courageously overcame it. With the loving support of her husband (also her photographer) and her family, she never quit the bench. Socially, she looks for opportunities to connect with people. There is never just an opening reception; there needs also to be a dinner or a party afterwards.
Internationally Betteridge has exhibited widely and her work is in important collections from Scotland to Greece. With 26 solo exhibitions, hers is an enviable record.
In recognition of Betteridge’s creative work and her generous sharing of skills, she has received numerous honors: the Order of Canada, the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee medal, the Saidye Bronfman Award, The M Joan Chalmers 15th Anniversary Award, election as a distinguished member of SNAG whose board she served on from 1984-88, and to the Royal Canadian Academy of Art.
Canada has many other fine women smiths including Kye-yeon Son, Brigitte Clavette and Karen Cantine. Among the men are silversmiths Don Stuart, Mike Massie and Ross Morrow. All acknowledge Betteridge as Queen and, like Victoria’s reign, it is proving to be a long and productive one.
Anne Barros is a silversmith and author of Ornament and Object: Canadian Jewellery and Metal Art 1946-1996.