Jewel Citizen speaks to silversmith Shannon O’Neill
When Shannon O’Neill was growing up she wanted to follow in her big sister’s footsteps and become a professional dancer, however fate led her to tread a very different path. She took off to India at the tender age of 18 and studied sculpture at the University of New Delhi, later returning to the UK, where she graduated from MMU with a first class degree in 3D design. Although Shannon worked mainly with wood and ceramics in Manchester, it was in her third year that she started to experiment with silver.
Jewel Citizen – Shannon, what first drew you to working with silver? Was silversmithing actually part of your degree course?
Shannon O’Neill – The course covered wood, metal, ceramics and glass in the first year, before I chose to specialise in wood and ceramics.
JC – While still at university you won the prestigious title of ‘The Goldsmiths’ Young Designer of the Year’ award. How did you come to enter the competition?
SO – Coming up to Christmas in my final year, I was in need of extra portfolio work. Thanks to the encouragement of my tutor David Frost, I entered a design competition (The Young Designer Silversmith Award) and much to my surprise and delight, I won.
JC – What happened as a result of winning the competition?
SO – Part of the prize was to go to Nayler Brothers, The Crown Jewellers, to make the piece. Fortunately, it was made in two halves and because of their guidance and patience, I was able to work closely with the master silversmiths. By watching what, how and with what hammer, for the first half, I was able to copy immediately afterwards for the second half. Tony Bedford and his team were so inspiring – it was one of the best and most intense learning experiences of my life. It’s such a great material to work with and in the end I realised that I preferred my designs in silver!
Shannon’s career took off after graduating from MMU and she went on to work for a couple of weeks with silversmiths such as Michael Lloyd, Richard Fox, Angus McFadyen and Brian Clarke. She worked to commissions and also produced her own designs.
JC – A lot of your work has a sculptural quality about it. Has the time you spent in India been a strong influence?
SO – No doubt that played a part, but I think that all my experiences have helped inform what I make. It began with the dancing, then discovering clay and Rodin and Brancusi at art college, together with a general love of creating.
JC – Can you talk us through the stages of a commission?
SO – In most cases there’s a brief, which may be specific or not. I like to research the topic and then just let it all percolate, until something pops out onto the page. Occasionally it just comes, but often there’s a lot of tweaking and old-school photocopying, before I submit my design. I like to approach it by purely focusing on the design, before I figure out how I might make it. It’s not the most sensible way to go about it and can get you into trouble, but I find it works for me.
Examples of Shannon’s work
JC – Although you’re back in the UK these days, you lived in America for a number of years and worked in stop-motion animation. Wasn’t it quite a leap from silversmithing to working in the film industry? Were any of your silversmithing skills useful in such a diverse career?
SO – I’d just left college and was in need of some cash, when I got my first job in animation, working on Tim Burton’s, ‘Mars Attacks’. I think being able to solder was the main reason for being taken on, but my degree had taught such a broad range of skills, that it made it a perfect step into the world of puppet-making.
JC – And so you returned to the UK and are now working in conservation at Burghley House near Stamford, Lincolnshire, the grand Elizabethan home of the Cecil family. It must be amazing to work in a place and be surrounded by so many works of art.
SO – Yes, it’s a magical place to work. In addition to all the incredible works of art in the house, the beautiful gardens provide an abundant supply of nature – which is good for the soul and informs my work. I just have to remember to keep looking and trying to see it with fresh eyes.
The ‘Heaven Room’ contains the largest solid silver wine cooler in England – it’s tricky to get a sense of scale, but it’s seriously large enough to bath in.
JC – What’s the most unusual restoration request you’ve had while working at Burghley?
SO – One of the most challenging (not unusual) things was the conservation and repair of a Roman marble statue. It’s such an honour to be able to work so closely with such beautiful, historical pieces – to try and find the spirit of the original maker and leave it without making your mark.
Busy conserving one of the historical sculptures at Burghley House
JC – Although you’re busy at Burghley you still have time for silver. Tell us about a very special commission that was unveiled at The Victoria and Albert Museum in February 2017…
SO – Following an initial selection process last summer, I was lucky enough to be chosen, to design and make the 2017 ‘Randox Health Grand National Trophy.’ With just 12 weeks to make the 45cm tall trophy and three replica goblets, I needed to enlist some of the best silversmithing expertise available. Thanks to The Goldsmiths’ Company and Andy and Carl at Padgham and Putland, I’ve been able to work alongside and be mentored by some of the very best and most experienced silversmiths in the country. This piece would not exist without their immense input and for that I’m hugely grateful.
The 2017 Randox Health Grand National Trophy
JC – Do you receive many commissions to make jewellery? Is it something you enjoy or do you prefer larger-scale silversmith work?
SO – Yes, I often make jewellery, either by commissioning or making the work that often just wants to be made. It’s great to play with scale.
left: Piercing out a bracelet / cuff; right: the finished piece
JC – What would you say to anyone thinking about silversmithing as a career?
SO – I’m not sure I should be giving career advice to anyone! Sometimes I think that you don’t choose your path, rather it chooses you. Life is too short to wonder ‘what if?’ If it’s something you think you might want to do, just have a go and enjoy the process. At some point you do have to decide how much you want it – if things are starting to work out and if it still excites you, then do it. Finding a great tutor is a help too!
JC – Shannon, it was a pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to speak to Jewel Citizen.
SO – The pleasure was mine.
To read more about Shannon’s work visit her website www.shannon-oneill.co.uk