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The following is a copy of a speech I gave recently at The Marriot Hotel, Speke Aerodrome, Liverpool, which I hope will be of interest:

GEORG JENSEN
1866 - 1935

The Background

The Arts & Crafts Movement 1880 - 1914

The Arts & Crafts Movement, refers to a group of craftsmen, artists, designers and architects who wished to raise the status of the applied arts to that of the 'fine arts'.

The aims of the Arts & Crafts Movement, which were shared by Georg Jensen, was to make everyday things objects of beauty, which could be afforded by the working people. (Rather an irony when you consider the price of these artists' work now.)

In Britain the Arts & Crafts Movement (1880 - 1914) took hold and in France the Art Nouveau era was in full swing (1890 - 1920).

So, at the age of 14, just when Georg Jensen was starting work in the Raadvad factory, the Arts & Crafts Movement was underway.

The most prominent catalysts for an artistic movement which became known as 'Arts and Crafts' were two Englishmen: art critic & philosopher John Ruskin and artist & designer William Morris.

They believed that the Industrial Revolution and other factors had contributed to a general decline in their nation's moral well being. They felt that the availability of cheap, poorly designed, poorly made, mass-produced goods led to the corruption of traditional values.

The philosophies of Ruskin and Morris helped give rise to a new sense of artistic beauty. Some artists joined craft guilds that aimed to produce beautiful, affordable products, while simultaneously providing a spiritually uplifting experience for the artists.

Charles Robert Ashbee, (1863-1924), was one of the most influential English designers involved in the English Arts & Crafts Movement, and was a contemporary of Georg Jensen. Another of his contemporaries was Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928).

The social, cultural and economic context for Georg Jensen's career suggests the sources for his philosophy of art and work, and the inspiration for the aesthetic choices he made.

Jensen, and the other supremely talented artists and craftsmen from many countries, shaped a new field of design and decorative arts to a level approaching 'fine art'.

His Early Life

Georg Jensen had an idyllic childhood and grew up in a rural town called Raadvad in Denmark He was born to a hard-working working class family. His father was a labourer in one of Raadvad's Cutlery Factories and his mother worked as a housekeeper. As a child, he walked and played in the forests surrounding his home and developed a great affinity with nature, which is very evident in all his work.

His parents were loving and supportive of their son's artistic talent, which manifested itself at an early age when he made little sculptures out of the blue clay found in the marshlands near his home. However, the education offered to children of working class families at that time was very scant and Jensen went to work at the age of 13, when he joined his father at the cutlery factory, making wooden forms used for metal casting. This experience probably shaped his perspectives on such things as craftsmanship, machines, metal-working processes and treatment of workers.

In 1880 his parents, believing his talent should be nurtured, moved to Copenhagen, where he was apprenticed to a goldsmith. Georg Jensen's journey to fame had begun. However, it was not won easily. He also attended a technical school, where he studied drawing and perspective. At this time, he produced his first serious piece of sculpture which was a bust of his father.

Whilst at technical school, Jensen met Christian Joachim Petersen, and they became great friends. They were a great inspiration to each other. By this time, Jensen had aspirations to become a member of the Danish Royal Academy of Art.

Jensen completed his four year apprenticeship, and at 18 was able to support himself silversmithing. At the same time, he continued sculpting and in 1887 he was accepted as a student of sculpture in the Royal Academy of Art.

The Middle Years

Whilst still a student at The Royal Academy of Art, Jensen married Marie Christiane Antonette Wulff. Sadly, she died after only 6 years of marriage, leaving Jensen, at a young age, a widower with two young sons to support.

Jensen and Petersen decided to embark on a joint venture and hatched a plan to sell their ceramic work, which they had learnt to make at various factories they had worked for, such as Aluminia Faience Works, Terra Cotta Factory, Bing & Grondahl and the Mogens Ballin workshop. Sadly, their venture was not a financial success, but it did yield some recognition for their joint work 'The Maid on the Jar' - an earthen ware jug with a small female figure perched on the rim.

Jensen had also met with Johan Rohde who was already a celebrated painter/designer. Rohde and Jensen became close friends, and Rohde was one of the most influential artists/designers to collaborate with him at that time.

In 1900, the ceramic jug, The Maid on The Jar, was chosen for the arts and crafts exhibit in the Danish Pavilion in the 1900 Exhibition in Paris. As a result of this, Jensen was awarded a travel grant, which gave him the opportunity to tour the continent and visit the leading art centres of Europe. He embarked on a 2-year tour in 1899. In Paris he was able to witness the Art Nouveau movement in full flower. He went to Italy where he met artists who were making great strides in the fields of applied arts, were being recognised for their accomplishments and making a living from their work, creating objects that were not only useful, but beautiful.

Eventually, however, Jensen was forced to give up his idea of a ceramics business. The success of his silverwork affirmed his skill in that media and offered him an outlet for his creative talent with the possibility of financial reward. Jensen then found employment with various Copenhagen silversmiths, one of them was Mogens Ballin who exerted a strong influence on Jensen.

Whilst working in Ballin's workshop, Jensen produced the Adam & Eve Buckle in 1899, and he received acclaim and recognition for this piece of work. It is now in The Danish Museum of Decorative Art in Copenhagen.

In 1904, Jensen started his own silversmithing workshop. His staff of 2 included a helper and an apprentice. Jensen produced jewellery and later holloware and flatware, which were displayed in a case mounted on a wall outside the shop during the day, and taken in at the close of business.

Jensen's apprentice was Harry Pilstrup, who was 14 when he started with Jensen. He remained with the Jensen firm until his retirement in 1957, long after Jensen's death. Not only did Jensen allow his workers artistic freedom, but also encouraged their independent work. He took care to credit them for the work accomplished. This, even today, is most unusual. Archibald Knox and the Liberty designers in England were not so fortunate. They were not allowed to have their own mark on their work as Liberty's totally claimed their intellectual property. Pilstrup became a well-known designer in his own right, although he continued to work for the Jensen Company.

Also in this year, Jensen married for the second time to Maren Pedersen (Magne) who had been looking after him and his family since his first wife died.

Jensen exhibited his work in both Denmark and Germany and was achieving both recognition and success. His jewellery represented the majority of his production. He made hatpins, buckles, brooches, cuff-links, rings, necklaces and bracelets, as well as holloware.. People soon recognised the quality and beauty of Jensen's work.

In 1907, Jensen's second wife, Magne, died, leaving Jensen widowed a second time and with 3 children. However, later that year Jensen met and married Laura Julie Johanne Nielsen (Johanne). This proved to be an important step for Jensen's business life as well as his personal one. Johanne's large family soon became an integral part of the Jensen Company. By 1908, the staff of the company had grown to 11, including Johanne's brother, her brother-in-law, Gundolph Albertus, Johanne's sister and later her sister's husband, Thorolf Moller.

Business continued to expand and stores opened in Germany then London, Paris and New York. However, Jensen, although a brilliant artists was not a brilliant businessman and he retained full responsibility of every facet of the business. When a financial crisis arose in 1919, his brother-in-law, Thorolf Moller, provided financing for Jensen to continue.

In 1915 the Jensen company exhibited at the San Francisco "Panama-Pacific International Exposition", where they gained several gold medals. At this exhibition, William Randolph Hearst, the Newspaper Magnate, purchased almost the entire stock on display.

The First World War struck a tremendous blow to the Jensen Company. The store in Berlin had to close. Staff could not be paid their wages. Connections with the stores abroad were severed and the Germans prohibited the import of silver into Denmark. At this time, the famous 'iron jewellery' was created, to save the company's dwindling stocks of silver. Sadly, financial difficulties plagued the firm during the remainder of Jensen's life.

After the closing the German market, a new avenue opened up. Jensen had shown his work in Malmo, Sweden in 1914. An Art Dealer, Nils Wendel, who later became Jensen's partner, had seen the exhibition and had, literally, bought everything on display and subsequently became another Jensen "emissary".

Fortunately, the success of the Swedish sales filled the void left by the loss of the German market.

And then, again, Jensen was faced with tragedy. In 1918 his wife, Johanne, succumbed to Spanish Influenza and died shortly after the birth of a son.

Financial problems were pressing on him, and his personal tragedies were a heavy burden for him to bear.

He married for the fourth and final time to Agnes Christiansen in 1920, only 15 years before his death in 1935.

 

The Final Years

Jensen's fame spread worldwide, and, in spite of continued financial crises, the company grew. A larger workshop was found at Ragnagade where the smithy remained until 1988.

Inevitably, as the operations became more complex, administrative responsibilities were assigned to a number of managers, and thus Jensen's role was diminished. It was very difficult for him to accept the changes which had occurred and he was troubled by the firm's weighty financial problems.

However, the company had won many prestigious awards, including:

Medaille d'Or in Brussels in 1910.
A Diplome d'Honneur in Gent in 1913
A Grand Prix at San Francisco in 1915
A Grand Prix in Rio de Janeiro in 1923.

By the 1920's, Georg Jensen had received honors and accolades that established his importance in the art world.

In late 1924, Jensen decided that a change of scene might lift his spirits. His personal tragedies must have taken their toll. With his wife, Agnes, he went to Paris to work and in 1925 his exhibits at the World Exposition won him a 'Grand Prix'. (See picture on my Stock Page of his 'Paris Design' bracelet).

However, Jensen and his wife, Agnes, found it difficult to settle in France (especially as neither spoke the language), and the Jensen returned to Copenhagen in 1926.

Thorolf Moller wrote, "it is disheartening to imagine the despair this creative artist experience towards the end of his life, in spite of the fact that his artistic achievements had brought a wealth of beauty and joy to the world".

Georg Jensen's career was of great significance for the design of his jewellery. His training, first as a silversmith and later as a sculptor, was invaluable when he returned to the work of an artisan and he began to design jewellery.

His sense of plasticity, of detailed design, together with his originality and high level of craftsmanship and finish, characterize Georg Jensen's jewellery. From his first pieces, where he still worked on giving an impression of depth through relief and interlacing, to his slightly later work, where he had found his lush 'rich' style, all of his pieces bear witness to an urge to create and the sculptor's joy at seeing his work take shape. Not only did he exploit the potentials of the metal, he also combined silver with 'warm' semi-precious stones such as amber, coral, opals and malachite.

Like none other before him, he gave the surface of the silver life, at the same time using stones to bring colour to the pieces. By using stones in ovals, drops and triangles, he created a surprising contrast between the stones and the detailed treatment of the silver which absolutely makes the pieces.

He neither styalised completely nor worked completey naturalistically, but rather used an idiom that, in fact, created its own flora.

The inspiration he received from other artists was transformed by him so that in the course of a relatively few years, his jewellery became completely independent and original work.

Some of the Famous Georg Jensen Designers

There are too many to mention all of them and a fuller list is on pages 300 - 302 of the book 'Georg Jensen : A Tradition of Splendid Silver' by Janet Drucker.

These are my favourites:

Torun Bulow-Hube
Arno Malinowski
Anton Rosen
Kristian Mohl Andersen (the dove)
Sigvaard Bernadotte (Mother Crown Princess Margaretha of Sweden)
Henning Kopel
Harry Pilstrup (the fish)
Two of Georg Jensen's sons trained as silversmiths and joined the company:
Jorgen and Soren Jensen

Post 1920's was influenced greatly by Harald Nielsen who heralded a new styalised style, rather than naturalistic.

Reference Books

There are numerous books about Georg Jensen. Many of these are listed in the back of Janet Drucker's book, 'Georg Jensen : A Tradition of Splendid Silver'. There are also bibliography lists in all the other books.

'Georg Jensen : A Tradition of Splendid Silver' by Janet Drucker, (Schiffer Press).
Danish Silver by Jacob Thage, (Komma & Clausen).
Georg Jensen Silversmithy - 77 Artists - 75 Years (Smithsonian).

Museums

Complete worldwide list of numerous museums displaying Georg Jensen's work is in Janet Drucker's book, page 299, English ones mentioned are:

The Goldsmith Hall, London
British Museum, London
Victoria & Albert Museum

Of course, there is a Gorg Jensen Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, where it all began!

Caroline Boom
23d May 2004