Barry Thomas: Silversmith from Ashbourne, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 13:26 29 April 2010 | UPDATED: 15:57 20 February 2013

Barry Thomas

Barry Thomas

Mike Smith meets silversmith Barry Thomas

When Diana Uff completed her term of office as the first female Master of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers in its 373-year history, she presented the company with a silver salt in the shape of a globe. Inclined at an angle of 23.5 degrees to match the tilt of the earth and criss-crossed by lines of latitude and longitude, the globe rests on a silver plinth which is fashioned in the manner of a sundial and delicately inscribed with the name of the donor and the coat of arms of the Clockmakers' Company. The bowl is lined with gold and its silver-gilt spoon has the shape of Old Father Time's scythe.

This beautiful object was produced by silversmith Barry Thomas in his workshop at Copestakes Farm in the village of Bradley, near Ashbourne. It is just one example of scores of stunning silver pieces produced for companies, churches, cathedrals, country houses and individual customers. With their clean-cut geometrical forms, all Barry's creations are unmistakably contemporary, but they are also subtly evocative of the Art Deco designs of the 1920s and '30s.

Barry has not always worked as a silversmith. In fact, his present occupation is the latest avenue in a career path that has followed several unexpected changes of direction. He began his working life as a teacher of woodwork and metalwork, largely because he had been inspired at school by a superb teacher called Andrew Varah, who is also a master furniture maker and one of the sons of Chad Varah, the founder of the Samaritans. However, it was not long before Barry realised that he was temperamentally unsuited to school-teaching.

While many people are condemned to stay in an unsuitable career throughout their working lives, Barry had a stroke of luck. In 1982, the head of the school where he was teaching decided that he would make his first tentative purchase of a computer. This small step for the school proved to be a giant step for Barry, because the one and only machine that was purchased was placed in the woodwork and metalwork department. Barry tried his hand on the device and quickly found that he could adapt very easily to the new technology.

Bolstered by the speed at which he was picking up skills, he embarked on a computer course at Hackney Technical College, where he had the good fortune to be tutored by Andy Parfitt, another inspirational teacher. When Barry purchased his own computer and began to write programmes for it, he discovered that very few programming manuals were available. Realising that there was a gap in the market, he approached a publishing house and managed to convince his interviewers that he could write a manual for a Commodore 64 within a three-month deadline. In fact, he had never used such a machine in his life and needed to make a hasty purchase of one on the way home from the interview!

Although Barry had to burn the midnight oil in order to fulfil his writing contract while he was still employed as a teacher, he began to see that the rapidly expanding world of computers might offer him a way out of the classroom. After sending scores of speculative letters to publishers, he landed a job as a writer on What Micro?, a magazine that was full of valuable advice for the growing number of people who were purchasing their first home computer. With a feeling of considerable relief, he left his teaching job and began a new working life in a magazine office in Soho.

When he eventually moved on from the magazine, Barry worked on British Telecom's in-house magazine, as well as manuals for Psion, before deciding that he would try to earn a living as a freelance writer of computer manuals. Knowing that he could carry out this work in any location, he left his London home in 1988 and moved to the quieter, greener pastures of Bradley, where he still lives with his wife Fiona.

The move paid off, not only in terms of lifestyle, but also financially, because he was lucky enough to land a writing contract with Toshiba, which resulted in a manual that had a worldwide print run of 600,000 copies and was produced in six languages. Further success came when he teamed up with a doctor friend to produce medical software for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.

Ten years after moving to Bradley, Barry made yet another life-changing decision, which was prompted by a realisation that it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep pace with the ever-developing world of computers. Recalling how he had loved producing objects with his hands, Barry resolved that he would now exchange writing for making. He built himself a silversmithing workshop in his garden and embarked on a course at the School of Jewellery and Silversmithing in Birmingham.

Explaining his decision to work in metal rather than wood, Barry says, 'Wood has a mind of its own, but metal is well-behaved and does what it is told.' Having learnt to bend silver to his will, Barry then mastered the art of stone letter-carving so that he could mount some of his silverware on inscribed plinths of Derbyshire limestone. As he says, 'It is particularly satisfying to use stone that was formed thousands of years ago as part of an object that should last for at least another thousand years.'

When he gained acceptance as a member of Peak District Products, Barry was able to put his work on show in a group exhibition at Edensor, where he gained his first client: none other than his former teacher, Andrew Varah, who purchased a silver ladle. His first commission came from the Vicar of Edensor, who asked him to restore a ciborium, and this was closely followed by a request from Chatsworth House for six silver coasters.

Barry's work for the church at Edensor was the first of many ecclesiastical commissions. For example, he was asked to produce silver and limestone candleholders for the Lady Chapel of Gloucester Cathedral, three communion sets for Southwark Cathedral and an alms dish for Selby Abbey, which were commissioned to commemorate the restoration of some ancient statues on the parapet of the building. A pair of Barry's silver chalices are even to be found in St Andrew's Anglican Church in Moscow.

Barry also produces stock pieces and responds to commissions from individual customers. A rocking silver wedding bowl on a limestone plinth, which carries the words 'love looks not with the eyes' from A Midsummer Night's Dream, is a beautiful memento of a very special occasion, and his flat-backed art-deco teapot, trumpet-mouthed cream jug and octagonal coffee pot are all very striking designs.

Barry has received several important accolades for his work. A silver fish slice he made for Professor Seymour Rabinovitch of Seattle is now on permanent display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was chosen to speak to the Archbishop of Canterbury about contemporary church silver at a Goldsmith's Fair and he has recently been made a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths and a Freeman of the City of London, an honour which allows him to carry a naked sword through the streets of the capital. Should he choose to make use of this privilege, he would surely wish to carry a weapon crafted in his own inimitable style in his workshop at Bradley.

Barry Thomas can be contacted at Copestakes Farm, Bradley, Ashbourne. Tel: 01335 370655

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