This month's Modern Creative on copper bashing and Cornwall's heritage.
In 1890, The Copper Works in Newlyn was opened with the help of the country’s foremost coppersmith, John Pearson. For many years it provided an income for fishermen during bad weather, until the First World War and the increase in mass-produced goods forced it to close.
It was reopened by Michael Johnson in 2004. Originally from Australia, he tells us what brought him to Newlyn and what inspires him about Cornwall.
How did you start working with copper?
When I was a boy in my father’s workshop. I’d pick up and play with little bits of copper, a bit like a magpie. He was a sound engineer, working with his hands, and I followed suit.
You soon learn how to make things living in the bush in Australia. There isn’t a shop to go to, so if you want to you’re going to have to make it.
How did you train as a coppersmith?
It’s much easier to get training as a silversmith or a blacksmith, so that’s who I learned from. I learned from silversmiths, blacksmiths and armourers, from anyone I could work with really.
Even the tools you use for copper working you adapt because you can’t just go and buy coppersmith tools.
You’ve had your workshop in Newlyn for about 15 years. How did you end up here?
I’d been working in the film industry with my uncle making suits of armour and metal costumes, but always playing and making things in copper – little copper boats and things, presents for people. I’d heard about the Copperworks in Newlyn. It had a long history and a lot of people had said, why don’t you go and get it going again?
That felt like quite a challenge but also a responsibility. I had to consider what the people of Newlyn would think about it. I had a long talk with the locals, let them know I was serious and genuine, and that it was going to take some time. I got nothing but support and encouragement. Now we’re teaching the young kids around here copper bashing, teaching them their heritage.
How do you transform the raw material into a work of art?
When you’ve decided on what object you’re making, you’ll create a pattern in flat sheet copper – often similar to a dressmaking pattern. In a way, it’s got a lot of analogies to fabric. Riveting or welding is like sewing.
Getting the patinas and colours into copper is a filthy process. We use heat and chemicals to bring out the natural beauty in the metal. Most people are familiar with the oxidized greens and blues of the verdigris that you get naturally as it ages, but you’ll also get gorgeous purples and browns.
Then, we’ll seal it with wax. We won’t lacquer it; if you lacquer a metal you pretty much kill it.
How does your home inspire you?
Back in the 1890s in Newlyn, you had a wide range of crafts: stonemasonry, silverwork, copper work. The fabric work that the women were doing back then was stunning. It still has a rich art community, and it’s been lucky that it also still has a healthy fishing industry. So you still get this relationship between fishing and the arts, between the painters and the potters and fishermen, that all come together in the pubs and around the community.
Can you smell the fish? We are yards away from the harbour and the boats. If there’s too much noise in the workshop, I’ll often go outside and take a call. Within a few seconds, the client will say, ‘Is that seagulls I can hear in the background?’ Yes. ‘You’re by the water, are you?’ Yes. ‘Gosh, you’re lucky.’ Yes, we are.
Do you have a favourite stretch of coastline around here?
Cornwall’s coastline is really rich and varied. You’ll get everything from huge great expanses of white sand to rocky cliffs and coves. There’s a beautiful boat cove down Pendeen, a little place that my wife and I used to go and walk back in the early days. There are still secret spots, it’s such a beautiful place to explore.