Highlighting Women Makers: Elizabeth Copeland's Unconventional Style, Captured in Silver and Enamel
Elizabeth Ethel Copeland, a talented and prominent American enamelist and metalsmith of the Arts & Crafts period, hid away her artistic ambitions for years until the approximate age of 34, when she ultimately managed to juggle her duties on her family’s dairy farm with art and design classes at the Cowles Art School in Boston, Massachusetts. Originally a native to North Chelsea (now known as Revere), Massachusetts, her family lived on a farm in Bedford, where they sold a range of products, including dairy, eggs, chicken, and fruit. From 1896 to 1900, Copeland pored over her school notes, studying while also completing her chores, pinning design problems above the ironing board in the kitchen, quipping once upon recollection of this, that “no doubt the garments suffered.”
Thankfully, Copeland persisted in traveling a few times a week to Boston, studying design with Amy Sacker—the American book designer and illustrator—and attracting the attention and friendship of Sarah Choate Sears in 1901, who she likely met in a metalworking class taught by silversmith and enameler, Laurin Hovey Martin. Sears was a wealthy and accomplished philanthropist, collector, photographer, and watercolorist who had won prizes at four world expositions, and was widely considered to be a leader of the Arts & Crafts movement. The gate of opportunity was opened for Copeland as Sears offered to financially support her as a patron, sending her to London for a year in 1908 to apprentice in metalsmithing, and to study under the great enamelist, Alexander Fisher. Soon after Copeland’s return to Boston, Sears gave her bench space in her own studio, and, after a brief stint with the Handicraft Shop, Copeland established her own independent studio, where she would remain until 1927.
Copeland’s work found significant acclaim throughout her career, with evidence of her talent appearing as early as 1903, when her enamelwork was featured in The Craftsman, accompanied by an article which states that Copeland was “showing great vigor and simplicity of treatment and a style quite her own,” noting the “brilliancy and luminous effect” of her enameling. Soon after, in 1906, Copeland was featured in an essay by Irene Sargent, for an issue of The Keystone, in which Sargent called her out: “The traditional figure of the enamelist [...] is masculine [...] Miss Copeland working at her furnace [...] possesses attractions quite other than those belonging to the woman who paints a portrait or who illustrates a book.” The description that Sargent uses here, referring to enameling as ‘masculine,’ alludes to the process through which enamel is heated and reheated, with harsh conditions created by furnaces, which was considered to be more suitable for men to endure—a common misconception that Copeland worked diligently to dispel throughout her career.
Copeland largely gravitated towards, and excelled at, medieval enameling, with the majority of her pieces reflecting her appreciation of Limoges enamels from the 12th to 15th centuries. Copeland long believed that the handwork and craftsmanship of her distinctive creations should be celebrated, differentiating her work from more finished styles of the 19th century. Copeland and her patrons lauded the irregularities and asymmetrical qualities of her work, which emphasized the individuality of handcraftsmanship that defined the Arts & Crafts movement. While she began as a jeweler, working in silver, precious stones, and enamel, Copeland’s unparalleled silver boxes—reinterpretations of medieval era covered caskets—are exceedingly rare, and particularly admired by today’s collectors. Between 1915 and 1922, Copeland broadened her repertoire with the addition of new forms and increasing the scale of her work, expanding from jewelry and small boxes into candlesticks, chalices, and other decorative arts, examples of which can now be found in museums across the nation.
Additional works by Elizabeth Copeland (Chalice resides at the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement; Brooch and Candlestick both reside at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts)
The inclusive nature of the Arts & Crafts movement certainly offered new opportunities for women, particularly those interested in jewelry and metalwork, and for nearly 40 years, Copeland appears to have made her living exclusively as a metalsmith—no small feat for a woman at that time. Boston directory listings show that, over the course of her career, Copeland called herself a “metalworker,” an “enamelist,” and an “artist,” and truly, all three are represented in her works. The Arts & Crafts movement meant to bring “honest” handwork back into craftsmanship, and happened to coincide with other changes in American society at the time, as women started to assert themselves more in the workplace, at the craft bench, and at the voting booth. Just as Copeland had in her own life, America was moving away from the rural lifestyle and leaning ever more towards the urban.
Small, handmade tablewares with enameled decoration were popular in the early 20th century, just as the Arts & Crafts movement was at its peak. Louis Comfort Tiffany employed a number of women who worked on enameled boxes that were in high demand because of their exceptional quality, but several other artists made a name for themselves in this arena as well, including Copeland. Her work was considered some of the finest of her era, and she became known as one of the best colorists of her time working in enamel, a challenging and unforgiving medium. By treating the surface of these small boxes much in the same manner that a jeweler would treat a jewel, Copeland paired brightly-colored enameled petals and leaves with cabochon gemstones. Her technique of crafting the enamel surface to resemble cabochon gemstones, as well as her distinct metalwork, made her work distinctive and immediately identifiable—an enameled silver box in the collection at the Art Institute of Chicago illustrates these techniques perfectly. Her precision in the execution of her metalwork and enameling ensured that boxes such as these were superbly made, and still highly collectible to this day.
Elizabeth Copeland Covered Box, in collection at the Art Institute of Chicago
Although Copeland’s characteristic enameling style evokes the Middle Ages, the motifs she employed were particularly unique to her. Each box was designed to be one of a kind with its color palette, paired with metal wire decoration outlining the enamel, as well as dividing the surface of the object. While her creations typically feature a floral motif, each is defined into smaller areas for its enamel ornamentation. On the lids of her boxes, she placed detailed enamel designs in a central shape, creating concentric areas around the main motif as a border. This can be seen in a silver box that is now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where Copeland crafted a four-petal flower encircled by a floral garland. Copeland also played with the idea of negative space in her works, often leaving the outlines of flowers notably empty, without enamel. In some additional examples of smaller square-shaped boxes by Copeland, she confines the enamelwork to only appear on the surface of the lid, with the sides of the vessel left mostly bare. A silver box found in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, for instance, features an intensely enameled foliate design on the lid in deep shades of blues and purples, with contrasting areas in muted oranges and yellows. Copeland intentionally chose these colors to create moods, with other works from her that can be whimsical and romantic, featuring small birds or even figures. However she chose to decorate them, Copeland’s work within these special boxes exhibits versatility in color choice, as well as restraint within her design aesthetic.
(L) Elizabeth Copeland Covered Box, on display at Los Angeles County Museum of Art; (R) Elizabeth Copeland Covered Box, on display at the Brooklyn Museum
This octagonal silver box, which dates to circa 1910, shows Copeland’s style at her best, with richly-hued cloisonné enamel poppies and leaves crafted in a way that deeply attests to her affinity with the Renaissance enamelists of centuries past. She colored the petal forms of the poppies’ blooms with hues of opaque ivory and a red-orange, setting them off against a deep transparent navy ground. With irregular cloisons, geometric wire decorations that terminate in spherical balls, and a rich color palette, this box evokes a type of rough medieval metalwork paired with a touch of playfulness and romantic fancy. Featuring a slightly domed, hinged lid with applied wires and balls, the box has four compressed-bun feet that support it, with each side displaying Copeland’s handwork with brilliant detail and imaginative charm, decorated on all sides with smaller poppies in polychrome enamel and octagonal cloisonné plaques amid ornamental designs in silver wire.
Copeland continued her work well beyond the final years of the American Arts & Crafts movement, as the medieval and almost Gothic qualities that characterized her objects enjoyed continuous popularity throughout the 1920s and beyond. She never married, and thus, persisted with her craft, retiring at the age of 71 in 1937. Today, Copeland’s uncommon and boldly-wrought works are seen anew as enduring testaments to the creative legacy of women metalsmiths of the early 20th century. Her work was included in juried Arts & Crafts exhibitions in Boston, Chicago, and Detroit; found praise while she exhibited in 1904 at the St. Louis Universal Exposition; and won a bronze medal at the San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. The next year, in 1916, Copeland earned the prestigious “Medalist” title from the Boston Society of Arts & Crafts—the first enameler honored in this high achievement—and a limited number of her metalwork and jewelry have since entered the collections of a number of museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.