Artist Spotlight: Tara Coomber

‘My work is all about form, not decoration’

The Chitra Collection is renowned for its historic objects, however we also care for a select number of innovative modern pieces and works made by contemporary artists. We were very lucky to speak to Tara Coomber, silversmith and lapidarist, about designing and making her silver and ebony teapot – one of the most striking designs in our care.

Can you tell us how the original design of this teapot came about?

“This was a design brief set by my late tutor Derek Birch in my last year of my degree at School of Jewellery Birmingham (1998) to design a teapot/coffeepot to hold one litre of liquid. I brainstormed sketches to create a vessel that was different from the conventional teapot style in that it rested on a point and was suspended by its handle… it is like it is about to take off! I received a Silver Grant from the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths’ so I was able to make it in silver.”

The shape of this teapot is unlike any other in our collection. What sources of inspiration did you draw on?

Georg Jensen is one of my early influences. I was inspired by the designs Henning Koppel made for Jensen.  I love the flowing organic forms of his ewers, for example, that are feminine and birdlike and I think I used these qualities subliminally in my designs. My jewellery is similar but on a smaller scale, involving architectural, sculptural and organic forms that play with light and shadow. My work is all about form and not decoration.

Tara Coomber, Teapot, silver, ebony, England, 2004
Georg Jensen ‘Blossom’ tea set with catalogue, silver, ivory, paper, Copenhagen,  Denmark, 1925-1944

How did you get started as a designer?

“I think I’ve always been a designer from an early age… I was always making and creating with whatever materials were available to me, mostly from what I would find on the beach. I knew I wanted to be an artist of some kind from the age of 4. I went to Canterbury college of Art wanting to do theatre design but ended up being drawn to the metalworking workshop where I just naturally started making jewellery using stones that I had collected. Here, a tutor showed me the technique of hand-raising and from then I was hooked. Hand-raising involves taking a flat sheet of metal and working it upwards to form and sculpt a vessel or 3D shape. I visited Birmingham School of Jewellery where the basement was full of metalsmithing stakes and tools and I knew that this was the direction I wanted to take.”

Can you tell us about the process of making this work – what techniques did you choose to employ?

“The body was constructed in four parts. The top and bottom was made from a long sheet of silver cut in an elongated lozenge, which was then scored, bent, shaped over formers and then soldered to its two sides.  Those were the hardest parts to make as they are not completely flat, but subtly and softly formed, curving inwards at the front joint.  It took a great deal of time and judgment to make a matching pair so that all sides could fit perfectly as the body was soldered altogether in one go. Once the body was made I cut out a section at the top to make the lid attached by an engineered flush hinge, hidden so not to take away from the clean lines of the design. I made this on a lathe and milling machine along with the nuts and bolts for connecting the handle. The handle was made from one solid piece of ebony heartwood with a section cut out at the top to change the grain to strengthen it. It is set away from the body by the bolts to create that sense of suspending in the air.”

Tara Coomber, Ewer, Commissioned by the Vivien Leigh Fund, 2000, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Your current practice is focused on gem cutting and creating modern jewellery. What made you want to concentrate on this area and do you see any connections with your earlier work in silver?

I’ve always had a fascination with stones and rocks. I come from an island and spent most of my childhood sifting through pebbles at the beach, little knowing this would be my destiny. I was always fascinated with the idea of how a raw stone can be transformed into a gem of beauty. I wanted to be a lapidarist but sadly Birmingham didn’t have the facilities to do this so it took me over 20 years to finally be able to afford the precision equipment I needed. In the meantime, I would use softer materials like opal, shell and malachite, cutting and sanding it with metal files and sandpaper, setting these pieces into jewellery or inlaying them into the lids of silver boxes.

Tara Coomber, Mother of Peal and silver box
Tara Coomber, Mother of Peal and silver box, ca. 2001-2005
Tara Coomber,Opal and silver box
Tara Coomber,Opal and silver box, , ca. 2001-2005

Up until recently, you did not know where this work was housed. How did it feel to discover the piece was cared for by the Chitra Collection?

I was over the moon! It is so nice to find where your pieces have gone to. I didn’t have any record of where a lot of my early work was kept until recently with the rise of social media (it has its positives). When you spend hours on something, you are putting your soul into that piece so when it leaves you there is an emptiness, as if it has gone forever, but to hear it has a home alongside other great pieces, it’s like it has found its family. I am honoured it’s in this amazing collection. I hope I will get to see it again one day.