The making of the Randox Health Grand National Trophy, with Silversmith Shannon O’Neill
Last night at the Weights Evening Reception in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the highly coveted trophy for the Randox Health Grand National was unveiled to the public for the first time.
We caught up with Silversmith Shannon O’Neill, who designed the trophy, to better understand what goes in to making such an iconic piece of art…
The making of the Randox Health Grand National Trophy
By Silversmith Shannon O’Neill
I think of myself as more design lead rather than process lead, because I don’t like the idea of limiting my designs to my own level of experience. I like to let the ideas flow and a design develop, before I start to think seriously about how the piece can be made, which puts me on the road to constant discovery and learning.
This is by far the biggest commission I have ever worked on and required me to incorporate the skills of other smiths with a wider skill base, for the various techniques that I wanted to utilize and not least, due to the time scale and gravity of the commission.
It was thanks to The Goldsmiths’ Company and Padgham and Putland that I’ve been able to work alongside and be mentored by some of the very best and most experienced silversmiths in the country. This piece would not exist without their immense input and for that I’m hugely grateful.
- With something of this size, it made sense to have the main body of the trophy spun from a flat disc. Spinning is one of the oldest techniques of forming circular metal components, dating back to the Egyptians. It’s a highly specialized skill, requiring a 5 year apprenticeship and is not for the faint-hearted, especially when you consider that the disc of silver needed to be over half a meter wide, whilst spinning at super high speed. Specific chucks were made and the whole process took more than 6 days to form.
- The top sweeping line of the trophy was marked out, before being pierced and a round wire was then rolled, shaped and fitted to the top edge, so it could be soldered into place. The main body was then planished to remove any visible spinning lines.
- While the main body was taking shape, work on the base section began. The curve of the lettering was first worked out on the flat and then modelled using CAD CAM, to create three flat sections of 3D printed wax, that were then cast in silver. Once cast, they were formed into the round, cleaned up and soldered together. The top wire was first rolled out from a large round wire and fabricated to fit, then soldered into place and finished on the lathe, while the base wires were rectangular.
- In addition to the base section that you see from the outside, a couple of beautifully engineered parts were needed, to enable the top and bottom sections of the trophy to be screwed together. Given the time factor, this was a huge help, enabling us to work on both sections of the trophy simultaneously, whilst also making it easier for the gilding and polishing process, as well as future restorers.
- Before the chasing could commence, both the top and bottom sections were pre-polished. This is an important step, which avoids any potential damage, caused by the later polishing, so no hammer marks or subtle lines would be lost.
- Next came the transfer of the design onto the form. Since the shape contracts significantly in the middle as well as being concave, it was necessary to make sure that the integrity of the illustration was not lost in the process. Having unsuccessfully tried to use a computer adapted version, I reverted to an old method of cutting the illustration into hundreds of strips and tailoring it to the shape. This was then combined with drawing of a grid onto the form, to keep the lettering in proportion. A white primer provided the ideal surface to sketch onto and the lines were scribed into the metal, in preparation for the chasing.
- Chasing is such a wonderful process. Unlike engraving which can look similar to ‘flat-chased’ pieces, the process doesn’t just leave a blank surface on the inside. Personally, I love the way that chasing moves the whole surface of the metal, as it bends and curves in response to your marks and then right at the end, when all the pitch is emptied out, you see the reversed illustration, as the pattern is echoed inside.
- The trophy was filled with hot, molton ‘pitch’ (like bitumen), which was then allowed to cool overnight. This provides support for the form, to stop it from denting while creating the low-relief process. The chasing tool is held in one hand and a ‘chasing’ hammer in the other, as multiple hammer blows allow the chasing tool, to glide over the surface of the metal, so creating an impression.
- All the lines were chased twice over, before the pitch was melted out in preparation for the ‘repousse’ of the lettering – basically the same process, but tapping on the tool from the inside and supporting it from the outside, to create the embossed surface.
- At the end of the repousse work, the trophy was again loaded with the molten pitch, in preparation for the final round of ‘chasing’ to create further definition and ‘matting’. The ‘matting’ created the sparkly texture on various details in the design. The whole process is quite physical, when you consider how heavy the piece was, once it was filled with pitch and this entire process took over four weeks.
- Meanwhile, the base section was also ‘matted’ to create the texture behind the lettering. It then went to the stone setters, to have the red crystal mounted in the center of the ‘O’, to replicate the drop of blood Randox’s logo.
- The final stage in the fabrication followed, as the engineered section, which fits into the base of the trophy, was soldered onto the main body.
- Both sections were then given their final polish, with a high-polished finish on the base and the inside of the trophy, with a much softer brushed sheen, to maximize the visibility of the illustration on the outside. It’s so important to get a great polish, because it’s like framing a work of art – it can either make or break a piece of work.
- Almost finished and onto the ‘platers’. The inside was given a first layer of hard-gold plating and a second lemon yellow top-coat, to create the perfect shade. The base section was plated with ‘black-gold’, around all the lettering.
- Finally the two sections were assembled!
For more information about the Randox Health Grand National 2017 Trophy please contact Nicola McHugh or Amy McIlwaine in the Randox PR team by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 028 9442 2413