Sign of the times
Eddy Bennett has brought his skills in signwriting to reverse glass gilding, combining Victorian techniques with his pop art style. Linda Banks finds out more.
You were previously a signwriter. What led you to start working with glass?
I absolutely loved being a signwriter. It was incredibly fulfilling and there’s something very special about being in a trade where you are using a craft to make a living. All you need is a pencil and brush (plus the willingness to be up a ladder mid-January on the coldest day of the year!). However, in 2015, I discovered the art of reverse glass gilding and how I could transcribe these signwriting techniques into mirror making. I became obsessed very quickly and didn’t look back! I first discovered the craft when the work of David Adrian Smith MBE popped up online. It instantly struck a chord with me and I knew that this was the direction for me. There’s something incredible and unique about the way glass and gold amalgamate with one another and the variations in what can be achieved are astonishing.
What glass techniques have you used and which do you prefer?
There are many ways to work with glass when it comes to reverse glass gilding, all of which are processes and techniques that were invented in the Victorian Era. It’s quite remarkable to think that they were producing these high-end artworks on a mass production level in the sign making industry, with teams of the best artists and craftsmen imaginable.
The most popular ways of working with glass in this field are acid etching, glue chipping, brilliant cutting, scalloping, French embossing and slumping, as well as various gilding techniques. I have been lucky enough to try and experiment with all of these, but I tend to stick with a select few, namely acid etching and water/oil gilding.
I use acid etching on most of my pieces and it is my all-time favourite, although it requires lots of safety measures! The method requires a hydrofluoric acid solution mixed with mica flakes, which produces a beautiful, stippled emboss on the glass. Once gilded, the result is a very sparkly, gold texture that adds real depth and texture to a piece.
Water gilding is the most popular process when it comes to using gold leaf on glass. By using a gelatine and deionised water solution, you apply the leaf to the glass methodically. It dries to form a brilliant mirror finish – something that fascinates me every time I do it … What is it about real gold that just attracts the human eye and captivates our hearts?!
What is your creative approach? Do you draw your ideas out or dive straight in with the materials?
Everything starts with a pencil and paper. I’ve never much been a fan of (or been very capable of) using computers or software for drafting out ideas or preliminary sketches. I have several small notebooks that are full of ideas for new artworks. These always start with a phrase, quote or a particular word that gets me thinking. These pop into my head randomly throughout the day, so I need a notebook close by to write them down before I forget! Once I have that inspiration in place, I begin to draft up a pencil drawing of potential compositions and letterforms, which will then be transferred onto the glass by hand painting it in reverse.
What message(s) do you want to convey through your art?
Most of my work focuses on positivity and is a little tongue-in-cheek, enabling the admirer to interpret it how they wish. It’s amazing to hear how each person relates to a particular phrase, usually from a previously memory or happy time in their lives.
I also like to convey the fact that true craftsmanship isn’t a thing of a bygone era. We live in such a fast-paced world, where everything is achieved by the click of a button, so it’s nice to show skills that have been passed down by previous generations and can be appreciated today like they were many years ago. By using these Victorian techniques and putting a contemporary twist on them, I like to think that I’m reviving the old craft into a modern day art form.
What is your favourite tool or piece of equipment and why?
There are many little tools that make up my arsenal of equipment. Without a doubt the most important ones are the signwriting sable-haired brushes, which produce consistent and beautiful brush strokes, and the gilders tip, which allows you to pick up the leaf and apply it to the glass in a precise and deliberate manner. However, my favourite is just a stick…but not any ordinary stick… It’s called a mahl stick. It’s a tool that is mainly used by signwriters, giving them the ability to rest their hand for balance stability to perform accurate lines. I have just received a new one made by a friend out in Colorado, US, which has been hand-turned on a lathe using several precious woods. It’s a work of art in itself!
Do you have a favourite piece you have made? Why is it your favourite?
My favourite so far is my newest piece, ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’. I started it back in February and only finished it in September 2023, so it took hundreds of hours to complete. It has many processes incorporated into it, which took lots of planning and careful deliberation.
The first job was to acid etch the glass, then slump it in a kiln (with the help and knowledge of David Smith) to bend the glass into a lovely convex profile. I then cut the glass on a stone wheel (brilliant cutting) to make a little ‘puntie’ in the centre of the piece, before gilding with various carats of gold, from 12ct white gold up to 24ct yellow gold. With each new artwork I make, I try to push the boundaries on the predecessor, so I’m constantly learning and improving my skills. This piece has done just that!
Where do you show and sell your work?
My work is sold through various art galleries that represent and showcase my work and, alongside that, I release some originals and limited edition prints on my website too. I would say half of my work comes through commissioned pieces from all over the world, but mostly the UK and US. Currently, there is an eight-month wait on commissions, so they are taking priority at the moment.
What advice would you give to someone starting out on a creative career?
The obvious thing to start with would be follow your true passion, in whatever art practice that is. Originally my dream was to work as a freelance Illustrator, but I struggled after graduating from university and couldn’t find the right path for my ‘style’. I eventually found my calling, which was typography and signwriting, and from there it was just pure persistence and hard work.
I would recommend using social media as your gateway. It’s a completely free marketing tool, which acts as your portfolio and provides access to most people who can help you get to where you need to be. I suggest using outreach to contact the right clientele. Be persistent as they often won’t come to you! It won’t happen overnight, either, but if you are serious and committed, it will happen. Good things come to those who wait (and burn the candle at both ends).
Do you have a career highlight?
For me, it’s the times when an original artwork is snapped up by a collector, or a print release sells out instantly. These occasions mean the most to me really. I will always be grateful that people value my work.
Where is your practice heading next?
The next big destination is actually going to be Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle, Washington, US. They have invited me to be a guest instructor next year, so if you wanted to learn reverse glass gilding and signwriting with me, that’s your chance!
About the artist
Eddy Bennett is a contemporary artist working predominantly with glass and gold, currently residing in Brighton, UK. His work is praised for its intricate and ornamental aesthetic, which brings traditional, Victorian signwriting and gilding techniques into a modern day art piece. Eddy has gained an international following in the art world by mastering the ability to paint the perfect line by hand. Inspired by antique ephemera and the lettering styles of the late 19th century, Eddy pairs both pictorials and typography into harmonious compositions that evoke traditional advertising and the punchy pop art aesthetic in one.
Find out more via Eddy’s website: https://www.eddyartist.com/ and Instagram: @eddyartist
Main feature image: ‘Everyone’s a Winner’ reverse gilded piece by Eddy Bennett. All images courtesy of the artist.