'Bird of the Nile' salt cellar and spoon
Henry Shawah (1920–2009)
Object Place: Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States
Overall (Salt cellar): 10.8 x 4.5 x 7.6 cm, 0.07 kg (4 1/4 x 1 3/4 x 3 in., 0.15 lb.) Overall (Spoon): 5 cm (1 15/16 in.)
Medium or Technique
Not On View
The body of the salt cellar is raised into the form of a bird; cold-worked decoration creates the look of feathers. The appendages are soldered to the body, and the five sapphires and two chrysoberyl stones are set with prongs. The little gold spoon is forged.
The son of Turkish immigrant silk weavers, Henry Shawah was born in Danbury, Connecticut, and spent his early years working in the fields of design, architecture, and art education before turning to goldsmithing. Following service in World War II, he made use of the GI Bill to study design and interior architecture at Pratt Institute, graduating in 1948. Shortly thereafter, Shawah moved to Boston, where he worked for furnituremakers Irving & Casson as a designer of ship interiors. In the early 1950s, he worked for Boston architect Thomas Abyrd Epps and Newbury Street decorator Laura Appleton while teaching part-time at the Vesper George School of Art and the Fashion and Design Institute. Shawah held these various part-time jobs while earning a bachelor of science degree in Art Education from Boston University in 1953. For a few years, he taught full-time in the school’s design department, where he discovered Jewelrymaking as an Art Expression, by D. Kenneth Winebrenner. The book helped him realize that “jewelry was based on the same premise as sculpture or other fine art forms,” and he became “carried away with the idea of intimate sculpture.”
Shawah had experimented with metal from childhood, and Winebrenner’s book stimulated the idea of establishing a jewelry studio on Nantucket. He spent a few years teaching design at Boston University and making jewelry in the summer and then enrolled in an intensive master’s degree program in Fine Arts from Columbia University, graduating in 1958. After that date, he focused most of his energies on goldsmithing. He sold some work to the New York showroom of Georg Jensen and received encouragement from early exhibitions at Raybun Studios, America House, and Columbia University. Despite such exposure and a favorable review in Craft Horizons (1959), Shawah was unable to sell his jewelry to New York retailers, who felt that their clientele would not understand his aesthetic.
By the 1970s, however, Shawah’s jewelry had begun to receive recognition. In 1971 he became the first American to hold a one-man show at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London. Perhaps the highest honor he has received came from the Goldsmith’s Company, which invited him in 1981 to become one of their few international members.
Shawah made the Bird of the Nile salt cellar in honor of Julia Child, gourmet chef and television host from Cambridge, Massachusetts. He donated it to an annual fund-raising auction for the WGBH nonprofit television station. The salt cellar is one of Shawah’s few vessels, but, as in his jewelry, its form is inspired by the animal world. The object’s function relates to cuisine, the heart of Child’s interests, while the lively stance of the bird and its sparkling tail convey, for Shawah, her “zany” personality.
The artist has developed a devoted circle of collectors. Among his many commissioned works are a hair ornament made for Hope Cook, the Queen of Sikkim, and a tie clip that included metal from the first Russian Sputnik spacecraft. Handsome presentation stands often complement his jewelry and enable the owner to enjoy the object as sculpture as well. Known for his easy laughter and ready smile, Shawah often shows his sense of humor in his work. His practical jokes in precious materials include dieter’s spoons that are hinged above the bowl.
Shawah rarely draws a design beforehand. Instead, before turning to his workbench he seeks inspiration “sometimes by listening to music or by conversation, or the sky or an ice cream cone, by a dance or by recalling a previous sensation.” The result is a lively synthesis of his own personality and these far-flung ideas. He prefers to use high-carat gold and colored stones; a scintillating surface, created by cold-finishing tools, is a hallmark of his work.
These characteristics apply to the perky stance of the Bird of the Nile and its infinitesimally small spoon. They speak to the imaginative powers of the artist and his wish to communicate his love of form and metal, laughter, and life in an age in which information, rather than communication, rules the day.
This text has been adapted from “Silver of the Americas, 1600-2000,” edited by Jeannine Falino and Gerald W.R. Ward, published in 2008 by the MFA. Complete references can be found in that publication.
“18K” engraved on foot of salt cellar.
“5/67/Shawah” engraved on foot of salt cellar. “H S” engraved on back of spoon handle.
Purchased at the WGBH Boston television auction in 1967 by Mary C. Lorantos of South Natick, Massachusetts, and made a gift to the Museum in 1992.
Gift of Mary and Martha Lorantos
© Henry Shawah