Elizabeth Copeland Rare Sterling & Enamel Covered Box, Boston, c. 1910-20
This exceptional jewelry or ring box was made by one of the leading enamelers and metalsmiths of the arts & crafts movement. Featuring a domed, hinged lid with applied wires, balls and cloisonné enamel decoration, this box boldly expresses the medieval aesthetic that inspired it.
Framed in a Gothic quatrefoil, the central medallion shows a female dressed in a navy blue robe or dress with matching hat in a pastoral setting with undulating hills and trees. Copeland used portrait decoration very rarely and this is the only surviving example of which we are aware.(1)
Underneath, eight demi-spherical feet support the box. The side, decorated with wire and balls like the lid, is separated into eight sections with Romanesque arches. Copeland's work proudly shows her hand worked details.
A student of medieval enameling, Copeland believed the 'honest' hand work and craftsmanship of her unique creations should be celebrated differentiating her work from the meticulously finished objects of the 19th century. Many of her pieces reflect her appreciation of Limoges enamels from the 12th through 15th centuries.
Elizabeth Ethel Copeland was born with her twin sister, Frannie, in North Chelsea (now Revere), MA on August 23, 1866. By the late 1870's, her family had moved to a farm in Bedford, where they sold a range of products - dairy, eggs, chicken, and fruit - with an estimated value of $1,345.00 in 1879.(2)
This image from Google Maps shows the farm house (with later front room addition) at 394 North Road in Bedford. Period maps show a small barn behind where the garage is today. Even though Copeland and her sister moved to Boston, land records indicate they continued to own and rent the farm into the 1920's.
In her 30's, Copeland started traveling into Boston once a week for art instruction. During a metalworking class, she became friends with Sarah Choate Sears, a philanthropist and leader of the arts and crafts movement. Sears became Copeland's patron and financed her for a year in London to study metalsmithing and enameling.
Copeland produced work that was widely acclaimed as some of the finest of her era. Considered one of the best colorists of her time working in the very difficult (not to mention unforgiving) medium of enamel, she sold her works through arts and crafts societies with many of her boxes priced around $100.00(3).
Her work was included in juried arts and crafts exhibitions in Boston, Chicago and Detroit; she exhibited at the Saint Louis 'Louisiana Purchase' Universal Exposition of 1904(4) and won a bronze metal at the San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915(5). In 1916, she was awarded the 'Medalist' designation by the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts, their highest achievement - and the first enameler so honored(6).
Boston directory listings indicate that over her career, Copeland variously called herself a 'metalworker', 'enameler' and 'artist'. Indeed, her work includes all these talents. In Boston, she lived in boarding houses, primarily on Brimmer and Newbury streets. She retired at about the age of 70 in 1936, around the time that social security was being introduced.
The arts and crafts movement, meant to bring 'honest' handwork back into craftsmanship, coincided with many other important changes in American society. Women started asserting themselves in the workplace, at the craft bench, in sport and in the voting booth. At the same time, American society changed from predominantly rural and agrarian to urban. Copeland's life was on the vanguard of many of these important changes.
Today, her work appears on the market only rarely and is highly sought after by museums and collectors. Many major museums have her work in their collections - including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (promised gift) and the Art Institute of Chicago.
In our research, we came across the following engaging account of her story and workshop by Hazel Adler in the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine of 1916:
In Boston our first objective point was the workshop of Elizabeth Copeland, enameler. Entering the dim room on the second floor back of an old building, we came upon a tall woman, garbed in an all-inclusive apron, moving with business like precision between two long tables laden with an assortment of tools and broken bits of colored glass and wires.
As we approached one table we saw a little silver box the cover and sides of which were being filled with brilliant, translucent enamels of such colorful and imaginative charm that for a moment we almost imagined that we were looking at the opalescent green lights in the depths of the sea or the blue of deep evening or the purple shadows of the moon.
One needs to know very little about enamel to feel the spontaneity and beauty of this work, but when one stops to consider that enamel is one of the most difficult means of artistic expression and has deteriorated gradually since its high-water mark in the fifteenth century, we turn to look again at this retiring New England woman whose art rivals some of the glorious achievements of the Renaissance.
The story of Miss Copeland's life is touched with many of the romantic qualities which lie in her work. From the endless duties of a rural household she managed with great effort to escape once a week during four years to come up to Boston to an art school without hope or possibility of ever increasing her vision or powers beyond what this school had to give her. In the fourth year she entered the metal-working class, and there attracted the attention of Mrs. J. M. Sears, a patron of enamels and herself an enameler. Through her sympathetic understanding and beneficence the gate of opportunity was suddenly flung open to the unbelieving girl, and she was sent abroad to study enameling under the greatest teachers the time afforded.
Making herself independent of Mrs. Sears's generosity as soon as possible, although her kindness is still a source of inspiration for every new piece of work, she established herself in the little back room in Boylston Street, and worked away day after day from early morning until evening, evolving new ideas and new possibilities, knowing her existence will never be long enough to achieve them all. Some of her work has found its way into Mrs. Sothern's [Julia Marlowe Sothern was a famous Shakespearean actor and important patron of the arts & crafts movement, including Arthur Stone's shop] notable collection of American craftsmanship, and into a few of our most progressive American art museums.(7)
This rare arts & crafts silver and enamel box is signed underneath 'EC'. It measures 3.5 inches in diameter by 2 inches in height, weighs 7.50 troy ounces and is in excellent antique condition with one small chip to the enamel.
Provenance: Caroline Alger Shelden/ Annette Shelden Stackpole of Detroit, by descent.
The only other example of her portrait work we have seen is illustrated in 'Rich Designs for Jewelry Boxes' by Lillian L. Tower in The Craftsman, December 1911, p. 322.
'Schedule 2. - Productions of Agriculture' in Bedford, 9 & 10 June 1880, Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, from Ancestry.com accessed 23 March 2015.
Pricing information is culled from surviving financial records of the Society of Arts and Crafts, Detroit in the Archives of American Art.
Official Catalog of Exhibits: Universal Exposition Saint Louis 1904, (St. Louis: Official Catalog Company, 1904), p. 77.
Jeannine Falino and Gerald W. R. Ward, eds., Silver of the Americas, 1600-2000, (Boston: MFA Publications, 2008), p. 337.
Karen E. Ulehla, The Society of Arts & Crafts, Boston Exhibition Record 1897-1927, (Boston: Boston Public Library, 1981), p. 59 and Allen H. Eaton, Handicrafts of New England, (New York: Harper Brothers, 1949), p. 285.
'American Craftsmen' by Hazel H. Adler in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, The Century Co., May - Oct, 1916, pp. 890-892.
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