Silversmith James Biggins is a sterling example of an artist who has found a glistening niche in the world of hunting and shooting, as Will Pocklington discovered.
The PACEC report published earlier this year highlighting the tremendous contribution that shooting makes to the British economy showed that shooting supports 74,000 full-time jobs. You will invariably think of obvious benefactors such as gamekeepers and estate workers, sporting agents, gun, clothing and cartridge manufacturers, hoteliers and restauranteurs, and 4x4 manufacturers and dealerships. But if you look a little further, in the periphery of the fieldsports spotlights, you will realise that a vast array of other trades and businesses also benefit greatly from shooting – fishing and hunting, too. Silversmith James Biggins is a sterling example.
Hailing from the outskirts of Sheffield, that once mighty industrial epicentre, James (54) has been producing an impressively diverse range of exquisite silver sculptures at his bench since leaving Chesterfield College of Art, 35 years ago.
Born into the family cutlery business, which dates back to 1865, James was the first generation of the Biggins family to make the transition to working with silver, his move driven by the demise of Sheffield's once booming steel industry.
Since starting out, however, the trade has changed greatly. “I'm probably one of the youngest silversmiths within quite a distance of the city now,” he tells me. “It's much more difficult for younger people leaving colleges and looking to enter the profession, nowadays. There is a real lack of industry experience.
“What people want has changed significantly in recent years, too, and is largely dictated by the changes in the interior design of our homes. Open fires, producing silver-tarnishing sulphur, and people with less time and money to spend on polishing their silverware have had a huge effect on the trade.”
Since the advent of contemporary lighting, brighter decor and the growing trend for gas fires, contained log burning stoves and central heating, modern interior design now lends itself much more to glistening silverware. “People are warming to the idea of smaller, shiny pieces that won't dominate a smaller room, but there is no doubt that there is now less of a demand for traditional silver mantelpiece products that would, once upon a time, have been the mainstay of my business,” he admits.
James' speciality lies in crafting hunting and shooting themed pieces. The breadth of his portfolio is as diverse as each piece is unique. From ornamental foxes, cufflinks and hipflasks, to dog whistle covers, walking stick heads and paper weights – even sets of intricately crafted individual shotguns, numbered one to ten – offering the most elegant way imaginable to draw pegs at the start of a day's shooting.
Most pieces are manufactured from a raw single ingot, and come in a range of shapes and sizes, from 150mm to life-size pheasants. A current project that James is particularly excited about is a life-size woodcock in flight. Have you ever seen one in solid silver? I certainly haven't.
Experimenting with a variety of materials, from wood and plastic to modelling clays, James creates a wax mould from which the silver piece is then cast. A certain degree of detail can be achieved from the mould alone, but the final touches that bring his pieces to life are made using chasing tools, which allow him to add intricate details, right down to individual feathers and whiskers.
The form and flow of the natural world and the country pursuits theme, without doubt, lend themselves to the processes James employs, so that he is able to accurately depict every twist and turn of his subjects with life-like resplendence.
James did not stumble upon the fieldsports market by chance, though. “Living on the outskirts of Sheffield, I am very close to a number of moors. Both the south Yorkshire and Derbyshire moors are practically on my doorstep, which has proved to be an ideal resource for researching the subjects that I like to sculpt,” he tells me. “And fieldsports are an integral part of these landscapes, from small syndicates where members chuck in a few hundred pounds each, to the large scale grouse moors at the opposite end of the spectrum.”
In the busy lead up to Christmas, James spends much of his time in the workshop, but has the the odd day's beating later in the season. “I've always enjoyed walking, and shoot days are so valuable for meeting people with different ideas. Shooting people know what a pheasant, grouse or woodcock should look like in sculpture, in the same way hunting people could tell me if an ornamental fox is out of proportion or in an unnatural pose, such is their affinity with their quarry.”
This wonderfully social method of market research does not cease on February 1, though. During the last four or five years, James has taken his range of silverware to a selection of game and country fairs. “I love going to the fairs during the summer months,” he says. “They are great social occasions and a good chance to catch up with others in the trade.
“For the first time this year, we came close to losing a piece to a customer who wasn't so keen on paying for an item, though. Fortunately we managed to catch up with them.” The fact that the piece was instantly recognisable as one of James' is testament to his work's individuality.
“Usually my two sons will join me on the stand, and we have a good laugh,” he continues. “This year we went to the CLA Game Fair at Blenheim, Burghley Horse Trials, and a smaller show at Frampton. The whole atmosphere is brilliant. I love all aspects – the people, the exhibitors and the food.”
And good food is high on James' agenda – he has a keen interest in cooking game, both for friends at dinner parties and at larger events. Music to my ears. Conversation soon moves from chasing, moulds and sculpture to our favourite game dishes and recipes. I opt for a simple woodpigeon option, James is torn between proper wild boar and venison steak. “There is nothing finer than a venison steak,” he argues, smiling.
Casting is not something confined to his workshop, either. When time allows, James can be found on the banks of the River Don or nearby Lady Bower Reservoir. “Prior to the summer game fair season, I try to get out and find somewhere that I can do a bit of fishing,” he says, “Fly fishing, of course. I like to be doing something active and so couldn't be a coarse fisherman. As things slow down for me in the workshop in years to come, I hope to dedicate more time to fishing. A trip to Scotland in pursuit of salmon has always been on the bucket list.”
I'd not expect to see James feathering a Cascade onto a Scottish river just yet, though. Much to the benefit of the fieldsports community, there is a certain glint of optimism in this slowly fading industry of silversmithing, as his bottomless bank of ideas and unwavering enthusiasm will, I'm sure, keep him occupied in the workshop for a while yet.