The following extracts are taken from the unpublished autobiography by Dunstan Pruden (1907-1974). As can be seen from his biographical feature, Pruden was a silversmith based for much of his career in the Ditchling arts and crafts community. He taught at the Brighton School of Art in the 1930s. Pruden completed his autobiography only two weeks before his death, leaving his widow, Winifrede, to pen the epilogue. A quotation from her appraisal of her husband as an artist is included in Dunstan Pruden’s feature page in this book. We are extremely grateful to Anton Pruden, Dunstan’s grandson, for permission to print extracts from So Doth the Smith, as they give an important insight into the life of a practising craftsman and teacher who made a highly valued contribution to his subject at the Brighton School of Art.

The first of the following two extracts is taken from the opening of the first chapter in the autobiography. This is included for the information it provides about Pruden’s view of the autobiography as a form, showing his personal approach to recording his life and the selections, omissions and good-humoured self-deprecation that this involved.

From Chapter One

‘My name is Crumbfilcher, and I am the son of the great-hearted Breadgnawer, and my mother is Lickmill, the daughter of Hamnibbler.’

(The Battle of the Frogs and the Mice, early Greek satire)

Conversation in the public bar was monopolized by a group of gardeners discussing the cultivation of gourds. ‘Did you know’, I remarked idly, ‘that the loofah is a gourd? It looks rather like a cucumber before it is dried’. This surprised them, and one Archie Curry said: ‘Are you sure?’ Without due thought I replied: ‘One of my students has an aunt who owns a loofah farm in Korea’. There was stunned and prolonged silence until Archie Curry muttered out of the corner of his mouth: ‘I can’t beat that one’.

A silver dish photographed on black background. Silversmithing by Dunstan Pruden.

Dunstan Pruden, dish, on long term loan to Ditchling Museum with kind permission of Anton Pruden of pruden & Smith.

I don’t think I ever redeemed my credibility in the Royal Oak. Everyone knows that truth is stranger than fiction, but truth which seems stranger than fiction is hard to swallow; so, having learned my lesson, I resolved to include in my memoirs only such reminiscences as would not strain belief. This rules out my relationships with splendid eccentrics like the Reverend Montague Summers, who in my adolescence taught me English, History, French and Latin, and communicated to me his enthusiasm for Restoration drama but not for witchcraft and demonology: Arabian Nights characters such as Princess Niloufer, daughter of the last Ottoman Sultan, whose beautiful flat near the Palais de Chaillot contained among its treasures the best chef in Paris and a little cup carved out of a solid emerald: and Ruritanian relics such as ex-King Zog of Albania, whom I met in the south of France where he was at great pains to establish his precedence over the Prince and Princess of Monaco.

At the other end of the scale, neither do I propose to communicate details which are too personal and commonplace to be of general interest. I cannot believe that anyone wants to know how I was weaned or house-trained, nor do I consider that a blow-by-blow account of my schooldays, migrations from the blue bed to the brown, medical history, or inland revenue returns would make enthralling reading. As Voltaire said: ‘Le secret d’ennuyer est de tout dire’[1].

I sympathize wholeheartedly with Addison’s claim that he spelled like a gentleman, not like a scholar. I think that Doctor Johnson robbed the language of much of its richness and diversity when his dictionary helped to standardize English spelling. Unfortunately my wife, who is typing this manuscript, has an inflexible attitude towards orthography, and refuses to include any word which she cannot verify. This means that many of the names for goldsmiths’ tools, which were probably in circulation long before their owners were literate, have been rigorously excluded. Only after checking that they are not figments of my imagination has she admitted snarling irons, triblets, swage-blocks, soldering wigs, bick-irons, lemel, water of Ayr stones, knurling wheels and fraizers; and she had to see a touchstone before she would believe that it existed outside the dramatis personae of As you like it. As an art historian, she also disapproves of my bucolic attitude towards dates. I have caught the rustic habit of relating events to local happenings rather than to the calendar. When I am asked: ‘How long did it take you to make the Buckfast crozier?’ I tend to reply: ‘Let me see – I started it the year of the wonderful harvest – or was it the year that Joe won the ploughing match? Anyway, I finished it the year that the weathercock was blown off Wivelsfield Church.’

In the following extract, Pruden’s period of teaching at the Brighton School of Art is covered, including the growth of silversmithing as a subject area, the support of E A Sallis Benney for this development, and accounts of colleagues and local Brighton characters.

From Chapter Five

Black and white photograph of Dunstan Pruden and a printed bookplate reading Dunstan and Anne Pruden

LEFT: Dunstan on bench. With kind permission of Anton Pruden of Pruden & Smith. RIGHT: Bookplate by Philip Hagreen, with kind permission of the Hagreen family, Ditchling Museum and Anton Pruden of Pruden & Smith.

In 1934, the master who taught silversmithing at Brighton College (then School) of Art retired, and it was suggested that I should succeed him. At first, this arrangement suited me very well. There were only three classes a week, which did not interfere too much with my workshop production, and when the weather was fine I could seize the opportunity to have a swim in the afternoon. I could also have my hair washed and cut at Hyman’s remarkable establishment in West Street, the like of which we shall not see again. His window was dominated by a bosomy wax lady whose complexion was indicative of pernicious anaemia. She gazed at passers-by with a glassy stare from under an Edwardian coiffure enhanced with henna. I christened her Mrs Tanqueray. She was flanked by two notices, one of which read: ‘Perfumer to the Shah of Persia’, and the other: ‘Qualified trichologist always in attendance’. I never questioned the validity of the royal appointment. I had my own private fantasy that the Shah who had offered to have some of his entourage executed to amuse Queen Victoria must have taken a day-trip to Brighton, and bought some Californian poppy for his harem. ‘And here, my little Lotus Flower, is a Present from Brighton’. I did ask where they kept the qualified trichologist. ‘It’s me!’ piped up Hyman’s chief assistant. When one arrived, Hyman used to come forward and say in tones of painful refinement: ‘Would you laike to go through?’ for the gentleman’s department was situated beyond the ladies’. Once my wife came to collect me and found me under the dryer with my hair in a net. Hyman was very affronted when she shrieked with laughter. ‘Madam’, he said stiffly, ‘Mr Pruden has very luxuriant hair, and it has to be controlled. Yeu wouldn’t laike him to go out looking laike a Fuzzy-Wuzzy, would you?’ Fortunately he was gathered to whichever was his appropriate tribe of Israel before the afro cut came in. This was long before most men had their hair styled. I was also a pioneer of the revived Edwardian cut in tailoring, which I dropped as promptly as I could when it became fashionable; but it took me some years to wear out all the suits that I had had made in this style, for of course my Stuart blood would not let me waste anything.

I knew nothing about teaching, but my enthusiasm was infectious, and the three evenings a week grew into a serious department. As head of a department (grandly designated as lecturer in charge of silversmithing) I was expected to work full-time, and it was not easy to make educationists understand that if I was any good at my craft I could not spare so much time away from my workshop. Eventually I evolved a scheme whereby I attended the college for two and a half days a week, into which I packed nine classes; for the rest of the week, classes were conducted by an assistant to whom I was always available by telephone. I cannot pretend that this was an ideal arrangement, or that the authorities were entirely satisfied with it, but they allowed themselves to be convinced that I could not regard teaching as a career, although I quite enjoyed it.

Image of frontispiece to the book Silversmithing its principles and practice in small workshops by Dunstan Pruden. Also a silver chalice.

LEFT: Cover of Silversmithing by Dunstan Pruden, 1933. Engravings by Philip Hagreen. With kind permission of Mary Hoar (loan of book) and Anton Pruden of Pruden & Smith. RIGHT: Dunstan Pruden, chalice, on long term loan to Ditchling Museum, with kind permission of Anton Pruden of Pruden & Smith.

As well as showing pupils how to use tools, I lectured on art history from a goldsmith’s angle. I was amazed at the paucity of general knowledge that seemed to be almost the rule among them [the students]. They may not have agreed with Henry Ford that history is bunk, but it was certainly a closed book to most of them; so I used to invent mnemonics to help them to place artists and movements in context. Once a term I took them to London for a day, where we visited museums and art galleries, notably the Victoria and Albert and the British [Museum]. After lunch in Soho I used to take them to Kettner’s where, with the enthusiastic support of the management, I delivered a short lecture on wine against a background of bins and bottles. On more than one occasion I took them to my old haunts in Hammersmith, and they loved to play skittles in the alley of the Black Lion where in former times my father might have been found ‘throwing a cheese’ or drinking with Alan Herbert. This was all an anticipation of things to come, for nowadays the syllabus of students has been widened to include ‘liberal studies’.

All the time I knew that the whole of silversmithing could not be learned in an art school, however much one tried to reproduce workshop conditions. The college was lucky enough to have, in Sallis Benney, a principal who was sufficiently enlightened to recognize this. He asked me if his son Gerald Benney, who was in my department, could work in my workshop one day a week. A precedent was thus established and Gerald was followed by other students. I often look back with shame on the way in which I subordinated everything in life to my work. Once when Gerald was helping me I finished an urgent job just before the last post was due to be collected. I said to Gerald: ‘Quick, jump on your motor-bike, and we might just be able to get to the Post Office before it closes’. With me on the pillion we tore off at dangerous speed, and going round the corner Gerald, the bike, the parcel and I were all flung in different directions. I picked myself up, found that the parcel seemed to be intact and the bike in going order, and turned my attention to poor Gerald who was lying half-conscious in the road. ‘Come along!’ I cried urgently, ‘We can still make it!’ And we did, but I was never allowed to forget this episode.

A silver sculpture of Christ with arms slightly raised

Dunstan Pruden, Christ figure, on long term loan to Ditchling Museum, with kind permission of Anton Pruden of Pruden & Smith.

Among the staff at the college my closest friend was probably Gerald Leet, a painter who was also an expert photographer, in which capacity he made for me some of my first projector slides. He was often my travelling companion on journeys abroad, and we had many hilarious adventures together. He always insisted on equipping himself with all sorts of electric gadgets, and once in a hotel at Rouen opposite the station he had a room in which there were no power points of any kind. The only place in which he could plug his razor was a light fitting high in the middle of the ceiling. Because I always used to tease him unmercifully about his transformers and two-way switches, he did not confide his difficulties to me, but locked his door, placed a chair on top of some other pieces of furniture, climbed up and eventually succeeded in removing his stubble leaning over at a precarious angle and balancing on one leg. What he did not realize was that there were no curtains at his window, only blinds which were not drawn, and he was visible to the crowds of commuters emerging from the station. From outside it looked as though he were trying to hang himself, and impression which was substantiated by the locked door; and when I tried to get in, he shouted in an irritable voice: ‘Go away!’ After this, he began to wonder if I had not chosen the better part with my cut-throat razor, but I eventually succumbed to an electric shaver myself, by which time every hotel was equipped with the necessary points.

Another kindred spirit was the late Elmslie Owen, also a painter. He was much influenced by Braque, of whom I also am an ardent admirer, and he painted for me a still life in which my personal interests were symbolized in a semi-abstract synthesis of a church, bottles of wine and glasses, a classical urn and Mediterranean vegetation in a scheme of colours that he knew I liked: rusts and greens and yellows. He and I perfected a system of dashing out between our classes to the King and Queen pub opposite the college, where we had trained an admirable and knowledgeable barmaid called Doris to have ready and opened for us a bottle of wine, chilled or chambered according to its character. As the day wore on, our mood became increasingly euphoric, until by the evening classes we positively exuded bonhomie to our students, who must have found us the least pedagogic of lecturers. One day we asked each other: ‘Ought we really to drink so much wine?’ and agreed that it would be a sin of denial not to. We then laughed immoderately at the parallel with Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. ‘Ought we to be drunk every night?’ ‘Yes, I think so.’ ‘I think so too.’ Elmslie had a charming wife called Margaret who was one of the best cooks I have every known.

A stylised silver Christ figure in crucifix position on a wooden cross.

Dunstan Pruden, Crucified Christ figure, on long term loan to Ditchling Museum, with kind permission of Anton Pruden of Pruden & Smith.

I remember with gratitude Charles Knight the vice-principal, a gentle man and a good landscape painter, who was a great comfort to me when my daughter Angela was going through the worst teenage phases of wanting to look like the raggle-taggle gypsies, O. When I took her shopping for clothes, I used to buy her two of everything, one to please her and one to please me, in the hope that odious comparisons would make her see the light. A catty female member of staff said to me one day: ‘Doesn’t your daughter let you down, Mr Pruden.’ I replied as calmly as I could: ‘I am very proud of her.’ Charlie Knight, who overheard this and knew that I was more angry than I appeared to be, said: ‘Never mind, Dunstan, when she gets a boy friend she’ll soon smarten herself up.’ ‘Boy friend?’ I repeated. ‘How do you think she’ll ever get one if she looks like that? It’s a vicious circle.’ What escaped me was that she probably looked lovely to her own generation, and lost no time at all in finding a husband who still seems just as much in love with her, and she with him, twelve years and four children later.

Perhaps the most memorable of the friends whom I made in Brighton was Lord Alfred Douglas. Of course I had heard all the rumours about him, but I was not interested in secondhand opinions and I liked him immediately. For one thing I admired the craftsman in him. When I asked him why he used the Petrarchan sonnet form rather than the Shakespearian he replied: ‘I think Dunstan is a charming young man, but a very odd sort of Catholic.’ We often went to mass together, and I used to show him my newest works which he seemed to like, and unusual taste in a man of his generation, for he was old enough to have witnessed the destruction of the Brighton Chain Pier. He felt that he had not received the recognition that he deserved as a poet, and that he had been victimized all of his life because of his association with Oscar Wilde; but I think that, although he was a good poet of a rather Augustan kind, he was too obsessed by beautiful words and technique to achieve great poetry. There is some parallel with Edith Sitwell, who set herself all sorts of difficult tasks of metre and rhyme-pattern and assonance, of which the reader is too conscious. I prefer the aim pursued by Rameau: ‘Je me suis efforcé de cacher l’art par l’art mêmes’[2]. Also, though I am not personally dazzled by novelty, I think that his failure or refusal to innovate may have lessened his reputation; after all, he was a generation later than Hopkins, and only a few years older than Eliot. He gave me an inscribed copy of his sonnets, with an additional poem written in longhand at the back.

A slver necklace with fine chain and elaborate floral pattern.

Dunstan Pruden, necklace, on long term loan to Ditchling Museum, with kind permission of Anton Pruden of Pruden & Smith.

In 1946, he left his flat in Hove to live with Teddy and Sheila Coleman at Monks Farm, Lancing, where I frequently spent long weekends. On one occasion, I remember taking along the score of the Beggars’ Opera. Bosie was delighted. We sat at the piano and sang it right through. He still had a good treble voice, so he sang the ‘gals’ parts’ as he called them, while I sang the male parts. I was amused by his name for mongrel dogs, which was ‘chiens de chasse anglais’[3]. In his old age he more and more developed the air of a spoiled child, combined with that of a genius who was conferring a favour on the friends with whom (or perhaps one should say on whom) he was living. On one occasion during the most stringent period of post-war rationing of food the Marquess of Queensbury and Harold Nicolson turned up unexpectedly to lunch. Harold Nicolson was wearing a very loose overcoat as though it were a cloak, which gave him the appearance of a rather shrivelled bat. Sheila was at her wits’ end to know how to provide lunch for two more guests. Then she remembered a chicken that Dr Marie Stopes (an ardent admirer of Bosie) had sent him from her farm. ‘They’re not going to have my chicken!’ cried Bosie. ‘It’s my chicken!’ I do not know if Sheila succeeded in working a miracle of the loaves and fishes, because after having a drink I thought it tactful to withdraw, thereby reducing the mouths to be fed by at least one.

Many of my students became personal friends with whom I am still in close touch today. Mrs Mary Brett shared my enthusiasm for France and gardening, and I spent countless happy weekends with her and her mother at Clayton, where they allowed me to try out recipes on them and redesign their garden. On the whole they approved of my introductions, even when the globe artichokes demanded more and more lebensraum[4], and the Duke of Argyll’s tea plant increased and multiplied to such an extent that it came up between the floor boards in the kitchen; but Mary’s mother rather rebelled against stooping to harvest the enormous crops of tiny Baron Solmacher strawberries, a task which we thought eminently suitable for old ladies with time on their hands. Mary is descended from both Colley Cibber and Anthony Trollope, but someone filched it from me in a bar at Avignon. I am sure that the culprit was a man who distracted my attention by saying to my wife: ‘Have you just come from Nice? You have a mimosa flower sticking to your coat’. His powers of deduction impressed me, because we had in fact just arrived from Nice; obviously he also had an eye for antiques, thought he couldn’t have known the literary or sentimental value of the snuffbox.

A workshop wall with silversmithing tools and a crucifix.

Dunstan Pruden’s workshop and tools, with kind permission to Anton Pruden of Pruden & Smith.

Renée Colwell, now Mrs Spencer Richards, is a musicologist as well as a good silversmith. She has edited Renaissance music and owns a magnificent harpsichord which she decorated herself. I used to arrange for my mother to have a holiday in Brighton every year, which she spent with Renée’s mother who was a congenial companion, being a needlewoman like herself.  Gerald Benney is probably the best-known name in silversmithing today, but I thought it a pity that he became so involved in industrial design. Michael Murray, too, has lately devoted his energies so much to organizing workshops for other people that he has become an executive rather than a craftsman. When he was my apprentice, he was very suspicious of the shopping lists that I sometimes sent him out with, because from time immemorial it has been the custom of masters to tease their apprentices by sending them on errands for such commodities as elbow grease. He resigned himself to asking for Lapsang Souchong (which he always called Chinese tea), but he finally boggled at Crosse and Blackwell’s Essence of Smoke. In fact, I never asked him to buy anything that could not be bought. I was probably curing bacon or ham at the time, and had not achieved an authentically smoky flavour. Desmond Clen-Murphy and Anthony Elsom are two other former students who are now distinguished Freemen of the Goldsmiths’ Company. Murphy has often helped me with commissions, and now teaches at the Brighton College of Art.

I can scarcely apply the term ‘student’ to Captain Shove, who has already made an entrance in these pages on the occasion of his distillery fire. He did, however, apply himself to learn metalwork, but I think that he wished to use this knowledge in equipping a boat that he planned to build. He used to wander across the common in a splendid battered old hat, playing airs on a home-made pipe, to discuss the finer points with me. As I had always enjoyed sailing, I was naturally interested in this project. I have numerous letters reporting progress when the building actually started. Most of them were written from Southsea, where he used to stay with Dr Gleeson, a mutual friend who was himself a remarkable character. He was a psychiatrist whose methods of treatment were, I imagine, not always out of the text books. I remember his sending a friend with transvestite problems to eat cream pastries in ladies’ teashops.

On 8 September 1935 Shove wrote: ‘I hope you are holding yourself in readiness for the voyage. For the ship is rapidly nearing completion and I am relying on you as mate, cook and crew…… The boat is coming out beyond my expectations. She proved so roomy that I have extended the fordeck to midships, which gives a cuddy in which it will be possible to sleep at sea, as well as when beached. This will greatly extend the range of possible cruising. What I am anxious about at the moment is the amount of ballast she will need. If this is as considerable as looks likely, it may take up a good deal of room if carried in the form I wasn’t, ie, bags of beach. The point of this is that such ballast can be emptied overboard before beaching and thus make getting through a surf and running her up a beach easier. Then you can load her up again when relaunching. This is the method of the Wexford ‘cots’ on which her design is based, and of the old Yarmouth yawls, boats designed especially for beaching ……’

He was much hampered by the weather, as the Seven Stars as she was to be called was half in and out of the doctor’s garage while on the stocks. At last he was able to turn her round to shelter the part being worked on, and on 30 September, three weeks later, he was able to write: ‘…I have fixed next Saturday as the date of the official launch. Gleeson suggests you should come and stay with him as from a day or two before, say Thursday. Can you manage it? No need to bring seagoing kit beyond that needed for day sailing, as the coast trip cannot, I think, be safely undertaken. I’m trying to find out if the old canal between Bosham and Arundel or Littlehampton is still navigable for shoal draft vessels. If so we might get that far and cut off Selsea Bill and from Littlehampton could make Portslade in a few hours. If not shall have to lay her up either here or in Chichester Harbour for the winter……’

Unfortunately, as the reader may have anticipated, the Seven Stars was not an unqualified success. The problem of ballast was never entirely overcome. I have not done any serious sailing since, but my younger son Austin has inherited my taste for messing about in board, and owns one in which he competes quite seriously with his family as crew.

… [After the Second World War] the Brighton Art School continued to function, though I remember one student who had to leave so that she could work in her father’s brewery. Then I became involved with the Army Education Corps which, with my ordinary teaching, took up most of the week. Commissions had almost dried up, and the Kilbrides went for the duration to live in Glenlivet, the home of Celia’s ancestors and some of her relatives. I would probably have been very hard up had not a business man offered me £1000 a year to design occasional pieces of costume jewellery for him. I sometimes used to spend a night in his London flat in Berkley Square, and one morning I awoke in alarm to see a baby elephant or large pig or flying fish floating outside my bedroom window. When I had rubbed my bleary eyes, I was relieved to discover that it was not delirium tremens but my first barrage balloon. Costume jewellery is not my vocation, and I regard this as one of the most bizarre commissions I ever undertook, only exceeded by the tin soldier that I designed (in silver) for a toy manufacturer who wanted an Irish soldier.

Although Herbert Shove was old enough to have served in submarines in the 1914-18 war, for which he was awarded the DSO[5], he went back to the navy and attained the rank of captain. He was killed when his ship was torpedoed off the coast of Africa. ‘He was a braw gallant’.


Greyscale photograph of a man, Dunstan Pruden, in silversmithing workshop with hammer and small anvil held in a vice.

Dunstan Pruden in workshop 1957

Dunstan Pruden’s autobiography is of interest from a number of perspectives: for the information it provides on the inspiration, technical innovations and character of Pruden himself; in terms of the history of silversmithing in the twentieth century and for the social and cultural context it provides. Pruden’s writing provides a specific instance of the way in which some craftspeople continued to be concerned with (and continued to apply) the underlying principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement in their practice. He was committed to making high quality, individual pieces by hand to the extent he developed a method of working directly in silver, rather than using moulds. Yet whilst he shunned the techniques of mass production (and commented critically on the silversmith Gerald Benney’s close relationship with industry) it is worth noting his wry observation that he had begun his career being thought of as rather ‘avant garde’ in his designs and only much later as ‘traditional’. Pruden’s autobiography is thus also a story of changes in aesthetic values.

For our anniversary book, however, it is perhaps the enthusiastic and (mostly) affectionate account of Pruden’s time at the Brighton School of Art that is particularly worth pausing on: his descriptions of colleagues, both the unsympathetic and the ‘kindred spirits’; his commitment to the students and the lasting friendships he formed with some of them; his efforts to address what he felt was a lack in students’ understanding of the context for their craft; and his energetic determination to balance a successful life as a craftsman of repute with a belief in education. 

[1] The best way to bore people stupid is to tell them everything.

[2] I have done my best to disguise art through art itself.

[3] Literally English hounds, that is, hunting dogs.

[4] Living space.

[5] Distinguished Service Order