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Peter Turner, Heraldic hand engraver

One of my relatives, Peter Turner, is a retired heraldic hand engraver who lives in a pretty village called Great Abington with his lovely wife Ann. It is marvellous for me to have another creative person in the family and I was keen to find out more about his work and boy oh boy am I glad I did!

Whilst visiting Peter I was amused to hear the local villagers lovingly refer to him as ‘Hatton Garden Pete’! I asked to see his workshop, but he had a cheeky glint in his eye as he told me, “I work in a studio darling, I’m fine art!”.

We met at his studio(!) where he shared stories about his career as a heraldic hand engraver. Peter said he had always been interested in artistic subjects at school but there was no career guidance available then and boys were told to take a form to the Labour Exchange. He said, “I always knew I wanted to do something with my hands. The Labour Exchange gave me a form with a job on it for an apprentice engraver, the apprenticeship was for four years, which was lucky because at that time it could have been up to seven years”.

Peter was offered the apprenticeship and was 15 years old when he started work at a father and son firm called H J Greenwood & Son which was located in the High Street, Stratford, London, E11. Peter’s Master, Mr Greenwood, was a silversmith who, at that time, was known to be one of the best at lettering in the UK. Peter remembers his Master having a strict Victorian attitude but feels lucky that he was taught by such a talented man.

I asked Peter what Stratford was like when he worked there sixty years ago, he reminisced “I remember there being a leather shop downstairs, Woolworths was opposite and it was close to Yardleys in the Mile End Road. There were beautiful tiles outside Yardleys that depicted lavender pickers. Next to Yardleys was a knackers yard where they boiled the bones for glue and when they opened the vats it stunk! It was horrible! I used to put a hanky over my mouth!”.

I wondered what sort of things Peter worked on during his apprenticeship and he recalled, “simple things, like initials on signet rings, cufflinks and bracelets.”. When his apprenticeship finished he left to work for a company called Gill & Stevenson in Hatton Garden. He remembers his interview being at 8.00am on a Saturday morning and he had been told to bring his own tools, he said, “the guvnor, Ernie Stevenson was the only person there so I laid my tools out on the work bench.” Ernie left him some work and said “do what you think you can do and I will be back”. Peter did all of the work and had an hour and a half to spare so he did some work that he had noticed on some shelving. When the “guvnor” came back Peter told him he had done everything and he was asked, “when can you start?!”. Peter was chuffed because he was given £36 for the work he had done but his weekly wage was only £11! He was only 19 years old at the time but proudly remembers Ernie telling the other employees “this is Peter and he set his tools up himself!”.

Peter worked at Gill & Stevenson for ten to twelve years, commuting from a village called Over in North Cambridge. He remembers, “I sat next to an old boy called Harold Fuller who was the tops in heraldry” and added, “I’ve been lucky to have had two excellent Masters!”

Whilst working in Hatton Garden Peter met a gentleman who had lots of connections with major silver and antique dealers in London. This chance meeting led to extra work in his spare time and it got to the stage where he could become self-employed.

Whilst he was self-employed Peter worked for clients in Bond Street, Hatton Garden and the silver vaults in Chancery Lane. He also did work for the Royal family and I asked what sort of items had he worked on, he said, “Prince Charles brought his Mum a silver thimble and asked me to engrave it with ER II, I think it was his Mum’s Christmas or birthday present”. He also engraved dog whistles for the Royal family and remembers some being used to control their herds of sheep! He said, “whilst in Sandringham the Queen brought a sheep’s dog whistle and I engraved it with ER II”. At the same time Joe Bugner had won the European & Commonwealth Boxing Championship and Peter was asked to engrave his name on a huge championship belt, Peter laughed as he remembers, “my two sons were running around the house wearing Joe Bugner’s belt on their shoulders whilst blowing the Queen’s sheep dog whistle at the same time!”.

I asked what work Peter was most proud of and he said a Jewish New York dealer had asked him to re-engrave two Paul Storr sauceboats. I asked who Paul Storr was and he said, “he used to be a silversmith - he was at the top of his game. Paul was a Huguenot who came over from France or Holland, I can’t remember, he came over with a lot of silk weavers and set up shop in East London, he is rated to be the top English silversmith ever”. Peter enthusiastically continued, “the detail of the work, you have to pick up on what is there, to me it was magnificent!”.

He also remembers being asked by a silver dealer to remove a crest and coronet from a pair of Paul Storr sauceboats, but the engraving was so beautiful he took a print before removing it. It transpired that this was silver that Lord Lucan had sold off to pay gambling debts. In the meantime, the Lucan family traced this dealer and they asked Peter to erase the engraving he had put on and replace it with the original crest. Due to having taken a print of the original Lucan family crest he was able to do it quickly, Peter said, “the family said it was beautiful and they could not tell the difference from the original”.

Other items Peter has hand engraved over the years include Wimbledon tennis trophies, the FA cup, horse racing trophies and boxing belts.

Whilst working, Peter also ran workshops in Cambridge, where out of the blue he met a chap called Peter Lyons (who was a talented sculptor) and his wife, Toby (who was an accomplished portrait painter who exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts). They asked if Peter would be interested in lecturing at the London School of Art and Design (in the Holborn area and now called the University of the Arts London). Peter lectured there for approximately two years, he said “I did one or two days a week, three or four times a month. I lectured about engraving for the jewellery side of the trade, especially enamelling where what you’ve cut away shows through”.

I would have loved to have seen the original items that Peter had engraved but his box of prints is a pretty accurate representation of what his engraving looked like.

Print from an engraving of a Dutch marriage box (above).

A print from a coat of arms engraved by Peter (below).

Examples of some of the fonts that were hand engraved by Peter (below).

I was fortunate to see a collection of beautiful valentine cards that Peter had made for his wife Ann, I have never seen anything like them! The ‘cards’ are made out of silver and are no bigger than a couple of inches each, every one is different and the level of detail is amazing, I could not stop looking at them! They are a beautiful example of Peter’s marvellous work and a romantic keepsake for Ann. The ‘cards’ are different shapes, have unique pictures on each one and the writing and decorative patterns around the edges are superb. Please see example photos of a few below.

I wanted to know the basic principles of hand engraving and asked Peter to give me a basic lesson. He said “you wipe your fingers on your forehead or chin, to get a grease deposit, then rub it onto the silver, you then get a tin of powdered chalk and rub some onto the metal with cotton wool. You set up lines with a rule and compass, mark it on with something that doesn’t scratch but just leaves a mark on the chalk, I used old knitting needles. Then you look at it, say to yourself is that right, then when you are happy you use rules and a pair of compasses to mark the size of the letters, then scratch through the chalk with a sharp point so marks of the letters are left, then wipe off the chalk and start using a small chisel”. I would love to have a go at this myself and am looking forward to my next lesson!

Since retiring Peter has taken up the hobby of wood carving and wants to try making handles for gentleman’s canes. He is currently working on his first one, which will be in the shape of an elephant’s head with its trunk hanging down. He also wants to carve one in the shape of “a heraldic dolphin, the type you would see wrapped around embankment lampposts”. I am looking forward to visiting Hatton Garden Pete and his wife Ann in the near future and I am keen to see how his cane handles are progressing, so watch this space!


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