Matcham Skipper was a legendary jeweller of Melbourne’s bohemian world. As a creature of Montsalvat, Skipper disdained Australian themes. But as a native of Melbourne suburbs, he couldn’t help but do things with an egalitarian ethic.
A descendent of Lord Nelson, Matcham’s father Mervyn was a radical writer often on the wrong side of the censorship board. Matcham was born in 1921 and grew up in Eltham when it was still rural. He learnt his first jewellery in 1945 using silver coins, beating them into patterns. He gleaned information from the library and trade jewellers, who he’d ply to divulge their secrets. His wife Myra was studying painting at the National Gallery school, but developed a specialisation in enamelling. He helped set Matcham on the path to being a jeweller. Matcham also studied at RMIT.
Matcham found a ready clientele among the bohemian scene associated with establishments such as the Swanston Family Restaurant. But it was Montsalvat in the rural outskirts of Melbourne that became to envelop his world. Montsalvat was the dream of the painter, Justus Jorgenson, as a bastion of artistic passions set against the dreary conformity of Melbourne suburbs. Matcham applied himself to its construction out of discarded building materials and eventually had a house and workshop of his own.
While enjoying the role of artist, Matcham also held dear to his identity as a craftsman. The adventure of making was key to his engagement with jewellery. For many years he was content to make his work anonymously, but he was eventually convinced in 1958 to have a solo exhibition at Brummel Gallery in South Yarra. His proved to be a success and he was subsequently sought after a jeweller to his generation.
Matcham is known particularly for his figurative cast silver jewellery, sometimes including large stones. This work diverges greatly from the German-inspired modernism that began to characterise the Melbourne jewellery scene around RMIT. His themes were often taken from European mythology. In his 1968 commission of cuff-links for the Duke of Edinburg he drew on the theme of Icarus.
In the broader scheme of Australian jewellery, Matcham helped pave a way for the idea of jewellery as an art form, rather than just a trade. His he overtly disowned any Australian references. When interviewing him last year, Matcham said he had never considered the idea of an Australian jewellery:
Everything about Australia was wrong. We were crawling up the arse of the English. We’d sent all our young people off there to get their heads shot off…. The kangaroo is a joke. I loved the English horses.
Despite avoiding any Australian themes in his work, he pursued a distinctly make-do approach to this practice. He had a love of old tools and gadgets that he hoarded for future use. Many of the techniques such as centrifuge casting were improvised with many failures.
Matcham’s fame was due as much to his personality as much as jewellery. His open marriage was quite scandalous at the time, but he persisted with an wide-eyed passion for life and laughter that endeared him to his world. This open-heart extended to the material world, with a legendary lust for discarded objects and materials. To understand the reasons for this, it is worthwhile reading an excerpt from his letter of 1971, when visiting Rome as part of his Churchill Fellowship:
When I am sitting on the edge of the rubbish tip in Casilina outside Rome. looking at the fields of poppies and wild flowers struggling through old discarded boots, stolen handbags, acres of coloured jagged glass and plastic containers (all with a justifiable past but dubious future), my mind turns to jewellery, bringing back a fragment of order into the chaos, in a medium that I can control from its conception to its finished state, without the influence of a client, the harassment of a critic or the difficulties of expensive processing. It’s all mine while I do it. Strange that I should prefer to walk through these rubbish tips rather than the Borghese Gardens or St Peter’s; but here, shapes come about more by accident than design. and there is still room for the imagination.
Rather than bow down in reverence to the imperial splendour, Matcham preferred fossicking around rubbish to make something of his own. This disdain of authority and make-do attitude gives Matcham’s career in jewellery a distinctly Australian flavour, even if his vision was fixed on European themes.
Matcham was one of the first Australian jewellers to step into the public light. As the jeweller of his bohemian generation, his work demonstrates the power of this medium to express the values of the time. Matcham hammered out a life, loudly.