Alan Evans obituary

Blacksmith at the forefront of a generation exploring new techniques to renew the craft as a contemporary art form

It was the curves and intersections of the stone ceiling of the crypt in St Paul’s Cathedral that provided the inspiration for the gates forged for the crypt’s treasury by the artist blacksmith Alan Evans, who has died aged 70 of pancreatic cancer.

Alan entered and won a design competition for the gates in 1980, early in his career. The outcome was a large pair of steel centre-pivoted gates, a web of joints and riveted connections that one commentator described as having all the grace of a web hung across a cave mouth. His reaction to the features of the adjacent architecture, in this case, or, in other pieces, the landscape, was a feature of his early work. In later years it developed into a more emotional response to the site and how people interacted in the space.

Cross for the dome of the Church of Christ the Cornerstone, Milton Keynes, 1991, by Alan Evans.
Cross for the dome of the Church of Christ the Cornerstone, Milton Keynes, 1991, by Alan Evans. Photograph: Marek Mularczyk/Alamy

He was at the forefront of a generation of young artist blacksmiths who pioneered contemporary British blacksmithing and who moved on from the dying craft of forging traditional motifs to exploring what the material would allow them to do using new techniques.

The St Paul’s commission established Alan as one of the foremost smiths in the country. Subsequent commissions included a 1.75 tonne cross for the dome of the Church of Christ the Cornerstone, the new ecumenical church in Milton Keynes (1991), and the entrance gates and railings for the Public Records Office, Kew (1995-96).

His outdoor screen for the Broadgate development in the City of London (1990-91) has soft undulating steel lines curving through the upright rails. Alan said that on visiting the site he wanted to humanise the overpowering angular buildings that surrounded the position. The actual making of the large work was an enormous task and he began by spraying the design on to plywood sheets, set up around the walls of a nearby riding school, and marking on the wave forms with masking tape.

He forged hundreds of private commissions, among them three for my family, including a weathervane (2015), the inspiration for which came from my son riding a horse. The award-winning smith Richard Quinnell, who set up the Quinnell School of Blacksmithing, said Alan’s chestnut roaster was the best design he had ever encountered.

Alan Evans’ horse weathervane, 2015
Alan Evans’ horse weathervane, 2015 Photograph: no credit asked for

Alan was born and brought up in an Arts and Crafts movement household in the Whiteway Colony in Miserden, Gloucestershire. The colony was set up in 1898 as a co-operative community with pacifist ideals. Early colonists were Tolstoyans and followed his teachings, including the rejection of private property. The colony continues today but with fewer crafts people. Although properties are now privately owned the land is still held in common by the colony.

His father, Peter, made furniture, and his mother, Joy (nee Robert), who still lives at Whiteway, was a wood carver. Her family joined the colony in the 1920s after being invited to set up a craft economy and a school.

Alan wanted to work in the creative arts but trained as an art teacher at Shoreditch College of Education, then located in Englefield Green, Surrey, in case he needed something to fall back on. He started making silver jewellery but moved on to forging in 1974 after he was allowed workshop space in exchange for help with heavy work. He said at a conference of blacksmiths in 1992 that the difference between making jewellery and ironwork was simply picking up a heavier hammer, but he thought of jewellery as his craft and blacksmithing as his art.

Alan Evans, right, giving a masterclass at the Metal Museum, Memphis, Tennessee, 2019
Alan Evans, right, giving a masterclass at the Metal Museum, Memphis, Tennessee, 2019 Photograph: no credit asked for

When BABA, the British Artist Blacksmiths’ Association, was set up in 1978, he was among the first members. He regularly attended international gatherings of smiths, with young apprentices from mainland Europe regularly seeking experience in his forge at Whiteway.

The skill of hand and power hammering is only part of modern blacksmithing. Alongside there is imagination, judgment, design and, as the work gets bigger, confidence. Alan had an inventive spirit that led him into 3D computer drafting. His stated work ethic was never to let anything leave the forge unless he was happy with it. This sometimes stretched the work beyond the allocated budget.

Alan brimmed with ideas. In hospital he suggested to the consultant that a piece of medical equipment was poorly designed, and he was observed later fleshing out his ideas.

He enjoyed country pursuits with his dog Poppy and he was a volunteer with the Gloucestershire Humane Animal Dispatch team, which attends injured animals – a job the police describe as requiring compassion, expertise and experience.

Brought up a Quaker, Alan was a kind and unassuming man who was always ready to lend a hand. His standing in the local community was brought into sharp focus when he returned home shortly before he died. Neighbours and friends, including a long procession of blacksmiths, showered the family with practical help and affection.

He is survived by Lesley Greene, his partner of 38 years, an art consultant, whom he married in hospital three weeks before his death, and by his mother.

• Alan Robert Evans, artist blacksmith, born 18 June 1952; died 31 January 2023


Lisa Wood

The GuardianTramp

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