A 'magic lantern' slide of St Martin's cross, with two further
Alexander (known to many as Alec) Ritchie was born in Tobermory, on the north east coast of the Isle of Mull, in 1856. He trained as a marine engineer and joined the British India Steam Shipping Company. He worked with the company for over twenty years, travelling extensively to many locations worldwide.
In 1898 at the age of 42, he married Euphemia Thompson, who was born and raised in western Scotland, south of Ardrishaig in Argyll. They met at Glasgow School of Art, where Alec had enrolled during time off from his maritime career. On various occasions he had already spent much time on the tiny Island of Iona, and there is a remarkable quote from one of his later letters, saying that they had married ‘on very little except hope, …but…my wife being an expert with the pencil, we began to adapt Iona designs to silver, and have had as much success as I can expect’. Had he but known it, he was later to become one of the most respected and sought-after Scottish silver jewellers of the 20th century!
In 1900 The Iona Cathedral Trust gave Alec the job of official custodian, and also gave consent for the erection of the Ritchie’s legendary crafts hut inside the grounds of Iona Nunnery ruins, where their beautiful craftwork was sold.
Ritchie and his wife soon built up a prolific output inspired by the magnificent ancient Celtic and Viking carvings on Iona and the surrounding islands. Though he is best known for his silverwork, he also produced superb and unique Celtic craftwork in wood, brass, and copper, among other materials. His repoussee brass and copperwork took the form of items as large as firescreens and large mirrors, and smaller items were made such as candle sconces, clocks, picture frames, trays, boxes, salvers and plaques, chalices and bowls, all with foliate or knotwork designs adapted from the ancient local stonecarvings, and meticulously executed. His methods of working may well have been initially influenced by among others such well known figures as Archibald Knox and Charles Rennie Mackintosh who were also part of the Scottish Crafts revival of the early 20th century.
As the Ritchies worked, they acquired more books on Celtic art and design; these ranged from examples of Pictish carvings in Eastern Scotland, to descriptions of the Book of Kells.
In about 1889 The Ritchies moved into Shuna Cottage on Iona, and a workshop was built behind it. Alec had adapted well to the island life, and the local schoolchildren were allowed to visit his workshop and learn some of the basic skills, which must have greatly excited them! A couple of his future workers started their apprenticeship here, eventually going on to become superb silversmiths in their own right. Iain MacCormick, who continued Ritchie’s designs as well as his own after Ritchie’s death, began his fascination with silver jewellery making here as a boy.
Alec Ritchie’s silverwork was officially registered with the Chester assay office in 1910, yet he was producing some fine silverwork several years before this, some items being made for him to his own designs by a London and Birmingham firm Cornelius Saunders and Francis Shepherd. Nowadays such silverwork is rare. One of these spoons is shown on the left, with his own repousse design of an Iona Viking ship and a dove set into the bowl, and the interesting hallmark of ‘A.R. Iona’ baccompanied by ‘CS & FS’ (Saunders and Shepherd, the initials being separated by a small star), and a Chester hallmark of 1907.
Once established at Shuna Cottage, the Ritchie’s creative work grew and became ever more popular. Alec turned his hand to carving a magnificent wooden fire-surround for the fireplace, along the top of which he incorporated two interlacing beasts that he had sketched from an early medieval stonecarving on one of the pillars in Iona Abbey. He was official tour guide of the Abbey for many years, as well as pursing his crafts business. This design above his fireplace became well-known by visitors to the cottage, and was incorporated into their ever increasing range of silver jewellery as a rectangular brooch.
The Ritchies also designed the cover of a little book entitled "Guide to Iona" which had a vine-scroll border and a classic 'Ritchie' Viking ship design in the centre. In small letters at the bottom right are the initials AER. For the price of One Shilling, even in pre-war days this guide was excellent value and a mine of information and on the ancient history and carvings of Iona and the Abbey buildings. The copy illustrated was printed in 1931.
After being registered with the Chester silver assay office in 1910, various examples of his work were also hallmarked at Glasgow from around 1912 through to the 1930s. In 1931 he was registered with Birmingham as ‘ Iona Celtic Art’ and the pieces themselves were stamped ‘ICA’. The majority of silver brooches, pendants and other jewellery seen for sale today come from this 1930s period with the Birmingham hallmark.
By the middle of the 1930s the range and diversity of the Ritchies’ work was large, all items being of the highest quality in terms of both design and construction. Ritchie himself would not settle for anything less than the best quality. Rings, Celtic cross pendants, kilt-pins, buckles, and many different types of brooches were sold, as well as a number of magnificent ‘one-off’ larger pieces, most of the latter being today either in private collections or museums. Spoons and forks continued to be produced, including some exact replicas of a silver-gilt spoon and fork uncovered during the restoration of the 12th century Nunnery on the island. Brooches and pendants featuring a Viking ship were a favourite, the design being taken from a superb 11th century stonecarving that is in the Abbey Museum. Having been tour guide for Iona Abbey and the surrounding ancient sites for a number of years, as well as their extraordinary crafts talents, Alec and Euphemia produced a small illustrated book entitled ‘Iona Past and Present – with maps’ which contained a history of the island and a record of place names. This little book, whose cover was also designed by Alec and Euphemia, remains to this day a classic guide to Iona. The Ritchies, like many others, saw Iona as one of the world’s major pilgrimage sites.
Several larger examples of his work can still be seen on Iona, including an ornate metal plaque above the fireplace of the Iona public library, and a wooden plaque (c.1910) in the rebuilt nave of the Abbey, dedicated to the Highlanders of Nova Scotia for their sponsorship of its rebuilding.
The work of Alec and Euphemia Ritchie sold worldwide – items made for export to America were exempt from having a British hallmark, and various silver items are known with just ‘A.R. Iona’ and a registration number by which the item could be dated.
The end (or as a legend perhaps we should say the beginning) of this extraordinary couple that were the ultimate pioneers of the Celtic crafts revival is as unique as its start. In early 1941 Euphemia Ritchie died peacefully at Shuna Cottage on Iona. Within two days Alec had followed her, aged 85. The burial was in the Reilig Odhrain, the burial ground of the Kings on Iona, and it was the first time in living memory that a husband and wife had been buried on the same day.
His work and the tradition of Iona silver was continued after the war though an island business called Celtic Art Industries (CAI), which for a while involved some well-known silversmiths such as John Hart senior and Iain MacCormick. Iain was devoted to Ritchie and his work, and always hoped that the latter’s designs would be perpetuated after he had carried them on as long as he was able to. Fortunately a young relative called Mhairi Killin recently set up a business on Iona in 1997 after graduating from Glasgow School of Art. From Ritchie’s designs being passed to Iain MacCormick and the CAI, they were now passed on to her, thus carrying on the unique and beautiful craftwork and designs.
It is only comparatively recently that Ritchie’s work and history is becoming known worldwide, and with this knowledge the realisation that this great man, together with his wife, was one of the greatest pioneers of the Celtic crafts revival.
- David James
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© 2004 by David James