Canadian silversmith Lois Etherington Betteridge was an international trailblazer in a field dominated by men. Examples of her one-of-a-kind designs, showcased in galleries and collections worldwide, are owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa.
Ms. Betteridge was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1978, the same year she received the Saidye Bronfman Award for Excellence in Crafts. It was an honour that prompted Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to send her a personal note. He wrote, “You are indeed an artist, one thoroughly committed to the challenges of your art and your own development as one of Canada’s leading silversmiths. I still treasure my personal silver collection of your design.”
In 1979, newly elected Prime Minister of Canada Joe Clark also became the owner of a work designed by Ms. Betteridge. The piece, commissioned by an MP, was a silver chalice commemorating the opening of Canada’s 31st Parliament. Ms. Betteridge personalized the vessel by embedding a Jasper gemstone in it. The stone, from Alberta, was a nod to Mr. Clark’s western heritage. It was typical of her thoughtfulness and whimsy. Another hallmark of her work was playfulness. She adorned the underside base of a silver brandy snifter with a pearl. The surprise ornamentation only became apparent to an observer as the vessel tipped towards the drinker’s lips.
In addition to artistry, her skill with manipulating metals made Ms. Betteridge a valuable teacher. She passed her craft on to hundreds of students whom she mentored both individually in her studio, and at workshops in colleges across Canada. In Silver Studies, The Journal of the Silver Society, Ross Fox, a retired curator responsible for decorative arts at the Royal Ontario Museum, wrote that teaching placed Ms. Betteridge at the fulcrum of national silversmithing during the late 20th century. He wrote that most contemporary silversmiths in Canada had, at one time or another, come under her tutelage. He considered her to be “unrivalled as the foremost Canadian silversmith of her generation.”
Many prestigious honours came her way including induction into the Order of Canada in 1997, as well as Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee medals, and, in 2010, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of North American Goldsmiths.
Ms. Betteridge died of lung cancer on Feb. 21 at Hospice Wellington in Guelph, Ont. She was 91.
One reason Ms. Betteridge rose to prominence was her ability to elevate everyday objects, like a coffee pot or spice shaker, into art. For the magazine Metalsmith she wrote, “The things we use as a matter of course can enrich our lives by their beauty, by the atmosphere they create, or by evoking personal as well as ‘tribal’ [unconscious] memories.”
Silver was Ms. Betteridge’s preferred medium, although she was equally comfortable with lead, pewter, copper, bronze and gold. Using centuries-old techniques, she designed with technical precision and a keen eye for beauty. Rarely did she set down a preliminary design on paper. She preferred letting the medium interact with her creativity, almost like a separate entity, in order to produce art.
Lois Margaret Dorothy Etherington was born on Nov. 6, 1928, in Drummondville, Que. The family moved to Ontario where she and her older brother and younger sister were raised in comfortable circumstances by their parents, Dorothy and Alfred Etherington. In 1933, Mr. Etherington founded and managed Sovereign Pottery, a pottery manufacturer that became well-established in the industrial city of Hamilton. Lois considered becoming a potter but, as she later told her husband, it would’ve meant a lot of time with a “wet belly,” an unappealing prospect.
After graduating from high school in Burlington, Ont., Lois spent a year at the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD University). Since no university in Canada offered a BFA in crafts, she travelled south of the border to the University of Kansas, where she could earn credentials. Her arrival coincided with that of Carlyle H. Smith, a renowned jeweller of the day. He was at the University setting up a jewellery and silversmithing program in the Department of Design. It was the first of its kind. She had begun studying textiles at the university, but was intrigued by the challenge of going where few women had gone before. She signed up for Mr. Smith’s program, graduating in 1951.
Returning to Canada, she set up her own studio, first in Oakville, Ont., then later in Toronto near the wealthy enclave of Rosedale. Initially her main source of financial support came from making jewellery and liturgical items for a local Anglican church supplier. She took night classes to continue improving her skills. A scholarship to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, with its reputation for being an incubator of modern design, exposed her to a variety of styles and influences. She graduated with a master of fine arts degree in 1957, ready to begin her teaching career, and, unbeknownst to her, a romance and marriage that would last 59 years.
Appointed as a lecturer in Applied Arts and Crafts at the MacDonald Institute (now part of the University of Guelph), she caught the eye of Keith Betteridge, a British postgraduate student attending Ontario Veterinary College. He found the young woman, sitting at his lunch table, alluring. As an added bonus, she was the owner of a red MG sports car purchased with proceeds from designing Stations of the Cross for a chapel in Sudbury. It was a running joke between them that he married her for her car. The couple eventually moved to England so Mr. Betteridge could pursue PhD studies. He went on to become a renowned veterinary research scientist.
During their six years in Britain, Ms. Betteridge registered a maker’s mark with the Goldsmiths’ Company in London. Without the hallmark, sales in Britain would have been illegal. Once her mark was approved, a lengthy process in those days, she was able to contribute to her family by silversmithing. She participated in exhibitions and sold her work in galleries while her husband got his doctorate.
Her son, Eric Betteridge, recalled going to sleep listening to the “tap-tap” of his mother’s hammer on metal. Only later did he and his sister realize how unconventional and resourceful their mother was.
“She wore jeans well before other mothers did,” Lise Betteridge said. “They had little holes all over them from the acid she used in her studio.”
Eric recalled an incident that happened once when his parents went whitewater canoeing with friends near Ottawa. “A canoe, made of aluminum, went up against a rock and folded in half. Mom told some of the guys, ‘Let’s pull it over here.’ She got the canoe positioned over a hole, jumped up and down on it then used the back of a hatchet to re-form the shape.”
For almost 20 years, Ms. Betteridge taught summer courses at the Haliburton School of Fine Arts, in Haliburton, Ont. Well-liked for her sense of humour, she inspired and commanded attention. She blew a shrill whistle when she wanted students to stop their hammering and listen to her.
Brigitte Clavette, a former student, now a senior instructor in jewellery and metal design at New Brunswick College of Craft and Design, said of her mentor: “She was able to tease out technical excellence and mastery of design in a diverse group of students. Her influence will continue for a long time. She was a formidable woman.”
Ms. Betteridge leaves her husband, Keith; son, Eric; daughter, Lise; and four grandchildren.