A Trophy Worthy of the Chase

Silversmith Rod Kelly has put in 520 hours of punch-and-hammer to create the new trophy for the Newton Oxford and Cambridge Women’s Boat Race.

Today, the new trophy for the Newton Women’s Boat Race will be officially unveiled. Rowing historian and writer Christopher Dodd, who has interviewed Rod Kelly, the silversmith who made the trophy, writes exclusively for HTBS:

Newton, sponsor of the women’s Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, has commissioned a trophy to mark the event’s move from the Thames at Henley to the men’s course at Putney in 2015. The trophy will be awarded to the winners of this year’s race on 30 March (at Henley, but floods suggest it may move to Dorney or Holme Pierrepont). The pot will have winners since 1927 engraved on its plinth and will make the symbolic journey from the non-tidal 2,000 metres to four and a quarter miles on the Tideway.

Two things stand out about the new trophy. First, this is no requisitioned silverware from a long lost event, nor an off-the-shelf pot with the Newton Boat Race engraved on it. This is a serious and imaginative piece of kit. Newton commissioned it from the silversmith Rod Kelly, and it was crafted to his design in his Shetland studio.

The second standout is that Newton has safeguarded a long life for the trophy by ruling out the inclusion of the company’s name. ‘This is about the girls who race, not about Newton’, Claire Blackwell, the head of marketing at the investment house, says. ‘Our raison d’être is equality, diversity and balance.’ Kelly describes this as a brave decision. It is such a relief not to be briefed that a client’s name must be in a certain size in the front, he says.

The men’s race has had three trophies so far, the first from Ladbroke, the second from Beefeater and the third from Aberdeen Asset Management, the latter being the handsome quaich (or Scottish drinking vessel) used by the current sponsors BNY Mellon. Whoever sponsors the women’s race after Newton will not be embarrassed by a piece with somebody else’s name on it.

Kelly, who has an impressive list of past clients and whose work appears in prestigeous museums, was born in Reading and remembers Boat Race Day as a big occasion for his family. He studied in Birmingham and at the Royal College of Art and now divides his time between Norfolk and Shetland.

His first meeting with Newton was on 13 August 2013. In October he spent a day with Cambridge’s women at Ely and took 200 pictures of patterns water, hulls, oars, movement and light on Ouse water. He came away intrigued by the mental approach to rowing as well as the physical attributes. Kelly likes to make pieces that tell a story, and he left Ely with a story. A story of application to the job in hand, the sculpting of water, blades, boats to represent the race and apples to represent balance and equity espoused by the sponsor.

After a meeting with Newton and both clubs to finalise the design, Kelly went off to Shetland (catching the Aberdeen universities boat race in transit) to begin the design process. He built a cardboard model of his concept that he amended gradually as it sat in his kitchen. He decided on a square shape and began to feel it – ‘You have to really feel it, that it will be recognised as the Newton Trophy’.

‘A square form catches the light and is very photogenic’, he says. There are waves and an oar blade depicted on each side, a lip on which to engrave future results, and the vase is mounted on four ebony pillars to represent oars. Two sides of the base have a ‘Newton’ image of two apples on a balance. The Oxford side has a crown and the Cambridge side a lion, both with pure gold inlaid details. Past results will be on a plinth below.

The model in the kitchen spoke and announced to Kelly that it should be increased in size by 25 per cent to stand 50 cm tall. This meant starting again, because enlargement requires adjusting the proportion of the parts rather than lumping a percentage on.

Once satisfied with the model, Kelly ordered the sheets of silver – 1.1 mm thick, and cutting by hand and chasing (embossing using small punches and hammer) began. Work progressed at an hour a square inch – for example, Cambridge’s lion took two days. There are about 100 soldered joints, and the ebony pillars were fashioned from blanks for snooker cues. 

The Newton trophy was finished on 1 February and taken to the Goldsmiths’ Company for hallmarking. Kelly has put in 520 hours of punch-and-hammer to create it, and very fine it is too. To put that in context, that represents about 1560 pulls from Putney to Mortlake in an eight.

The hope is that the women’s race becomes a contest worthy of its trophy from 2015 – that it doesn’t take a century and more to make a really good race of it, as the men’s did.

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