Archival Materials

I recently had the opportunity to attend a research day at the School of Jewellery. With Lin Cheung as the keynote speaker and further talks form Elizabeth Turrell, John Grayson, Stephen Bottomley and Jivan Astfalck – it was a fantastic opportunity to hear first-hand from experienced practitioners and specifically, artists working with sentimentality, narratives, enamel and historic objects. I hoped it would open up some ideas around potential future research avenues within academia and the wider crafts field.

After reading so much about Lin Cheung’s work, it was a real pleasure to hear her speak, her relationship and investment with her materials are subtle but beautiful. I loved that she talked about how she always notices what jewellery people wear, and not just the bold statement pieces, but those small everyday sentimental tokens. This is something I find myself doing, I will remember the finest details of somebody’s jewellery, but completely overlook what colour top they have on. When I notice somebody’s jewellery, it can feel almost intrusive, like witnessing a glimmer of a private moment. All of Cheung’s work carries this air of sensitivity, I was particularly taken with the risk and commitment of Pinpoint, a small tattoo resembling the pin that holds a textile token of a baby’s clothing, onto a billet page which documented the admission of the child to the Foundling Hospital. The quote below of Cheung describing Pinpoint is taken from the artists website.

‘The pin is witness to a small but poignant intervention, performed by the departing mother as she pins a token to her baby’s clothing followed by the Foundling Hospital diligently attaching each textile token onto a billet page as a means of identifying the child with its mother. Small, unassuming and ordinary, the pin is crucial in maintaining identity, belonging, cataloguing and recording what would become the child’s past as he or she assumes a new life.

My creative response has been an emotional one, playing with notions of permanence and impermanence, commitment and abandonment and emotional attachment and loss. Whilst the act of pinning is secure, it can be easily undone – temporary – it makes me think of the mother leaving a last, hopeful gesture for her baby that one day, she may claim back her child.

The vast majority of foundlings were never reunited with their parents. Inspired by their stories, I have tattooed a small pin on my body – a pin that cannot be undone.’

Reflecting back to my own practice, my mind also moved onto the use and display of the historic or archival materials in Cheung’s work. Similarly, John Grayson’s talk discussed the role of craft making as a framework for looking at and handling historical objects – in Grayson’s enquiry this is focussed on Bilston Enamels. I am in awe of Grayson’s craftsmanship, particularly after seeing his work in person at Made in the Middle. The balance of wit and sophistication, and the ability to make historic references within his work whilst enveloping and maintaining modernity. In reference to his PHD studies Grayson discussed how; Historic objects provide a rich source of primary data; That craftspeople have distinct skills suited to assessing historic objects, providing a fresh perspective of how things were made valuable to curators, conservators and historians; To effectively undertake a historic object analysis, it requires the implementation of a rigorous and transparent method.

Before this, I hadn’t really considered my balance of auction background and contemporary jewellery perspective as being unique. I have battled with myself since the start of my MA in how I can best implement my historical knowledge and auction experience to the best advantage within my studio practice. Both industries, relatively speaking are small, like most of my previous peers were, many graduates of art and design and practice-led degrees migrate into the auction world. As Grayson discussed, this gives rise to an in-depth understanding of how objects were made and constructed, for me specialising in antique silver, this was a critical skill in dating pieces, identifying fakes, repairs and alterations. I wonder if I need to adapt a different tact, don my auctioneers hat and create my own mediating lens by cataloguing, detailing the condition, listing the provenance and photograph my own work in progress. Following due diligence, just as I would have done with an object that had come in for auction. This also opens ups questions regarding how industries could better share information and work in partnership.

In considering the use of historical objects and archives not directly in my work, but as an entity to work in response to, I have also been paying close attention to the display of archival material within either a historic or contemporary context and exhibition. On a recent trip to the Design Museum, London, I viewed the exhibition Ferrari: Under the Skin. Focussing on the company post WWII and centering around the design process, with in-depth insights into their historical manufacturing processes, archival memorabilia and sketches – it really placed and opened up what was previously a luxury red sports car in a new context for me. I particularly liked their series of racing helmets worn by drivers of the past 70 years – the marriage of design, technological developments and personal stories.

What I took away from the Ferrari exhibition, is to start considering not just where I would like to display my work, but how it is curated. The use of a title, a statement perhaps, or the original archive materials and photographs could be powerful tools to attract a wider audience, but also in leading your viewer to a deeper contextual understanding from the maker’s perspective.

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