In Conversation with J W Evans

As part of my longer term career plans, I am interested in researching the potential that contemporary jewellery has within heritage engagement. I was recently lucky enough to sit down with Tony Evans, the most recent custodian of the business J W Evans, his grandfather, Jenkins Evans began in the late nineteenth century. The family business was sold in 2008 to English Heritage, but unlike many similar projects everything and I mean everything has stayed exactly how it was the day the factory ceased business. The result is a fascinating glimpse into the rise and fall of Birmingham’s and the Jewellery Quarter’s manufacturing industry.

Sitting down with Tony he explained how his grandfather started the business, from working as a die maker at Levi & Salaman, a specialist novelty maker to them sponsoring him in setting up his own business.  At the turn of the century J W Evans flourished and rapidly expanded their premises, through die sinking and drop stamping they produced a vast array of silverware for the trade. Tony talked me through various archives and photograph albums which documented in detail the journey and social history the business had taken. In surviving through both world wars, miners strikes and how until 2008 they continued business amongst a dying industry.

More than anything Tony displayed how proud he was of his families legacy. Perhaps not in a way his grandfather could have imagined, but by diversifying, opening his doors to the public and working in partnership with English Heritage he has secured that the legacy will continue for many years to come. Following on from my meeting with Tony, I booked a ticket for the factory tour and I wasn’t disappointed. Shortly after my J W Evans factory tour I went to view the exhibition We’re Still Here, which featured photography by Andy Pilsbury, curated by Struthers Watchmakers and on show at the Argentea gallery  An amazing exhibition giving such insight into some of the remaining traditional workshops and manufacturing within the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter.

OMI Jewels
We’re Still Here, Andy Pilsbury photography exhibition, Argentea Gallery, curated by Struthers Watchmakers

But how does this research inform my own practice? Plotting potential future career options, I had been looking at projects such as Museumaker, beginning in 2007 and funded by the Arts Council, put museums and heritage house in direct contact with designer-makers for the commissioning of new, site-specific work, inspired by the collections. A Museumaker project, Pas de deux (2010) which brought together contemporary jewellers Lin Cheung and Laura Potter with three Middlesbrough museums as a participatory project is particularly well documented. Also Mah Rana’sA First Class Ticket For Worthing (2004), which formed part of the Navigating History initiative. The project was based in and around Sussex and aimed to shine a spotlight on unique local history collections through a series of specially commissioned projects by practitioners from the fields of art, design, jewellery, film and interactive technology.

My first step following this research was to apply for Craftspace In:Site Festival, which is an opportunity for selected new arts graduates to create bespoke, site-specific artworks working in response to Birmingham’s historic Cathedral Square. My proposal drew on having spent years passing through Cathedral Square, firstly as a tourist, then a resident and now a commuter. I have witnessed first-hand the transient nature of locals, commuters, shoppers and tourists as their lives converge through the historic square. My idea included producing pre-prepared large enamel and decal panels, some could be plain and some depicting various contemporary and historic images of the square.  Each of the panels will be divided up into smaller tiles, and using various drawing and mark-making techniques with graphite and enamels, the public will be encouraged to take a tile and add their own story in response to the question – what does Cathedral Square mean to you? The Individual tiles would then be touch fired on site and then returned to the larger collective picture along with their new contemporary narrative.

Taking inspiration from the We’re Still Here photography exhibition, maybe I should be thinking in the longer-term and work towards initiating and creating these opportunities for myself rather than relying and assuming that similar heritage engagement opportunities to apply for will exist in the future. Perhaps this is something I can figure out working towards a PHD, or at least make a start in the right direction during my residency year at the School of Jewellery.




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