Sparkly Spaces: Stellar at the RBSA Gallery

If you follow Tiding of Magpies on Instagram you may have seen a few stories about our exciting news, but for anyone who missed it, don’t worry – I’m about to fill you in on all the details!

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Source: awesomegifs.com

This week, an exhibition called Stellar opens at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) Gallery right here in the Jewellery Quarter, and Tiding of Magpies jewellery is part of it! The exhibition, as the name suggests, has a celestial theme and is focused on all things sparkly – perfect for Tiding of Magpies’ aesthetic… The gallery describes the exhibition like this: 

Inspired by the wonder and mystery of stars and space, this display is unashamedly focused on all things bright, twinkly and sparkly. It features jewellery in precious materials, ceramics with lustrous glazes, and textiles in plush fabrics. Every piece is hand-made by a designer-maker[…]

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Source: giphy.com

The gallery itself is a local gem, which overlooks St Paul’s Square in the heart of the Jewellery Quarter, and hosts regularly-changing exhibitions, events & workshops. Not to mention that entry to the exhibitions is free! There are 3 floors of gorgeous artwork to explore, so make sure you check those out while you’re visiting Stellar

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Source: https://rbsagallery.blog/visit/

It was hard to whittle my 75-ish designs down to just 15 for the display, but I focused on colours and shapes that fitted best with the theme of the exhibition. Moonstones, star shapes, and glittering, deep blue stones such as sapphire, iolite and lapis lazuli take centre stage.

Tiding of Magpies’ fifteen-piece exhibition collection includes new designs, old favourites, and a whole host of colours and stones. Naturally, moonstone and lapis lazuli make several appearances, as well as amethyst, garnet and sapphire, and a range of metal finishes.

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Photo (c) Tiding of Magpies

The exhibition runs until 2nd February 2019, so you’ve got plenty of time to get down to the gallery, check out Stellar, and maybe do a little Christmas shopping or treat yourself to some sparkles! Plus, all gallery purchases come with an exclusive discount code which can be used at the Tiding of Magpies online store until August 2019.

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Brummie Buttons

I really like buttons. I mean really like them. Like this much:

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p027b3t8/player

Buttons are of local importance as well. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Jewellery Quarter, and Birmingham more broadly, made all the fixings and fripperies needed for contemporary life, from buttons to buckles and hinges to coffin plates. Come the nineteenth century, it also made 75% of the world’s steel pen nibs. Birmingham became known as the ‘toy-maker of the world’, ‘toy’ being another word for small items of fashion such as buttons, buckles and snuff boxes. Apparently, the Jewellery Quarter wasn’t just the home of trinkets and gems.

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And now it’s the home of bars with roof terraces and delicious food

So, Birmingham was originally the centre of the buckle-making trade:

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but when this was massacred by the humble shoelace in the late-eighteenth century, buttons came to the rescue. In 1800 there were over 100 separate button makers in the few square miles making up the city centre. In 1770 there were even two separate button makers in the tiny street where I work, and nine at larger Snow Hill.

Buttons were the city’s miniature money-maker until the early twentieth century. As William Hutton stated on a visit to Brum in 1780, ‘it would be no easy task to enumerate the infinite diversity of buttons manufactured here…’.

Buttons were Birmingham’s stock in trade because they were both functional and fashionable, desirable and essential. Originally made of horn (lovely, trendy, stinky cow-foot buttons), buttons have been made in Birmingham since at least the twelfth century, according to recent archaeological excavation at the Bull Ring. However, in the eighteenth century the trade exploded, with buttons being made of mother of pearl, glass or shell, embossed or stamped, or even covered in silk.

Button-making was also a huge employer, even after the partial mechanisation of the trade in the mid-nineteenth century, due to the fragility of some of the materials.

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As I mentioned before, I love buttons – they’re the epitome of functional beauty, and (as Terry says in the video) a fascinating window into social history. In fact, that great social commentator, Charles Dickens, wrote an interesting (and very, very detailed) article about the Birmingham button trade. You can read the whole thing here if you fancy it, but I’ll leave you with an apt quote from the piece:

‘It is wonderful, is it not? that on that small pivot turns the fortune of such multitudes of men, women, and children, in so many parts of the world; that such industry, and so many fine faculties, should be brought out and exercised by so small a thing as the Button.’

[All designs available at Tiding of Magpies]

Sources:

 

Birmingham: from backwater to boom

My dad came to stay at the weekend, and we, of course went to the city museum, as we often do with guests. At the end of the Birmingham history gallery, he asked ‘so why did Birmingham become a jewellery-making centre if it was such a minor medieval town?’. The answer to that was ‘I have no idea, but I’d like to’, so I did some snooping…

There’s a standard UK city history: a settlement is placed on an easily-defendable location (usually a hill) beside a navigable river (for transport and water supply), and grows following the introduction of a market. At 130m above sea level and with a market appearing in 1166, Birmingham hits two of these criteria, but it’s noticeably lacking on the third. So, why were settlers drawn to this essentially riverless location? And how, over the following centuries, did Birmingham become a metalworking powerhouse?

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The first cartographical representation of Birmingham on the Gough Map, c.1360 (Source: Wikipedia)

Despite its lack of a major river and out-of-the-way location, early Birmingham did have a decent water supply from the much smaller ‘rivers’ Rea, Tame and Cole, as well as Bourn Brook. Because of its height, it was also nice and dry (i.e. not marshy), and timber, iron, and coal were all easily available. Birmingham’s plentiful supply of both raw materials (base metals, timber, coal) and of other tradesmen meant the medieval jeweller could easily get hold of local pottery vessels and iron tools, as well as sheets of base metal for practice and working.The veins of gold discovered in nearby Shropshire probably didn’t hurt the city’s jewellery trade, either.

So far, so good, but how does a village with 9 houses and a value of £1 in the Domesday Book host multiple goldsmiths just three centuries later? Well, it owes a lot to the local ruling family, the de Birminghams, who held the manor in the town for 400 years from 1150. The second lord, Peter de Birmingham, was the person granted a market charter by King Henry II. By the time Peter’s son, William, sought confirmation of the charter from Richard I, just two decades later, the location had changed from the ‘manor at Birmingham’ to the ‘town of Birmingham’.

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Fourteenth century effigy of John de Birmingham at St Martin in the Bullring (Source: Wikipedia)

More importantly, the de Birminghams preferred a hands-off approach to trade regulations, just charging a toll on market traffic, and it was mainly this which attracted craftsmen to the growing market town over the next couple of centuries. By 1327, craftsmen were listed amongst taxpayers in Birmingham. In 1308, seized effects of a Knight Templar included 22 ‘Birmingham Pieces’. There’s also no specification of what exactly the ‘Birmingham Pieces’ were, but they were precious metal objects small enough to be taken into prison, and also well-known enough to need no further explanation. This was in London, meaning that gold- and silversmithing wasn’t just happening on a local level; the trade had already expanded beyond Birmingham.

Fast forward to Birmingham’s Industrial Revolution, and the real growth started as early as 1680. The population exploded shortly after, quadrupling between 1700 and 1750. It was during this time that the Jewellery Quarter rapidly developed, becoming known as its own manufacturing area by the early nineteenth century.

 

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With the creation of Birmingham’s canals (the first was opened in 1769), the large amount of iron available in the area could now be easily transported in and out of the city. Birmingham’s iron supply allowed tradesmen to diversify and specialise in their metalworking efforts, practising everything from buckle-making to locksmithing. On the other hand, although Birmingham was at the front of the canal-building trend, it actually remained relatively difficult to access, meaning that the metalworking of small, valuable objects became the obvious trade to pursue. Hello, jewellery… Perhaps most importantly of all, Birmingham’s lack of guilds meant tradesmen were much freer to change occupation or practise more than one trade here than they were in other cities, since they didn’t have to pay expensive membership rates and belong to just one guild.

Birmingham’s adaptability carried its jewellery trade through periods of depression and both world wars. Today, the Jewellery Quarter still produces 40% of all jewellery created in the UK (mine included!), and boasts both the world’s largest Assay Office and the oldest independent mint in the world. Not bad for a city which was a tiny, wooded backwater only a millenium ago…

 

And there we have it: good local supplies + lack of trade restrictions = an influx of tradespeople. Throw in the Industrial Revolution for good measure and you’ve got Birmingham as the UK centre of jewellery-making. So, Dad, now we know!

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Sources:

https://www.birmingham.gov.uk/info/50050/culture_arts_and_heritage/1258/origins_of_birmingham

http://visitbirmingham.com/what-to-do/heritage/the-history-of-birmingham/

https://www.triposo.com/loc/Birmingham/history/background

http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks/vol7/pp81-139

https://billdargue.jimdo.com/glossary-brief-histories/a-brief-history-of-birmingham/medieval-birmingham/

https://therivermanagementblog.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/the-rivers-of-birmingham/

Medieval Goldsmiths, John Cherry (2011, British Museum Press)

Busman’s Holiday: Making our own wedding rings

You may not know this, but I’m getting married in three months. I mean, I never talk about it in minute detail, because it’s definitely not a huge logistical undertaking I should be allowed to put on my CV to show my organisational skills…

Since we got engaged last year, I knew I wanted to make our wedding rings. There was just one problem: I’m a silversmith, and we wanted gold rings. Silver and gold don’t behave that differently, so I did consider just giving it a go, but there’s one big problem with gold compared to silver: it’s a lot more expensive if you mess it up.

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Imagine the scene: ‘Honey, I’m home! Say, what’s that melted lump on your workbench?’ ‘Oh, that? That’s the £300 of gold that was going to be your wedding ring – oopsy-daisy!’ Not ideal. The Goblin is also the fussiest human alive, and the risk of him having hitherto-unknown very strong feelings about the particular hammer pattern I’d used once the ring was done wasn’t really worth it.

Luckily for us, the JQ struck again in the form of The Quarterworkshop, where couples can make their own rings under the supervision of a professional jeweller, Victoria Delaney. I also thought it would be cool for The Goblin to see what I do and have a go himself (and hammer his own ring to his liking – wahey).

The first thing to do was decide on colour and size for our wedding rings, as well as come up with ideas for styles. Our engagement rings are cheap (albeit much-loved) place-holders for the real thing…and it shows. They’re 9ct white gold, with mine measuring in at 3mm wide and The Goblin’s at 5mm. Because of the composition of the metal, they were seriously dinged about within the first month of wearing, so we knew we needed to go with something a bit more permanent and lasting for our wedding rings (how appropriate!).

I decided to slim my ring down to 2mm whilst The Goblin stuck with 5. We both liked the D-shaped profiles of our current rings, so those stayed, meaning that when we got to Victoria’s (adorable!) workshop, this is what was waiting for us:

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Seriously, though, how cute is this workshop space?!

After some coffee and a chat about designs, we got stuck into annealing, cutting and shaping – all just another day for me but really fun to have an experienced goldsmith directing the process and giving hints and tips.

Victoria also introduced me to a method of shaping and cutting through the seam (the bit where you make the ends of the ring line up so you can join them together) which was waaaay simpler and quicker than the one I was taught. Definitely going to be using that on my pieces in future! The Goblin had a lovely time shaping, soldering and filing his ring, and took it all very seriously. Look at this concentration:

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Then came the really fun bit: playing with hammers. The Goblin knew he wanted a subtle hammered effect, but I was torn between hammering and engraving, so we both spent a fair while whacking aluminium with the huge range of hammers in the workshop to find the right pattern.

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I decided to go with engraving in the end and am having a bramble pattern engraved on mine, so I started polishing it ready for engraving whilst The Goblin started beating his up with great glee.

After a lot of hammering (probably The Goblin’s favourite part of the day) and getting covered in polish, we admired our creations:

The rings are now off to be hallmarked with the Brum Assay Office anchor mark, which we love – wherever we move in the future, we’ll always be wearing a bit of the JQ! I can’t wait to see mine once it’s all hallmarked and engraved (I’ll post an update picture here when it arrives). We had a lush day making our rings and would definitely recommend it to anyone else looking for something a bit different for their rings. As The Goblin’s ring shows, no prior knowledge is necessary!

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All pictures are by Victoria Delaney © The Quarterworkshop, apart from the ones of our engagement rings.

Update: the rings are ready! How amazing is the engraving on mine – I would kill for that level of skill…

Clent Hill I see you again?

Juggling work and life admin and relationships and health and everything else is always a tricky one, and recently I’ve been feeling a little burnt out. One of the best things about running a one-woman operation is the (relative) freedom to work to your own timetable, but being your own boss can make it difficult to stop working.

I love Birmingham, I love the Jewellery Quarter, and I love being 30 seconds away from gin cocktails at all times, but…I’m less fond of being near crowds and away from nature for long periods of time. I also love that we’re smack in the middle of the country so friends and family are always visiting us so we can show off the city, but The Goblin (my lovely fiancé) and I do try to have one weekend a month with no visitors. Last weekend was our March weekend to ourselves and spring has finally sprung (sort of), so how better to unwind than to get out of the city?

Despite being a massive urban sprawl, it turns out Brum is actually pretty near a fair amount of lovely countryside. Exhbit A: the Clent Hills –

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A wild goblin appears
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Yes, the bench was too tall for my tiny legs.

It was so beautiful and so quiet and so green and so full of dogs and so only-25-minutes-drive-from-the-flat. Pretty much perfect.

Our excursion was going so well that we also stopped by Hanbury Hall – you can take the heritage nerds out of the National Trust, but…*

Definitely getting some design inspiration from these wallpapers and from the formal gardens…

There was only one downside – nice as a bimble at the NT always is, we definitely underestimated how many people a smallish property could attract on a Saturday afternoon. So many children. So very loud. So incredibly high-pitched and annoying, in fact, that The Goblin (usually one of the broodiest men alive) begged me to sterilise him…and so we finished up with the gardens and came back home for some quiet snacks in front of Psych.

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And have I stayed relaxed? Well, I’m writing this at 7.15pm on a Tuesday night, so that probably answers the question…maybe I’ll have better luck next time! Any suggestions for where in the West Midlands to try next?

*We both used to work at National Trust properties in Shropshire.

Intimate Jewels: Surrealism, Fetish and Fairytales – thoughts on a lecture by Dr Sabina Stent at the UCB School of Jewellery

The Jewellery Quarter continues to surprise me with little treats: it turns out the School of Jewellery (University College Birmingham) is currently running a lecture series called ‘Talking Practice’ which is open to the public as well as students. Research seminars are one of the things I miss most about university, so I’ve been planning to take in a talk or two for a while now. I hadn’t got round to going to any before last week, but as soon I heard there was an upcoming talk called ‘Intimate Jewels: Surrealism, Fetish and Fairytales’, I registered on the spot. Jewellery and feminist scholarship? It’s like the event was made for me…

I scooped up a like-minded friend (obviously I’m not enough of an adult to go to something new by myself – who does that?!) and we headed over. I’d checked a dozen times that the talk actually was open to interlopers like us, but I still left feeling a tiny bit like this:

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So, Dr Sabina Stent gave us an introduction to female surrealists (who I knew precisely nothing about before the lecture, to my slight shame) and their contribution to material culture.* She highlighted the fact that with female surrealists, as in all Art History, people tend (understandably) to focus on paintings as the evidence of artistic output, and sculpture, furniture, clothing, and so on often get left by the wayside. So far, so good (I like a good painting as much as the next person but I find objects much more interesting. The Cour Marly is my favourite part of the Louvre by miles).

Another interesting point Sabina made right off the bat was that part of the reason female surrealists are underrepresented in scholarship is because they’re too often viewed as the muses of male surrealist artists rather than artists in their own rights. For example, Dora Maar was immortalised in the public mind as nothing more than Picasso’s Weeping Woman, but was actually an exceptionally talented photographer.

Two artists were discussed in particular detail: Elsa Schiaparelli (who Chanel described as ‘that artist who makes clothes’ – great bit of vintage shade there) and Méret Oppenheim. Both created a variety of objects, and both tapped into the surrealist movement’s love of using disembodied body parts as a key type of imagery. Some of the key pieces Sabina introduced to audience to included gloves, hats, accessories and tableware:

 

Straight away you can see the focus on disembodied limbs and externalising the internal. (I also really, really want that last brooch.)

Of all the pieces Sabina introduced, the most difficult and interesting was undoubtedly Méret Oppenheim’s Ma Gouvernante:

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There’s no other way to put it; it’s uncomfortable to look at, from the scuffed, white shoes that suggest the Madonna/whore complex to the overtones of bondage and cannibalism. When it was originally shown in 1936, a female viewer flew into a rage and smashed it, forcing Oppenheim to make a second version. The lecture emphasised the female surrealists’ practice of creating sexually-charged, whimsical and provocative art, attempting to reclaim femininity through dark humour. From that angle (and I’m assuming statistically that Oppenheim had at least tangential experience/knowledge of the sexual violence which the piece suggests), I feel that Ma Gouvernante externalises a distinctly female set of intense and difficult emotions, experiences and societal expectations.

And while we’re on the topic of expressing difficult issues, the other thing the lecture highlighted was the surrealists’ exploration of the lines between civilisation and wilderness, as epitomised by Oppenheim’s werewolf gloves:

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Subversion of fairytale tropes? Check. Weaponised femininity? Check. Suggestive of raw female power? Check.

These gloves are particularly interesting to me in the context of the surrealist movement’s attitude towards mental health issues (shocker). When I reached out to Sabina after the lecture, she made the point that the male surrealists had a tendency to romanticise the ‘mad man’ while shunning the ‘mad woman’, but that several female surrealists did use their work to express their mental health issues, notably Leonora Carrington and Dora Maar.

Sabina was kind enough to give me some recommendations for further reading (yes, yes, I know, I went to a lecture voluntarily and asked for homework – I’m the worst), so I might come back to this post with a bit more insight at some point in the future. For now, I know I’ve focused heavily on two of my specialist subjects (feminist issues and mental illness) in this post, so it’s probably going to seem a bit intense, but what else is art criticism but projecting your own meaning and experience onto the artist’s final product?!

So, let’s finish on a sparklier note. The only criticism I can make of the talk is one I level at the world on a regular basis: there could have been more jewellery. I’ve had a scout about online to satisfy my own interest, and found some gorgeous Schiaparelli and Oppenheim pieces to share with you all:

 

For me, these pieces demonstrate the full potential of jewellery, which, if you think about it, is essentially wearable art. They also remind me of a quote from the lecture (one of my new favourites):

‘Jewellery reigns over clothing not because it is absolutely precious but because it plays a crucial role in making clothing mean something.’

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*For anyone interested in learning more, the surrealists referenced in the talk were: Leonora Carrington, Emmy Bridgewater (a Brum-based surrealist!), Dora Maar, Elsa Schiaparelli and Méret Oppenheim.

Gold, garnets and glass

Whenever people come and stay with us in Brum, we try and take them to at least one of the city’s impressive museums. The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter is my all-time favourite, but for sheer scale and calibre, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery comes a very close second. As well as its fantastic collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the museum is home to a decent chunk of the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found.

The interpretation in the Staffordshire Hoard Gallery is fantastic (you can take the girl out of heritage…), with audiovisual stimuli, interactive digital and analogue activities, and all sorts of hidden gems (pun intended). For a jewellery maker, the sections on Anglo-Saxon goldsmithing techniques are particularly fascinating; I didn’t actually really know what cloisonné was until I went to the exhibition the first time.

The exhibition as a whole is so interesting that it’s hard to hone in on just one stand-out gold artefact. However, I’ve taken one for the team and given it my best shot. My favourite piece (or rather pieces) is a pair of gold and garnet fixings shaped like birds of prey:

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Staffordshire Hoard Flickr
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Staffordshire Hoard Flickr

Why this piece out of the thousands discovered? Well, three main reasons:

  1. The lines. My God, the lines. Look at those curves and corners and that elegant beak. I mean, please. The hoard contains thousands of elegant and intricate pieces, but for sheer style, these bird fittings are hands-down my favourite.
  2. Mixed media. Many of the artefacts contain both gold and garnet, but this pair is one of the few designs to include glass as well. The birds’ tiny glass eyes are a beautiful example of the potential working with a range of materials can offer.
  3. There are two of them. I know, I know, and the Pope shits in the woods… But seriously, having two of the same design in different conditions is so unusual and so interesting. The similarity of the two birds even in their varying states of damage is also a massive testament to the skill of the Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths.

I’ll probably write some more about the hoard as I invariably take everyone I know there over the next few years, so if anybody reading this has a favourite artefact or two, let me know and I might dig into it (pun always intended) in another post . For now, though, I’m off to watch Detectorists, because all this talk of metal-detecting and hoards has put me in the mood for a bit of Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook.