Vanity: not always a bad thing

On my recent holiday, it almost seemed that jewellery was following me around the Mediterranean – not that I was complaining about it! Possibly the pinnacle of this trend was the day we arrived in Mykonos to find the Archaeological Museum we were planning to visit anyway (first pottery depiction of the Trojan Horse, anyone?) turned out to be almost completely filled with an exhibition on Cycladic jewellery from prehistory to the present day.

Lifetime TV

The exhibition, titled ‘Vanity’, was laid out in chronological order spanning a very impressive 7 millennia. It was also, as the exhibition leaflet proudly proclaimed, a ‘meta-exhibition’, with the museum itself becoming a giant jewellery box. It all sounded pretty good to me, and that was before we even saw the exhibits.

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Well, come on, it was called ‘Vanity’…

The interpretation was excellent from the off, with all the exhibits in these gorgeously lit boxes with draws to pull out and read more:

There was also some extra reading if you knew Greek:

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I won’t cover everything we saw because there were hundreds of pieces, but here are a few highlights.

We started with Early Bronze Age jewellery, most of which came from Naxos. Like many of the items on display, the majority of these early pieces were found as grave goods, highlighting the important role of appearance and adornment in early Cycladic society. As you can see below, semi-precious beads were a particular favourite. Oh, and check out the phallus charm on the left-hand side; some things never change…

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Pins/fibulae and diadems were also popular during this period:

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After this we hit the Middle Cycladic Period, where coral beads from the Eastern Mediterranean were all the rage (the suggestion being that their owners believed them to have exotic, special properties):

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The Late Bronze Age gave us this absolutely gorgeous necklace made of gold and white glass beads in the shape of lotus flowers. Interestingly, these beads were made in a mould, hinting at a growing market for and mass production of such items. In fact, the display called these shapes ‘standardised’ – the Cyclades were definitely modernising!

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This particular necklace was actually from Mykonos itself

The Geometric period, where the Mycenaean world collapsed and was taken over by Greek culture, pins and hair wires were the order of the day. The pins in the bottom left-hand corner are also from Thera, which I was overly excited about. (No, I’m not being sarcastic; we visited a couple of years ago and I was really excited to see some of the artefacts that aren’t at the site.)

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Much to my delight, almost all of the artefacts from the Classical period, including little human and animal amulets, were from Thera:

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A couple of centuries later, the Hellenic world had completely changed Cycladic jewellery, bringing exquisitely detailed pieces made from gold, pearls, and semi-precious stones. In fact, jewellery got so ornate that Pliny and Seneca complained about the amount being spent on it… Many of the pieces in the exhibition were from Delos, only found because the residents were forced to flee from the pirates of Athenodorus at the end of the 1st century BCE, and hid some of their gems before they left.

Also, here’s Aphrodite riding a goat:

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During the Roman period, the Cyclades were flooded with gold hoops, rings, and bird amulets, much like the rest of the Mediterranean, although the Hellenic styles didn’t disappear overnight:

Sadly for The Goblin and I, the Cycladic Middle Ages weren’t enormously well-represented, because of the limited excavation activity around this period; understandable given the amount of ancient history there is to explore in this part of the world.

There was another reason for the lack of medieval Cycladic jewellery on display: the predominance of Byzantine Christianity, which emphasised austerity and inner beauty. However, as the display highlighted, ‘the human tendency to improve outer appearance and simultaneously highlight social status prevailed and jewellery continued triumphantly to adorn both men and women’. The exhibition had several finger rings and Byzantine cross pendants to prove it:

Post-Byzantine/19th century Greek jewellery was a particularly interesting section of the exhibition, marrying themes from ancient and modern jewellery in the typical, ornate ‘Mykonos’ style earrings made from gold and pearls:

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This diamond cross pendant was a particular highlight of the later part of the exhibition, having belonged to Manto Mavrogenous, who spent her entire fortune financing the Greek Revolution:

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The final historical section of the exhibition featured work by Sofia Thanopoulou. Better known as Maroulina, Sofia was a self-taught creator who was one of the first important Greek jewellery designers in the second half of the 20th century. Her shop on Mykonos (1953-1972) attracted a prestigious, international clientèle, particularly after she began adding jewellery to her ranges of shoes, clothes, and bags in 1955. Combining Art Nouveau and traditional Greek influences, Sofia Thanopoulou created jewellery ‘characterised by the abundant expressiveness of their materials and their dynamic, often unexpected compositions’. Quite the jeweller role-model…

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The final room of the exhibition was one of my favourites (and definitely The Goblin’s pick), in interpretation, design, architecture and, of course, contents. This was the place where the ‘meta-exhibition’ really came to the fore. I mean, just look at this stunning set-up:

This section of the exhibition was dedicated to creations commissioned for the exhibition from 12 contemporary Greek jewellers: Elena Syraka, Ileana Makri, Ioanna Souflia, Deux Hommes, Lito, Minas, Nikos Koulis, Sofia Vamiali, Sophia Kokosalaki, Two Is Company, Venyx by Eugenie Niarchos, Yannis Sergakis.

Venyx by Eugenie Niarchos undoubtedly crafted my favourite piece: a pendant featuring a traditional Cycladic head in a modern, gold setting. As well as being completely beautiful, this necklace seemed to epitomise the exhibition as a whole: ancient and modern Cycladic art and creation brought together in one place and one time.

Photo from huffingtonpost.gr (I didn’t manage to get a good picture on my phone, unfortunately)

Every item in the collection (according to the leaflet) was chosen to highlight that most timeless human trait: vanity. The desire to bedazzle ourselves has been around as long as we’ve known how to thread rocks onto a piece of thread. But it also speaks to the endless creative potential and endeavour of humanity; not only do we want to sparkle, we’re willing to invent and graft to do so. It might seem shallow, but the face (or ear, or wrist) you present to the world can matter, and adornment is a big part of that.

One could even argue it’s part of humanity to deck ourselves in glittery gubbins; after all, ‘Vanity’ has 7000 years of archaeological proof that we just want to be…

shiny moana crab

 

 

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.

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.