Melissa goes to Birmingham, and back into the studio at UWE in Bristol, and reports back.
After a poke through a local ’emporium of curiosities’ on the weekend I went into the studio today with some tins and a bun tray to enamel. The plan had been to use my usual method of making a drawing, sawing it out of the tin and then enameling them as parts for jewellery works, but when the computer ran out of juice, and I forgot to bring the UK connector for my power cable, the plan was simplified. Just enamel the tins!
We had Kirsten Haydon in for a visit today too which was great – she joined Anamika in enamelling some reclaimed tin cans. It’s a very interesting material with the lines already in the tin. I’ll have to eat more tinned food, or stalk the canteen…
As promised on Friday I did the tour of the amazing jewellery school in Birmingham, with the wonderful Bridie Lander. It is a huge building, filled top to bottom with jewellers of many different stripes and a few clock-makers thrown in for good measure. They have some amazing old equipment, and all the good current stuff too. And they are packed – so many MA students as well as the equivalent of TAFE and the BA programme as well, and more streams that I’ve already forgotten.
I then did the tour of the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. As Bridie said, before sending me off with her recommendation to take the tour of the old Smith and Pepper workshop, it’s like the Mary Celeste. Smith and Pepper were manufacturing jewellers, a reasonably large outfit too, whose operations were deserted because there were no heirs to take over the reins when the last of the Smiths died in his early eighties. The Mary Celeste reference comes from the state of the workshop and offices themselves, as they look as if the workers left the premises on a Friday, and then forgot to turn up again the following Monday. Thus the whole place seems geared for the company to continue operations, despite the fact that the operations look older than a 1981 vintage.
As I said, it was a going concern until the last of the Smith family of jewellers, who owned the business, died, yet one can only wonder at its profitability given the archaic technology still in situ. The age of most of the equipment it houses is the kind that would have been used even before the beginning of the 20th Century, except for the electric driven machinery of course. But even that is dangerously archaic. Of course, jewellery manufacture in comparison to most industries hasn’t changed that much in the last several hundred years, but man, no drill press?
The saving of the facility in its ‘present’ state was due to the fact that the council owned the building, so somehow they laid claim, or made a claim, for the whole shebang, and sought to turn it into a museum. Sections of it still work too – there are demonstrations of old school hole-drilling, sawing (not very old school, actually) and soldering using a fixed arm gas torch with a blow-pipe. And rather than use bricks or a soldering mat for annealing, the guide held a handle at the base of a length twisted wire, atop of which was affixed a mesh ‘pillow’ on which the piece of metal sat. This, presumably, combated the fact that one had to have a hand free for the blow-pipe, and in any case there’s no movement in the plumbed-into-the-bench gas outlet.
There was also a demo of the fly press, and the silence being interrupted by the racket of the buffing wheels (nothing, thankfully, was buffed). There was also a die formed medal completed using a drop-press. After demonstrating this, we were told that a fellow guide (to the woman who operated our tour,) had lost some fingertips around a year ago while operating this machine. It was hard to make out exactly what she meant when saying this, as her delivery was of a quite idiosyncratic nature, but but seems as though this machine is a common finger-killer.
I’d have thought that should such an accident have happened so recently, they would have stopped demonstrating the press entirely. It’s amazing that several areas within the workshop tour are open to the public, as, even in its museum-state with sections blocked off, there are still a few hazards about that a working studio would have to deal with.
Back to the museum – one floor houses a small yet interesting selection of contemporary works, along with many historical jewellery examples, using all manner of materials. The curatorial direction is materials driven, which is a useful angle from which to look at wearable works as a whole when introducing them to the general public. The other floor mostly focuses on silversmithing, and given their location in the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter, this makes complete sense.
After completing the museum and the tour, to top off my visit I had a stroll around the Quarter. I then headed back to town, noting, sadly, that the nearby Pen Museum had closed for the day.