Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Musical Week

This week kicked off with a visit to the Birmingham Rep theatre to hear the Music Theatre Wales production of a new opera by Scottish composer, Stuart MacRae, with a libretto by popular crime-writer, Louise Welsh, The Devil Inside.

The Devil Inside - 1

Here, in a pre-performance talk, Stuart MacRae (left) discusses the background to creating the work from the Robert Louis Stevenson short story, "The Bottle Imp". It is always a worry to hear that an old favourite has been 'updated to modern times' and I love the stories of RLS but there was no need to worry: the updating is sensitive and appropriate, losing some of the 'local colour' of the original story - RLS said that he had written it for a Polynesian audience - and MacRae explained, most of RLS's writing was startlingly contemporary at the time.

The Devil Inside - 4

With a cast of just four and an orchestra of 18 musicians, this is a 'chamber opera' and the intimacy of the forces are matched by Louise Welsh's remarkable psychological insights into the characters. The music is accessible but in no way populist and there are moments of genuine dread in the work, which I am pleased to say was very well-attended and well-received.

All too often contemporary operas disappear after their initial run. I have to hope that this one does not.

There is a short video of the composer and the piece here:

At the beginning of the week it felt like SPRING and some of my colleagues from the School of Jewellery popped out for a picnic lunch in St Paul's Square, right in the centre of the Jewellery Quarter. Anyone thinking that The Quarter or, indeed, Birmingham is grim and industrial...

Spring In St. Peter's Square
Left to right: Beaulagh Brooks, Sian Hindle, Claire Price, Jo Pond, Sally Collins, Me.
Unfortunately, the temperature plummeted the next day and hasn't recovered since.

Another big event for the School of Jewellery this week as the B.Sc. Gemmology course moved out of the School proper and into custom-built facilities based within the Assay Office. This is a big deal, with sponsorship of the labs by Garrard and Fellows Auction House and the whole place looks amazing.

Gemmology Suite Launch - 4

The move came about for several reasons: the housing of the gemmologists in the Assay Office makes sense as the Assay Office move more and more of their business into other areas of testing; the old labs in the School were cramped; the School could use the old labs for other purposes.

Gemmology Suite Launch - 7

Miranda Wells (seated, second from left in the photograph below)

Gemmology Suite Launch - 8

and Richard Taylor (right, below)

Gemmology Suite Launch - 6

are to be credited with the creation of not only the unique provision but of the ONLY Gemmology B.Sc. anywhere in the world. Impressive stuff! As usual, it was down to our Head of School, Gaynor Andrews, to make the official opening speech:

Gemmology Suite Launch - 9

It was a great evening with my colleagues and you will spot one of my ex-colleagues, David Webster, in the photograph below:

Gemmology Suite Launch - 1

Some of the students are demonstrating the video-microscope and talking to the guests. The students were absolutely amazing hosts!

On Saturday night it was off with an old friend from Glasgow, James, to the Birmingam and Midland Institute to hear Brian Duffy (of the Modified Toy Orchestra) and Pierre Bastien perform as part of the Flatpack Film Festival. The Birmingham and Midland Institute is a strange and wonderful place; it feels like a cross between a Victorian Gentleman's' Club and a 1970s School and they host an enormous range of eclectic events. At the moment, it is part of Flatpack but there is also a series of exhibitions of work by my colleagues at the School of Jewellery - at the moment, Toni Mayner:

Toni Mayner - 3

(I will be featured in November.)

Brian Duffy was performing a live mix of his analogue-synthesiser triumph, "Instead Of Faint Spirit" with circut-bent visuals by the amazing Chris Plant, alas! all too short.

Brian Duffy - Setup

I have wanted to see Pierre Bastien and his machines since I heard his "Mechanoid" album in the early 2000s but have never had the chance. In case you don't know his work, he is a jazz musician who performs solo, using hand-made instruments to accompany him on Kithara, Trumpet and other more traditional instruments. The intensity of his performance is phenomenal.

Pierre Bastien - 1

For his Birmingham performance, he used short loops of anonymous jazz musicians on film - glass harp, cembalom, drums, piano - and played along with those and the sounds of the machines. It is hard to explain but utterly mesmerising.

Pierre Bastien - 2

This video explains everything!

Other than that, I've been gardening this weekend and now have an asparagus bed. Nothing to crop yet, so I did one of my occasional jaunts to the excellent Digbeth market in the city centre.


It's not quite the same, but I did have a great harvest!

Digbeth Harvest

Nothing of note this coming week, but looking at my calendar I see that I have a visit to the dental hygienist to look forward to...

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Bish Bosch!

No blog post last weekend as I didn't get home from being in the Netherlands until late on Sunday night.

The reason I was in the Netherlands - specifically 's-Hertogenbosch -  was for the once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of almost every work painted by Hieronymous Bosch - plus a good number by his followers - held at Het Noordbrabants Museum. I've loved Bosch's work since I saw the "Temptation of St. Anthony" tryptich in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon. (Then, I was more taken with the rarely-seen 'black and white' painting on the reverse.) The painting transfixed me for several hours and I read all about Bosch, his atelier and his work when I returned home. I think it would be fair to say that my fascination with chimæra and a kind of twisted mediaevalism, with armour and strange machinery comes from an early love of Bosch.

When I read that the exhibition was coming up, I booked a visit immediately. The exhibition is, alas! like so many "blockbusters", too busy and suffers from the fact that although often very large in scale, these paintings are essentially intimate. Very intimate. Any though of spending several hours studying a painting were dashed by endless pushy French tourists - funny how they, like annoying British tourists, assume you don't speak their language and how genuinely shocked they look when you respond to their rude comments - and the general press of people, most of whom were whizzing round at speed. I genuinely felt for the small lady in a wheelchair who was mostly bumped-into and ignored and who couldn't possibly have seen much of the tops of the paintings. Having said all that, "blockbusters" are what they are and I doubt if there will ever be a chance to see so many of these paintings in one show again.

Of especial interest in the exhibition is a short video showing the restoration of some of the paintings and throughout there are well-produced video displays - some short films, some analytical, some displays of hard-to-see details. Unfortunately, a couple of the most famous paintings are not shown - his "Garden of Earthly Delights" in particular.


The show is well-organised, with the galleries being divided up into themed areas, an idea which works really well and one of the highlights for me was seeing his masterful doodles for ideas which then appear in the paintings.

The image above is part of the general festival surrounding the show, in which the town of 's-Hertogenbosch has laid on a series of events - music, drama, sculpture, etc. - derived from Bosch's work. In this piece, the creatures from "The Garden of Earthly Delights" have escaped into the town and have to be found...

Bosch Figure

The town itself is worth a visit and the mediaeval Sint-Janskathedraal is fascinating.

Sint-Janskathedraal - 1

Sint-Janskathedraal - 6

Sint-Janskathedraal - 4

I spent the night in Amsterdam in the Citizen M hotel in Schipol, a new 'budget' hotel which has looked to boutique hotels as their model and with great success. Everything about this place is right, from the incredibly pleasant staff - plainly proud to work there and to be able to help, no smarminess or disinterest as one often encounters - to the free wi-fi, the good-quality dinner and breakfast menus and the quiet, comfortable rooms.

Shiny Face

It is also really encouraging to see that the bar features artworks by local artists (available to buy) and I loved the fact that the foyer is full of art-books which you can borrow and take to your room. I wish all budget hotels could be like this!

On Sunday, I had booked a late flight to allow me to have a day in Amsterdam, Although I know Amsterdam well and have subconsciously noticed this previously, I spent all day marvelling at the detailing on a very curious kind of "muscular" arts-and-crafts meets art-deco architecture which is everywhere in the city.



Hotel Details - 1

The weather was fantastic and I came home with a bit of a tan!

Magnolia sp.


Back to work and all the students have returned from their holiday, straight back into making again. First thing I saw was work on this marvellous hat/jewel creation!

A sad week, however, as one of our wonderful colleagues is retiring. Gay Penfold - who, along with Frank Cooper, set up the Jewellery Innovations Centre within the School - was known by just about everyone in the jewellery industry, both here and abroad. She was one of the people I always thought about whenever anyone mentioned "School of Jewellery" (before I worked here, that is): I doubt anyone who has met Gay could ever forget her. In addition to the JIIC, she was also responsible for developing the world-famous Summer Schools programme here.

Gay Penfold Retires - 4

Gay Penfold Retires - 5

Gay is moving back to her home-town of Sheffield and she will be missed by everyone in the School and in the Jewellery Quarter.

I've discovered a new maker on Etsy, James from "Digipod" who carves local gemstones and hardstones into highly original objects. I bought a piece of Wyoming Jade and a piece of Texan Agate:

Jade and Agate

Somehow, these organic, almost insectan pieces relate strongly to the Bosch exhibition and I made some scribbles after the show in the hotel for a Bosch-inspired teapot using a cheap hotel teapot I found on the beach in Hastings, so I can see these being used in that...

London this weekend for a couple of things: first of all to meet up with the excellent Henry at SirPlus. As you know, I've written of SirPlus before: their superb clothing all made from surplus fabric left over from the 'rag trade' and I own about ten of their waistcoats. I wanted to ask Henry if he could use a specific piece of scrap fabric for me and so sought him out at the Portobello Road market:


It was good to meet up and finally have a chat - as I've been promising for about a year now. I am sad to relate that after I had left, one of my favourites, Richard E. Grant rolled up to buy a waistcoat!

The main reason for being in London was to collect my "Mr Fox" suit from The Earl of Bedlam. This suit is, frankly, incredible.

Mark, on the left, was like an excitable puppy when I put it on and with good reason. He said that he had been wanting to make a drape jacket for a long time and so when I proposed it - I, too, have wanted one for a long time, dating right back to a late 1980s Vivienne Westwood show that I saw featuring Neo-Edwardian styles - the project proceeded with enthusiasm from all concerned, me, Mark and Caroline, and Agnieszka Maksymiuk who made the buttons.

The reason I say that the suit is incredible is the technical detailing in it. The back is an actual work of art...

A bit of research showed that the original Neo-Edwardian or "Teddy Boy" suit had a one-piece, flat back. I definitely did not want this and Caroline suggested a "'cello back", which I have been rather fond of since I spotted Richard Serra wearing a suit cut this way. It is a feat of complex cutting and stitching to create such a perfect back from four curved panels!

Another masterful suit!

Finally, before I came home, I set off to see my colleague Jo Pond's solo show 'in.ti.mate' at Contemporary Applied Arts in Southwark.

in.ti.mate - 1

Jo and I work with similar materials but with very different outcomes and her pieces in found, recycled steel, especially printed and painted containers and tins, have a delicacy and poetry with an underlying toughness and vigour. I really enjoy this tension.

The show closes in about a week. If you're in London be sure to have a look. Also featured in the superb gallery are all the "superstars" of British Jewellery, such as Jacqueline Mina, Alan Craxford, Joel Degen and loads more.