Helen Newman – Tales from the Guild
In 1969 I became interested in the idea of making very large scale fashion accessories from sheet metal and with a sculptural quality based on following the lines of the human body. Mary Noble, my friend and like myself a long serving member of the Guild encouraged me and as a result a one man show at the Ewan Phillips gallery in Maddox Street in London took place in 1970. The centre piece for that show was the brass bra now in the permanent collection of the V and A.
When I first started making I had no idea that the brass copper and nickel items, sometimes decorated with semi precious stones or industrial brass washers and copper cut nails would lead me to develop through many metal working techniques, start a workshop with assistants and become not only a member of the Gloucestershire Guild of Craftsmen as it was then, but to exhibit widely and accept all kinds of commissions.
I had visited the Guild’s famous Summer Exhibition at Painswick as an ordinary visitor and bought a pair of silver cuff links made by Anne Thomson, a talented artist and member who later died too young of cancer . The Summer show was extremely well known. Not only was it the descendent of the arts and crafts movement and was still supported by a number of the original members but at the time there were only two other comparable Guilds in the country. Thus we were a big draw with very little competition. There was a second Guild in Gloucestershire which was less prestigious although much of the work was excellent. Politics were the cause which I need not go into.
In 1971, rather to my surprise I received an invitation to attend a meeting of the Guild committee at the Painswick Institute one sunny summer afternoon. I was to bring examples of recent work. I made up a boxful of everything from a fitted brass belt that was subsequently bought by TV presenter Jan Leming, to experimental efforts in silver. I only remember one of them, it was a large silver buckle, the centre of which was somewhat bent out of shape because the surround on which I had placed the edges was thickly encrusted with a collage of rectangles!
Difficult for anyone, I had bitten off more than I could chew, however Philip Lowery who was on the committee was impressed by the originality and the effort and as an expert silversmith forgave the technical faults on the basis that technique can be learnt. Original ideas are harder to come by. Other members of the group that interviewed me were George Brotherton, letterer and Chairman, some years later he dismissed me from a committee for being late at a meeting because I had had to milk a cow! He could be feisty but somehow kept a bunch of individualistic craftsmen in order for many years. Gerry Carter, weaver and elder statesman of the Guild together with Ray Finch potter and Theo Merritt book binder were also there as was Steve Marchant wood turner who in due course left the Guild to work for interior designer William Hickey.
I was questioned as to my educational background and the fact that I had adapted things learnt from the Intermediate and NDD fine art courses and taught myself to make the assortment I had brought for them to see evidently impressed the experts. I must have been asked to leave the room while they discussed me and my efforts but don’t remember that part of the meeting however once back in front of my interviewers, I was told that they would like me to become an associate member forthwith and they hoped that I would exhibit in the Summer exhibition. I was delighted but did not really grasp until later that it had been a huge compliment to even ask me for interview and to accept someone who was so new to the field.
The next job was to get enough work together, to somehow provide adequate lockable display cabinets (luckily my husband came to the rescue there and made a number of glass lidded boxes that served well for years), they would now be far too unsophisticated as would the Institute Hall which we transformed for our three week display of work.
As a new member I had to turn up at the hall on a number of designated days to help with the cooperative effort of transforming it. One of my most vivid memories is of the white bearded Theo Merritt high up on a ladder battling with endless loops of electric cable that would provide an elegant lighting system. Other Guild members who I would gradually get to know were clambering on top of trestle tables and up step ladders fixing what seemed like acres of rush matting to the walls. The idea then must have been to accent the homely hand made aspect of what we were doing, not forgetting that the arts and crafts movement started as a reaction against mass production.
White display boards and stands had to be repainted or patched up after a year in storage, and then stands erected where trestle tables were not suitable . Eventually, with the aid of some white muslin drapes and clever lighting the hall was ready to receive our work. Everyone who was exhibiting came with their work the day before the opening with a few exceptions and those people had to have their work in place in time for the hanging committee to check that it was of adequate quality before the Private View. I only remember a very few occasions when work was rejected and on one of those occasions the majority decision which must have been marginal caused a huge row. That was many years after I became a member. The person who’s work was rejected left the Guild and has since become well known and respected for his ability. Despite the difficulties of converting the hall into an exhibition space the result of our communal effort based on and organised by one brave member was surprisingly professional.
The Private View was opened by a well-known personality and was crowded and busy with serious patrons and buyers. Both locals and people who had planned their travels to fit in with what was then seen as an important event in the calendar of anyone interested in the crafts . When the PV was over, we the exhibitors with wives and or husbands had a bit of a party on the stage which on at least one of my earliest years had only a few items displayed on it . Rather sadly the after show drinks and snacks was discontinued almost at once after I became a member. We probably couldn’t face clearing up before going home after an exhausting day, not to mention the week of setting up .