The brooches, necklaces and rings made by Helen Britton are known, exhibited and admired globally and collected by many of the world’s most celebrated art museums.
Britton lives and works in Munich, currently a flash point for contemporary handmade ‘authored’ jewellery, but she was born and grew up in Newcastle. She is artist in residence at The Lock-Up, back in the city she left three decades ago to further her education and discover what was to become her life path, creating the one-off tiny sculptures designed to be wearable objects. She is here to rediscover traces of her past, but also to find themes and inspiration for new work.
Of course the city has been transformed from the place where she grew up, where the BHP steelworks dominated much of life and the horizon. She remembers a morning school excursion to watch incandescent molten metal being poured, then romping in the pristine surf in the afternoon. How strange and intoxicating it was to have gritty industry so close to a glorious coast. She also recalls the vibrant life of art school where she studied for a year, with painter John Montefiore a memorable presence.
The juxtaposition of the elemental processes of steelmaking and the equally elemental landscape is perhaps reflected in much of her jewellery. Her work is rarely directly representational, but it always has a connection to real experiences. She works in gold and silver with occasional scattering of diamonds, but the precious metal can be painted and manipulated in unexpected ways. Paradox is important. She creates objects with resonance and imaginative force almost without regard for their commercial value. Ironies abound.
Themes reflect experiences. In recent years she has explored the Germanic forests with their wolves, lurking demons and the protective amulets necessary to disarm them. The ancient forest glass industry has provided both inspiration and materials. A sense of the past is never far away.
An earlier series focused on the earliest mass-produced jewellery with its kitsch components and lolly colours. The man-made environment with its structures and rituals is as valid a source as natural processes. Wonder and wit go hand in hand.
Jewellery dates from the Stone Age, or even before. It has always signified status. Today, it can embody sentiment and commitment as much as fashionable adornment. When jewellery is mostly mass-produced, pieces hand made by an artist must have a special significance. These small works of art are even more loaded with layers of meaning than painting or sculpture, since their makers must always have a basic concern with the relationship of their pieces to the human body. An intimate dialogue exists between skin and social evolution, articulated in materials often carrying ironic significance.
For Britton, what new body of work will emerge from this present trip into youthful nostalgia, back to a city barely recognisable, except for the surge of the sea and the vast antipodean horizon?