The artisan exhibition Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor (October - November 2011), celebrating 100 years of International Women's Day, provides a departure point for 100 women jewellers to make brooches in response to the achievements of 100 Australian women in every profession imaginable - from bishop to soldier, bullocky to lawyer. The exhibition curator, Kirstan Fitzpatrick, discusses how traditional gold-smithing, as a guild trade with women practitioners since the Middle Ages, has both had a long association with social commentary and also undergone a radical reworking by Australian women jewellers.
Kirsten Fitzpatrick, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor – 100 women jewellers
Origins of the Tinker Tailor rhyme
The origins of the Tinker Tailor rhyme date back to the Middle Ages and entwined in this long history is an equally lengthy history of patriarchy and gender bias in the labour market. Although the rhyme’s content has shifted with the times, a list of male professions remains its core component. Now a divination game for girls to foretell the profession or status of their future spouse, it continues to support outdated perceptions of women’s place in the workforce. In this exhibition the rhyme serves a contrapuntal purpose; it provides a departure point for 100 women jewellers to make brooches in response to the achievements of Australian women in every profession imaginable—from bishop to soldier, bullocky to lawyer.
Like many nursery rhymes, Tinker Tailor developed from material originally aimed at an adult audience. A precursor lies in a medieval allegorical treatise, the Liber de moribus hominum et officiis nobilium ac popularium super ludo scacchorum. Written by Jacopo de Cessolis (1288–1322), a Dominican Father, the Liber was based on a series of his sermons in which he used chess pieces to define the responsibilities of his audiences’ various professions. As well as outlining the duties of the king, queen, bishops, knights, and rooks (lawyers), Cessolis employed the eight pawns to represent different trades or professions, including doctors, notaries, blacksmiths, and artisans. In turn, these pawns represented multiple associated guilds, each of which had its own moral code.
Chess was the diversion of the day and Cessolis’s sermons, which combined witty stories from classical sources with his chess analogies, were so popular he was encouraged to put them into written form. The resulting manuscript was equally well-received, and by 1475, the first English publisher William Caxton printed it in book form. 1 Titled The Game and Playe of the Chesse, it was the second book ever produced in the English language and its popularity ensured that by 1483, a second edition went into print; this time, woodcut illustrations were added. Caxton names the eight pawns: Labourer, Smith, Clerk, Merchant, Physician, Taverner, Guard, and Ribald. The latter, the Ribald, represented the less-desirable elements of society. It introduced ‘thief’ and other such unlawful occupations into the mix.
However, Caxton’s was not the first English translation of the Latin treatise; there had been two prior, one of which was in prose and the other in verse. 2 With many versions also available in other languages, the content had been circulating in various forms since Cessolis’s time and elements of the Liber had filtered into many countries’ oral rhyming traditions. In England, introduced mutations saw the Smith became a tinker, the Merchant a tailor, the Guard a soldier, and the Ribald a thief. The words ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor’ grouped together appear in print (possibly for the first time) in 1695 in William Congreve's Love for Love, a bawdy Restoration comedy. It is not known whether Congreve adapted the line from a contemporaneous version of the rhyme, but Love for Love, which sees an actress (a new profession for seventeenth-century women) juggling the affections of a tinker, a tailor, a soldier, and a sailor, was a huge success with audiences from every social strata, further embedding the line in the popular lexicon.
While Congreve’s listing of professions in the vulgar secular context of Love for Love may appear to be the polar opposite to Cessolis’s moralising church sermons, certain similarities exist. Both were highly entertaining and both explored themesof good government and morality. In Congreve’s day, tinkers, who were travelling repairers of tin-wares, symbolised the less reputable-elements of society, as did sailors. This indicates a repackaging of the attributes and professions from the stories and allegories of the Liber, for a new audience. Both the Liber and Love for Love could also be seen as reflecting their contemporaneous worldviews and, by default, the place of women within them. Cessolis’s Liber did this by omission. It was written in a tumultuous era in which the church, which had evolved over many centuries to meet the needs of a rural society, had to confront the social, economic, and political change arising from the growth of commerce and the guilds. In many cities there were bloody uprisings initiated by the guilds who sought increasing power. Cessolis’s sermons, which proscribed the ideal relations between the varying estates of crown, church, law, military, and the guilds, served as a reminder to all (men) of their place in the social order and the need to act in a lawful manner.
Women, trades and the professions
Apart from the Queen (a piece that was originally the grand vizier and male), whose role was to be chaste and remain at her husband’s side, women had no representation in these estates. In the Middle Ages, it was inconceivable that women would ever be bishops, lawyers, or military personnel, or have a role in governance. However, women (the wives and daughters of the artisans) did work in the trades represented by the pawns—including gold smithing. This covered the production of a large range of objects including liturgical and secular vessels, candlesticks, crosses, reliquaries, coinage and luxury items, as well as jewellery. In addition to gold, goldsmiths (a term that later came to mean jewellers) used silver and base metals, while a separate trade of silversmiths (a term later used to describe makers of hollowware) used silver exclusively. Even though women worked in all these areas they were excluded from guild membership, which meant they were forbidden to conduct business in their own right. Accordingly, they had no role in the power struggle that the Liber denotes.
Women’s exclusion from guild membership was due to several factors, the primary one being that they were paid less than men for the same work and therefore posed a serious competitive threat. While they were no less skilled than their male counterparts—in Europe some of the work in precious metals was reserved specifically for female artisans, and female jewellers were not uncommon 3— they did not have equal rights. Some female artisans formed independent guilds and demanded the same rights as that of male guilds, but these were rarities. Women’s professional rights eroded further during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as the guilds tightened control over the labour market. Women could only conduct business on their own under the law of 'femme sole', which allowed them to take over a business upon a spouse’s death.
By the eighteenth century, the guilds were losing power as other types of manufacture arose. Nevertheless, a hostility towards women in the trades remained and the differential between male and female wages continued to increase. The Tinker Tailor rhyme developed along a similar patriarchal chronology. It shaped itself from the remnants of a precursor that had lost social and political currency but had been so popular it had entered into the common consciousness. It is unclear exactly when it took its current form as nursery rhyme, as there was little scholarly interest in recording children’s rhymes until the nineteenth century, but interestingly, like its precursor, the rhyme too carried a subtext. While the original Liber was about keeping men in their place, the rhyme’s base supposition—that all the professions it lists are for men—reveals a subtext of keeping women in their place.
Gold smithing, one of the most powerful guilds
Over the centuries, the seeds of a rebellion against this inequity were sown by individual women working in a range of ‘male’ professions, either as widows or illicitly. However, it would take until the nineteenth century for a movement to reach critical mass and force change. In gold smithing, one of the most powerful guilds of the Middle Ages, the gender bias didn’t shift until the twentieth century when the industry divided into two streams: the jewellery trade and arts-and-crafts jewellery. In Australia, the trade took a commercial path and remained the dominion of men, but arts-and-crafts societies across the country emerged, offering women the opportunity to make jewellery to their own design. In the 1970s, long after these societies were defunct, art schools began offering courses in gold and silver smithing. While the ancient exclusion of women from the trade continued, the contemporary-jewellery movement, generated by art-school graduates, has been dominated by brilliant women jewellers since its inception.
Jewellery - a radical experimental practice
Art-school training triggered revolutionary changes well beyond a reversal in gender-dominance in the medium. Jewellery became an art form rather than a ‘craft’. It renounced its history and tradition, the damning descriptive of ‘decorative’, and broke free from perceived limitations of functionality and preciousness. Jewellery became a vehicle for personal expression and/or social and political commentary. By the 1980s, many tertiary courses were theory-based, and jewellers, who were schooled alongside their numerous fine-arts undergraduate peers, produced highly conceptual work in which artistic intent took priority over technique. A radical experimental practice emerged with women at its forefront. Jewellery began to be made from non-traditional materials, such as paper, titanium, plastic, and found objects, and precious metal surfaces were covered in paint. Works were produced concerned with politics, the environment, and feminism. Taking inspiration from fine-art movements, jewellers also made unwearable performance- or installation-based jewellery, and painterly, abstract, kinetic, conceptual, or minimal work.
For a while this experimental oeuvre was categorised as ‘art jewellery’ but by the 1990s it had become known as ‘the new jewellery’. Towards the end of that decade there was some concern that once the novelty and shock-value wore off, contemporary jewellery would be directionless. Instead, as the 100 extraordinary brooches in this Tinker Tailor exhibition indicate, successive generations of practitioners have taken the core elements of the ‘new jewellery’ and added contemporary technical, aesthetic, and conceptual input. The medium has gained in power and strength. The ‘art jewellery’ focus on intent or concept has remained important, as has the use of non-traditional techniques. However, whereas the latter was once employed primarily to create ideological distance from tradition, these materials have now acquired a symbolic vocabulary.
New materials to communicate particular ideas
The Tinker Tailor exhibition brooches innovatively use a huge range of materials, including resin, tram tickets, horsehair, paper, diamonds, glass, and rope, which all illustrate the expressive potential of this new language.
Each jeweller deliberately selected materials to communicate particular ideas. Tracy Pateman, whose brooch was inspired by the resistance fighter Nancy Wake, sourced her titanium and monel metal from a company that was a major artillery manufacturer during both world wars, thus highlighting the link between metals and the machinery of war. Margaret West’s spiritual landscape of stone makes a sublime response to Judith Wright’s poetry. Roseanne Bartley used the plastic detritus of consumerism, McDonald’s spoons and plastic-bottle parts, to respond to author Miles Franklin. Bartley imagined how Franklin, who lived frugally so that she might provide funding for young writers of the future, would react to the twenty-first-century culture of waste. Bronwyn Goss’s beautifully carved and engraved fragment of bone, one of a suite for anthropologist Daisy Bates, evokes buried histories, abandonment, and loss.
Many of these brooches feature ‘up-cycling’, a contemporary version of recycling that increases the value of discarded objects. Connected to the nascent green-jewellery movement and its concerns for the environment and sustainability, up-cycling is a way of working that doesn’t exact a toll on the planet. Julie Kiefel has up-cycled parts of tin containers to make a brooch that reflects celebrity chef Kylie Kwong’s cultural heritage, her beautiful coloured dishes, and her concerns for sustainability. Keifel has used cold-joining techniques to avoid the toxic fumes and chemicals involved in the soldering, pickling, and polishing of precious metals. Wanting to ‘tread lightly’, Szuszy Timar began with a found section of patterned mild steel and then, inspired by architect Frank Gehry’s design process, made paper models until she arrived at a form and material combination that, for her, symbolised organist Lillian Frost’s social and cultural milieu. With a witty material wordplay, worthy of the Liber, Sue Lorraine’s Roach Brooch,inspired by the work of entomologist/parasitologist Josephine Mackerras, is an oversized cockroach made from a vinyl LP by the band The Cockroaches, who famously became The Wiggles.
A key component of the new jewellery movement was the use of new technologies and this continues to resonate in current practice, with many participants using digital design, rapid-prototyping, and 3D printing. While such ‘rapid manufacturing’ is primarily used by commercial jewellers, Alice Whish’s brooch, inspired by the astrological crochet-patterns of Margaret Ann Field, was digitally designed and then rapid-prototyped. Through new technology, her brooch reinvigorates an old craft-form, and the juxtaposition is evocative. Bridie Lander, whose brooch captures confectioner Teresa Cahill’s love of cars, used 3D scanning, digital morphing, rapid-prototyping, moulding, and casting to produce the miniature Packard that slides across a landscape of waffle, topped with caramel sauce. Melissa Cameron also designed her complex pattern digitally for a brooch responding to the life of mathematician, Ethel Raybould. Cameron then laboriously cut the pattern out of an old baking dish by hand.
Cameron’s combination of high-tech-meets-hand-crafted exemplifies one aspect of the multi-layered renewal of interest in ‘craft’ in which craft has become a concept rather than a practice. In an inversion of the original ‘art jewellery’ aim to push craft into being accepted as art, several of these brooches could be described as art that is about craft. Examples include Michelle Taylor’s adventurous woodcarving, Catherine Truman’s spectacular carved mother-of-pearl kidney, and Vicki Shukuroglou’s exquisite homage to Indigenous painter, Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Reacting to the design emphasis that infiltrated craft in the 1990s, many jewellers incorporate weaving, knitting, and stitching, to evoke ‘honesty’ or other attributes associated with the handmade. In another manifestation of the craft revival, traditional gold smithing techniques undergo a radical reworking through the use of cutting-edge technology and materials. Ximena Briceño’s filigree brooch, produced using laser-welding and anodising of titanium and niobium, takes an ancient gold smithing technique into the future. It materially expresses the desire to explode preconceived ideas and stereotypes.
40 years of the contemporary-jewellery movement in Australia
With 100 participants who represent several generations of women jewellers—from the 1970s to the present—this exhibition is not only a fascinating collection of brooches but also an opportunity to survey over 40 years of the contemporary-jewellery movement in Australia. These 100 brooches cover the spectrum of interpretations—from the highly experimental to the more traditional contemporary jewellery that uses precious metals and gems. Every imaginable approach, technique, and material from the past few decades is represented. Stylistically, there are beautiful minimal works, such as Eugenie Keefer Bell’s architectural floor-plan for Florence Taylor, to extravagant and elaborate works illustrated by Nina Oikawa’s richly coloured resin-and-gemstone brooch, which captures the vivid and flamboyant operatic world of Dame Joan Sutherland. Felicity Peters’ brooch for Bishop Kay Goldsworthy encapsulates the richness of sacred metalwork.
The narrative-jewellery genre, that which illustrates a story, is also well represented with some fascinating works, including those by Sorcha Flett and Bibi Locke. Flett’s brooch responds to a notorious schoolgirl murder case that pioneering policewoman Madge Connor worked on. Artist Charles Blackman painted a series based on this event, and Flett makes a reference to this but superimposes the face of the perpetrator. Bibi Locke’s interactive brooch was inspired by the achievements of award-winning costume designer Catherine Martin. The outfits of the figure (actress Nicole Kidman in a scene from Australia) can be changed, replicating the process Martin employs in her own profession. Coconut Lu made a delightful rhythmic piece of jewellery for conductor Simone Young, which can be adjusted by its wearer to move like music itself. Helen Aitken-Kuhnen’s pair of brooches for mountaineer Brigitte Muir engages the imagination in a different type of spatial play. One reveals the distant mountain range, the end-goal, and the other a close-up of the ice face, the immediate reality that must be surmounted in order to achieve the goal.
Diversity and individuality
These 100 brooches are as diverse and individual as their makers and indeed the 100 biographies that inspired them. However, when viewed in conjunction with the biographies, they share the ability to offer an insight into the thinking underlying the design process. This, usually invisible in contemporary jewellery, offers a glimpse of the infinite creative resources that Australian women jewellers draw upon. Each of the inspirational women to whom the jewellers responded, have tenaciously followed a hard path, on highly individual missions of achievement. A philosophical symmetry exists between the way each jeweller found a seed of inspiration in a story, and then relentlessly pursued this through various techniques and materials to create their brooch. In the 1990s, the new-jewellery movement was described as ‘Making small things with large meanings’; 4 the spectacular brooches in the Tinker Tailor exhibition reveal how apt a description this remains.
Kirsten Fitzpatrick is the Curator, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor at artisan, Brisbane
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor
29 September 2011 to 12 November 2011
381 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley
Touring nationally in 2012
3 Robert G Ferrell, “Women in Medieval Guilds: Metal Trades”, 1999, www.antithetical.org/restlesswind/plinth/wimguild2.html#metal.
4 Helen Williams Drutt and Peter Dormer, Jewelry of Our Time: Art, Ornament, and Obsession (New York: Rizzoli,1995).