What were you doing in June 1971? Are you still doing it today, 25 years later, and in the same place? Barbara Cartlidge is.
And if that name does not immediately strike a chord in your memory then surely the address will: 21 South Molton Street. For there cannot be many jewellers and goldsmiths in North America – or indeed the world – who are unfamiliar with Electrum Gallery in London, England. It is there that Barbara Cartlidge has been conducting her business and making an invaluable contribution to the field of contemporary jewellery for over two decades.
For owner/director Cartlidge, Electrum’s 25th Anniversary in June of 1996 was another milestone in her lifelong association with jewellery. Her initial encounters with the medium were in the 1930s when she made her first bracelets, ashtrays, and bookends in school in Germany. But, as the odious clouds of Nazism descended over the country, she was forced to fee to England where she took up residence in 1938. During the War she took a succession of secretarial jobs, 22 in one year alone, from which she says she learned much about how and how not to run a business.
In the post-war period she ran a restaurant and became involved with various leftist activist causes which would later assume a fateful role in her life. But in 1957, at the instigation of her husband Derek, who was running a successful transport business, she enrolled at the Central School of Arts and Crafts where she studied metal and jewellery.
Upon completion of the course she set up a studio at home and was soon taking jewellery commissions. In 1961 she had a very successful one-woman show at the fashionable Heals Department Store in London. This lead to her involvement with the Ewan Phillips Gallery which was one of the first fine art galleries in London to exhibit and sell modern jewellery. It was there that she met Ralph Turner.
In the meantime the British Peace Committee which she was involved with, decided to open a gallery in St. Christopher’s Place and sell arts and crafts in order to fund various liberal causes. The gallery was named Pace and was linked to various peace organizations in Western and Eastern Europe. This consortium drew on an impressive group of like-minded artists who donated works to be sold at the gallery. Picasso, for example, donated the rights of his ceramic pieces to the French Peace Committee. Pace Gallery was run by a committee that included Barbara and she soon recruited Ralph into the organization. He suggested that they should sell modern jewellery at Pace, a policy they instituted. But Cartlidge found herself at increasing odds with the rest of the committee and became determined to open a gallery of her own, dealing uniquely with contemporary jewellery. Thus, Electrum was born.
With Barbara Cartlidge as sole owner and with overall responsibility and Ralph Turner as Director, the two launched the first gallery dedicated to contemporary jewellery on Summer Solstice, June 21, 1971.
They recruited artists and built the business step by step. “I went in naively,” she says. “In spite of my familiarity with other business operations, I didn’t foresee the problems that I would have. I never thought any of these things that plagued others could happen to me.”
As to her choice of location in the very exclusive part of London that is South Molton Street she explains, “I could never have opened anywhere else but in the middle of the West End because you have to be realistic enough to know who your clients are likely to be. Despite all of my revolutionary ideas, they were going to be a middle- and upper-class, reasonably well-off clientele. I do of course, have clients who are not well-off and who pay in installments over a long period of time for the pieces that they want but these remain an enlightened few.”
Electrum Gallery has not only survived but has it has thrived. Testimony to this can be discerned by the fact that of all the businesses on that exclusive pedestrian street she is now the second oldest tenant in a neighbourhood, where the oldest tenant only opened six months before Electrum.
In a conversation I wondered aloud if Electrum could have happened and survived in say, New York? Cartlidge responded: “No, because you have to be internationally central and you need customers from all over the world. If you were in New York you would miss out on all the Europeans who never make it to the States. If you were in Los Angeles the same – you’d probably miss a lot of East Coast customers. If you were in Paris, there are still a lot of people who come to England and who don’t go to Paris or Germany or anywhere else. That’s why no one has even been able to get together the size of a gallery I have because I am geographically in the hub of the wheel. That’s why people going to Paris come to London first – it’s cheaper that way anyway. I have clients who literally fly into London, take a cab to the gallery, make a purchase and then return to Heathrow to reconnect with their fight elsewhere. Without that kind of thing happening I wouldn’t have survived even at this level. This kind of jewellery needs the widest possible accessibility.”
Electrum continues to be unique. Part educational resource centre, part launching pad for new jewellers, part museum, it continues to have six exhibitions annually. Group shows, two- or three-person shows and more unusually one-person shows have all been presented. Works by almost all of the now well-known goldsmiths in the world have been exhibited here and more than usually presented for the first time. Jewellery has been exhibited at Electrum from Argentina, the former Czechoslovakia, Japan, Poland, Scandinavia, Greece, Australia, Canada, and many other countries spanning the globe. Barbara states that she has had 150 exhibitions, “150 headaches” and has presented the work of well over 650 individual jewellers. Without a doubt a singular achievement in the field and quite a record of artistic assimilation and promotion.
The first American works to be shown at Electrum were pieces by Ed Samuels and Omar K. Bone, which were included in Erotic Jewellery in 1971, the second exhibition ever held there. In 1976 there was an exhibition entitled 6 American Jewellers which included Eleanor Moty, Arline Fisch, Mary Lee Hu, Richard Mawdsley, and Hiroko and Gene Pijanowski. This transatlantic relationship has continued through the years and most prominent American jewellers have shown there, the latest being Arline Fisch and Stanley Lechtzin in the 25th Anniversary show. Wishing to tease out some feelings about American work vis-à-vis European work, I asked her about the two and if she agreed with my contention that one could invariably identify the two sensibilities even when viewing unidentified slides.
“Oh yes, definitely, I felt that there was a time when there was a great divergence, partially because of communication, partially because conditions in America are so different. In the States most artists who are professionally into jewellery are having to teach and not having to make their living as purely working jewellers, although that is nowadays becoming the case for European artists as well. Though they had a greater freedom in America, in many ways they were also spread apart geographically and communication and exchange was in its infancy. … it made a big difference when that changed. Before that I felt that it was very arty-crafty in America and a bit pretentious if anything – trying to be something that it was not. This is difficult to substantiate, of course, but it was very massive jewellery, very big. It seemed to follow in the tradition of Calder but, of course, this was more appropriate to the American way of life – there’s more space, people are bigger, they’re bolder, wear much more modern clothes than Europe ever did. So in terms of just its [the jewellery’s] sheer size it was difficult to come to grips with. It was more flamboyant in a way, but also flatter in content, more decorative in visual appeal. But nowadays it has merged much more. …the Europeans have become bolder, they went through this minimal phase where everything was minute and understated and now it has become much bigger again and the Americans have become more proportionate and there’s some very fine work being done there. Mind you, there always has been.”
In 1974 Barbara Cartlidge and Ralph Turner parted company. He became Head of Exhibitions at the Crafts Council, where he promoted and exhibited a more radical group of jewellery experimenters, among them: Pierre Degen, Julia Mannheim, Susanna Heron, and Caroline Broadhead. He has also worked closely with Paul Derrez of Galerie Ra in Amsterdam to bring many new Dutch and German artists to the fore. It was during this period, roughly 1978-1984, that Electrum’s exhibition policy came under some pointed criticism for its alleged failure to engage with this particular body of work. It seemed to some that Electrum could no longer sustain its claim to be the premier showcase of all that was new and innovative in jewellery. Cartlidge, however, strongly disagrees.
“That was a deliberate policy on my part. I think that that kind of jewellery had run itself into a blind alley and I’ve been proved right. It’s dead. It’s very hard to de6ne exactly in a few words what was wrong with it, because in a way there’s nothing wrong with it. But what isn’t right is to purely describe as jewellery what you could perhaps best, if you need to categorize it, put into the area of installation. It is about as far removed from jewellery as you can get. It just isn’t. It is installation. It is a statement from an artist but it does not actually do anything for jewellery or people’s understanding of jewellery because it is out of proportion, non-functional; and I have to be honest that many of the examples were questionable in terms of art content and concept as far as I was concerned. All it did was perplex people and art is not actually there to perplex. If it is at all there then I think it is there to shock and I mean not just to shock for the sake of shocking – but to shock people into a different area of thinking, of seeing, of understanding; and I’m afraid that most of the New Jewellers, and I can’t say all of them, but most of them were going totally off the target. They didn’t hit it at all.”
Taking a pause she chain-lit her umpteenth cigarette, took three quick phone calls (two in her fluent German and one in English) and at the second of hanging up, continued on in her measured but rapid-fire way, as if no interruption had occurred.
“They weren’t wearable. They were photographable. I mean no one would deliberately and for no good reason take a load of twigs and put them over their arm and then put a bucket into their hand and walk down the road for the sake of … what? They would for the sake of picking up more twigs and putting them into the bucket and burning the rest that are on their shoulders maybe. But it has nothing to do with jewellery. It is an installation if you like, and it did make people think of the relation of the body to it’s environment or in its immediate context, but it was not anything that is even remotely there to make people think of jewellery. I think it was an art school exercise. A fight of fancy, very amusing, very entertaining but not in terms of jewellery. I think that jewellery is something much more personal and is and can be used as an art form, but when it gets disproportionate it loses its point. One of the interesting facts about jewellery as an art form is that it demands of the artist to express within the limits of dimension something that is both tactile, informative, emotionally felt, intellectually understandable, and, if you like, even shocking. But it doesn’t do this when it becomes disproportionate. When art starts to alienate people and they only say it’s art because they actually don’t understand it there is a problem. I’m interested in jewellery as it relates to the human psyche even more than how it relates to the human body.”
“But I do think these things were interesting in a one-off situation. It was good to stimulate the minds of people who thought they were going into a jewellery exhibition to buy themselves a little trinket. But you can only make a statement about this kind of thing once and to then perpetuate it and incorporate it into a gallery situation is incredibly boring. To have blown them up out of proportion and to turn them into a major contribution to the contemporary jewellery field is to my mind completely off. It was total hype; the Emperor’s New Clothes.”
She may be at least partially right. Given the current fortunes of the jewellers and jewellery which energized this period and made it seem so enervating it did, in hindsight, seem to have had a degree of obsolescence built into it. It did seem to have imploded.
Furthermore, according to Barbara, “l see it [The New Jewellery movement] as one of the great damages that was done to jewellery all of that hype. There is a difficulty when young artists start making something that appears really exciting to an older and more established crowd of professionals, journalists, and gallery curators. They get promoted and hyped into something quickly because here is a wonderful new talent on the horizon and they get exposure, articles written, photographs done, catalogues made and suddenly it all comes to a grinding halt because they haven’t really worked it all out. The promoters and curators move on to other pastures. I’m afraid that this is exactly what happened to this New Jewellery lot. It did do one thing however; it focused people’s minds who were basically only into fine art and would therefore never see a piece of art outside of those traditionally accepted media like sculpture and painting. It did draw their attention to things like jewellery. Although it didn’t hold it for long. And they only saw it because they thought, ‘Uh-huh, here’s something new that I haven’t seen before and I’m not sure what it is, therefore it must be art.’ But when looked at with hindsight (although as I say, I did see it at the time) when you looked good and hard it was not what it pretended to be and, it fizzed out and couldn’t go anywhere from there. And it destroyed the people who were actually making it because they felt that they could never measure up to fine art. It dislocated their perspective, it kind of smashed a whole generation. There’s an enormous gap between the ones that made it in the ’70s and ’80s and the ones that are now beginning to actually come up with something new in the ’90s. There was a plateau from around 1978 onwards until almost 1990. There’s just now beginning to be a new momentum. When Jewellery Redefined came out, which I think was a misnomer anyway because there was nothing redefined about it, it finished an entire generation of students who were just beginning to qualify as goldsmiths because when that work gained currency they abandoned their positions and got pulled along a path that led absolutely nowhere.”
A glance at the letters columns of this and other significant journals of the period would be sufficient to prove that Cartlidge was (and is) not alone in her judgments. Nevertheless, they are strong and contentious assertions from an unimpeachable and outspoken witness to some four decades of contemporary jewellery.
Quite a few brave, if not foolhardy souls, have opened contemporary jewellery galleries in various cities throughout the Euro-American orbit. Many have come and gone. We remember some fondly, others with bitterness and recrimination. Against improbable odds and a background of two and a half decades of jewellery history, Electrum has remained a touchstone, a certainty in a very volatile and often turbulent scene. One can still wander in and view a credible collection of international work. Now on its Silver Anniversary year, I asked Barbara how and why it has survived?
“Well, I’ll tell you. It’s a combination of probably unwarranted optimism, a certain quantity of childlike stubbornness and a force majeur. I don’t like giving something up that has a great many positive aspects to it and so far they’ve always outweighed the negative ones of this business. I’ve often felt like chucking it in because it in enormous responsibility. It’s a7½ day week but it has tremendous perks. I’ve had very low times when I’ve felt very insecure and desperate. It is a very deeply involved activity and I work at it morning, noon, and night in many different capacities from making pouches, to designing and typography, layout and photography, contacting and planning, organizing people and planning PR. You name it, I do it; looking after clients, keeping the whole thing running. It’s probably because I can do so many things myself which if I had had to pay for I could not afford that I can survive on a minimum of return. But it’s probably because I see jewellery as a very integral part of what people need aside from food and shelter. There is more to life than that and if I can convey that to another person – and I think that is a gallery’s job to do this – as well as to be the bridge between the creator’s work of art and the audience, then mv job is done. Now, I wouldn’t say that every piece in the gallery is a work of art because it is not, but some of it is and if I can transmit that to another person that is a tremendous and rewarding thing to do. I find it very satisfying. I meet wonderful people. It’s a great job. The essential ingredient of jewellery appeals to a totally different part of the human psyche than a painting or a sculpture and it has an additional function in that it needs to become part of the actual physical surrounding, the immediate personal environment of a person which brings with it both limitations and freedoms. You can say much because it goes very deep and is very personal which is why if you lose that personal clement, like in an installation for example, you’ve lost contact with whatever was turned on to jewellery in the first place.”
“Jewellery is an ever fascinating theme. It is – how can I put this? I’m very interested in people’s well-being, in people’s emotional lives, in people and their contacts and relationships. I think that jewellery plays a terribly important part in all of this and more than, I think, any other art form.”
It is the latter commentary, written verbatim from the interview that I had with Barbara at her home in Hampstead, which probably reveals more about why Electrum Gallery has survived in the jewellery field for 25 years than any cash flow analyst could.
And another 25 years?
“I hope that Electrum will go on and that eventually I can find a successor and then it will go on beyond that. I’m not going to be doing it when I’m 100, that’s for sure, and that’s not an awfully long way off.”
All this writer can say to that is: “Don’t you believe it!”
James B. Evans is writer on crafts and design for Metalsmith and various European journals and is currently writing a book on crafts criticism. He is also Senior Lecturer and Head of Jewellery and Metals at the University of Brighton in England.
Ralph Turner was later to become the influential Head of Exhibitions at the Crafts Council and also the author of Contemporary Jewelry: 1945-1975; co-author, with Peter Dormer, of the New Jewelry in Europe and America: New Times, New Thinking.
A full account can be found in the catalogue of The Innovators: Presenting Past and Present Jewellery, published to coincide with Electrum’s 25th Anniversary and available from Electrum.
A seminal International exhibition of multi-media, non-precious jewellery held in London at the Crafts Council in 1982 and organized by Diana Hughes whose catalogue [now a collectable] became a beacon to many art college jewellery students.
For further study as to what is endorsed in the Cartlidge canon the reader would be well advised to consult her important and well-researched book, Twentieth Century Jewelry, published in 1985 which I hope will be revised before the century closes.