Above: Five Sea Thimbles, 2017.Opposite: Winter Boxtree, 2017
34 Woman’s Hour Craft Prize
The inspiration for Romilly Saumarez Smith’s meticulously made, beautifully detailed jewellery and boxes came from an unlikely place – gifts for the children’s Christmas stockings. ‘I didn’t want the things to cost too much,’ she explains. ‘I thought I’d just see whether I could get some Roman rings or something. I looked on eBay and, of course, there’s a mass of stuff. They were things of such resonance and beauty. Almost immediately I started thinking I could do something with them. They never got into the stockings.’ Instead, these ancient artefacts, including belt-buckles, nails, bridle charms, thimbles and clasps, became the starting point for a new collection of jewellery called Newfoundland.
For 25 years Saumarez Smith had been one of the nation’s leading bookbinders. However, as time went on she began to shift her attention into a slightly different area. ‘I started using metal on the books – bashing copper wire,’ she says. ‘I found the action of bending metal and making shapes very appealing. It felt that I had found the material which, maybe, I should have always been working in.’ In 2004 the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut hosted a solo exhibition of her bookbindings with some jewellery. However, ill health intervened, confining Saumarez Smith to a wheelchair and unable to use her hands.
Initially she stopped making, but in 2009 she was introduced to jewellery designer Lucie Gledhill (via the textile artist Mary Restieaux) and together the pair created a system of producing new work. ‘We had to find a way of making things, talking about things,’ she says. ‘It’s extremely difficult to describe something without using your hands. I don’t feel I’m always tremendously articulate. There’s all this stuff that goes on in your head that you want to describe with your hands so badly. And you just can’t do that.’ Gledhill still works with her one day a week and Saumarez Smith also brings in Anna Wales and Laura Ngyou. ‘It has ended up working in exactly the same way that I always worked – that the last piece informs the next,’ she says.
For the prize the artist will be showing a combination of new and old boxes, which include finds such as Tudor glass, an old button and an Anglo-Saxon ring. ‘Everywhere we walk in this country there are treasures beneath our feet. I am touched that a particular find comes to me and that I can give it a new life, while referencing the place from which it emerged,’ she concludes. GG romillysaumarezsmith.com