After gaining a BA honours degree in woven textile design, Alexandra Abraham has had a varied and interesting creative career from decorative painter to a specialist glass painter and gilder. It was when she inherited a bag of old costume jewellery from her great aunt and was bequeathed the three-generational family button box plus the remains of her father’s coin collection that her talents turned to jewellery making.
Alexandra kindly took some time out of her very busy schedule that involves foraging for old artefacts in London’s Thames River, exhibiting around Britain and making special pieces for cult fashion and homewares store, Anthropologie in the US to answer some questions.
I’ll warn you, though, Alexandra is so darned interesting, you might want to make a cup of tea first then sit back and enjoy …
What was the first thing you ever collected?
Ammonites [flat spiral-shaped fossil shell of a marine mollusc] and belemnite fossils [conical pointed fossil shell of extinct cephalopod molluscs], sea glass, pebbles and shells from the beach at Whitby in North Yorkshire when I was four years old.
Tell me more about mudlarking – have you always ‘mudlarked’? And is this a particularly British pastime?
Mudlarking is the urban equivalent to beachcombing. It is a term peculiar to the Thames. [On further research, I discover it’s a term that was used to describe people, often children, who scavenged in river mud in London during the late 18th and 19th centuries in order to make a living.]
There is a Society of Mudlarks which only ever has 50 members and they are the only ones allowed to actually dig on the foreshore. People like me are just allowed to pick up. Although there are specific places along the foreshore that are forbidden, for instance there are the remains of a Bronze Age pier which is off limits.
There is a school of thought amongst some Thames archaeologists that says ‘what is found on the foreshore stays on the foreshore’ and I can understand that to a certain extent. But there is so much fabulous stuff washing out of the silt every day and it is wonderful to me to be able to handle fragments of medieval pottery, Tudor shards, 17th century slip ware and to be able to share my passion through my work. If I ever found something momentous like a complete gold medieval cross (this has actually happened) I would certainly hand it in to the Museum of London.
Describe the process of making the jewellery and/or a piece of art. Do you start with a theme or colour way or a particular coin/ceramic/glass or do you just let your creativity flow and see what happens?
Everything I make starts with the materials. I roam around my big benches looking at my finds and then I give myself over to my creativity and something amazing happens. The process is very intuitive for me – I handle the pieces and see what works well together – colours, shapes etc. The process of making a bangle (or indeed a painting or tableware) has three stages: the encrustation of the found materials; then when the resin/acrylic has hardened off (around a week depending on how warm my studio is) I paint it. Then I gild using 23 carat gold leaf – this is a very traditional technique which I absolutely love. The third stage is cleaning and polishing and that’s when the piece of jewellery or the painting is fully revealed to me for the first time. This is so exciting and is exactly why I like to work like this – almost in the dark until the last minute. The final part is making sure that whatever I have made has the best finish possible – so lots of coats of lacquer and lots of rubbing down. Then, in the case of the bangles, each one is signed and numbered. I just sign the paintings and chargers on the back, and napkin rings are individually signed.
You’ve managed to merge the old and the new and yet create something that doesn’t look modern, that looks as if it’s come from a bygone era – in fact, your jewellery, especially the bangles, remind me of ancient Egyptian jewellery! Was this always the intention?
The jewellery came as a result of making paintings encrusted with my found materials. One day I decided to devise a way of wearing these encrustations, so I made some very small and rather tentative brooches. They sold straight away and I made more, and they became bigger and bigger and, as I love statement jewellery, I began making bangles – initially just for myself to wear. I like the idea of each piece being entirely individual and unrepeatable. I’ve never overtly been influenced by Egyptian jewellery, or indeed jewellery from any period of history, although I do love the wonderful jewellery gallery in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
You say on your website that people now give you things i.e. their old jewellery or boxes of coins. Did you used to have to ask around for that kind of stuff or rely only on things you found?
When I first started using found materials I worked my way through my own hoard. I’ve been collecting and saving things for years from travelling around the world. [You can read more about her travels and collecting here]. But as I began to be more prolific and more successful I realised I needed to be more proactive so I did ask around my friends and family and some wonderful things came my way.
And now the pieces seem to find me. I’m given old coins and broken jewellery on a regular basis and most recently, Dixie Nichols, the daughter of the last couture glass button maker in England, Lionel Nichols, contacted me via Twitter and subsequently gave me two big bags of broken buttons which have been completely inspirational. I made a set of buttons using four of the Nichols fragments which will shortly be on exhibition at Macclesfield Silk Museum.
Do you think you’ll ever run out of found materials?
No, never. There’s always something on its way to me. The Thames is just one enormous treasure trove – not to mention the beaches I visit, or even the pavements I walk on. For instance, I was just leaving the Schindler Museum in Krakow (the Schindler factory used to make metal bowls and plates etc) and I saw, crushed into the gravel, a little metal thimble … just waiting for me to pick it up.
And a couple of years ago I was walking along a rocky coastal path between Nice and Villefranche and found a shattered heap of old china ornaments which had been thrown off the balcony of one of the luxury apartments high above on the cliff! It took me an hour to collect it all up and I have used much of it in my work.
Tell us about some of the more interesting pieces you’ve found. What stories do they have to tell?
I absolutely love clay pipe stems [many of which, she says in a recent blog post, can date back to the 16th century]. I also recently found a beautiful little red glass crystal bead on the Thames foreshore which I am spending a lot of time handling and thinking about and wondering who wore it and how old it is.
Where do you go, or what do you do/read/see for inspiration?
I travel extensively. I also spend a lot of time in the South of France – I can completely understand why Matisse loved it so much. The light is magnificent. I have just come back from the medieval Polish city Krakow which was beautiful – so old. They have a massive excavation under the town square with foundations dating back to the 12th century. Next month I’ll be going to Vietnam where my younger son is working (he manages an ecolodge in the last bit of virgin jungle in Vietnam). We were there last year for the first time – a fantastic vibrant country. One of the best places was the Forbidden City in Hue which was liberally encrusted with old china – that was quite something. And Hoi Ann, a World Heritage site which has fabulous old painted houses and a perfect white sand beach full of exquisite little pink shells.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I read, swim, walk and visit exhibitions. I also love being with my friends and spending time in the South of France. And naturally, I consider beachcombing and mudlarking to be leisure pursuits. My husband is quite used to waiting patiently while I poke away in the mud. I’ve had some particularly fruitful visits to Tate Modern – on the way home from an exhibition, if the tide is right, the area under the Millennium Bridge is a paradise of old blue china, a reflection of London’s export trade and also of the many china factories which were once along the Thames.
What’s your most beloved possession?
My apartment in Nice, France. It is a beautiful inspirational city and the light there is so uplifting. I also use materials I find there in my work including some beautiful ancient fragments (used up long ago in my first brooches and bangles) I picked up from the remains of an ancient rubbish tip on Mont Boron and, of course, those grey and white striped Nice beach pebbles.
What would be your dream project?
Being commissioned to make jewellery for Chanel, as they would, of course, donate a bottomless bag of Chanel buttons for me to mix up with my old china and pipe stems and broken costume jewellery.
Have you had a ‘who’d have thought?’ moment? Tell me about it.
Early last year an email arrived from the head accessories buyer at Anthropologie USA. She had seen a photo of my bangles on Pinterest (pinned by someone unbeknownst to me – I didn’t even have a Pinterest account at that time!). She loved my work and wanted to stock my bangles, so I made a limited edition collection and last Autumn/Winter 2012 my bangles were in 15 Anthropologie flagship stores including ones in New York, Dallas and Los Angeles, and also online! I got emails from people all over America who had bought them. They were intrigued by the materials I use and the fact that each one is signed and numbered.
I thought it would be difficult to top that, but this year’s best ‘who’d have thought’ moment so far was having two of my bangles selected for exhibition at the beautiful new Goldsmiths’ Centre, alongside jewellery and objects by 18 gold and silversmiths all working in precious metals – including my jewellery idols Mark Nuell and Imogen Belfield. To see my gilded pebble bangles displayed alongside fine jewellery in such a prestigious exhibition is quite astonishing to me. I could never have imagined it in my wildest dreams. I am still pinching myself!
Where do you see yourself in ten years from now?
I’ve made things – clothes, ceramics, textiles – since I was a very little girl so I don’t see an end to being creative. But I am going to push the jewellery further and see how far I can take it.
Thanks so much, Alexandra, for such a fascinating insight into your creative life!
It really makes me wish I could I could join her for a spot of mudlarking sometime, don’t you agree?