Back to Home

Having grown up in the middle of nowhere in the middle of England in the 1970s, it’s perhaps no surprise that I have – for as long as I can remember – craved the sea; its salt-tang, its coruscating brilliance, its consoling disaster. That happily solitary and largely borderless upbringing also engendered a curiosity, inquisitiveness and, often, acquisitiveness for the world around me. Forever waylaid by the smallest of details, for half a century I have scoured the ground beneath my feet; foraging for remnant clues of where I have trod, and what has trod before me. Countryside offers feathers, cones, skeletons; cities spew up hard, dense, metallic jetsam – bristles, washers, wheel-weights; beaches reveal disturbing plastics (now finely graded from chunks to sandiness like grim scalpings), rope-frays, smooth-glass and time-worn, surf-formed pebbles.

My youngest son Dylan lives in a shared house with some friends in Bristol. On the chimney-breast in his bedroom hangs a collage image made by his dad at some point in the mid 90s whist studying for his degree in Silversmithing and Jewellery. I don’t remember quite what was on my mind as I made it, but I had included a row of smooth black pebbles, each wedged in place with a blob of Araldite and next to them I’d scrawled something about feeling guilty for trapping and encapsulating them rather than allowing them to be free, tossed and worn by the ocean. At the time I was half-way to a first-class honours’ degree from Loughborough College of Art and Design; having been to the edge in and of Wales for a couple of wild wave-riding years, I felt it safer to retreat to the middle again. With a surfboard and a shoebox full of stones and broken glass.

It is 2016. Both my boys are now men; Dylan has just started his degree in Illustration and Gabriel is graduating from his B.A. in Art History. Twenty-one years after my own graduation and, although having always kept my making eye in, my career looked less like a path than a meandering zig-zag of unbeaten tracks and frequent dead-ends. After a brief stint in tertiary education between 1998 and 2001, a brace of publication advances for two non-fiction books kept me floating for a short while; the first of these documented my inaugural year on a rural allotment: I had written a book about gardening, so it was decided that I was to be a gardener. Not an author, as my second title irrefutably proved.

For two decades I grafted in other people’s outdoor spaces while I pondered the merit of a ‘weeding and writing‘ career-based pun along with many other mindless irrelevancies. But I never stopped making, or drawing, or photographing, or writing. There has always been output through one channel or another; how else does one tolerate the incessant white noise of the input? I’d heard that a small studio had become available in the local town hall. I could set up a bench in there and make. Make jewellery. Make some sense of it all.

I began tentatively with some silver rings. Nothing fancy; just to see if I could still bend metal to my will and invisibly join it using the dark art of silver soldering. All seemed well, so I progressed to making a range of rings with settings. Never one for being told what is and what is not precious, I have no time for diamonds (they all look roughly the same to me), nor do I hold with the notion that any metal is finer than another based on anything other than its fitness for a certain design criterion; and certainly not on its price. We should surely be more concerned with value, and the orange-peel smooth opaque oval of glass you picked up that bright, cold morning with sand smattering your brow as you stooped for it is priceless. And invaluable. Small, smooth shards of sea-glass, therefore, found themselves bezel-set in custom mounts atop planished silver, chunky oblong-section bands. I wondered if I could do the same with the pebbles. They would be my precious stones.

The following year, scrunching along the shoreline at Slapton Sands on a greying, biting, force-five easterly March afternoon I realise – admit to myself – that I am in the wrong relationship. Again. There seems to be a common denominator here. As a distraction from facing and discussing the truth until it burst out of me one morning six months later, I put my eyes in and walked with my camera. As the flat plum-sized pebbles gave, slowing my heavy feet, I noticed the way the wind-whipped water wrapped white-horsed around the headland, the startling red-and-white-striped marker posts off-vertical, jaunty against the slate sky, the leaden sea. Squatting low with the camera to catch the bands of stone, lead, slate, I see a special one. Like a planet, almost; sienna and ochre mottled with jets of black and a single, black band around its belly. Instinctively I pocketed it, quickly followed by the camera, and began looking for other worldly (other-worldly) stones. I fancied them set as necklaces.

I am not alone. I haven’t done any kind of research, scientific or otherwise, into how many of us have this same desire for a keepsake or talisman of a place, of a time, of a person, of an experience. Surely most, if not all of us?  I think I may treat anyone who doesn’t have this urge with a suspicion similar to that with which I view those who have no books. Martin Heidegger may have had some extremely questionable affiliations but it was he, I think, who suggested that ‘things gather worlds’. These small tokens that we curate are a means by which we remind ourselves – in an abstract as well as literal sense – of where we have been, who we are and who we might be. We define ourselves to others by what we choose to surround ourselves with, and there is no more intimate surrounding than our own skin; where our jewellery sits, mediating between us and the outside world.

Over the decades, I have amassed, refined and made things from a collection of materials and objects found, sometimes bought. Consequently, my jewellery practice often feels like arbitrating between them and the made elements of my work. By placing these insouciantly beguiling universal gifts into highly crafted pieces, I instigate a dialogue between not only these distinct elements but also a human conversation about worth, time and perceived value. I can spend hours, days – weeks have been known – making a piece using skills that have now taken half a lifetime to refine, but that pebble has been fashioned ceaselessly by blind millennia; do I have the arrogance to believe that my fleeting blink of an existence, all that it contains and creates is somehow of higher standing than a resolute pebble? To stave off the nihilism brought about by the only sensible answer to that question I salvage the fragments, make them mean something; make them answer a question with a question.

If I am to even attempt to craft items worthy to sit alongside real, natural beauty I need to start with some interesting material, so for reference and inspiration I find myself drawn recurringly to harbours, shorelines and boatyards, where voluptuous, sinuous forms with parts named belly, buttock, forefoot and transom lounge askew among tensioned, angled ropes and sea-shone, fit-for-purpose hardware. It is no accident that these delights are also of, or from, the sea; their shape is dictated in large part by their relationship with the power, primacy and utter disregard of the ocean. We are all – pebbles, boats, people – not only at the mercy of nature but also an inextricable part of it; strange, then, that we do not treat it with more reverence and respect.

Robin Shelton

Devon, December 2023