The art of rural life

Jewellery designer Alice Clarke in her Blue Shed workshop at Fellbeck, near Pateley Bridge.
Jewellery designer Alice Clarke in her Blue Shed workshop at Fellbeck, near Pateley Bridge.
  • Her studio is a shed and her materials range from Yorkshire Tea bags to lambing teats. Lynn Leadbeatter meets jewellery designer Alice Clarke. Pictures by Jonathan Gawthorpe.
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Blink and you’ll miss Fellbeck. High above Nidderdale, a handful of houses, a few farmhouses and a pub are scattered along the Pateley Bridge to Ripon road. Springhill Farm is even more remote, perched on the hillside between the hamlet and the windswept moorland of Brimham Rocks.

It couldn’t be more different from the concrete and crowds of the country’s second largest city. Yet it was three years’ exile in busy Birmingham that inspired Alice Clarke to capture the essence of the surrounding countryside in a series of unique and innovative jewellery collections.

Jewellery designer Alice Clarke and her creations from the Blue Shed workshop

Jewellery designer Alice Clarke and her creations from the Blue Shed workshop

That doesn’t mean just recreating natural forms in precious metals. Alice’s work goes one step further – by evoking the farming way of life and by making use of an eclectic range of materials that are Yorkshire through and through.

During the third year of her jewellery and silversmithing degree at Birmingham City University Alice started to design her Sunday Best collection – a celebration of the traditional weekly family get-together made from an unorthodox selection of items representing Dales country living. It includes eye-catching pendants featuring plaster casts of the bases of two teacups stained with Yorkshire tea. The necklaces also incorporate a rope created by French knitting using Wensleydale wool and a dolly peg fastener. Tea bags may be inserted between the two discs or used to mould a silver stud, which serves as a second attachment.

“I was missing the landscape and I continued to be drawn to my rural roots,” says Alice. “The work is about how special Sunday is, especially in the farming community. My grandparents always come round for a pot of tea and cake. Work doesn’t stop but it’s a family time, having a drink and putting the world to rights.”

The tea bag motif is also incorporated into striking enamelled rings, the band forming an incomplete circle based on casts of teacup handles. These also feature sheep wool and Whitby jet, which may be left partially unpolished so the surface texture can be appreciated. Instead of making brooches, Alice completed the collection with large button pieces that may be attached to clothes fastenings.

Jewellery designer Alice Clarke and her creations from the Blue Shed workshop

Jewellery designer Alice Clarke and her creations from the Blue Shed workshop

“It tests what other people think about jewellery and what it should be made from,” she says – and the collection she submitted to the Suspended in Green exhibition went even further. Her “Bottle and Brew” necklace incorporates lambing teats and castration bands alongside plaster casts of teacups – a reference to orphaned lambs being bottle-fed by shepherds alongside the Aga. Another piece is stained with lambs’ blood in recognition of the many losses sustained in springtime.

“A lot of people have a chocolate-box image of the countryside,” says Alice, “yet the farmers go through a lot of hardship.”

The make-do-and-mend mentality of life on the land is also reflected in her love of foraged materials – wool is harvested from barbed wire fences and the original dolly pegs were found in a bucket on a farm at Thirsk. This theme also runs through the Jemima collection, which was shown at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2014 and features feathers plucked from a goose prepared for Christmas dinner. Raspberries and loganberries are used as natural dyes for woven wool redolent of the rope used for so many repair jobs around the farm, from fixing fences to tying Barbour jackets. Alice even cured rabbit skin for a recent commission for an art trail in Ripon.

Yet despite being firmly rooted in the Yorkshire landscape, her work has attracted most interest in Europe, where it went down a storm at the Inhorgenta exhibition in Munich. “It was a completely different experience to British shows – absolutely huge,” she says. “I felt as if I really fitted in. There were enormous halls full of jewellery and I was placed with other contemporary artists. People are willing to be brave whereas over here I feel there is a stigma attached to craft.”

Jewellery designer Alice Clarke and her creations from the Blue Shed workshop

Jewellery designer Alice Clarke and her creations from the Blue Shed workshop

In November she will be exhibiting at the prestigious SIERAAD exhibition in Amsterdam, but first there’s a chance for the British public to catch up with her at the North Yorkshire Open Studios event on June 6 and 7 and 13 and 14. It’s the ideal opportunity to see how the necklaces, bangles, rings and earrings in her latest From the Shed collection are made at first hand.

Launched last month and available through an online shop, it’s designed with a more commercial market in mind but still inspired by her longing for home while at university. The delicate, almost ethereal silver jewellery brings to mind the lichens that thrive on the remote fellsides and especially at Brimham Rocks.

Made using a process of lost wax casting, each commission takes three to six weeks to complete. And that means many hours of painstaking work in the tiny wooden shed at her parents’ home that serves as her workshop, with beautiful views over Nidderdale but only the radio for company. The first stage involves creating intricate replicas of the jewellery in wax, which are then placed in a cylinder before pouring a plaster investment in to make a mould.

After placing it on a vibrating plate to remove bubbles, the carving is melted away. An extension to the wax called a sprue makes a channel through which molten metal can be poured into the mould – but this stage has to take place at a foundry in Birmingham. Alice then oxidises and polishes the finished piece, before sending it to the assay office for hallmarking. On summer nights she can still be working in the shed at 10pm, despite holding down a part-time retail job at Fountains Abbey near her new home at Studley Roger.

Jewellery designer Alice Clarke and her creations from the Blue Shed workshop

Jewellery designer Alice Clarke and her creations from the Blue Shed workshop

“I like to be busy,” she says. “You just have one go at life and I want to cram in as much as I can. My parents set up their business from nothing when I was born 23 years ago. They were so hard-working and seeing them be so successful made me quite a self-motivated person. It’s good to be challenged because you push yourself and learn new skills.”

At the age of 15, she was already earning money by assembling jewellery from items bought online or found objects and selling it at craft fairs. But that didn’t satisfy her creative urge. Because she had enjoyed art and design at Nidderdale High School, she went on to take the subject at sixth form college in Harrogate. Help with technical skills during that difficult transition came from Debby Moxon and Ian Simm, who make bespoke jewellery from titanium, precious metals and opals at their King Street Workshops studio in Pateley Bridge.

Now Alice hopes that she can also give another aspiring artist a leg up.

“I would love to be able to open up an opportunity for someone younger because when I was a teenager, I was a little lost,” she says. “I would like to guide people and eventually employ somebody.”

For now, she has a busy year ahead of her. Following the North Yorkshire Open Studios Event, her jewellery will be on show at Fountains Hall from August 19 to 26 in an exhibition celebrating works of art by National Trust staff and volunteers.

Then it will feature in the Great Northern Contemporary Craft Fair in Manchester from October 8 to 11, before she opens her studio to the public again in December.

Alice Clarke has agriculture in her blood. Her grandparents retired from dairy farming just before the disbanding of the Milk Marketing Board in 1994 and her father started his career in the industry.

Now she is distilling the lifeblood of the countryside into works of art that are thought-provoking, challenging – and Yorkshire to the core.

• For more information visit www.aliceclarke.co.uk or www.jewelleryfromtheshed.com, email alice@aliceclarke.co.uk or call 07841 212423.