Category Archives: Artists

The Writer of little things

GETTING GRITTY From small irritations, beauty is born.
GETTING GRITTY From small irritations, beauty is born.

Starting small.

I pride myself on being a wordsmith who could write on just about any subject, but such surety comes after over two decades’ experience. When I started out, I really had no idea what I was capable of.

So, a when a good friend got a job as a magazine editor, and called in a panic about not knowing what a “drop-cap”,  and other editing terms, referred to, I talked her away from the edge by looking everything up online with her on the other end of the phone. We both learned much from those sessions, without her boss having to know she (and me) were playing journo-school catch-up.

Eventually Eden asked more than unstinting support in a time of need, and commissioned me to write a feature about the history of beads. My late partner Jono had traded in semi-precious stones, and created jewellery out of them, so I knew my away around a bead shop, but a feature was a different matter. I just dived in, did my research, and came up with the goods, and they even used my headline! A new career was born in the process …

PORTABLE STYLE Beads have been strung, trades and prized for millennia.
PORTABLE STYLE Beads have been strung, traded and prized for millennia.

Little Treasures

A brief history of beading

In 21st century Australia we do not generally cook over fires with hand-crafted earthenware pots, read by the light of handmade candles, or make our own writing paper, but at the very centre of our culture is something as ancient as all these things: beads.

Most of us wear and use beads every day as functional items like buttons.

They are durable, attractive little examples of a living archaeology; museum pieces we wear, touch and treasure in our daily lives.

A brief look at the history of beads is not really history at all, because the manufacture of beads has not dramatically changed in thousands of years. It does not require very sophisticated technology to string small perforated objects onto a length of twine or wire. Five thousand years ago, artisans were capable of much the same techniques we use today in beading. Their work is often the only evidence of vast civilisations.

Probably the earliest gem like materials collected were those that were most apparent, such as amber and pearls.

The amber pieces which regularly wash up on the Baltic shores and the east coast of Britain are an attractive and highly prized adornment traded for millennia. Likewise, the pearls of equatorial climates, gifted out of the mouths of oysters, have long been considered things of great mystery and beauty, worn and exchanged over great distances.

Shell, bone, wood and stone appear in all ancient civilisations as far back as 30,000 BC.

By around 2,500 BC, most continents saw complex religious and political cultures spring up in fertile river valleys, from Mesopotamia, Egypt and India, and beyond into Asia and Africa. These location yielded excellent agriculture, but also the raw materials for bead making, and the environment for excavating precious metals.

Beads are evidence of an international trade in these materials, created by the demands of royal and aristocratic lineage, and the artisans they patronised.

Egypt still remains one of the most influential beading cultures of all time. Within the borders of the Nile river valley were all the raw materials to produce beads from a time long before the pyramids were built until the era of Cleopatra, over two thousand years later.

LAPIS OF THE GODS Tutankhamun's death mask is unarguably the prime example of Egyptian cultures love of lapis lazuli beads.
LAPIS OF THE GODS Tutankhamun’s death mask is unarguably the prime example of the Egyptian culture’s love of lapis lazuli beads.

Egyptian gold, turquoise and carnelian were crafted into the enduring Egyptian jewellery styles, most notably their iconic collars. The only material the Egyptians were forced to import was their beloved deep blue lapis lazuli, which was traded from ancient Afghanistan.

Perhaps Egypt’s greatest gift to the world of beads was their development of glassmaking techniques. The application of heat to sand and colouring agents created an early synthetic material called faience, which, over time, was improved to what we know as glass.

Because of its cheap production process, it was possible for most people in Egyptian society to buy and wear synthetic stone, or replicas of more precious materials.

Most of the known Western world was absorbed into the culture of the Roman Empire by the time of Julius Caesar in the first century BC. The Romans manufactured and traded glass on a grand scale, influencing beading from Britain to India.

CANDY CANE Glass bead being formed while viscous.
CANDY CANE Glass bead being formed while viscous.

Glassmaking began much like the process of candy makers – long ‘canes’ of hot coloured resins were stretched and sliced, then cooled into various sized beads. Mixing colour into an array of patterns was a common practice, and the further each cane was stretched, with the same patterns and colours running though it, the more matching beads were able to be sliced from it. Each bead could be perforated with hot metal rods while the glass was still viscous, creating a hole for stringing.

During this time, the Anglo-Saxon language gave us the word “bede”, meaning “prayer”, showing that the religious association of beads was always strong. The major religions borne of this period – Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism – all adopted the use of prayer beads in rituals which are still practiced today.

Rome’s far reaching influence took European traders into Africa, and European beads appeared as far afield as South East Asia, impacting the beading styles of those regions, which held ancient beading traditions of their own.

BEADED BRIDE Complex stone beading became a wedding tradition in India.
BEADED BRIDE Complex stone beading became a wedding tradition in India.

India had developed vast industries of stone beads, such as carnelian and agate, formed into detailed adornments such as the highly prized bridal collars. Thereafter, stone beads became a major Indian export.

African cultures had ancient jewellery traditions using organic materials such as seed, bone and tusk, and some of the richest sources of gold, which was exported back to Europe and beyond. The exaggerated animistic style of African beading impacted the later Roman and Byzantine decorative arts.

Glass remained the most widespread material for beading, and as the Roman Empire collapsed, the processes of glassmaking were kept alive by artisans in Phoenicia and the vast Islamic empires.

In the eastern regions of Arabia and Persia, the manufacture and trade of beads during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance saw new styles develop at a time when art and culture in western Europe diminished.

The Renaissance, from around 1400 AD, saw the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman cultures, including their beads. This was the era when Venetian glass influenced the decorative arts, and glass beads enjoyed a revival. The brightly coloured and textured Chevron bead was first created in Venice c.1500 AD and exported across the known world.

Exploration to the Americas took glass beads to the New World. It could be said that gifting large numbers of glass beads became something of an invasion technique, employed by explorers from Christopher Columbus to the conquistadors in South America.

The Native American and South American cultures had an impact in return. The Mayans and Aztecs prized Guatemalan jade over gold, and developed some of the most sophisticated techniques for drilling very long tubular beads. American Indians created detailed beading techniques to adorn everyday clothing.

Archaeology had a major impact on beading styles in the 20th century. The best example was the 1920s excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the young Egyptian Pharaoh who was buried with unarguably the richest and most varied collection of decorative arts, which took modern minds back to the everyday items of New Kingdom Egypt.

Fashion in the 1920s, and certainly 20th century jewellery, were influenced by this major discovery. The highly intricate collars adorning Tutankhamun’s body were replicated by jewellers worldwide.

Beads often affected modern economies. For thousands of years it was impossible to produce spherical pearls, a process hidden inside the hard shell of oysters, but, in 1913, when businessman Mikimoto Kōkichi pioneered the mass production of perfectly spherical cultured pearls in Japan, the sudden influx of affordable yet perfect pearls sent jewellers worldwide into a spin.

Here in Australia we have Western beading styles in a setting which bridges South East Asia and the South Pacific, with the growing influence of Aboriginal Australian art, and it is not uncommon to see all these influences at work in contemporary Australian jewellery.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Branwell Brontë – literature’s never-was

GHOST WRITER? Does this portrait of Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë include an erased self portrait of their brother Branwell?

DESPITE being the product of the same tiny Yorkshire parsonage as his successful sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, Patrick ‘Branwell’ Brontë (1817-1848) will forever be remembered as one of England’s greatest dilettantes.

The story of how a well educated, ambitious young man was left in the shade of his sisters’ literary success remains a knot of mystery biographers and historians have tried to unravel ever since a string of untimely deaths cut the Brontës’ output short in 1855.

The truncation of four literary careers has always drawn the focus from the siblings’ few books to their abundant juvenilia, which reveals great imaginary empires with characters not unlike some of the sisters’ later heroes and heroines. Branwell was an inherent part of the tight-knit creative cluster that created these unique fantasy worlds.

Although harsh realities eventually came to dominate childhood musings. In a parson’s family with multiple mouths to feed, where a mother had died young, and daughters outnumbered sons three to one, expectations weighed heavily on Branwell’s shoulders from a very young age.

No doubt he welcomed the attention, and while his sisters were sent away for their schooling, he was educated by his father at home, with the aim of getting him accepted into Oxford or Cambridge.

“Small early successes may have seemed too much like baby steps for Branwell.”

But the hoped-for pathway to university never materialised, possibly because Branwell had other ideas. Many of his young adult years were spent in the pursuit of success as a visual artist, particularly as a portraitist servicing the pre-photography tradition of upwardly mobile families having their likenesses recorded as an expression of their gentility.

His early enthusiasm and promise seemed to be flooded by his other enthusiasm – alcohol-soaked carousing with friends. After several failures at an array of careers, by his very early twenties, just like his sisters, Branwell ended up tutoring the children of the rich in private homes.

For Charlotte, Emily and Anne, the drudgery of governess work proved great fodder for their adult fiction, and drove them to seek other forms of income; whereas Branwell escaped the high level of responsibility that tutoring required into a surprising occupation for a creative young man – the management of a new railway line, part of the network that was being rolled-out across the north of England in the 1840s.

The income was good, although giving up his prospects as a portraitist, poet, and scholar must have weighed very heavily on this entitled young man. Without critical rewards, Branwell soon neglected his post and took to drinking, got sacked due to missing funds, and backtracked into tutoring.

He lasted two years, a good effort compared with his sisters’ governess work, but the stability didn’t last. Something happened in the home where Branwell tutored, something later described in Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte as ‘bad beyond expression’.

LITERARY HOTBED The Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth, Yorkshire.
LITERARY HOTBED The Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth, Yorkshire.

It’s long been assumed that Branwell had an affair with the wife of his employer. Letters to his friends and his poetry hints at an unrequited yearning for Lydia Robinson, but to the present day a full-blown affair remains only an assumption.

Whatever the truth, Branwell was sacked in 1845 and he really had only one place to go.

If he expected to return as some missing hero to the literary hotbed his childhood home had become, he certainly was an entitled fool. In his absence, the once invisible door to creative collaboration with his sisters had been firmly closed.

He may have been the one to shut it, when he took a bunch of childhood tales and tried to adapt them into new forms for publication. Whether this disconnect was a direct result of Branwell’s attitude, his addictions, his ambitions, his guilt, or all of the above, he swiftly declined under the same roof as his sisters’ ascent.

There is very little evidence that Branwell was ever capable of applying himself to creativity long term, although it’s routinely overlooked that he was the first of his siblings to have work published, albeit under a false name – ‘Northlangerland’ – in local newspapers.

Having unsuccessfully pestered the editors of Britain’s prestigious Blackwoods magazine for years, these small early successes may have seemed too much like baby steps for Branwell, and without the perspective of sobriety, he probably never saw his own worth.

At the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth there is still a wealth of atmosphere to be experienced, although the closeness of the quarters is striking.

Without a hint to the outside world (or the world within), it was here that Branwell’s sisters wrote their poetry and their first trio of novels, and where the path to publication under pseudonyms began in 1846.

The sisters’ writing sessions must have been executed in espionage-like conditions to keep the truth from Branwell, but there is no way anyone could have hidden a well-developed drinking habit in this intimate setting.

Although their output was immune to whatever fuss they feared from their brother, Charlotte, Anne and Emily could not escape a far more deadly interference.

Branwell’s addictions probably masked consumptive symptoms, and he’s a handy source of blame for giving his sisters one of the 19th century’s deadliest killers – tuberculosis (TB).

This chronic condition is highly contagious, and before the advent of antibiotics almost a century later, it could be a swift killer. Despite his death certificate listing bronchitis and emaciation, Branwell succumbed to TB in September 1848. Emily died of it by December the same year. Anne tried convalescing at Scarborough on Yorkshire’s coast, but died in May 1849.

Charlotte may have thought she’d escaped, but, after ‘coming out’ as a female novelist, tasting London society for a brief time, marrying, and writing more novels, she too died of the disease in 1855.

While it’s clear Branwell frittered-away his life on booze and opium, he may not have been the source of the Brontë family TB. In 1825, two elder sisters – Maria and Elizabeth – contracted it while away at school. All the Brontë siblings may have been infected when both girls were brought home to Haworth to die, and subsequently carried the disease into adulthood.

Despite the extreme sense of failure that surrounds Branwell, we have him to thank for the only known portraits of the elusive Emily Brontë, the woman who wrote Wuthering Heights, one of the most passionate and enduring stories about human relationships; and one of only a few likenesses of Anne Brontë, writer of the first English novel in which a woman slams a door in the face of her husband – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

WRITER'S FACE Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond.
WRITER’S FACE Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond.

The power of these womens’ imaginations can only be fully appreciated when we remember that neither is known to have had romantic relationships, and both had witnessed plenty of bad behaviour among the men in their patriarchal world.

Charlotte Brontë’s striking features were captured by a man whose career Branwell would have aspired to – artist George Richmond – in a portrait revealing the essence of an emergent participant in the English literary scene.

Richmond’s skill only highlights Branwell’s shortcomings. In her brother’s earlier work, painted when he was a teenager, Charlotte is merely estimated as a two-dimensional bystander to another’s glory.

Much has been made by writers and historians about the mysterious ‘ghost’ in Branwell’s group portrait of his sisters – was it a self-portrait, painted-over in a fit of pique at his sisters’ success?

It’s a tempting theory, since the figure was once the focus of the composition, surrounded by sisters gathered like acolytes. Unfortunately the painting had access to too many hands after Branwell’s death (many who might have blamed him for the family’s demise) for us to be sure it was him who erased the central figure.

BAD BOY Branwell Brontë's self portrait.
BAD BOY Branwell Brontë’s self portrait.

Branwell’s only surviving self portrait (apart from his self-effacing cartoons) is a quick sketch of his profile. It’s as immediate and sinuous as a Matisse sketch, undoubtedly his finest single piece of creative expression, and could only have been executed using two mirrors.

This once-removed quality may have allowed him to see himself, truly, for long enough to create a lively, almost modern likeness.

In the light of his three-decade attempt to express himself through poems, essays, portraits and fiction, Branwell Brontë’s self portrait reveals a flash of genius amidst a wealth of failure. He remains a champion of the fine line between the two.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

PLUCK COVER copyThis article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded.