I always feel out of place in Chelsea, not least because the flashy designer boutiques, affluent Harvey Nichols shoppers and their mulberry handbags make me stick out like a sore thumb with glasses. Consequently, I was somewhat anticipating snobbish sellers and ludicrously high-priced wares on my first visit to Handmade in Britain (28th- 30th October) Over 70 designers working in wood, textiles, ceramics, glass, jewellery and leather were selected this year for their "eco-conscious and sustainable" making practices.
The venue for the annual contemporary craft fair is Chelsea Town Hall, a fine neo-classical building (designed by Leonard Stokes in 1908) on the fashionable Kings Road. With elegant marble columns, beautiful chandeliers, oil paintings and frescoes, its Victorian decor makes interesting contrast to the stalls of contemporary goods sold to early Christmas shoppers.
Post-recession even the Kensington purse strings have tightened this year, reflected by the inclusion of a ‘Handmade, Made Affordable’ page on the catalogue. Of course, for those happy to splash the cash there’s a ‘Christmas Wishes’ section too. Although 70 makers were suppose to be on show, but only 60 had stalls. The rest were single examples displayed on a low fronted platform in the back of the hall, without the designer present. I felt cheated out of my ticket, as my definition of a craft fair includes engaging with the artist. Nevertheless I was delighted to discover a number of exceptional makers there.
Sarah Parker Eaton’s gold and silver jewellery animates the spectacular structures usually reserved for the eye under the microscope. From sea plankton to spores of tiny seeds, she translates their movements, symmetrical and repeated patterns, shapes and textures into hybrid creatures that appear ready to spring onto you.
Delfina Emmanuel exquisitely decorated teapots, teeming with life and growth are inspired by the rich marine life of Sardinia, where she was raised. Glazed in soft pastels, the painstakingly hand formed spikes, urchins, shells and corals are accented with luxurious gold lustres. Though functional, they appear far too precious for mortal use, more fitting in a mermaid's palace instead. Such extravagance speaks of the 19th century British Rococo-revival, when fanciful porcelain tea services like Belleek and Coalport were ostentatious symbols of wealth and power.
A painter as well as a potter, Joy’s Trpkovic’s wall pieces are made of delicately pinched porcelain sea forms. The arrangements mimic the movement of shoals and waves washed along sandy shores. Her lethal spikes and sea shards are the thinnest, tiniest and sharpest I’ve ever seen. So many of our oceans have been tainted beyond recognition by man; it is ironic, even startling to see such unspoilt beauty created by the hands of a craftswoman.
Emma Dolan's charming hand-printed Harris Tweed cups encapsulate perfectly the nostalgia trend that is everywhere at the moment, from vintage/retro boutiques to crafty sewing cafes popping up all over the country. Paying homage to iconic ceramics such as Blue and White china, Royal Chintz and the brightly coloured Art Deco wares of Clarice Cliff, the inspired patterns are stitched or transfer printed onto Harris Tweed. Her nursery teacups are even more adorable, depicting quirky children’s illustrations. The base of each cup is certified as genuine Harris Tweed with its official Orb, which she likens to a potter's mark (to me it’s the Vivienne Westwood’s logo minus the Saturn ring!) Though sweet in appearance, her pieces speak of the importance of traditional textiles and our emotional reminiscence to ceramics, such as the familiar comfort of a well-loved mug or family heirloom tea set.
Hussein Bolt, Elizabeth Taylor and the endangered Northern White Rhino are amongst other contemporary subjects celebrated in Rosh Keegan’s whimsical human-animal figures. Like the Victorian Anthropomorphic taxidermy of Walter Potter, her figures are grandly dressed and posed with uncanny human resemblance. The reassuring fact is they are hand built in stoneware instead of stuffed dead animals, making them amusing rather than sinister looking. The Indian born, African raised ceramicist has always been attracted to the hybrids of Hindu deities, literature and mythology around the world. Egyptian god Anubis and Bottom from A Midsummer’s Night Dream are some of the famous animal heads juxtaposed on buxomly human bodies, flamboyantly dressed up in feathers, fabrics, metal and jewels.
Overall, Handmade in Britain was a quaint experience personally; having used to spending hours in large fairs it took some adjustment to a smaller venue. Despite some exceptional craft, by the time I’d finished browsing (which wasn’t very long at all) I couldn’t help feeling, ‘Is this it?’ Perhaps it’s time the organizers thought about expanding their venue for a more fulfilling visit.