i Place to Place paper models.

Place to Place: A vessel for all time

Read time: 11 minutes, 52 seconds

Contemporary sculptor Adi Toch takes us on a momentous journey through the history of a particularly fascinating object which sparked her recent V&A commission: Place to Place. Written by Corinne Julius.

A fair number of us have a much-loved object in our favourite museum that we always try to drop by on, but it’s highly unusual that such an affection results in the opportunity to mark the object’s disappearance from view by creating a new work. Yet leading contemporary silversmith Adi Toch managed to do just that. 

Adi Toch first encountered a gold Hattian ewer made some 4500 years ago in Anatolia, in 2015, when she asked Kirstin Kennedy of the Metalwork collection and Heike Zech the then curator of the Gilbert Collection at the V&A to provide a range of objects for her students, (at what was then the Cass at London Metropolitan University,) to handle.  

 “The ewer is solid gold, with an absolutely mesmerizing colour plus an embossed pattern which reflects the light,” explains Toch. “It is visually, very appealing, but also extremely tactile. The edges are paper thin, so when you look at it, you think it’s light and then you hold it, and it’s extremely heavy. It’s an indication of the making process; the metal was shaped from a flat sheet to this quite bulbous form with a very narrow neck, most likely as we work today with hammers and stakes. Technically, it’s very impressive.” 

The base is rounded and not self-supporting with a thin handle indicating that it was possibly for ritual rather than regular use. The spout has been snapped off.  “My first reaction was just holding it and thinking about the connection between me and the metalsmith who made it over 4000 years ago using techniques that that we still use today. There was a very special connection from the beginning. Nowadays objects in precious metal are passed on from generation to generation, and we think that’s the thing to do, but for thousands of years the tradition was that people would be buried with their valuable possessions to use in the afterlife. The story really triggers your imagination.” 

So much so that each year Toch asked the curators for it to be available for her students to handle. In 2019 Toch was distraught when the ewer was without explanation, suddenly unavailable. “I was left with a sort of great disappointment.” In 2020 when Toch was invited to host patrons of the V&A in her workshop,  Antonia Bὅstrom, Director of Collections, shared with her the discovery of the ewer’s “problematic provenance.” Little by little the story emerged.  

The ewer, acquired in 1989, was very different from other Gilbert Collection purchases which were normally ornate historical works. Jacques Schuhmacher Curator of Provenance at the V&A was looking at Nazi looted art, but all the pieces in the Gilbert collection that had belonged to Jewish families, had been purchased legitimately. The ewer was an exception, bought from an American agent, with a provenance in a Swiss collection. Subsequently the agent was found to be dealing with illicitly acquired antiques, the Swiss collection proved less than kosher and a Polaroid photo emerged of the ewer in the hands of a known thief. It could no longer be displayed or given to Toch to handle.  

Five other similar vessels had been documented, three in the Museum of Anatolian Civilization, two were found in an excavation in a tomb, another in a nearby field in the north of Anatolia, in Turkey. They were similar in form and technique, with an identical metal composition, to the one in the Gilbert Collection. The Collection decided to let their ewer join its siblings in Turkey. “It was,” says Toch, “absolutely the right thing to do.”  

i Place to Place, Adi Toch

The intention was to return the ewer to Turkey within 5 months, replacing it in the gallery with an empty case and photograph. “Then we started talking. They were very interested to hear about my experience of the ewer and seeing my photos of it. I explained that every time I returned to it I learnt something new.” Toch hypothesised that the spout had been snapped off. “As a maker you read the form. It goes in a certain way and then it just abruptly stops at the spout and you see how the metal is bent upwards. It was sort of folded, and snapped off.  Jacques who was only working from images, hadn’t seen it from this angle.” It seemed that Toch ‘knew’ more about the ewer than anyone in the Museum. 

The conversations between Toch, Jessica Eddie, then acting curator of the Gilbert Collection, and Jacques Schuhmaker evolved into thinking about creation rather than loss, making something positive. “The importance of restitution and the importance of sharing and educating people about it. Their idea with a case was to encourage conversation to trigger thinking about the history and provenance of objects, but instead of having an image and text there could be a new contemporary piece.”  

Toch worked on some ideas. It had to be a vessel of some kind and certainly not a miniature replica. Toch has always been interested in the idea of containment, here it implied the containing of the story and history of the ewer. “I wanted to tell a story. I wanted to work with gold, because I wanted to trigger a similar reaction with the audience, to the reaction that I had when I encountered the ewer. It was also an opportunity for me to work with a new material. So I proposed gold.” 

The idea was pitched to the Trustees who wanted more specific concepts. “I started with very basic sketches and doodles. I knew that I wanted to relate to the spout of the ewer, because I felt it was very symbolic, the fact that there was a broken spout; – a spout is very directional. The ewer had lost its direction, it found itself in London. My first idea was to make a vessel with a very, very long spout that would kind of be tied around the body. I made some models for vessels in paper.” 

i Place to Place paper models.

Toch was also fascinated with the archaeological background and poured over catalogues and documents about the excavations in the area and information about the other ewers. “I was thinking of fragments; maybe a segment of a vessel. We had a meeting in which I proposed, five different directions.” The curators had to sell them to the Trustees.

But Toch was still undecided. “It was just a day or two before the Trustees’ meeting, I was bathing my daughter and she has this plastic funnel that she plays with in the bath. She was picking it up and seeing how the water flows. There’s an openness, a vulnerability in a funnel an acceptance and generosity. It’s an interesting sort of a vessel, a transitional space, it doesn’t hold. A funnel is always an accompanying object, not a standalone. It accompanies a jug and things are returned or poured through it.” Toch saw it as referencing the generosity, and acceptance in the story. “It embraces the absence of the ewer from the Collection, whilst highlighting the fascinating story behind its departure.” 

Toch convinced the curators that a funnel would trigger conversations about the displaced ewer and insisted that they present only this option to the Trustees, “because otherwise the trustees would go for something else. I was a bit scared, because it is quite radical. I like the fact that it’s a humble kitchen funnel. There’s a hierarchy of objects; if it is closed it goes up in the hierarchy as it becomes a vessel. I love that idea that it suggests that something is not there, so you get the feeling that something is missing.” Toch’s vessels often have a form with one opening, but from which trapped liquid or gemstones inside cannot escape. Here she was making a work about restitution, “a vessel, which doesn’t keep anything,” Bravely and encouraged by trustee Edmund de Waal the Trustees agreed. 

Because of the price of gold, the piece had to be on a modest scale. Working and experimenting with gold proved a joy to Toch. She decided to work with the original composition of gold – 90% gold, 9% Silver and 1% copper. “It’s very unusual nowadays but it’s absolutely typical of the objects from that time and place.” The composition suggested that it was panned from a river. “It’s equivalent to 21.7 carat. I wanted to connect the new and the old through their elemental composition as well as though ideas and form.”   

Toch melted grains of gold, alloyed them with silver and copper, producing an ingot to roll into a sheet, the latter in Birmingham in a small foundry, run by Andrew Mayor, a man in his late 70s. “The slowness was important for me; making it from scratch, from grains of gold and the metaphor of that transition is there as well in the melting, the changing in states of metal from solid to liquid. Nothing changes it, it’s a magical material.” The flat sheet was spun to create the narrow neck, but then it was hammered to its final shape. Toch made special tools, for the project.  

In the final work Toch rested the gold funnel on a block of white chalcedony, a typical Turkish stone. “I realized that when it’s standing upright, it looked like a vessel, a complete vessel. That’s wrong. It needs to be open, so you’d look through it.” She wanted to convey the metaphor of movement, the migration of objects. “The interior had to be reflective. It’s highly polished to look almost like liquid. You need to be able to look inside it, to have that openness to understand it. I wanted it to look like a limb, like part of something and when it’s standing it is just wrong.” Apparently Arthur Gilbert had often shown friends his new acquisitions on a cushion. Toch experimented before deciding on a rectangle of chalcedony, a stone often found occurring with gold in its natural form. 

The final work is called ‘Place to Place.’ “It relates to a transitional state in time as well as between space and countries. As someone who immigrated myself, I can relate to this state of in-betweenness,” explains Toch. “Objects have always travelled across the continents throughout history, with settlers, for trade, as gifts or looted treasures. The migration of objects has connected between people and cultures.” Adi Toch’s new work provides just that connection.