i Callum Partridge in his studio. Photograph by Jayne Lloyd for The Goldsmiths' Company.

Callum Partridge: “Honest. Playful. Serious”

Read time: 12 minutes, 14 seconds

Inspired by the contrasting rush of the city and tranquillity of the countryside, the work of metalsmith Callum Partridge is both still and energetic. In the next instalment of his series on younger makers, Jonathan Foyle delves into the fascinating practice of this emerging metalsmith.

The silversmith Callum Partridge was brought up in Amberley, a village near Stroud, a small town below the edge of the Gloucestershire Cotswolds. He describes himself in three words as “Honest. Playful… Serious.” The choice of the last two is telling, for his work trades on paradoxes: simple but dramatic; functional but expressive; modern but timeless. He often uses metals of striking disparity, precious and common, in combinations that reconcile their differences.

These tensions seem to spring from contrasting phases of his life, rural and urban. Turning to a major city can be transformative for many young people breaking out of the bounds of a childhood in the countryside to wrestle with the urban paradoxes of glitz and grime, rich and poor, inspiration and distraction. Italo Calvino wrote that “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

For a design student, the physical warren of a city’s streets threading the philosophical maze Calvino describes can offer rich material. But that material demands exploration, and often the guidance of mentors, by which to navigate a course toward a fulsome personal expression. Callum found the roots of his smithing in London, from tutors who remain firm friends.

i Callum Partridge in his studio. Photograph by Jayne Lloyd for The Goldsmiths' Company.

Where will you find him? Not in the capital, but back in Stroud, in a shared workshop. So why did he return from London? What did he absorb from life in the country and the city? And how does his work express that journey?

Callum attended Amberley Primary School, between Stroud and the pretty wool town of Nailsworth. His overriding memory was being marked down on spelling and grammar, and numbers, because “I’m dyslexic.” Getting through school was a pure waiting game, he says. “I knew that at the time. I’d sit through exams not even feeling like I was participating.” But the freedom of two-dimensional art offered an escape. “When I was nine, I studied a Van Gogh storm scene, and painted it.” The response from teachers, peers and family was overwhelmingly positive- his talents had produced something that had surprised them, and perhaps himself. But he was not wholly fulfilled by the creation of illusions of form and space. When he was twelve, the chance to craft in three dimensions beckoned.

“My friend Tom Walker lived in Nailsworth. He took me to a community workshop.”

The series of Wednesday evening craft sessions was held in the Nailsworth Subscription Rooms (sometimes known as the Boys’ Club). This is an impressively tall Gothic building of 1852 in golden limestone that originally housed a Mechanics’ Institute with a library, in an age when philanthropists were keen to improve society through vocational training and self-education.

i Callum Partridge in his studio. Photograph by Jayne Lloyd for The Goldsmiths' Company.

It is testament to the value of that long-spent investment that Callum found inspiration and creative freedom. He recalls “it was run by a chap called Gavin, a Luter, who made instruments.” Gavin enabled and encouraged, drawing deep on the tradition of the Mechanics’ Institute. It was a rewarding experience for Callum.

“I had only experienced straight, treat-you-like-a-child teaching. He was the first teacher to address me as simply another person – he was funny and engaging.”

He discovered that handling metals was about finding solutions. “I had the satisfaction of solving a problem like how to make a ring. They look so simple. But when you start to think about how you’d do it, it isn’t obvious. And it isn’t obvious to the people you show the results to. I enjoyed that.”

2013 took him to Stroud College for a BTEC National Diploma course in Fine Art, which he calls “the beginning of my development” because “there was no ‘you can’t do this’.” He felt “pointed in the right direction” in a healthy atmosphere of open creativity. But Callum realized he wasn’t original as a painter. So he went back to metalwork and tried brazing, rekindling the experience of the Wednesday evening classes in Nailsworth and the magic trick of making objects appear from raw material. In the following months, “I did make some hideous metalwork.”

Moving on to Hereford College of Art in 2014 to begin a degree in Jewellery Design, he found “I felt bored. Too safe.” He was getting on with project work, but at the turn of 2015 visited a friend in London whose parents lived in Waterloo. He remembers it vividly: that’s when he felt the exhilarating rush of fear in the city. Risk and opportunity were in the air.

i Callum Partridge in his studio. Photograph by Jayne Lloyd for The Goldsmiths' Company.

During that visit, the CASS at London Metropolitan University was having an open day. There, he met the artist, designer and maker Steven Follen demonstrating techniques of metal fabrication: raising, soldering. “The workshop got me- seeing what other students were doing.”

The decision to move was made, and Callum’s belongings were hauled to “a prison room in Wood Green”. He wasn’t there often. “Every day, I was in the workshop. I didn’t leave until 8 or 9 in the evening.” Follen became one of his tutors (who in April 2015 happened to be mounting an exhibition called ‘Leaving Home’ at Contemporary Applied Arts in London.)

In the third year, the celebrated jeweller Simone ten Hompel challenged him to think harder. She also taught him to make silver spoons. He still enjoys making them, but never to a fixed design as mass production has made us accustomed to, because his are informed by the experience of handling during the making process. The weight of the bowl, the feel in the hand demand adjustment. Paradoxically, the last concern is what is to be spooned. Better to enjoy scooping twice with a utensil that is carefully weighted and formed in beautiful proportion, than shovel food more quickly with a heavier (and more expensive) bowl that pulls on the hand.

At college, the consequences of such design decisions were addressed in routine studio criticism which meant establishing the rules of the game early and looking and thinking hard during the concept and making of each piece. “Always ask ‘why?’” was drilled into him by jeweller Heidi Yeo, and the style he has evolved asks “what is this object?”, a disarmingly simple question that is answered only by exploring his pieces in the round, the essential approach to sculpture.

His degree show of 2017 and show at Goldsmith’s Fair the following year showcased what Simone ten Hompel characterised as ‘slices’: objects that look like they should be 2-D but are drawn out into the third dimension. They included a grouping of three metal ‘rocks’, with uneven curved bases that encourage them to rock backwards and forwards at different frequencies. The dual meaning of the word is part of the playfulness. But their ultimate point is the animation of inanimate materials. The paradox.

 

i Callum Partridge in his studio. Photograph by Jayne Lloyd for The Goldsmiths' Company.

Candlesticks are a favourite typology because they are ostensibly simple, even to the point of banality. Functionally, a burning candle only needs to remain upright: a spike on a base would do. Tradition has favoured baluster types in cast yellow brass, yet for no good reason. In Callum’s mind, candles are dynamic things. Each lighted wax cylinder changes in length at a different rate, as the mobile flame shortens or lengthens, dimmer or brighter. What relationship should the transient life of the light-giver have to its receptacle?

‘Titanium candlestick’ presents a horizontal sheet of titanium to catch and cool spilled wax, its blue matt sheen in contrast to the usual convention for shiny warm brass. One end rests on a vertical ‘U’ composed of thick, warm-hued bent sheet nickel. That offers a stable base but also profound expression, evoking late Modernist forms and at the same time, the ancient essence of a seat, as if Fred Flintstone’s club chair, or more sensibly the Anglo-Saxon ‘frith stools’ carved from single blocks of stone at Hexham and Beverley Minster. At the other end of the titanium sheet is a silver cup for the candle poised on a shaft that pierces the sheet, so that it descends to rest on the table as a counterpoint to the ‘U’. The components of the asymmetrical composition are not fixed: the owner should be able to take it apart “like a puzzle” and reassemble it. After all, the thing needs to be cleaned of wax and soot; the making and assembling are revealed by that process, a dialogue between maker and user ensues. The result should be an understanding and better appreciation of a uniquely considered and made object.

One concept often leads to another, like a Darwinian evolution of species. For example, another type of candlestick takes the U shape as the major element and extends it up into a cloak form, concealing the candle holder within. As he explains “the shell asks ‘why?’ And the answer is found within it.” But another aspect is revealed only during use. The diminishing burning candle lowers itself through a hole in a sheet set at a rakish angle at the top of the cloak, so that its initial broad lightcast gradually becomes the vertical projection of the circular rim of the hole.

i Callum Partridge in his studio. Photograph by Jayne Lloyd for The Goldsmiths' Company.

Going home to Gloucestershire was returning to process and consolidate these ideas. Creativity no longer depended on being in London, while Stroud is an inventive town, with a surprisingly diverse manufacturing base. Long a centre of woollen milling powered by steep streams, the cross-cutting machines of its Georgian textile factories inspired Edwin Beard Budding to consider what would happen if blades could be swept across grass. He patented the lawnmower in August 1830. Through that leap of logic, Stroud changed the world.

Towns still need local makers, who can shine brightly there. And metalcrafting is a broad church. Callum shares his workspace with a friend from college who put his talents to rebuilding classic cars: great, glittering, mobile jewellery in the eyes of many. Callum has injected humour into the riddles of his pieces. The caped candlesticks have recently become recast as nuns, their silenced animation dramatised through characterisation, which may reach a different kind of audience.

The internet is now the shopfront of many craftspeople. It was Callum’s page on the website of Goldsmiths’ Fair that caught the eye of Simon Stewart the founder of Charles Burnand, a London-based gallery that represents a group of designer- and artist- makers. Through this moment of digital serendipity, Callum’s work has returned to London. And soon it will enter a new urban realm.

“They’ve just taken some of my work to salon in New York.”

It stands to reason. If the ingenuous metalwork of Edwin Budding could reach the world from Stroud, so can that of Callum Partridge.

Author: Jonathan Foyle | Photography credit: Jayne Lloyd