A bit of a (mud)lark: Riverside exploration and artistic collaboration between Adele Brereton and Eleanor Lakelin

Read time: 10 minutes, 27 seconds

Writer Corinne Julius delves into the fascinating discoveries of silversmith Adele Brereton and woodworker Eleanor Lakelin, who use the unique treasures washed up on the river Thames as starting points for artistic collaboration.

Old bones, rusty chains, washers, broken clay pipes and rooting around in the mud, might not sound the stuff of silversmithing, but they were the departure point for a collaboration ‘Tidelines,’ between silversmith and jeweller Adele Brereton and sculptor in wood, Eleanor Lakelin. ‘Tidelines’ may prove the adage that where there’s muck there’s brass and it’s certainly yielded gold in the quality of the collaboration.

The pair are both based in South London, with studios at Cockpit Arts in Deptford. Each has a collection of found objects on the respective window sills of their studios, both have bones and broken clay pipes that come from their mud larking in Deptford Creek, though Lakelin’s collection includes a lot of stones and odd pieces of wood reflecting her rural Welsh upbringing and Brereton’s haul has pieces of found metal, based on her urban childhood. “I now have a vast collection of rusty metal, organised by type, along the windowsill in my studio!” laughs Brereton. 

Wooden dish with silver vessels placed within it
i 'The Nestling' by Adele Brereton and Eleanor Lakelin

Eleanor Lakelin usually works on a big scale, creating large vessels and currently huge sculptural wood pillars, and enormous fonts of carved out wood that find their way into museum collections such as the V&A’s. Adele Brereton scale is much smaller, she makes silver vessels, but more often organic jewellery combining wood and silver, though on occasion she helps Lakelin with the preparation of her wood sculptures. The collaboration came about when Lakelin was offered a show at FLOW. “I had wanted to do a show with Adele. I know her and her work very well, we collect the same things and we look at objects in a similar way but not from the same place. I wanted to find a way to work together in a new way, but as equal partners. A kind of parallel exploration of working as well as meaning. We decided to collect, respond, discuss and remake. We didn’t know where it would go, but we would make it work.”  

 The pair obtained mud larking permits, before spending hours at Wood Wharf in Greenwich looking at and picking up a variety of finds. “Handling is very important to both of us. We never found anything precious, the preciousness comes from making,” explains Brereton. Back in their studios they would wash their finds, handle and just look, before responding to them. “I enjoy the power and mystery of objects,” says Lakelin. “When you hold something in your hand it connects you to different times and places. Stories are embedded in the objects.”

“We evolved the work as we went along, with no fixed ideas of where it would end up,” says Brereton. “Our shared interests, expressed though making in our own materials, resulted in coincidences and similarities. We worked on pieces together and independently, coming together at regular intervals to see what we were making and how they would sit together. Looking also at pieces we could respond to, to create joint works.”  Lakelin adds “I tried stuff out and jettisoned what I didn’t like, as did Adele.” 

 Their first piece ‘Material Balance’ came from a small bit of worn, rusted metal with 3 holes and a discarded nitrous oxide cylinder. Both makers had the same response. Brereton created a small silver bottle and Lakelin a tiny bog oak vessel that with the gas cylinder protrude from the rusted flotsam. More importantly their second work ‘Eroding Spheres,’ came from Lakelin’s response to finding so many convex objects, especially eroded bone. “Normally I start with a solid piece of wood and hollow it out, but so many objects we found were often so eroded that you look through them. It was about fragility and loss of material.” Both created spheres that are not solid, with minimal material and lots of entrapped space. 

Flotsam with silver wooden and rusted canister slotted inside
i 'Material Balance' by Adele Brereton and Eleanor Lakelin

“Our ‘Eroding Spheres’ came together early on. We were instinctively and simultaneously working on a similar theme and scale. As other work evolved I decided to refine my sphere,” explains Brereton. Her first open silver sphere was slightly irregular, but she remade it to match Lakelin’s fragile globes – 1 in sequoia and 1 in a piece of cedar from a tree planted by the Duke of Wellington. “I couldn’t get the form quite right so I went to Eleanor’s studio and found a cedar ball that she had rejected because it had a crack and I used that as a form. I made my sphere from recycled silver, melted down into 12 nuggets that I hammered out. I wanted to push the material to the limit of what it could cope with, rolling it very thin through the mill, eroding the surface by hammering and reticulating, stopping just before the individual elements totally fell apart.” 

Brereton curated her forms carefully. “Often, the most time consuming part is piecing the elements together, making sure they are working as a composition. I focused not just on form, but negative space. Paying equal attention to the spaces between the elements, created to make contrasts with light and shade. These pieces explore notions of erosion, fragility and resilience. Gently held together with fine wires, allowing for movement but under tension.” The 3 pieces together speak of a fragile eco system, entirely apposite to current ecological preoccupations.

i 'Lacuna Forms' by Adele Brereton and Eleanor Lakelin

Another striking and probably key work is ‘Lacuna Form’ for Brereton made of silver wire and for Lakelin sequoia. “The forms were based on broken pipes (one of the commonest finds when mud larking.) “They are very tactile and I love to hold them, they really relate to the human hand and that is what I was trying to achieve in my own work” says Brereton. “The broken ones have real ambiguity because they are so eroded and softened but still made by humans.” Her own piece measures 20 x 9.3 x 9cm and is a perfect netsuke (a miniature sculpture, originating in 17th century Japan) like object. “I can see making bigger ones, but I love that feeling of the hand sized.” A more traditional work, a raised silver vessel, ‘Undulating’ was the most difficult for Brereton. “I never know when to stop. I don’t plan, things evolve so can be quite challenging. I need time to step back and think.”   

 As a child Brereton was always interested in making things. Her mother, a ceramicist, was hugely influential in her development allowing her to explore clay – an approach she uses in her silversmithing. Torn between art and music, Brereton chose the latter, but whilst at Newcastle University learnt that as part of her degree she was able to study one day a week in the fine art department.

She decided to go to Art School and at Edinburgh College of Art discovered the Jewellery and Silversmithing course. “It hadn’t even crossed my mind that you could study jewellery. I was particularly drawn to the experimental use of materials and the strong emphasis on drawing as part of the course. My love of making things and my love of drawing came together.”   

Her jewellery and objects are always inspired by her collections of materials that reference the industrial past. “The process of handling and categorising the discoveries is what sparks my imagination. Finding preciousness in redundant materials and invention through the unknown. Ideas stem from exploring a process or experimenting with materials. I create multiple elements which become part of a greater composition and play with many variations until I know that they are fitting together in the right way. I create softened finishes, natural edges, tactile and understated forms.” Mud larking has provided her with a treasure trove of discarded industrial and natural materials.

Three wood and silver eroding sphere sculptures
i 'Eroding Sphere' by Adele Brereton and Eleanor Lakelin

The collaboration has been important for both makers. “The freedom and spontaneity we gave ourselves in this collaboration was at times challenging, as we didn’t’t know what the outcomes were going to be. I felt we gained a deeper understanding of the way we both work and our techniques and the possibilities of what we could make. I had the opportunity to develop work I wouldn’t have made time to make otherwise. I also learnt more about my own skills, what I enjoyed making and the silversmithing techniques I could learn more about to achieve unresolved ideas. I hope to experiment and explore these ideas and expand the scale of the forms.” 

Lakelin has also enjoyed changing size, in her case working on a much smaller scale. “Collaboration is energizing, vital and makes you interrogate from the word go the way you do things, how you look at things and how you want others to respond. I think that Adele’s work has changed and become more sculptural.” Brereton concurs. “Collaborating with Eleanor has encouraged me to think about the scale of my work. Moving away from jewellery and focusing solely on objects. I am exploring ideas that began to develop during my degree and it is exciting to revisit ideas and techniques on a larger scale, making in a purely sculptural way, rather than thinking about how it relates to the body. There is always more to learn and now all I need is to get some funding to target some skills that I don’t yet know.”