At the Royal Armouries in Leeds, visitors can see our new temporary exhibition ‘Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold of the Staffordshire Hoard’, running from the 27th May until the 2nd October 2016. In parallel with the exhibition, the museum is running a blog series providing behind the scenes details on how these fascinating items were discovered, conserved, and prepared for the exhibition. In this post, we heard from blacksmith and artist Stuart Makin who has made a stunning sculpture inspired by the objects of the Staffordshire Hoard which you can see in the exhibition.
My name is Stuart Makin, I run a blacksmithing company called Iron Forged Designs in Northamptonshire and I was commissioned to design and make a piece of metalwork inspired by elements from the Staffordshire Hoard. This piece of work is currently being exhibited alongside artefacts from the Hoard in the Royal Armouries exhibition ‘Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold of the Staffordshire Hoard’.
I have been a blacksmith for 13 years, both of my parents are engineers, a path I wanted to follow myself, however I was gifted with being quite good with my hands but lacking in the intelligence needed to be an engineer. Blacksmithing presented a balance that was more hand craft than engineering but still contained enough of the latter to convince myself that I was following in my parents’ footsteps. Numerous evening classes, college courses and an apprenticeship later I found myself as an arrogant and talented young man who believed I could do better than any of the employers I had worked for. So I put my money where my mouth was and set up my own business with a fellow blacksmith, Ben Landucci. Running my own business has made me a slightly older and slightly humbler man.
I am trained as an Artist Blacksmith; I love to combine traditional techniques with more contemporary designs to produce unique pieces of metalwork. However, I have another love, one that has been nurtured since being old enough to pretend sticks were swords and bin lids were shields, history, particularly Anglo-Saxon history. I make historical replicas, researching an original object and trying to reproduce it as accurately as possible, I love the connection it makes between me and an ancient craftsman from hundreds of years ago. The reason this slightly rambling tangent is important is because the commission from the Royal Armouries had enabled me to combine those two facets of my blacksmithing into one sculpture. I have had the opportunity to indulge myself in research of the artefacts from the Staffordshire Hoard (in work time too!!!) and flex the creative muscles to design and create something that pays homage to the skills of the Anglo-Saxon craftsman.
The objects from the Hoard are so tiny, intricate and beautifully made, however, I decided to produce a large sculpture 2.5 metres tall and the purpose for this sheer size in comparison to the original artefacts is that I wanted to convey the magnitude of importance that the Staffordshire Hoard has on our understanding of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture, history and craftsmanship. My design was influenced by some of the artefacts I found most inspiring from the Staffordshire Hoard. The pieces that stood out to me the most were the seax hilt fittings and the eagle mount. I kept going back to those intertwining beasts on the seax fittings and wondered how I could incorporate something like that in my work.
It was important to me to try and give a glimpse to viewers of my sculpture the various stages of how the beautiful cloisonné sword fittings would have been made. The central portion of the sculpture acts as a visual pathway drawing the eye upwards from the bottom where the design is engraved to the centre where the design is cut out to demonstrate the cutting of cells ready to have garnets inlaid. The top of the piece has the cells fitted with red transparent Perspex to show the fitting of the garnets. The transparent red Perspex also allows light to pass through making a stained glass window effect and really emphasizing the colour that makes the objects from the Staffordshire Hoard so distinctive.
I feel I have had the opportunity to get as close as possible to the real Anglo-Saxons who made and used these artefacts, even though technology and equipment may have changed (I am blessed with power tools those poor fellows were not) skills and techniques used are still similar. I like to think that the Saxon craftsman would have sat back after finishing his work and have a sense of quiet pride in what he had accomplished in the same way I have done with this sculpture. I hope that my work will help people who come to view the exhibition get that same feeling that I have, that the Anglo-Saxons are not just skeletons to be resigned to glass cases in museums but that they were human beings, some with the talent to produce beautiful warrior treasures.