ACT News


The wit and mischief of Robert Baines' larger-than-life jewellery

Brooch: Robert Baines' daughter models one of her father's larger-than-life jewellery pieces.
Brooch: Robert Baines' daughter models one of her father's larger-than-life jewellery pieces. 

What on earth is the pale damsel in our picture wearing? Would you wear it to the footie? To the opera perhaps? Read on, and all will be half-explained.

We live in liberal times and so, at last, today's trend-setting men can wear jewellery without attracting too much derision. And so I sallied forth to Robert Baines' Thursday talk at the ANU School of Art wearing among other baubles my conversation-triggering ACT brooch (a blue silhouette of the ACT's shape)* on my shirt. I felt pretty, oh so pretty. I felt pretty and witty and bright.


But the shy little baubles I wear are as nothing to the creations of Thursday's art school guest of honour Robert Baines. He is a Living Treasure, a Master of Australian Craft, a goldsmith and an emeritus professor at RMIT university in Melbourne. His works grace important collections everywhere.

As well as making wonderful and sometimes zany objects he is also famous for his scholarly researches in areas of the history of artist goldsmithing and of archaeometallurgy. And so it comes to pass that lots of his works contain artistic echoes of famous pieces he has seen in the world's museums and has been struck by. The piece attached to the damsel (it turns out to be his daughter) he explained to us, mischievously, (one writer has called him "a wicked joker", and his straight-faced little lecture to the students turned out to be full of tricks and fibs that I fear some of them didn't detect) is a case in point.

"It's really derived from a brooch. It's really a larger in life piece. I am interested in larger-than-life jewellery, because, historically, there have been very large pieces. [The idea for this one] comes from a big Etruscan fibula [a kind of brooch] that's now in the Vatican Museum. It's like a brooch, with a big pin, and it's as big as a torso and I think it was meant to give an opportunity to a goldsmith to make a virtuoso piece." 

And so Baines has made, here, his own virtuoso piece, a kind of superbrooch for a young woman.


"And when and to what would she wear it? To the opera?" we wondered.

"Well [laughing] you wouldn't wear it to the footie, or if you were going to run 100 metres. Yes, you might wear it to the opera. This would literally add value to their expensive opera tickets, to see a young lady wearing this."

Hmmm, we thought to ourselves. Opera goers do so much hugging of one another in foyers (yodelling "Daaaahling!" as they do it) that there's be a danger of them bending this brilliant brooch which for all its size is a cobweb-dainty object (it took Baines two years to make it) in sterling silver and with the occasional detail in gold.

We wish we had room for pictures of lots of Baines creations, in particular a super bracelet in which are embedded tiny bright red toy fire vehicles, and then, and especially, his Java-la-Grande bracelet.

The Java-la-Grande bracelet, discussed with the use of big pictures put up on a big screen, contains a large old iron key (discovered in a lime pit by a 19th century governor of Victoria), a piece of ancient-looking mahogany from the legendary Mahogany Ship, and some small red kangaroos. As he discussed it with us he pretended (warping history to and fro, but always with a very straight face) that it wasn't something he had made but was a very old, perhaps 15th century Portuguese artefact, and a proof of strong Portuguese exploration associations with the antipodes.

As "proof" of this he showed us a 15th century Portuguese painting of the Adoration of the Magi in which, in the background, one of those doing the adoring can be seen to be wearing the bracelet. Then, as if this hadn't been proof enough, he showed us a 16th century full-length portrait of a gorgeously-dressed noblewoman who, when you looked closely, you could see was wearing the Java-la-Grande bracelet on her noble wrist! Did she give it to some Portuguese matelot, as a keepsake, something to hold close to his heart as he sailed away to the unexplored south?

Baines' intensity never waned as he gave this authoritative history lecture and the two undergraduates sitting next to me, not knowing of his reputation as "a wicked joker", never tittered and took extensive notes throughout.

Should they ever Google his philosophy they'll find him saying that "The goldsmith has an inescapable history ... but new contexts can be invented and illustrated with fictitious evidence. Historic or contemporary contexts of the human drama is available to be subverted using the jewellery artifact to convey contextual meanings."

* Yes, he'd been being subversive. As I scuttled away to my Barina I vowed to imitate him and to compose elaborate fictions to use from now on whenever I'm asked about my little blue ACT brooch. It's a conversation-triggerer because people wonder what on earth it is and have to come up and ask you. Most brooches have a decorative symmetry (and so for example are round or rectangular) but the ACT (as seen from outer space) is an irregular shape and puzzles people. I vow never to tell the truth about what it is, ever again.