‘The Blacksmith’s Craft’ exhibition; a review
John Girvan. He’s the ghost walk guy, the man who has the Canal Forge, the bloke who writes about the dungeons, prisons, and tunnels of Devizes. He might have made your gate. You might have been to his forge with your school. You might have spotted him dressed as a Norman and wielding his massive weapon on the Market Cross. You might have seen him on the telly with Derek Acorah. You might have one of his books on your shelf.
What you may not know about him is that he once worked for Burtons, that he trained as a blacksmith under Laurence Love, that he has been a member of The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society since he was a boy, and that until September 23rd you can see a selection of his work in ‘The Blacksmith’s Craft’ exhibition at Wiltshire Museum on Long Street, Devizes.
I went to a short talk that John gave before looking at his pieces. He’s full of quips and anecdotes, and his delivery is gently camp and self-deprecating. He showed some old photos of himself at work in the forge (he had that Angela Rippon in there once, don’t you know). He taught us why a blacksmith’s apron has a fringe at the bottom (it’s for sweeping the anvil). He showed a video of himself hot forging a scroll. He told us that he made the bunker door at Browfort, the gates of St. Andrew’s, and the seat above the White Horse, and that he’s made a handful of chastity belts, and more weather-vanes than you can shake one of his finely forged pokers at. He spoke animatedly about his workshops with children over the years, and enthusiastically about repoussé. ‘Strike while the iron’s hot!’ he said, sparkily.
The Wiltshire Museum describes his exhibition as ‘rural traditional art’. To me John’s work falls in to four categories; practical objects / folk art (pokers, gates, metal flowers), fun stuff for kids (what child doesn’t like a cheerful robot or a cheeky spider?), experimental works, and Very Beautiful Things.
Recent experimental works include various ladies made out of chicken wire, ‘The Three Graces’ (mixed metals), and ‘Aphrodite’, the face of a woman made of mesh with metal eyes and lips. I could take or leave the lively chicken wire ladies, but ‘Aphrodite’ got better the longer you looked at her (many people did, and it was The Mayor’s favourite piece), ‘The Three Graces’ had a certain elegance to them, and the shadows cast by the sculptures on the wall greatly enhanced the effect of both works.
By Very Beautiful Things I mean the glorious sconces, the acanthus leaf, the flora and flourishes, the ‘King’s Chair’ with its delicate ironwork, the beaten copper leaves, ‘The Hand of the Smith’, the hot forged horses’ heads, the tiny fronds and spirals spinning from things, the witty little metal snakes and snails.
I’m not sure all these things belong in the same room in an ideal world, but the juxtaposition of the ‘Iron Mask’, one of the few nods to John’s interest in the macabre, with the humorous robot was interesting.
I asked John about his favourite piece. ‘You’ll laugh’ he said. Bet I don’t, I thought. ‘It’s this’ he said, and pointed to ‘Juncture’, which is ‘two dissimilar weights of steel requiring different temperatures of heat to bring them together, set in oak’.
It’s heavy. It’s light. It’s simple, complex, angular, fluid, and stark. And Very Beautiful.
John is winding down the Canal Forge these days. He’s been there since 1980. I asked him why. ‘You can’t go on forever’ he said, with a twinkle in his eye. He has a forge in his garden now, and you just know that he is going to carry on making beautiful interesting humorous things and striking while the iron’s hot until the day his fire goes out.
‘I’ve had to show people what I can do’ he said in his talk earlier.
John Girvan. Blacksmith, artist, historian, humorist.
Go and see what he can do.
© Gail Foster 30th July 2018