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The artist's response
Halima Cassell’s “Virtues of Unity” was exhibited in our Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery exhibition in 2017-18. The Museum shop was where she discovered Clarence Bicknell’s designs on cards and wrapping paper. Although from different times and starting points both she and Bicknell were inspired by plant formations and the geometry and symmetry found in the natural world. She recognized the grid (or scaffolding as he called it) as just one of the techniques they shared: “I love symmetry and I love complex design made from a simple shape that is repeated."
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00:00:02 - 00:00:20 Carmen Pryce
Hi, I'm Carmen Pryce, and this is “In my mind's eye: The museum” explored a podcast where I talked to artists and writers during the Coronavirus pandemic about their memories of the Fitzwilliam Museum, part of the University of Cambridge. This week, ceramicist and sculptor, Halima Cassell talks to me from her Shropshire home.
00:00:20 - 00:00:27 Carmen Pryce
Covid-19 travel restrictions and social distancing guidelines saved me a long train journey.
00:00:27 - 00:00:46 Carmen Pryce
We began by talking about Halima's extraordinary work “Virtues of Unity,” which was featured in the Fitz’s 2018 temporary exhibition “Things of Beauty Growing”, which looked at British studio pottery. I made this recording on Tuesday, the 14th of July 2020 at 4:20 p.m. British Summer time.
00:00:46 - 00:00:50 Carmen Pryce
Halima Cassell, hello, and thank you for joining me on this remote recording.
00:00:50 - 00:00:53 Halima Cassell
Hello, Carmen and it is good to be talking to you too.
00:00:53 - 00:00:57 Carmen Pryce
Tell me about your lock down situation. Where are you and who you with?
00:00:57 - 00:01:05 Halima Cassell
Well, I am in Shropshire and I'm with my family. Which consists of my partner and my two boys and the various pets we have around.
00:01:06 - 00:01:08 Carmen Pryce
So how has lockdown affected your working day?
00:01:08 - 00:01:23 Halima Cassell
I work from home. So I've been working throughout, lock down. It's probably the work, the type of work I've been doing that has probably changed over lockdown. But having the Children at home every day all week, maybe has had,
00:01:23 - 00:01:39 Halima Cassell
has changed their balance a bit. But as far as my work goes, yeah, I've been working all through, lockdown, not necessarily being creative all the time. But lock down for me has given me time. Time I would never normally have time to
00:01:40 - 00:01:55 Halima Cassell
grieve and time to think about the things that I've done over the last few years. Time to think what I'm doing now and what I'd like to do in the future and that's something you’re never lucky enough to have when you're working all the time.
00:01:55 - 00:01:58 Carmen Pryce
I want to tackle this question of museums and memories
00:01:58 - 00:02:04 Carmen Pryce
And what happens when museums are closed and the usual sources of inspiration are removed from view
00:02:05 - 00:02:08 Carmen Pryce
or inaccessible. What do you do? What's your opinion
00:02:08 - 00:02:12 Halima Cassell
For me, my memory is my greatest resource,
00:02:13 - 00:02:19 Halima Cassell
but I feel like what happens when you no longer have access to artworks directly
00:02:19 - 00:02:23 Halima Cassell
is that you start looking at other sources of visual inspiration, whether
00:02:24 - 00:02:37 Halima Cassell
it be food, books, reference books or through the Internet and most museums have digital media within the museum, which you can access their archives through and
00:02:38 - 00:02:47 Halima Cassell
It doesn't have the same impact or relationship as seeing the physical artwork but enables you to still access beautiful things.
00:02:47 - 00:03:02 Carmen Pryce
I know you access the Fitzwilliams Digital Archive for this podcast, but we'll get back to that. I want to take you back to 2018 to talk about virtues of unity, the exhibition where I first saw your work at the Fitz.
00:03:03 - 00:03:18 Carmen Pryce
Tell me about that work because it's seared on my memory. I mean beautifully hand carved ceramic bowls, vessels, as you call them, with intricate geometric patterns, Islamic, even each one made from a different clay that you picked up from around the world.
00:03:19 - 00:03:20 Carmen Pryce
How did this work come about?
00:03:21 - 00:03:32 Halima Cassell
Virtues of unity, for me, Um, it came about with this idea of belonging and being brought up in Manchester,
00:03:32 - 00:03:41 Halima Cassell
you know, with my kind very diverse multi cultural kind of upbringing. You ask yourself am I Pakistani or am I British.
00:03:41 - 00:03:42 Carmen Pryce
Just explain that?
00:03:42 - 00:03:56 Halima Cassell
I'm from Pakistan, Kashmir. I came here very young. My parents and family already lived here, so I was born on like a holiday in Pakistan. But I think the question of
00:03:57 - 00:04:02 Halima Cassell
am I Pakistani or am I British, you ask yourself those questions and
00:04:03 - 00:04:08 Halima Cassell
the first time I revisited Pakistan in 2009, it kind of confused me.
00:04:09 - 00:04:13 Halima Cassell
I was introduced on many occasions as a foreigner from England
00:04:14 - 00:04:27 Halima Cassell
And it was something that I associated with being back in England, where people say foreigner, or we know you're second generation immigrant and I mean not that those kind of things had a big impact, but the language used.
00:04:29 - 00:04:45 Halima Cassell
I think this whole trip to Pakistan made me realise it's not where you were born or where your parents came from or their ancestors came from. It's where you live that becomes your home and I felt a lot more relaxed with the idea for the first time in my life.
00:04:46 - 00:04:48 Carmen Pryce
So is virtues of unity
00:04:48 - 00:04:50 Carmen Pryce
about saying this is who I am?
00:04:50 - 00:04:56 Halima Cassell
I think it's who we are, who I am, who we are and how we connect as a whole.
00:04:56 - 00:05:02 Halima Cassell
So I'm using Clay as a metaphor, as me as us, as a race.
00:05:02 - 00:05:26 Halima Cassell
We're all made from the same DNA. And the only superficial differences is our colour and the texture of our skin and hair. And the idea of virtues is that when you start looking at different cultures and different backgrounds and different places in the world, we all have similar virtues that connect us as well.
00:05:27 - 00:05:38 Halima Cassell
And, I think when we discard cultural religion status, you know our backgrounds and look at this kind of sense of us. We are all the same.
00:05:38 - 00:05:44 Carmen Pryce
Yes, but the bowls or vessels are all very different and you exhibit them in a particular order.
00:05:44 - 00:05:47 Halima Cassell
Yes, yes, from dark to light.
00:05:47 - 00:05:48 Carmen Pryce
Why do you do that?
00:05:48 - 00:06:16 Halima Cassell
I think colour is a big issue in everyday life would race with with people can sometimes respond to your colour. So when you have them in this colour coordination and then you say each place from a different country, people sometimes have the presumption of where that clay comes from like for instance, Germany's black and Pakistan is white. Yeah, I've been once people start seeing this colour variation as a beautiful thing.
00:06:17 - 00:06:20 Halima Cassell
My hope is that we start seeing each other as a whole.
00:06:20 - 00:06:28 Carmen Pryce
I could talk about virtues of unity all day. It made me feel so good. But we should move on to your memories of Clarence Bicknell’s.
00:06:29 - 00:06:37 Halima Cassell
I remember the first time that I came across Clarence Bicknell’s work was in the museum gallery shop on one of my visits
00:06:38 - 00:06:42 Halima Cassell
when I was buying something for my son from the shop and
00:06:43 - 00:06:59 Halima Cassell
and notice a lot of the merchandise and the greeting cards and wrapping paper had this beautiful designer. At first I thought it was William Morris, and it's only when I took a closer look and read a bit more about the detail of the image that I realised it was Clarence Bicknell, and
00:06:59 - 00:07:04 Halima Cassell
at the time I hadn’t heard of the name. So I looked at various other things. And
00:07:05 - 00:07:08 Halima Cassell
what intrigues me most about his work was
00:07:09 - 00:07:19 Halima Cassell
the kind of grid formation that used to construct his designs and his patterns with which kind of really resonated with the way I work.
00:07:19 - 00:07:25 Carmen Pryce
Can you tell us a little bit more about Bicknell? No, I mean, what what kind of work you do? What did you find that?
00:07:25 - 00:07:34 Halima Cassell
He came from an extremely wealthy artists/art collecting family. They bought major paintings. They're collectors of art.
00:07:35 - 00:07:44 Halima Cassell
He studied in Cambridge. And for a short time he did live in Shropshire, not too far from where I live now. So that's nice, connection.
00:07:45 - 00:07:48 Halima Cassell
He spent many years being a vicar.
00:07:49 - 00:07:57 Halima Cassell
Bicknell lived a big chunk of his life in Italy, near the Alps, where he did a lot, research and where he had his summerhouse.
00:07:58 - 00:08:05 Halima Cassell
He, loved walking. And he loved discovering new plants. And he loved recording these new plants.
00:08:06 - 00:08:16 Halima Cassell
Clarence is work was driven by natural formations found in things around him. Plant formations, rock formations. And
00:08:17 - 00:08:24 Halima Cassell
he spent a lot of time in the Alps discovering new plants on and he was inspired by
00:08:25 - 00:08:32 Halima Cassell
nature and geometry and symmetry found through nature on the way he constructed
00:08:33 - 00:08:36 Halima Cassell
his designs, then followed that as well.
00:08:36 - 00:08:44 Carmen Pryce
You've kind of told us a bit, but I want to expand on it a bit more. What is it about Clarence’s work that draws you to him?
00:08:45 - 00:08:46 Carmen Pryce
00:08:46 - 00:08:52 spk_0
that really draw me to Clarence Bicknell’s work are his use of symmetry,
00:08:53 - 00:08:54 spk_0
00:08:55 - 00:09:00 spk_0
the way it geometry that is found for nature through plant formations,
00:09:00 - 00:09:04 spk_0
the way he uses a grid which
00:09:04 - 00:09:25 spk_0
he called scaffolding, in which he maps on his paper on, then draws his design around. I call it a grid of which I map around my forms and from that grid, the design develops in a very symmetrical way around the form or the shape that he's working with.
00:09:26 - 00:09:30 spk_0
I love symmetry, and I love the complex design
00:09:30 - 00:09:34 spk_0
that is made from a very simple shape, which is repeated.
00:09:35 - 00:09:39 spk_0
I suppose that's why his work struck me because I've that's something that I
00:09:39 - 00:09:46 spk_0
relate to my work and that's how I achieved my design work is having this grid. I like
00:09:47 - 00:09:49 spk_0
that that we both have
00:09:50 - 00:09:57 spk_0
the same sources of inspirations, which I found through nature, food, through plant formation, and natural
00:09:58 - 00:10:00 spk_0
formations found in rocks and of
00:10:01 - 00:10:08 spk_0
beautiful structures in nature and his kind of mapping of these designs
00:10:09 - 00:10:10 spk_0
00:10:11 - 00:10:13 spk_0
resonate with my work. I feel.
00:10:13 - 00:10:16 spk_1
Can you remember the items that actually
00:10:17 - 00:10:19 spk_1
caught your attention back in 2018
00:10:19 - 00:10:26 spk_0
Obviously I’ve relooked at the archives at the Fitzwilliam to rejig my memory.
00:10:28 - 00:10:33 spk_0
One of them was Snowbells and another was Dandelions
00:10:35 - 00:10:39 spk_0
Yes, which are nice muted green and white colours
00:10:40 - 00:10:42 spk_0
And shades of white,
00:10:43 - 00:10:45 spk_0
beautifully constructed on a grid.
00:10:46 - 00:11:07 spk_0
Quite simple, but like a lot of my work, the main elements are quite simple and it's the construction of the repetition. What gives it that complex feeling, it as overlay of eight. Open snowdrops two in each corner and it has four
00:11:07 - 00:11:14 spk_0
in each corner, which are slightly open and four which are closed on in the middle. There's a
00:11:15 - 00:11:16 spk_0
00:11:17 - 00:11:21 spk_0
graphical snowdrops on the way. The way the stems overlap
00:11:22 - 00:11:25 spk_0
wood in the designs that create this beautiful arched
00:11:26 - 00:11:27 spk_0
00:11:27 - 00:11:27 spk_1
00:11:28 - 00:11:30 spk_1
And what about Dandelions? What does that look like?
00:11:31 - 00:11:38 spk_0
I just loved dandelions, but just because of one, the nature of the common kind of element of it in your garden.
00:11:40 - 00:11:45 spk_0
And two, I think when yeah, she look a dandy lion more closely
00:11:45 - 00:11:46 spk_0
00:11:46 - 00:11:54 spk_0
Plant form, and it’s leaves, its the leaves themselves. Very interesting and again. it's formatted on a square.
00:11:55 - 00:12:04 spk_0
piece of paper with the grid on This is, I would say, less symmetrical than SnowBells 1911.
00:12:04 - 00:12:07 spk_0
But it's design repeats four times
00:12:08 - 00:12:11 spk_0
within the square format.
00:12:11 - 00:12:21 spk_0
But it is less graphic, then than the Snowbell one. But it's not just a design of a snowdrop or dandelion. It's
00:12:22 - 00:12:25 spk_0
it becomes a piece of artwork would in itself.
00:12:25 - 00:12:30 spk_1
So how are you going to creatively mark this lock down moment in time
00:12:31 - 00:12:33 spk_1
For in my mind's eye? What are you going to do?
00:12:34 - 00:12:36 spk_0
I'm gonna do some designs
00:12:37 - 00:12:46 spk_0
based around a more floral influence using that same kind of grid and scaffolding that we both use.
00:12:47 - 00:12:54 spk_0
Normally with my designs. I tend to look at the botanical forms and abstract them a lot. Where with
00:12:55 - 00:13:01 spk_0
Bicknell’s work. It's very obviously botanical. So I think I'm gonna try him
00:13:01 - 00:13:02 spk_0
being a lot more
00:13:03 - 00:13:11 spk_0
botanical influences within the design. Maybe in the future, that might have further
00:13:12 - 00:13:15 spk_0
progression into something 3d.
00:13:15 - 00:13:17 spk_1
it may not become about although it might do.
00:13:17 - 00:13:21 spk_0
Might do. But I'm not sure I can Definitely, definitely.
00:13:21 - 00:13:23 spk_1
Well, I'm really looking forward to seeing your sketch.
00:13:24 - 00:13:28 spk_0
Well, I've done few sketches already, but I've not come to my final design.
00:13:28 - 00:13:30 spk_1
When you do, will you let us have a look?
00:13:30 - 00:13:32 spk_0
Yes, of course. And look forward to showing it you.
00:13:33 - 00:13:35 spk_1
The Fitzwilliam will find a way to give people access to it.
00:13:35 - 00:13:40 spk_0
Yes. Really. Thank you. Thank you, Carmen. It's been wonderful talking to you
00:13:42 - 00:13:51 spk_1
For images of Clarence Bicknell’s work, where to find the originals on display in the museum and to see Halima’s Bicknell inspired sketch visit the Fitzwilliam Museum website.
00:13:52 - 00:13:55 spk_1
You'll also find, in my mind's eye details and transcripts.
00:13:57 - 00:14:03 spk_1
Join me again next week for another episode, or subscribe to Fitzwilliam Museum podcasts and download the series.
00:14:05 - 00:14:08 spk_1
In My Mind's eye is made possible by the support of the Belvidere Trust.
00:14:10 - 00:14:20 spk_1
The series was produced by me, Carmen Pryce, audio production by Nick Harris. The background music is “Call To Adventure” by Kevin McLeod and his life He's under the Creative Commons Agreement.
Object in focus
About the object
Vellum bound sketchbook with brown leather cover details and closure straps. Contains 76 leaves. Front cover has a vertical rectangular box containing an acorn and oak leaf design in red and green inks, with the initials 'M.B.' (Margaret Berry).
Halima Cassell was born in Pakistan, brought up in North West England and now based in Shropshire, Halima’s carved sculptures reflect her multicultural background and the global nature of her influences, including African surface pattern and Islamic architecture. Her work combines geometric elements with recurring patterns and architectural principles, resulting in dramatic lines, angles and planes, across which light and shadow play.
Recent exhibitions include Eclectica, at Manchester City Art Gallery (2019) and ‘Virtues of Unity’ as part of Things of Beauty Growing: British Studio Pottery (2017-18).
Halima has 23 pieces in UK public collections. 2018 – Arts Council funding towards the production of new work for the exhibition 2019 – Arts Council funding towards a new publication.