News | Thursday, 12th October 2017

Elizabethan alchemist's notebook inspires magical artwork at Chetham's Library

Chara Lewis' collective Brass Art were commissioned to produce GESTURED

Part of the GESTURED installation
Part of the GESTURED installation

A Manchester Metropolitan University lecturer's arts collective has produced an installation for the interior of Britain's oldest surviving public library based on the notes and scribbled drawings of Elizabethan alchemist John Dee. 

Gestured is a constellation of artworks by Brass Art inspired by alchemy, transformation and symbolic gesture, hidden within the books and secret spaces of Chetham's Library.

In the margins of a book owned by alchemist John Dee, Brass Art discovered tiny ink drawings of hands pointing to ideas emerging in the text. In Hogarth’s prints they followed playful and shocking narratives that unfold through individual gestures.

Cowper’s life-sized anatomy book revealed exquisite illustrations of cadavers in uncanny life-like poses. Taking their cue from the collection, the hands of all three artists have been replicated at different scales, using both traditional casting and state-of-the-art 3D printing technologies, to mimic, multiply, pinch, cradle, caress and direct.

image: Jonathan Turner

Brass Art have brought many of these elements together in a constellation of artworks that can be found throughout the presses and hidden spaces of the library: sculptural hands support objects, fabrics and prints informed by the collection; colourful forms in hot glass are inspired by the alchemists’ search for the transformation of matter; and a series of hand-made alchemical vessels have been reproduced from historical images of apparatus.

The artists have used these glass vessels as lenses to film and contain video works as part of the installation, reflecting external views around Chetham’s Library and individual gestures. Together the artworks form a creative response to the deep sense of wonder Brass Art found as they explored both the historic building and the rich collection it holds.

John Dee (1527 – 1608/9) was an alchemist, polymath and advisor to Elizabeth I.

Chara Lewis from Brass Art, and Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at Manchester School of Art, said: “Notes and drawings by 16th century alchemist John Dee, including sketches of apparatus for his experiments, and drawings of gesturing hands, were the starting point for the new pieces of work created for this installation and lead the audience on a very personal itinerary through the Library collection.

Anneke Pettican, Chara Lewis and Kristin Mojsiewicz of Brass Art

“Chetham’s Library staff have revealed the fascinating books and illustrations in the collection, and shared their expertise on gestures and symbolism.

“The mysterious transformation of materials which fascinated Elizabethan alchemists has also inspired our work and we hope that people who see the installation will be drawn into the history and atmosphere of the library."

Atmospheric space

Sue McLoughlin, Heritage Manager at Chetham’s Library, said: “Brass Art immediately understood the magic and atmosphere of the library space, and they have responded by producing work with a mysterious, multi-layered quality.

“The artworks will be positioned around the library in unexpected locations and seldom-seen spaces, enticing people to explore and discover different parts of the building, which dates back to the 1400s.”

Chetham’s Library was founded in 1653 and is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. Its collections range from illuminated manuscripts made for royalty through to documents which record the minutiae of everyday life such as letters, diaries and account books.  

GESTURED is on show until 8 December. Admission is free.

Click on the above image for a gallery of photos from the exhibition. 

“The mysterious transformation of materials which fascinated Elizabethan alchemists has also inspired our work and we hope that people who see the installation will be drawn into the history and atmosphere of the library.

GESTURED is one of 10 contemporary art commissions as part of Meeting Point2, a year-long project led by contemporary art agency Arts&Heritage. Leading UK and international artists have partnered with the 10 museums in Yorkshire, the North West and the North East to produce new artworks inspired by the museums and their collections.

Four of the 10 commissions were won by artist lecturers from the University. Others include the revival of a forgotten beer, a large scale textiles piece to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the Brontë siblings, and an illuminated ghost ship sculpture.

Funded by Arts Council England’s Museum Resilience Fund, Meeting Point2 presents artworks in unexpected places and supports small and medium scale museums to commission artists, who will create a piece of work in response to the venue.

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