With a career spanning five decades, Robert Baines is one of Australia’s leading gold and silver smiths.
Robert Baines makes intricately constructed jewellery and large-scale, sculptural, complex wire works that often combine gold and silver with plastic and powder-coated elements.
Hear how Robert researched high Classical Greek gold jewellery and remade it using 2000 year old techniques, how colour takes on many meanings in his jewellery, and how a chance meeting in a gallery changed everything.
Robert’s work can be found in all major public galleries, as well as internationally in significant museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The Australia Design Centre made Robert Baines a Living Treasure: Master of Australian Craft in 2010.
Robert Baines lives and works on Wurundjeri Country in Melbourne.
TRANSCRIPT for the podcast Object: stories of craft and design
Season 1: Episode 7 Living Treasure: Master of Australian Craft Robert Baines
Robert Baines: This is called The High Wire.
Sound and space is the beat.
Rhythm is the wire in space.
The wire is the line.
Line measure space.
Line captures space.
Line is the meter of the poetry.
Line is the poetry of the matter.
Space is the matter of poetry.
Does poetry matter?
Lisa Cahill: That was Robert Baines, reading some of his poem High Wire, which he wrote about his intricate wire metal work.
Lisa Cahill: This is Object … a podcast about design and contemporary craft in Australia. I’m your host Lisa Cahill from the Australian Design Centre.
In Series 1, you’ll meet the master craftspeople we call Living Treasures.
What makes them a Living Treasure? What has driven them to a lifetime love of their craft?
Is it the material, the process, or both? How do they contribute and advocate for the arts?
And what’s their advice for makers who follow in their footsteps?
Lisa Cahill: Let’s meet Living Treasure: Master of Australian Craft, Robert Baines.
In a career spanning five decades, Robert Baines is one of Australia’s leading gold and silver smiths. Robert’s work can be found in all major public galleries, as well as internationally in significant museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Master of Australian Craft in:
He makes intricately constructed jewellery and large-scale, sculptural, complex wire works that often combine gold and silver with plastic and powder-coated elements.
ery and remade it using those:
Robert Baines lives and works on Wurundjeri Country in Melbourne.
Lisa Cahill: Hi Robert.
Robert Baines: Hello, Lisa.
Lisa Cahill: My first question for you today in our conversation is, did making happen in your family, when you were growing up?
Robert Baines: Well, when I was a young boy, my father, he was an antique upholsterer and French polisher. So I have memories of his workshop, um, at the, at the back of his shop that he had built and, uh, um, he died when I was eight years old, so it's a, it's a limited experience, but I do remember him working on furniture frames and smells of gelatine glues and French polishing stains.
Lisa Cahill: I’m interested in what then took you to art school?
Robert Baines: I went to Eltham high school, which was very much an art and craft area in Victoria in and outer Melbourne. And there was such an interest in craft metal work. And, uh, there were teachers, there were, were very supportive and engaging with craft. They were either potters or metalsmiths and, and there was a natural progression, I think, to go to RMIT art school because of the gold and silversmithing program.
ts and crafts movement in the:
John McPhee: You'd never have a flippant conversation with Robert.
Lisa Cahill: John McPhee is an art historian, and was the first Curator of Australian Decorative Arts at the national Gallery of Australia.
John McPhee: And the work was always incredibly serious. Conversation with Robert was always very serious. I think he really took his work in a way in which very few jewellers do.
He didn't just follow fashion. In fact, he was always right outside fashion. He never fitted into the general run of the mill.
Sometimes you look at the pieces of jewelry and you think no one could ever wear that. And then you see somebody putting it on and you realise that he's thought very carefully about the fact that they are wearable at the same time, they might say all sorts of things about the society in which we live.
And he was happy to make things which were objects, not jewelry that you could wear.
He really thinks very deeply about his art. And none of the work is easy, slick, fashionable, or predictable. It is unexpected and often very unexpected. It's tough. It's challenging. And it's thought provoking. They're all qualities, not often associated with jewelry and metalwork.
Lisa Cahill: What is it about metal specifically, gold and silver, the first drew you in?
Robert Baines: Well, I don't think it was such an allure to the preciousness of the metal. But it's really the historicity that sort of surrounds the use of that material and identifies the sort of the potentials of what is possible.
Being drawn into the history and the applications of, of techniques and processes and contexts of the use of gold, gold alloys and silver. And in particular, the period, the bronze age goldsmithing techniques… The third century BC, Greek gold, really is the culmination of a great deal of skill, sensibilities and sensitivities to the gold. It was an era of luxury goods, refinement, supreme beauty, and you can see this in the gold work. It replicates this fineness. There is a fineness. And that fineness is in the wire work, as fine as a hair, little gold balls that are joined to the surfaces, to the substrate.There was such magnificent examples all the way going up into the first century AD. There are pieces that I just so wondrous, the quality has never been met after the history that follows.
Lisa Cahill: So it’s the history, and the traditional mastery, and skill, as much as the material, for you?
Robert Baines: The gold quality is really around 98 - there’s no such thing as pure gold. It’s the closest to pure gold, these pieces, they’re 98%. They had materials that are so conducive to hand making. The goldsmith understood the potentials and possibilities of what gold could do.
The archaeometallurgy, this research into archaeological metal work, gold work, and to making of copies, using the known technology of the era, this required working with a charcoal fire.
The Goldsmith has a piece of beaten gold sheet. It's been beaten flat. So there's flat stones, there's tongs or tweezers, and there's a blow pipe to charge the oxygen in the fire.
So the Goldsmith prepares the flat shape, applies these granules or wires then paints it with this copper salt, copper carbonate. And this is really this ancient system of gold joining. This is not a modern system. Then the goldsmith would, with the tweezers, place it into a charged fire, he charges of fire with his blow pipe, and then places it in, and then removes it at a specific time.
And that was the work of the Ancients!
There's a saying that the Goldsmiths can put a week's work into a thimble, you know, can take a week to make a piece that, to fit into a thimble.
Lisa Cahill: Could you talk about the different ways in which you’ve learnt and built your skills and knowledge?
Robert Baines: In:
And so I researched the use of wire going way back historically, in the Orientalising period in seventh century BC, 17th century, European pieces, wondrous wire work.
So I learnt more about wire and that Australia Council fellowship grant gave me time for one year, just to explore the use of wire.
But with wire there is that building. It's structural. There is a network of wire. And within this network of wire, is a straight wire and a crinkled wire straight wire and crinkled wire. And this builds a surface.
Now these surfaces build structures. They could be cylinders, they could be cubes that could be arches. They could be zigzags. And that's the crankle of the wire that the wire, these wire structures that are open, they meet, there are networks that meet. There are intersections where they meet and where they converge or where they leave each other.
Lisa Cahill: You make larger work, but you also make wearable pieces. Is it important to you that your work is worn? Or do you make your work to be worn?
Robert Baines: Sometimes it has to be worn, it’s a fundamental that it’s to be worn. It’s a wearable jewellery piece. So when the piece has to be worn,it has to be functional and the pin has to work and so on.
But at other times, I like to play with the jewelry history and make things a little bit larger than life.
Robert Baines: Over the years, I've sort of made larger pieces, larger wire vessels, and wire tea sets actually. Which obviously didn't hold the tea or the milk and milk and sugar.
But the larger than life pieces have become very important. And at the Gulbenkian museum, in Lisboa Portugal, you would not believe this, but, there are these wonderful large pieces by …. Lalique… René Lalique.
There's a wonderful collection of René Lalique pieces, at the Gulbenkian.. But you would not believe it, there's about six or seven pieces and these pieces are larger than life. And this was, this was the goldsmith working on another scale.
And because they have such a dexterity and virtuosity in their making. And still using the jewelry processes of that Goldsmith, but on a grand scale.
Lisa Cahill: Robert, could you describe some of the work you make, in particular the subject based work?
Robert Baines: The subject based work? Well, there’ve always been subjects. The biggest subject was the red event. The red event… I was drawn to the colour of red. Not because of its colour but because of the condition of red.
Red does denote emotion, such things as anger and affection, love, conveying of unconditional love. And so I made red pieces and there was the Entropy of Red and, the intervention of red into history, into history, historical locations and cultural locations that was making jewelry that had an authenticity about it. These were copies of jewelry belonging to some sort of historical or cultural location,
es Oldenburg that he wrote in:
And he said that, “Red is redder than green. It is meaner than yellow and bloodier than black.”
Robert Baines: And so, because I was interested in red conveying conditions that resonate with human drama, that poem, that text by a Claes Oldenburg revealed to me, I can still make things that are principally about red, but I can make a red with a yellow. Or red with black, bloodier than black. Red is bloodier than black. It's meaner than yellow. And I was making yellow pieces with these combinations. And... but these are all on linear structures.
Then I sort of started to develop it further. I came up with the subject of pink, the use of pink. How pink has conditions also. And pink is...I've got a little text. I don't know if I can just say a few lines about this? Because I like to write text about my work.
Robert Baines: It is not red and it's not white.
Maybe an arranged blending of the two extremities of red and white. It's the sweet space in between? Is it bleeding? It's a sweet bleeding, a cage.
Pink keeps your tenderness and still pink is slow to anger.
Pink is calming, warm, and comforting, a target for unconditional love, tenderness and kindness can escape its edge.
Fragile pink can lose its sting.
Robert Baines: Anyway, it goes on and on. That's about pink.
Lisa Cahill: I think that’s fantastic. Thank you for sharing that. It’s great to be able to get different insights into colour. I think that’s extraordinary. And really interesting to see how it’s featured so much in your work and the trajectory of your work over those years.
Diane Soumilas: What's distinctive to me about Robert's work is, or his multifaceted practice is the brilliant, skillful and unexpected ways in which he combines historic metalworking techniques with often provocative contemporary interventions of found objects or contemporary materials.
allery in Melbourne, where in:
Diane Soumilas: He often pushes boundaries of what jewelry can be, and he plays with history, frequently referencing archeology and material culture in his practice. So what I find extraordinary about his work is the way he challenges notions of authenticity and the way he merges the past with the present and draws inspiration from the historical context of jewelry, as well as the concepts of copies and fakery.
Robert Baines: Well, I'm almost 73 [years old] and so I don't work like I used to work either the intensity of what I used to do. I've come to the point now where I really make one larger piece, work on one larger piece and two smaller complex pieces. And I don't have a big target of working for exhibitions and things so much, and I sort of work in the garden more now and, uh, I do other things. I have more of a balance in my life.
But there's still that urge to work, to engage and to make. And that that really cannot be stopped. The work always sits there. The studio is always there. There is that sort of urge to make and I really was intrigued by a title that my graduate students, some years ago came up with for the title of their exhibition. They called it, The Beast Won't Sleep.
Robert Baines: The other thing where my life is now, I'm also really involved in the placing of my work more and more. I don't want to leave a lot of work to my family to have to deal with. And, so I'm sort of engaging more in institutional collections and placing the work. So that's really important.
The other thing is I have been doing commission work for collections for families. Two families in particular over many decades, like going back into the seventies, eighties. And they've all got older but I've had a wonderful sort of relationship with them. But I sort of really feel it, that relationship I've had with the husband and the wife that they've been buying pieces for each other, from getting me to make them. It's been a wonderful time and experience and quite a privilege.
you know. I met this lady in:
Robert Baines: We had an exhibition in Melbourne, in George's gallery, and on that day, I was in charge, like a curator of the collection. And this lady stepped in and we had a conversation for an hour about the work and I never thought where it would develop.
It's another one of those major unpredictables in my life. They gave me a freedom to make larger pieces using the knowledge that I was working on, on other pieces at that time. And so I was able to extend these, these sort of very specialised pieces. I think that’s also coming to a close.
Lisa Cahill: It’s wonderful to have had that relationship though, with people who find your work so special and are able to … it’s almost collaborative, isn’t it? A collaborative relationship with a collector.
Robert Baines: It has been. Yeah. Yeah. It's almost, you feel it's a privilege. You're not part of the family, obviously, but to be privileged in that sort of engagement with the interaction and relationship that I had for each other, it was a very nice thing.
John McPhee: 50 years of making it as the most extraordinary career. There are very few silversmiths, jewellers, goldsmiths who have actually worked for that amount of time.
Lisa Cahill: Art historian and curator, John McPhee.teacher. He began teaching in: ere made a Living Treasure in:
Robert Baines: Well, first of all, I'm a bit worried about the word pride. Maybe this is my Christian upbringing. I've seen winning prizes and awards as part of professional practice. First of all, winning prizes, it's an acknowledgement of the work, but also the money has always been really important and a facilitator to continue. And so the awards were usually an opportunity to embark on some research or study.
Robert Baines: And I know that when I was given the award to be the Living Treasure, this really also gave a sort of a validation to the collectors and gave a prominence.aces for so many years, since:
And so, I built for the Living Treasures exhibition, I built these bogus stories. The pieces that I made were authentic. To the material scientists they would have been correct. To the curator they would have been correct. But there was always this intervention of something else that was flawed. They were flawed pieces.
All the time this is jewellery knowledge. But the other thing is, for the viewer, for the public - engaging in these pieces, it’s didactic. They’re learning about jewellery history. Being drawn in and then realising, this is impossible, it’s too fantastic, it can’t be.
It was really a springboard for me to venture out to the point where after the exhibition stopped touring in Australia, it then went to Europe, the US in another form and it just came back this year. And, this was all the same work.
Lisa Cahill: Fantastic. It’s great to hear that the Living Treasures propelled the opportunity for you to take the exhibition internationally as well. And it’s been a decade, then, over a decade, that you’ve had it out on the road.
Lisa Cahill: So a Living Treasure, Robert, can be seen as a kind of role model for other makers. What’s your advice for new makers? What insights can you share?
Robert Baines: Oh, well I don't like giving advice. I think people have to find their own people and have to find their own feet on their own ground. I think this is really important and to understand that, to know themselves. And so I think there has to be a commitment. There has to be a commitment of some sort and commitment to the subject, and it might not necessarily be the right subject at that time, but just to commit and carry it out and to learn about it, and consolidate a knowledge, consolidate the ground that the stand that, that one stands on.
And so this really becomes the base of knowledge that you venture out, with questions and in new directions.
I think a really important thing is to have something to develop ‘the person’, the personality. Because I think, I fundamentally believe, that people are unique. Each person is unique and has a personality, and person, and this is just such a precious thing. And I think the more one knows about oneself.
It's like making ancient jewelry, the opportunities that have opened from that. And I think that there's something in that intensity and engagement and commitment practice, there always will be things that follow are opportunities and possibilities.
Lisa Cahill: That was Robert Baines, looking back on over fifty years of practice.
The things I took away from my conversation with Robert was the value of relationships with collectors, and how these can be very personal and nourishing in many ways. As well as being so important economically to enable artists to keep working. I was also intrigued by the criticality of colour to Robert’s work, and how he uses poetry to describe colour and form.
And in the next and final episode of Season 1 of Object, you’ll meet Brian Parkes.
“It was done on a shoestring but looked pretty flash.” It was Brian who came up with the idea to honour master craftspeople as Living Treasures.
If you’re enjoying Object, hit that Subscribe button. You’ll get all future seasons and episodes of Object: stories of design and craft, delivered straight to your podcast app.
Object is a podcast by the Australian Design Centre.
The Gadigal people of the Eora Nation are the traditional custodians of this place we now call Sydney, where the Australian Design Centre is located, and where this podcast was made.
We’d like to thank the Australia Council for the Arts for funding support for this podcast. You can follow the Australian Design Centre on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Object is produced by Jane Curtis in collaboration with Lisa Cahill and Alix Fiveash. Sound engineering by John Jacobs. Thanks for listening.