In Conversation with Janice Blackburn…

Interviewed in our autumn/winter ’11 journal,  Janice Blackburn, an esteemed freelance curator of contemporary craft and design—including at Sotheby’s, speaks about her passion for discovering new talent and curating the “Royal Memorabilia” exhibition for Smythson last April.

When you walk into a graduate show what are you looking for?

In a crowded space I can see exactly what interests me. I have a way of editing what my eye likes and doesn’t like. Usually I hone in on one thing: it could be hidden or tucked away in a corner. I know exactly what I’m looking for.

Which is?

Originality, something really unique. It’s actually quite difficult to find people who have got a really unique way of expressing themselves. And it can be quite odd stuff, usually for me it is quite odd stuff.

In terms of your own collection,what were the first pieces you fell in love with?

I used to go to markets and buy Clarice Cliff and Mabel Lucie Attwell. She was a children’s illustrator in the 40s and 50s. I’m compulsive. I can’t not collect.

How would you describe your aesthetic as a collector?

That horrible word “eclectic”, which I absolutely hate. It’s a bad word. I suppose I’ve got a slightly eccentric eye. Maybe that’s what it is. It’s not the conventional way of looking at things.

It has been said that you have brought a younger, grittier crowd to Sotheby’s. Would you agree?

Yes, because the shows are really interesting. I’ve shown people who have done taxidermy. Again, because I’m not a dealer, I can afford to take a risk if I think someone is really worth showing.

What was the appeal of curating for Smythson?

I thought Smythson was a perfect showcase for the sort of unusual, somewhat quirky, and very individual work I select to exhibit. Much of it is handmade and I felt it reflects the Smythson signature of craftsmanship, quality and a dash of nonconformity—strong, vibrant colours. I thought Smythson clients would appreciate the work of my exhibitors—the uniqueness, and uncompromising quality with a touch of irony and whimsy. I hope there will be more opportunities to show work by other equally talented artists and makers.

Your show in the Smythson store was called Royal Memorabilia. Could you describe it?

It was royal wedding memorabilia done in a fun witty way, not the usual boring mug or plate. A lovely girl, Katie McBride, a ceramist made a royal wedding tea set. Her name is Kate, so the line was: “He chose the wrong Kate.” A paper artist, Zoe Ross, made a beautiful paper wedding dress. She is the niece of friends. I was having dinner in their house and was enraptured by the most charming small sculpture. I couldn’t take my eyes away and realised it was mainly made of paper. I never forget interesting work and nearly a year later, selecting designers for Royal Memorabilia, I thought of Zoe. And she came up trumps. Zoe is an example of what gives me most pleasure from what I do. To mentor and help talented creative artists get noticed and sell their work. It’s a tough, competitive business and they need all the help they can get.

How did the exhibition encapsulate the spirit of Smythson?

I wanted a mix of things that were beautifully made but also had a bit of wit and sparkle and fun. It was young and it was fresh. And people smiled when they walked passed the window.

Pictured: Janice Blackburn and Zoë Ross, one of the five arts and crafts designers who created one-off pieces for our “Royal Memorabilia” exhibition

To request your own copy of The Journal, The Collaborator Issue, Autumn/Winter 2011, click here.


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