Brass Art at Chetham’s Library


Project Info


  • Brass Art

Art Forms

  • Installation


  • Chetham's Library
  • Arts&Heritage
  • Arts Council England Museum Resilience Fund

Chetham’s Library was one of ten heritage sites selected by Arts&Heritage to take part in its Meeting Point 2017 programme. Chetham’s took part in a series of A&H training workshops and visits, to learn how to successfully deliver a contemporary art project at the museum. Chetham’s then developed their own Artist’s Brief, and presented this to 70 artists from across the UK at a networking event. From Expressions of Interest, four artists were shortlisted to draw up a more detailed proposal from which Chetham’s selected artist collective Brass Art for the commission.

Chetham’s 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.

Brass Art focused their exploration of the Library on the notes and drawings of John Dee (1527 – 1609/9), who was an alchemist, polymath and advisor to Elizabeth I.

Chara Lewis from Brass Art explained:

“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.

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

Working with experts from Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester University, Edinburgh College of Art and University of Huddersfield, Brass Art translated gestures found in prints, marginalia and book illustration into new sculptural forms using traditional casting and 3D printing processes, to examine the role of gesture in historical and contemporary society.

Illustrations in the collection imagining the elemental forces that shaped the world also provided the artists with a rich source of material for their sculptural and video works.

Gestured presented a series of sculptural hands that supported objects, fabrics and prints informed by the collection; there were colourful forms in hot glass inspired by the alchemists’ search for the transformation of matter, and a series of hand-made alchemical vessels reproduced from historical images of apparatus. The artists 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.

Chara Lewis explained:

“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.”

A&H commissioned a ‘making of film’ for Gestured, capturing the artist’s process.

Brass Art made a publication for the project, which you can view here.

“As a communicative tool, a carrier of meaning and a marker of the practices of reading and thinking, these hands engage and ignite the library as an environment filled with many stories of political power, patronage and secrets of the universe.” – Rowan Bailey, Brass Art, Ways of Reading Gestured. Read in full.

“Gestured offers an esoteric language of object relations, yet interventions are economical in their imagery, often using minimal means to say rather a lot about epistemological enquiries and pseudoscientific preoccupations. The viewer is invited to go on a quest to discover a series of installations, many of them presented as theatrical natures mortes, secreted throughout the architectural enclosures and stacks of the Library. The selective, jewel-like exhibits are predominantly sculptural, although there are also two moving image artworks. A glass vessel filled with water and balanced in the palm of one of the artist’s hands becomes a microcosmic lens, overturning the street view outside the Library. Passing pedestrians become inadvertently ‘trapped’ inside the glass. The everyday is refocused as marvellous.” – Catriona McAra, Brass Art: Gestured, Corridor8, 2017. Read in full here.

“Brass Art have been drawn to images of gesturing hands that issue invitations, signal directives, mimic, pinch, caress, and emphasise ideas. At once personal, idiosyncratic, universal and contested, these gestures communicate and extend thought.” – Abstract, from Contemporary Art in Heritage Spaces, by Nick Cass, Gill Park, Anna Powell, printed by Routledge, 2020

Chetham’s Library was founded in 1653 and is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. It is an independent charity and the entire collection at Chetham’s Library has been designated as one of national and international importance.

The Library began acquiring books in August 1655, and has been adding to its collections ever since. As well as a fine collection of early printed books, the collections include a wealth of ephemera, manuscript diaries, letters and deeds, prints, paintings and glass lantern slides.

The Artist

Brass Art is Chara Lewis, Kristin Mojsiewicz and Anneke Pettican, based in Manchester, Glasgow and Huddersfield, UK.

Select exhibitions include: xCoAx National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC), Lisbon, Portugal (2017); Cultural Revolution Connecting Spaces, Hong Kong (2016); Brass Art: Freud’s House International 3, Manchester (2015); The Festival of the Unconscious The Freud Museum, London (2015); Thought Positions in Sculpture HAG (2015); The Imagining of Things HAG (2013); Flights of Fancy Tatton Park Biennial (2012); Dark Matters The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (2011); Skyscraping Yorkshire Sculpture Park (2008); The Jerwood Drawing Prize, London (2008).

Brass Art has received numerous awards and funding, including: Arts Council England, British Council, Association of Art Historians, Lottery funding and the AHRC. Brass Art is an invited artist member of the Contemporary Art Society, and currently represented by the International3, Manchester.