In Two Turtle Doves: A Memoir of Making Things, jewellery designer Alex Monroe has written a fascinating and truly lovely account of his creative life. This is a book which shows a real zest for living, a warm heart, a keen eye, and genuine pleasure in fashioning beautiful objects which will become meaningful pieces for those who wear them.
Writers are often asked where they get their inspiration, and it's a question to which there is usually no easy answer, but in this case an artist/craftsman shows exactly how the creative process works for him. While Alex Monroe admits that "the origins of a piece of jewellery can be obscured even to the maker," where the genesis is clear he lets the reader follow his train of thought, from "the purest moment of creation right at the very start: that tiny inkling, the appearance of the spark of an idea," through "the sense of revelation" as it develops in the sketchbook and then in precious metal, to a finished piece and en entire collection.
Monroe grew up making things - from go-carts and bicycles to ammunition (!) - and his account of his childhood in a rambling Suffolk house with acres of semi-wild gardens is funny, affectionate, and frequently hair-raising. With minimal parental supervision, his exploits included some from which he is lucky to have lived to tell the tale, but happily he did, and perhaps it was that very unstructured upbringing coupled with his inquiring mind and a pragamatic way of responding to his surroundings and any materials to hand which have shaped his approach to his work.
For the book's epigraph, he quotes Arthur Ransome: "When a thing's done, it's done, and if it's not done right, do it differently next time," and that persistence, that modus operandi of constant refinement, seems to be very much at the centre of the Monroe method. While he will often talk in abstract terms, e.g. of "the compulsion to turn a feeling into an object," what he shows us - as the reader virtually looks over his shoulder at the jeweller's bench - is the whole process. So, for example, a bee observed in a Swiss forest eventually becomes the centrepiece of a collection called 'Original Sin' which takes its inspiration from Lucas Cranach's paintings Adam and Eve and Cupid Complaining to Venus, and is the subject of many painstaking hours at the workstation with piercing saws and files, a setter's tool and solder. An obsession with gardening, "seeded" in the orchards of the family home, becomes a story, a picture book, an exhibition, and a jewellery collection which includes a watering can pendant, pea pod earrings, plant label charms and a 'secret garden' key, while the Two Turtle Doves of the book's title have their beginnings as birds glimpsed at dawn on a 'Swallows & Amazons' childhood river trip, a netsuke in the collection of the V&A, and as a necklace become a gift of great significance.
Memories flow through the book linking times past to time present, and showing that for the artist, no moment is without creative potential. In telling his story - and in designing his jewellery - Alex Monroe shows us just how rich that power is and how it permeates life in a truly organic way. His book is a delight.