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Siobhan Fraser

Churches, Wonders, and a Wheel for a Wild Child

As part of the Artweeks Christmas season, artists’ studios and Christmas art offer you the chance to choose unique and inventive gifts without any risk of duplication
Bridget Wheatley

"What I love about working in clay is the endless possibilities it offers"

Esther Lafferty


In Shipton-on-Cherwell, for Oxfordshire Artweek’s Christmas season, the canal-side Holy Cross Church near Kidlington is hosting an art event (2nd & 3rd Dec) with ceramics, jewellery, painting, photography, and other presents from the traditional to the most unusual.

Ceramicist Teresa Munby’s hand-built, coloured and patterned porcelain paper clay vessels are each a delicate mini-sculpture in snow white, whilst painter Siobhan Fraser uses age-old Byzantine methods with natural pigments to create traditional hand-painted religious icons on wooden panels, to which she applies the finest layer of real gold leaf to bring the colours alive.

Rose Hallam at work in her studio


Siobhan’s ‘tempera’ paint is made from natural ground pigments, egg yolk and gesso (a chalk base), gilded with many shades of gold leaf. After extensive travels in Greece and Turkey to visit churches and monasteries, her strikingly bold and beautiful paintings are based on originals including those from Russia and Ethiopia. As well as the Madonna and child, St George and his dragon and an array of other saints, you’ll also see lively, light-hearted seascapes and shipwrecks in the same bold, naïve style – pictures that tell a classical story.

Alongside, Inbal Strauss is a fine artist and a doctoral researcher at the Ruskin School of Art, who originally trained as an industrial designer and whose conceptual sculptures ask the question, “What is contained within historical, neo, and contemporary avant-garde objects that give an object a function beyond utility?” Her black and gold ‘wheel’ titled A Futurist Artefact to Help Raise a Child Born So Wild, for example, would certainly be a talking point around a Christmas table.

In Oxford itself, follow a pebble path through an evolving garden to a small, Swiss-style garden studio, tucked away behind a dark-leaved yew, where you’ll find ‘mathematical roses and big girls’ rings’ by jeweller Bridget Wheatley (2nd & 3rd Dec). Bridget, although she works mainly to commission, also creates small collections of original jewellery with a focus on something a bit different. These include leaping hares running through long grass, tiny three-dimensional hedgehogs strolling through grass and a rose collection inspired by the mathematical beauty in nature, from tiny rosebuds to a more a stylised interpretation of the bloom, made rich in colour with cold enamels.

Recently, Bridget has also been exploring a sculptural form with cabochon – smooth oval stones – to put together a collection of bold and contemporary silver rings that take you far away from a grey winter’s day. The cool, soft and opaque aquamarine evokes the memory of holidays in the Greek islands or a sunny summer destination, pink sapphire captures the wonder of the cosmos, and deep green tourmaline invokes the strong bond to the earth below our feet.

In another studio, this time in King’s Sutton in the Cherwell Valley, ceramicist Helen Woolner gives you the chance to see her workshop and choose bowls, mugs and other gifts (until 17th December). Helen has been making ceramics here for the past four years. “I’ve always been creative,” she explains. “I think it’s in my blood, as my grandad was very artistic. Although he was a bus driver by day, he’d have loved to have had the chance to go to art school and in his free time he was a painter, wood turner, photographer, and even cross-stitcher, and always in his shed! It wasn’t until he died and I was sorting through his belongings – which included his sculptures, tools and art books – that it struck me how similar we were. Grandad left me a small sum of money and I decided to spend it on building a proper creative space – with good light, heating and space to think – and I am sure he would have approved. I mostly make domestic stoneware: functional ceramics which make everyday life a tactile joy, and coffee tastes so much better when it’s in your favourite handmade mug. I like leaving the qualities of the clay visible through torn edges, texture and combining matt and shiny glazes, and recently I’ve been branching out into ceramic sculpture too. What I love about working in clay is the endless possibilities it offers, and that if something doesn’t work out you can always mash it up and start again.”

In Woodstock you can find a wonderful array of colour and sparkle at the Oxfordshire Craft Guild’s flagship annual show at the Oxfordshire Museum, which runs until 30th December. Amongst the glittering glass and sumptuous textiles, wonderful ceramics pieces that have an archaeological feel, and smooth silky wooden bowls with unusual inlaid veneers, you’ll find delicate yet striking jewellery by North Leigh’s Rose Hallam. Each piece is created by painting wood, paper and card (often recycled), and using photomontage, with silver earring and necklace fittings. Highly durable and light to wear, colourful, stylish, and with breathtaking attention to detail, Rose’s jewellery is handmade individually from decorated card and photos, which is hand rolled before more than ten coats of lacquer are applied.

Rose is inspired by the seasons, as well as her surroundings, and so her colours change throughout the year, and her creations often depict Oxfordshire scenes, places or occasions in highly original cufflinks, brooches, necklaces or earrings which can end up both abstract or traditional in design. Most recently, the stained glass in St Martin’s Church in Bladon near Woodstock has inspired her Christmas jewellery series, which sparkles with rich blues, golden haired angels and drifting snow.

“My husband and I have lived in Oxfordshire for a very long time,” she smiles, “and for years we’d meant to visit Bladon Churchyard and see Winston Churchill’s grave. When we finally did, earlier this year, I went inside to see the church’s windows because I love the bright delineated colours of stained glass and the effects that the light shining through brings.”

There, as well as seeing the stained glass window which commemorated 50 years since Churchill’s death in January 1965 (and includes imagery of a Spitfire, a gas mask and a cat), Rose found herself captivated by another beautiful window. This shows a cherubic choir and is based on a Joshua Reynolds painting of angels’ heads, the composition of which, according to the Tate, was inspired by a red chalk drawing of four cherubs’ heads by the Italian seventeenth-century artist Carlo Maratta, which is now in the British Museum. “There were wonderful patterned tiles on the floor in the knave too, so I may have some new terracotta designs too,” Rose continues.

Rose’s inspiration is broad, and so her different collections use as their base, amongst other things, William Morris’ Strawberry Thief, poppies and cornflowers, surfers on the Cornish sea alongside which Rose grew up, and – the perfect gift for book lovers – book covers lined up at the Oxford Literary Festival. For the art enthusiast, Rose has also taken a photo of a box of artist’s pastels, a strong rainbow of stripes, and using the original image produced a range of geometric abstracts. “I’m hoping to do something similar with coloured pencils too,” adds Rose.


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