Sunday, 17 February 2013

Histories written in metal: UHC's Tin Town at Campfield Market

From the late seventeenth century up until his death in 1758, the Second Earl of Warrington amassed a large silverware collection at his country home in Dunham Massey in Cheshire, encompassing everyday household objects ranging from plates, cutlery, candlesticks, bread baskets and chamber pots to large water cisterns.

More than 250 years later, Manchester artists' co-operative Ultimate Holding Company has used this precious collection – much of it sold off over the years but now being returned to its original home – as the starting point for a project to refashion these glittering, valuable objects, at once functional and decorative, in one of this century's most ubiquitous materials, common domestic tin foil. With only an hour to spend with the collection at Dunham Massey, some of UHC's works copy the design and decoration of the Earl's silverware, approximating the scale and complexity of items in the collection, whereas others are entirely new constructs inspired by the history of the time and the webs of stories woven by the industrial revolution, which formed the backdrop of the Earl's lifetime.

The resulting exhibition Tin Town, currently on show in makeshift structures in the centre of the vast, underused, functionally ornate space of Campfield market hall just off Deansgate in Manchester, meditates on how we place value on materials and which objects we hold dear. UHC's tinware collection, moulded, engraved and held together with metal tape, is both beautiful and fragile, comprising lightweight yet fully formed replicas of the solid, heavy pieces which inspired it, made all the more impressive by the objects' underlying delicacy and transience. The product from which UHC's tinware is made, today commonly known as tin foil is, in fact, aluminium foil; tin was superseded in the mid-twentieth century both because aluminium is more flexible, and because tin slightly tinged the taste of food in kitchen use. Once a rare and expensive material, today aluminium is both readily available and highly sought after for recycling. Far from being disposable in the way we understand the word (ie, implying a lack of value), part of the value of aluminium comes from the fact that it can be recycled easily, and used again and again and again.

Tin Town also refers to one of the lesser-acknowledged aspects of the industrial revolution, temporary, overcrowded settlements of navvies, the undersung (often immigrant) labourers who built the infrastructure of the industrial revolution, such as canals – including Britain's first canal, the Bridgewater Canal, designed as a way for the Duke of Bridgewater to transport coal to Manchester from his mine at Worsley (begun shortly after the Earl of Warrington's death, the Bridgewater Canal eventually extended out to Dunham Massey). Tin towns grew up alongside major building projects such as these, a fact acknowledged both by the show's title and presentation and by the painstaking engraving of a typical navvy settlement on one of UHC's decorative tin plates. Like the Earl's silverware, which over the years has gone from existing as objects of use to becoming ornaments in glass cases, the value and role of the canals which powered the industrial revolution has changed too – from places of industry, toil and commerce to quiet backwaters and pleasure spots, part of the repackaging of the sites of our industrial history as destinations of as much interest for daytrippers and historians as the elegant stately home or traditional country park.

Tin Town is at Upper Campfield Market, Liverpool Road, Castlefield, Manchester, M3 4FH until Sunday February 24, open daily from 11am-7pm, and is free to visit. There are also a number of drop-in art workshops on Tuesday 19, Thursday 21 and Saturday 23 February from 1pm-3pm. For more information visit

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