Rob Ryan’s Tintinnabulation of Bells
At Rob Ryan’s exhibition in Stafford last year, I was captivated by a large glass-fronted cabinet with dozens of mugs in rows, each one with an image of a bell and a different text. So when I discovered Rob was selling them, I paid a call to Ryantown in Columbia Rd to photograph this exceptional collection of ceramics before they were dispersed forever. Every one is an eloquent poem in its own right and yet, because bells sound better the more there are, I wanted to record Rob Ryan’s tintinnabulation of bells for you.
The entire story of human life can be expressed through our relationship with bells, from the bells given to babies in the cradle, to school bells, to exam bells, to work bells, to wedding bells, to alarm bells, to funeral bells – with plenty of doorbells opening up the possibilities of existence in between. Even in the age of the mobile phone, the old-school telephone bell has recovered its pre-eminence recently, and now when one rings, everybody within vicinity dives for their phone. Let me admit, bells are my favourite sound in the world, and it never fails to lift my heart when I come round the corner of Commercial St to encounter the pealing of bells from Christ Church, Spitalfields, reverberating through the narrow streets and in the market, where Rob once had his studio.
Rob Ryan grew up the nineteen sixties, when Sunday was sacrosanct, a time of silence and bells.“Sunday was once a quiet, sad, boring day – and now I still harbour a connection to this day in my childhood which doesn’t really exist anymore.” he explained to me, introducing his growing fascination with bells over the years.“Later, I became a big fan of John Betjeman and his ‘Summoned by Bells.’ And when I was in Germany on tour with a band, I bought this CD at Cologne Cathedral and it was a recording of the bells there. I used to listen to that and there was a booklet inside it, and I discovered that bells have inscriptions and names, which I never knew before. And I thought ‘That’s interesting,’ because it was as if each bell had a personality and a voice and it was saying something – so I held onto that idea. And also there used to this programme on the radio called ‘Bells on Sunday,’ at really peculiar times, like two in the morning, and it was just five minutes of church bells, and I always thought that was quite nice too. But rather than seeing bells as overtly religious, I wanted to adapt them more to everyday things which would relate to everybody on a personal level. I didn’t want them to sound pompous.”
Rob Ryan’s bells resonate in my mind, because while some texts are playful and celebratory, the very act of marking out time and pin-pointing the fleeting moment, emphasises the transience of existence. “We live from day to day, and go from week to week.” mused Rob, “You are always looking forward to something, ‘I’m going bowling tonight,’ and then that day will come and go. And you think, ‘I’m going to that party on Saturday’ and we live on this cycle of a couple of weeks, always looking to the next thing.”
It is is the absurd contrast between the everyday – This bell will ring when hang out the washing – and the apocalyptic – This bell will ring when our sun finally dies – that touches me, since a paradox of life is that it is simultaneously a modest endeavour and the greatest epic ever told. And that is why I love the poetry of these deceptively simple designs in their subtle warm colours because they remind me that, even on the grimmest January day, we are all on journey through a landscape of wonders.
You can listen to “Bells on Sunday” by clicking here.
Images copyright © Rob Ryan
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