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Rob Ryan’s Tintinnabulation of Bells

January 19, 2011
by the gentle author

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

Read my other Rob Ryan stories

Rob Ryan, Papercut Artist

Rob Ryan at Somerset House

On the Papercut Express with Rob Ryan

6 Responses leave one →
  1. January 19, 2011

    What a wonderful post!
    Thank you 😉
    I love that classic line
    “Everytime you hear a bell ring an angel gets their wings”
    From the film It’s a wondeful life.
    LOVE the mugs too…did you buy them all? Are there any left?
    Have a great week ahead

  2. melbournegirl permalink
    January 19, 2011

    This is poetry at its best -pure essence of language. Thanks for sharing these wise/ happy/ sad words.

  3. January 19, 2011

    “even on the grimmest January day, we are all on journey through a landscape of wonders.” Thanks for being our guide.

  4. Joan permalink
    January 20, 2011

    Oh, I’d forgotten all about ‘Bells on Sunday’. Thank you so much for the link. It’s a sound I associate with the insomniac months following my father’s death when I was a teenager. I became very acquainted with Radio 4 very late and very early broadcasts as well as the World Service.

    Lovely to see Rob Ryan’s stuff being so heavily promoted in John Lewis for Valentines Day. And also the display of it in Libertys. Managed to resist as I made my way to the Rowan knitting wool concessions in both shops yesterday. But only just!

  5. Hminkfox permalink
    January 20, 2011

    Really quite touched by this work. Thank you for finding/sharing. You really have an exceptional blog – it resonates for me. Maybe there should be a mug saying ‘this bell will ring when the gentle author’s words arrive’

  6. melbournegirl permalink
    January 21, 2011

    Oh yes! I would buy one of those mugs!

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