The Inaugral Exhibition of the Kent Print Collection: My experiences of establishing this one-of-a-kind undergraduate programme, Part 1

The Inaugral Exhibition of the Kent Print Collection: My experiences of establishing this one-of-a-kind undergraduate programme, Part 1

When I was an under-graduate student studying History of Art at the University of Kent I was involved with the Kent Print Collection. The Kent Print Collection was a first of its kind programme that allowed undergraduate students studying at the University of Kent to research, collect, purchase prints and then to curate, catalogue and put together a public exhibition. As one of the first students involved in this project, I participated in it as an extra-curricular activity but it now forms a core part of the University of Kent’s History of Art undergraduate programme. In a few weeks’ time I will be writing a blog dedicated to the beginning of the Kent Print Collection, including my memories of being involved in the first ever exhibition and an interview with the man who created it, my tutor Dr Ben Thomas.

In the meantime please enjoy my catalogue entry for the inaugural exhibition of the Kent Print Collection: Cornelius Bloemart’s St Peter Raising Tabitha (after Guercino):


Cornelius Bloemart St Peter Raising Tabitha


Cornelius Bloemart, St Peter Raising Tabitha, after Guercino. Engraving.

39 X 44.5 cm from the plate mark

Holstein, 11, 55, p. 74

Bloemart’s engraving the pics of the story of the raising of Tabitha as related to us in Acts of the Apostles 9:36-40. Tabitha was a lady of good faith and charitable works who died in the town of Joppa close to where Peter was in Lydda. There was deep grief at home loss of money and the people that she had helped, and so after her body had been anointed, and laid in upstairs chamber, Peter was sent for. He came and prayed at Tabitha’s bedside and upon commanding Tabitha to get up, she awoke. This resurrection story fits well with the theme of our opening exhibition The Awakening. Around Tabitha’s bed or a crowd of believers that she helped in her life. Among them the sits a lady holding her baby. The baby and Tabitha are on the same horizontal plane. There is a symbolism suggested in the contrast between the baby, a new life, and Tabitha’s motionless body. Through Tabitha is good works she represents Christ’s love for us as shown in his death and resurrection, which will lead to new life. The shadow of St Peter’s arm falling across his body and the pointing gesture of the character to the left, create a fluid line across the centre of the pictorial space drawing the spectators eye to the figure of Tabitha. Peter is left hand pointing towards heaven suggests that some sort of Divine power is at work here. The visually crisp line down to Tabitha, created by tonal shades, links of the two and reminds us of the religious importance of this miracle. Details of drapery have been picked up by the artist with great skill so that we are even left with a suggestion of colour-it is possible for us to say that the sleeve of St Peter is a darker colour to the draperies of say, the figure on the left. Next to this figure, above the motionless Tabitha, burns a candle: a reminder of the continuing presence of Jesus as the Light and Saviour of the world.

In 1618 the baroque artist Guercino made an oil panel of the Raising of Tabitha with Peter for the Cardinal Archbishop of Bologna, Allesandro Ludovisi. The Ludovisi family came to prominence in Rome in 1621 when Alessandro was elected Pope Gregory XV, and they subsequently invited a number of Bolognese and Emilian artists to work in Rome including Guercino who was employed in the Casino Ludovisi. Bloemart probably saw the painting in Rome in the collection of the Ludovisi as the print is dedicated to Giovanni Battista Ludovisi, the Prince of Piombino. The text on the print is of further interest because of the inclusion of what is on at the style of licensing or copyright. Guercino’s painting subsequently entered the collection of the Colonna family, from whom it was then purchased by the Grand Duke of Florence.

Bloemart’s engraving reverses the image of a Guercino’s painting (which is now in the galleria Pitti in Florence). The painting’s colour is remarkable: Guercino uses duller tones, such as browns, blues and whites for the draperies of the grieving figures, as opposed to a bold use of colour in the yellow of Peter’s cloak. Guercino’s The Raising of Tabitha shows the artists’ developed use of colour, and his talent for showing a gradation in tonalities. Bloemart’s print and his interest in light suggest that he may have been inspired by Guercino’s depiction. The print shows a high quality of craftsmanship in the execution of the engraving. Close inspection of the print allows the spectator to see the scale of the artist in areas of different tonal qualities. The engraved on the lines of vary in their thickness suggesting that a variety of tools and may have been used, or that the application of pressure was adjusted to create the desired a visual effect. The image originally made by Guercino therefore loses none of its contextual importance by being copied by Bloemart, if anything Bloemart’s contribution adds to the story of the image.


NB: Image not my own. Scanned from the exhibition catalogue for The Awakening. Owned by the University of Kent.


The Awakening, the inaugrual exhibtion of the Kent Print Collection was held in Keynes College at the University of Kent from 18th January – 28th February 2006.

The catalogue published ISBN1-902671-44-9;978-1-902671-44-4 Canterbury, 2006

With thanks to Dr Ben Thomas, without whom the Kent Print Collection would not have been possible.

Advertisements

My visit to the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket (Suffolk)

My visit to the Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket (Suffolk)

In advance of tonight’s #museumhour discussion on #ruralmuseums I thought I’d share with you my recent visit to the Museum of East Anglian Life which I visited this weekend with my Dad. My parents moved to a village just outside of #Stowmarket in #Suffolk in October last year. On my first visit to their new home and the surrounding area I discovered a wealth of small regional museums in the area, which I am still working my way around. It was then that #MuseumofEastAnglianLife in Stowmarket first came on my radar and I finally got the chance to visit this weekend.

After paying for our entry in the Tourist Information centre which also doubled as the Museum’s entrance we made our way in to the main visitor area. The museum is spread across a wide site and to get to the different exhibitions, which are housed in different buildings, you have to cross lots of green open space. We started in the exhibitions of family and domestic life of which there were two separate buildings re-creating homes and work spaces going back through past decades and centuries. The first that we entered was about the home. There were family activity packs by the door and a play area, where some families has come in from the Blues concert happening outside and were playing board games. The walkway progressed through a series of rooms with exhibits replicating a 1950’s house, moving through to a Victorian home and bedroom and then to the second building housing displays of daily work life. The first room here was mock Victorian school room which had an array of objects and items left put with a sign inviting visitors to touch the objects and enjoy using them. This was followed by replicas of a tailor’s shop, pharmacy and ironmongers. The interpretation that was provided linked all these exhibits back to life in East Anglia, reflecting people’s stories and giving a more personal feeling to the museum by relating the museum exhibits to the lives of actual people who had once lived in the area. In the home exhibit you could follow the Finch family identifying which family members would have been most likely to use certain items, and in the work exhibit interpretation showed original photographs demonstrating that these replica displays were based on real businesses that had once existed. By the time I finished the exhibition I felt that I had an understanding of how people lived in this region and how they made a living; what their daily life looked like and the occupations that were available to them.

 

IMG_2137
…and the interpretation telling personal stories of the people who worked for and owned the shop..
IMG_2135
The Tailor’s workshop…

As previously mentioned the Museum is spread out over quite a large site so we had to walk through some woodland to get to the Farmhouse and steam exhibitions but the woodland in itself was quite beautiful (though all the better when it doesn’t rain!). We reached the Edgar’s Farmhouse to our right and went in to see what this building had to offer. Inside were the ruins and remains of one room which we learnt would have been the main hall of the house. There was some fantastic interpretation inside explaining how the building was constructed, what the use of the building would have been and seeing as only the hall of the farmhouse survived, what the rooms on either side would have been and their layout. There was a wooden model in the room showing how the roof was constructed and with wooden pegs that you could move in and out.

 

We then moved on to the Boby building where there were some fantastic steam engines on display. There was Burrell Steam Plough engine and a steam engine for operating a Flour Mill that had been in nearby Wickham. It has been a while since I encountered a steam engine and my father and I talked about the inner workings of the steam engines. As a retired engineer my father seemed to really enjoy explaining all the inner workings of the machines to me, the pistons, how the governor adjusted to keep the steam coming into the machine under a constant pressure. It was nice to see him engaged in the exhibition – so often I feel like I’m dragging him along to reluctantly come and visit museums with me but he seemed genuinely engaged in the displays. It was lovely to see my father so enthused – what a great things museums are for bringing the generations together! Through another set of doors into a room showcasing more trades relevant to people who lived and worked in the area – a wheelwright’s workshop, a cask maker, printer and then upstairs rope making. There were lots of hands-on stations providing opportunity to interact with the exhibit in a child-friendly way and the interpretation explained very clearly how the items were made and how they would have been used.

There was much more to explore but by this time we had been in the museum for a good 4 hours. This plus the rain meant we had to cut our visit short but the thing that I really enjoyed was the diversity of items on display, which, with the replica period rooms really means that there is something for everyone. The educationalist inside me was busy with ideas of different activities for children and adult audiences- (once bitten by the bug of heritage education sometimes it’s hard to let it go!) One might also imagine that with so many items from recent past, and domestic items too, with which people are likely to be familiar, the reminiscence work that could be developed here would have great potential and I look forward to getting to know this museum better in future visits to Suffolk.

Disability Access in Heritage Settings – Findings from my Social Research

Disability Access in Heritage Settings – Findings from my Social Research

After having written two blog entries that have been well-received I thought now would be good time to tell you all about that thing that I have been desperate to share with you… that is my dissertation. Last year I completed my Masters in Education in Arts and Cultural Settings at Kings College, London and submitted my dissertation on disability access in heritage settings. The reason that it mattered to me so much was because I genuinely cared about it. Disability access came to be something I care so much about after working for the Royal Collection as Access Team Leader, managing the Access department – I don’t know – it stirred something in me and was the reason why I chose this a my research topic. Now before I start, I should say, I signed an agreement with all my participants that their participation in my research be confidential. I submitted an ethics proposal to that end. Therefore, I shall not name anyone, I shall not reveal any details that would encourage anyone to make a guess and I will be discreet in order to honour that promise I made and the ethics application I signed. But I will try to tell you as much as I can with a little bit of the friendly and informal thrown in for good measure…

What was it that I researched?

So my thesis followed the basic structure you’d expect; abstract, introduction, literature review, methodology, results, discussion, conclusion and references. It followed all the guidelines etc. etc. that King’s College set out. I had to set parameters for my study early on and had to decide what I would and would not include in the remit of my study; I chose to focus on heritage sites in the south east of England and London, due to the restrictions of the ethics application I chose to focus on physical disability and not mental or intellectual disabilities and I had to establish what I meant by ‘heritage’. After reading several wide-ranging definitions I settled for heritage being a place of historic interest where objects were displayed for the reflection and enjoyment of the public. These were to be historic buildings (therefore nothing newly built) and could include galleries, museums, historic houses, castles etc.

My tutor and I decided it would be inappropriate to make judgements of the participants and what work they carried out regards disability access, so we wanted a title that would be free of judgement or assessment. We came up with the title “How do Heritage sites Conceptualise their Disability Access Provision?” We decided that in looking at conceptualisation people could talk about what their approach was, how they thought of it, without any judgement on their facilities. So this was to be an information gathering exercise with no judgement – just linking together the commonalities.

How did I do it? What form did the research take?

So the aim was for me to conduct a literature review. I would research and research and research, reading all I could about disabled access to heritage sites, disability studies, heritage sites, legislation (very dry), architectural journals and so on… If tangible I checked the bibliography for anything a bit more useful and I cross checked and cross referenced everything I could find. (This literature review lives in my mind as taking a good few months of my life in and around the new year of 2015 – tucked away on dark January nights with strong coffee and highlighter pen squinting in the desk lamp light!) Once done I would draw conclusions on the literature review and then compare the conclusions of the existing literature to the conclusions of my own research. And this was the fun bit – going out and meeting people. I had to travel to ten sites, meeting ten people, asking them a whole load of questions about how they made provision for their disabled visitors being careful not to assess or make judgements but to tap into ‘conceptualisation’ (it sounds easy but it’s so much harder than you think). It took weeks of refining the questions to ensure that my questions were neutral and not leading, that they would give me a good and developed answer, something that would allow for good analysis and then I had to contact people and beg. Literally beg. But not like that. In the professional way. And I have to say I was lucky because most people who responded were more than happy to help and those who couldn’t were so very polite about it. So fortunately I didn’t have to do too much begging. So I would chat with these lovely people for about an hour then go home to transcribe that interview before drawing together the points raised that were common to all, to establish themes.

The above is a very colloquial and informal way of saying:

I conducted a social research project whereby a sample of ten was identified from the available population and a semi-structured interview was carried in order to collate a selection of qualitative data for thematic analysis.

The Essential Background Reading

So what did the literature review say? Well, there were some key documents I had to look at. The most obvious ones would be the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, the Equality Act of 2010, and the Scheduled Monuments Act (which protects historic buildings). Some people have written brilliant pieces highlighting the difficulty between protecting a building in terms of conservation and providing disabled access – for example, when a building is protected it’s not possible to have mass building works to fit a lift, neither can you widen doorways to allow for wider wheelchairs or electric mobility scooters. One of the over-riding issues with the DDA was that it told service providers to make “reasonable adjustment” for the disabled, but as one piece I read so eloquently put it “what is reasonable when dealing with a 300 year old castle?” And it’s not just about building works and physically changing the layout. It’s also about being in keeping with the décor and the design of the architecture that exists, plus some of these old buildings are just so fragile that they couldn’t take any of that poking and prodding – they’d just acquire too much damage as a result.

So this was all interesting stuff, and the government had published guidance (People and Places was a fab document for the planning of public spaces if you’re tickled by that kind of stuff) as did English Heritage (as they were) who tried to kind of ‘translate’ what the DDA actually meant for anyone in a historic environment in their document Easy Access to Historic Buildings. But the dominating ideology was that of the Social Model of Disability. “The what?” I hear you cry. The Social Model of Disability. I call it the SMOD. But honestly don’t worry it’s not that complicated. In a nutshell it is the argument that people you would typically call ‘disabled’ are not actually disabled. No. They are only impaired. They have something wrong with them and it is called an impairment. They are still able. Able to do things. To take an example – a wheelchair user. At home in their own environment they can do stuff. Their home might be adapted or different somehow but they can do what they need to do. They are able. (Think about the word ABLE and what it means – it basically means you can do stuff, and do it for yourself. You can do. ABLE as a verb in essence. Able as a doing word). Right. Now take that person outside of their home. Try to take them on the London Underground for example (which btw has appalling accessibility for a modern city but I won’t leap on that soapbox right now). The poor wheelchair user in our example can’t do a ruddy thing. Can’t get on the train because there’s a gap. Can’t use the escalators. Can’t inter-change at stations because there’s steps everywhere. Only lifts in some stations. Only recently ramps, or raised platforms to get on the train. Yeah sure once on the train there’s seats that flip up so a wheelchair can fit in but you’ve got to be able to get from the train to the platform then the ticket hall then the street. It’s complicated. I spent a fortnight on crutches once after an op and I’ll tell you London Underground for the walking impaired is no fun. So our poor wheelchair user cannot. He is not able. His able-ness has been taken away from him. He is now DIS-abled. But who is he disabled by? Not himself. He’s not done anything wrong. No. It’s us. It’s society. We have not adapted to his need. We have DIS-abled him.

Now this is very basic, and I’ve made light of something incredibly serious for the point of explaining what the Social Model of Disability is. But I think the example explains it. The SMOD argues that we (society), our attitude, or lack of willingness to adapt is the thing that DIS-ABLES. Mmm… there are lots of pros and cons to this. But it was the core ideology at the heart of my literature review and has shaped so much of disability studies and political thinking. It’s kind of at the heart of everything.

So my lit review concluded that the DDA was long over-due, very needed and slow to be enforced. Current and recent government policy has been shaped by the ideas of the SMOD. The acceptance of the SMOD places services providers under a great deal of responsibility to make adjustments but in the heritage sector with regard to building maintenance and structural improvements there is relatively little guidance on what this should be. The People and Places document I mentioned gives guidance for new builds but not historic buildings. It does make the suggestion that sharing of best practice and consulting with your audience and community groups is a good way forward, therefore moving towards a more cooperative equity. There was also in some architectural readings reference to the Modular; a generic six foot strong man on whom architectural designs are based (though obviously not all people fit this categorisation).

Results from the Research

The results from my research made for interesting comparison. After the interview transcripts were analysed I identified ten themes; Inclusivity, Networking and Guidance, Conservation and Building Restrictions, Acceptable Substitutions (for a physical visit), Customer Service, Holistic Approach, Expectations, Information and Commercial Need. These ten themes were common to all of my anonymous participants who themselves represented a diversity of heritage; in there was a cathedral, three castles, one national museum, four historic houses with gardens and three other unclassifiable buildings. One was in the middle of a HLF funding bid and another had just completed the process. In every place I asked to speak to the “person in charge of disability access provision and daily operations for disabled access on your site”. This in itself turned out a variety of different responses ranging from site managers, through directors of audiences and engagement, to regional directors and dedicated access and inclusion managers. The conceptualisation of whose responsibility it was to provide disability access was varied. Some saw it as the role of only a select few while others responded that it was everybody’s responsibility and the approach was holistic. All ten participants were inclusive, that is they encouraged everyone to take part regardless of their gender, age, ability, social background, ethnicity etc. Everyone was completely on board with that openness (though something I love about working in this sector is that fact that we do, literally embrace and welcome everyone).

So I could go on about these results there was pages and pages of it. (This again feels like it took many weeks from my life!) But I shan’t include it all here; I’ll summarise the important bits and tell you what I concluded:

So there was stuff that I anticipated. I anticipated discussion about financial restriction and the complexities of working around conservation and building restrictions. I had anticipated conversation about staff attitude and awareness. But there were some really interesting things that popped up; stuff that even with all my hands on operational experience of access I hadn’t anticipated. For example, in one anonymous place they had encountered a conflict of interests whereby after centuries of pilgrims coming to visit the cathedral the steps had worn away. The steps were now soft and shiny, with a dip where the erosion had made new shapes out of the stonework. Staff at the cathedral had made full use of this for visitors with visual impairment or blindness who could touch and feel the steps, taking real joy and pleasure in hearing about the stories of the pilgrims and feeling deeper connection, but this wearing away of the step therefore creating an uneven surface posed obvious problems for those with walking difficulty and therefore there was a contrast, and a collision of interests if you like, between the different access/visitor groups. Amazing. What do you do? That’s a complete catch 22 situation because whatever choice you make someone potentially loses out?

There was discussion that took place around networks both internal and external (which varied among participants and was different for each organisation). Some people had positive experience of working with those in their own organisation’s structure whereas others found that these representatives from different departments just came with their own agenda and a lack of understanding. Others who had worked with outside access consultants had varied experience – one participant could not praise them enough based on her very positive experience, but another who had worked with an access consultant and architect simultaneously reported that they just had a “can’t do” attitude. So there was variety. And complexity among the varied experiences my participants had encountered.

So my conclusions were that more networking and sharing of good practice. Every single person I spoke to asked and wanted to know what other people were doing. The desire to share and support one another was great and literally everyone I talked to wanted to know “what are the others up to?” Then one conclusion that I drew was that there was an over-reliance on virtual technology as an “acceptable substitute” for visitors who could not physically access certain parts of the building. Everywhere had an iPad/computer touch screen. Everywhere offered this to disabled visitors in place of the real thing. As a visitor I know this would get tiresome. That everywhere I go does the same. I can access a virtual tour on my iPad from home-why visit? Don’t get me wrong – I see the point – nothing can recreate the room or offer such a good visual capture of this inaccessible place (room or gallery etc.) as a good quality computer generated image – and there is a place for that, but are we coming to rely on this too heavily? Its samey, and I have met the wonderful people that curate and run our places – we are capable of so much more. Something much more stimulating. Stories that my participants told me of using touch objects and handling collections, bringing something from that out of reach place to show the visitor, created a deeper connection and a special feeling. Surely that’s what we are here to do? Another conclusion was that visitors were surprised when they could visit every part of a heritage site because they had become used to restrictions of access; that actually visitor expectations were (generally) in line with what we find ourselves able to provide. There was an example discussed of disabled visitors wanting to go to the front of the queue and experience treatment that would not equal that of other visitors but exceed it. Though this was an exception and remains so.

So to finish, it became apparent that all who I spoke to were embracing their responsibility to make “reasonable adjustment” as per the DDA. Everyone did this. But most, if not all did this, not because of the legal requirement but because to “do good”, to improve the visitor experience and because they recognised a strong business case for improving disability access. There was also a desire to go above and beyond as demonstrated by one venue that had met all the necessary legal requirements by providing a stair lift but were actively looking for one that was more comfortable to use. It was also clear that most disabled visitors are humbled and grateful by the adaptations heritage sites put in place. There were very few examples of dissatisfaction and those were generally as a result of other concerns (such as a poor encounter with a staff member, for example).

What I learnt from all this…

It seems that generally we do it well. We do it well but we need to support each other more with doing it. More networking. More sharing. More helping each other with something that let’s face it can be tricky to implement. And less iPad stuff. Less reliance on the technology as a replacement experience. More of other stuff – more smelling herbs from the inaccessible kitchen, more touch objects, more of someone coming to talk to you face to face and tell you about it – something ‘other’. Just something to engage those different senses we have – not just a touch screen of information folder full of photos. These have their place, but perhaps we overly rely on them? Just a thought.

But we are doing disabled access well. We just need to help each other. And keep aiming for better. We may have reached our goal (in terms of DDA and legal obligation) but why not aim higher? Why not see if you can change the world?

 disability

Feedback from my first blog entry has been so positive that I wanted to follow it up with something that would be equally well-received. So thank you to all who read my blog, and special thanks to those who commented, shared and followed. So on today’s discussion…and a discussion it is, because I am thinking about different opinions and views on one issue: Fashion. I picked this topic because it is one that creates a dichotomy in my own mind. I have always had mixed feelings towards the fashion industry but on Monday I took some time out of my schedule to visit the National Portrait Gallery’s Vogue100 exhibition, celebrating 100 years of Vogue magazine, and I have to say my mind is in a slightly different place to when I started but I still remain with largely mixed feelings.


 

Fashion_How I feel about it
I think this image encapsulates my feelings about fashion – don’t think it needs explaining

Anyone who knows me on a personal level knows that I’m a fairly straight-forward, down-the-line, no-fuss young lady. Like every lady I love wearing nice clothes, going shopping, having my nails done but on the average day I’d rather save my money, read a book, cook a homemade meal and play Monopoly or cuddle the cat. I’m forever put-off buying glossy fashion magazines because of the feelings of self-worth (or lack thereof) projected by images of perfect women who have enjoyed numerous beauty treatments, sprawled across tropical beaches, wearing clothes so expensive they are the equivalent of my month’s rent, twisting their bodies into ridiculous poses to showcase the latest fashionable product, which to be honest, is most likely to be a passing fad replaced by the next must-have item in the next season’s couture line up. The image presented in these magazines is that of money, wealth and global travel. Success through riches and beauty. I do not buy into this. I do not buy into a throw-away culture where the need for this season’s must-have item drives my ambition (this coming from the girl who still owns a pair of shoes she bought eight years ago for £7.99 and still fit…comfortably). I do not feel that my success should be judged on the handbag I carry, trendiness of my make-up or ability to copy a ‘look’ from a magazine.

Fair enough, you might think, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and now that I am down from my soapbox – (although I was fairly restrained considering I didn’t even get onto the issue size zero models and pressures around body image) – I will tell you that I regularly watch America’s Next Top Model and yes, I love it! What? How? Why? Hypocrite, I hear you cry! And yes you’d be right – it’s totally hypocritical. Why do I oppose an industry and then watch, even enjoy and partake in judgement of the contestants, in a TV show based around the values of the industry I have just told you I hate? It makes no sense, however my enjoyment from watching this show comes from the artistic direction and the creation of some of the most amazing backdrops for photoshoots that I have ever

seen. So really is that the fashion? Or is that the artistry of the make-up, set design and the concept creation that enthrals me so much? There is no doubt that some of the fashion photography demonstrates a beautiful balance of artistic techniques like composition, the formal use of colours is beyond beautiful at times and the set design and the artistic concepts, and how the models use their bodies to portray this concept, not the ‘beauty’ of the models, or the cat fights or that makes me watch this programme that you would have otherwise predicted I would hate…

So this is me. These were my views in relation to the fashion industry prior to my visit to #Vogue100. I wanted to go into the exhibition with an open mind, to go into the exhibition ready to be changed, ready to have my own views and perceptions challenged by something more meaningful. (And for those of you wondering, yes, I have bought a copy or two of Vogue in my time, more for curiosities sake than anything else, but found it to be full of photographs and adverts for high-end items I can’t afford and very little readable content). I chose to follow the exhibition chronologically starting from Vogue’s beginnings in 1916 (and by the way, I have included as many images as possible in this blog though not all images referred to are pictured).

The gallery interpretation on the wall of the 1920s gallery identified an intention behind the publication of British Vogue to be about, and I quote, “fashionable life” – the notion that one should aspire to a particular lifestyle. The images that accompany this era, like Helen Lyons photographed by Baron Adolph De Meyer (1922) have a beautifully artistic quality to them, a composition and use of light that is quite beautiful in its own right and a pose that reminds me of a ballet dancer from one of Degas’ paintings. A photograph of Viscountess Maidstone by E O Hoppè (1916) shows a beautiful balancing of the photograph through use of composition, then there’s the photograph of Fay Compton as Mary Queen of Scots taken by Maurice Beck and Helen McGregor (1923) which alludes to the importance and beauty of another art form – theatre. None of this presents me with the vacuous feelings I earlier described. I found myself using the same language to describe these photographs as I use to critique painterly art leaving me to wonder whether I had been too quick to judge fashion. Perhaps too judgemental and too quick to brush it aside as vanity. The exhibition continued through the 1930s with images of public figures; early film stars, members of the royal family but still the same beauty in subject matter and thoughtful explorations of composition especially in pieces by Cecil Beaton such as Tilly Losch (1930) exploring elements of shape and design.

There then comes a complete change in atmosphere (and kudos to the curatorial team for getting the spirit of the age and social contextualising just right) as the exhibition moves towards the 1940s. The colour and vibrancy of the red room chosen to be reflective of the post-war mood, gallery interpretation stating that “Vogue celebrated fashions ‘new look’: an extravagant response to the restrictions of wartime” and the first image on display of Barbara Goalen by Cecil Beaton (1948) hits as a visual rainbow after the black and white images of the war years. This image in itself has lots of beautiful elements; Beaton has played with the focus of his camera lens making different layers of the foreground and background blur and become clear – strangely the model herself is slightly blurred whereas the table beside her and woman in yellow are sharper and more focused than her – the main subject, not to mention the compositional elements of all that furniture and the bravery of taking the viewer behind the scenes into a studio breaking the fourth wall, an entirely new phenomenon. But the contrast of these images opposite the hard-hitting almost photo-journalistic images of the war years displayed on the wall opposite (Vogue can take photos of serious subject matter!) striking a stark contrast between the focus and subject of these photographic collections. Vogue, as any other medium of reportage, TV, radio, newspaper or magazine responded to the contextual events and the social situation of the time thus making them as important a part of our visual, and yes art history, as any other artist or medium. As part of our culture, Vogue’s documenting, through fashion of social changes has an important dialogue in social history.

 

Mishap at Victoria by Tony Armstrong 1959
Mishap at Victoria by Tony Armstring (1959)

Mishap at Victoria by Tony Armstrong (1959) has me asking “what is the purpose of this photograph?” Am I meant to be looking at her immaculate coat, or am I meant to be laughing at the situational composition of this slap-stick humour? I find this image annoying – the female models strangely positioned limbs, the way she appears so graceful while faining surprise but remains full-on so I can see very inch of her immaculate coat (notice how she remains up-right while he falls over)? As this is photograph is in a fashion magazine one can only but assume our focus is meant to be the fashion but I find this kind of over-dramatised “action” cringingly silly and pointless. The narrative here won’t make me buy the coat. It could be hanging on a mannequin body in the shop and I’d be as likely to buy it as I am after seeing this image. The photograph does nothing to enhance my desire to buy this product but it sells a lifestyle. The wonderful woman, glamorous as she is, is calm and elegant even in the face of life’s challenges – how silly of the man to fall over on the banana peel while she remains effortlessly upright. The perfect female and the silly man (smacks of feminist rhetoric?) The magazine sells the image that this is how we women should be – perfect at all times, unphased and balanced (literally), even when mistakes happen.

Clearly the 1950’s is where the artistic magic starts to fall away for me. Wenda and Norman Parkinson’s images of women in expensive clothing strikes me as highly inappropriate in a time when London was still clearing its bomb sites, rebuilding and many families had not recovered financially from the war so to be creating this image of the beautiful, wealthy woman and that is who we should all aspire to be, is so out-of-place with where the majority of people in society were at that time. Irving Penn’s series of portraits of “practitioners of small-trades” comes across as less of a balance in Vogue’s journalism but belittling of the ‘smaller’ people. (Thatcheristic at all?). Perhaps this was further compounded by the decision to place these images on a wall opposite the fashion photography somehow creating a separation between the subject matter literally putting distance between the fashionable and the everyday.

The 1960’s images are as you would expect them to be vibrant and feminist, full of Twiggy-like girls with big eyes and iconic clothes. Strangely the selection of images for this room of the exhibition has less images of recognisable celebrity than any other. An image of a preened skinny model sitting on a park bench in between two old ladies (Patterns in the Park by Barry Lategan 1969) leaves me feeling unsure as to whether the old ladies are being unknowingly-mocked or elevated to the status of high fashion?

An image in the 1970s collection called “Is bad taste a bad thing?” Reminded me of a university lecture in my undergraduate degree that talked about high-art and taste, how certain art was meant to signify good taste creating a division between high-art and other arts (notably arts and crafts which were, and still are to some extent, looked down upon). Is there such a thing a bad taste? Or is there just personal preference? And for a moment I feel alarmed that fashion is prompting in me the same discussion and the same internal dialogue that I have enjoyed in my study of art. Is there such a thing as high-fashion and low fashion? Is there a difference between Chanel and Dorothy Perkins? Am I a lesser person because I bought a pair of jeans from Sainsbury’s Tu?

And then we come to the 1980s/1990s/2000’s and images that are far more familiar to me. I see a portrait of a naked woman strewn on the floor curving her spine backwards showcasing the curvature of her body (I’m sorry I cannot show you this one but I could not find the image). There is something beautiful here about the way the light falls on her – the photograph is a celebration of the body and certainly brings to mind the difference between nakedness and the nude. What it is in art that elevates the naked body to be a nude is captured here in this photograph. Certainly there’s no fashion to speak of – no clothes to promote – the model isn’t wearing any! Then there’s the familiar images of party-girl come drug-user Queen-of-the-scene, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. (My soapbox is calling!) I detest these two incredibly. I don’t see that either woman should have the graces they receive when they behave as they do (or have been accused of) nonetheless the image of Naomi Campbell, I hate to say it, is beautiful and has some

Naomi Campbell by Patrick Delmarchelier 1987
Naomi Campbell by Patrick Demarchelier (1987)

stunning artistic qualities. The use of colour –the blues and golds of the dress contrasting, yet also complimenting, the gold and blues of the background, the texture of the gold jacket against the smoothness of the blue material and the flawless complexion of her skin. But I hate myself for saying it. I hate that I like a picture of Naomi Campbell. Why do we elevate these women (and men), despite their behaviour, just because they look beautiful? Is beauty really that important? And again don’t we discuss notions of beauty in art? What is beauty- what is beautiful? So I am in the gallery thinking all these thoughts, asking myself more questions than coming up with answers. It is then something strikes me; I am so against the celebrity culture of today but it doesn’t bother me that Picasso was an adulterer, or that Caravaggio may have slept with young boys? And by what standards is this any different? And so, I am no further forward. Is fashion simply empty vanity? Or is it art? The same as photography is considered art, or cinema, or architecture…Can fashion hold the same grace? And is what disgusts me about it simply the cult of celebrity – if it was an unknown girl in that photograph rather than Kate Moss, would I like it more? Truth is I think yes, but then doesn’t that make my problem the cult of celebrity, not fashion itself? How tightly entwined are the worlds of fashion and celebrity – can this be dis-entangled? And if it is the cult of celebrity (the morality of it), that I take issue with then how do I square that circle when it comes to the artists I so admire, who were in every sense the celebrities of their day?


Opinions and comment please…. I am very keen to hear what others have to say.

All images from google search – credit to the photographers – these images are not mine!

The National portrait Gallery’s Vogue 100 exhibition is on until the 22nd May

My first ever blog! The painting that inspired me to love art…

A few weeks ago I travelled to Liverpool for the Museum Association’s Moving On Up conference. This was an event for young museum and heritage professionals offering advice, training and networking opportunities. It was a fantastic event and really got me thinking critically about my career and next steps. Following on from that, advice from one of the conference speakers Russell Dornan was to create for yourself an online presence – something I had thought of before but wasn’t sure how to curate that online image or what form that should take. So, off the back of Russell’s advice this is my blog. I spent a few weeks thinking about what my blog should be; perhaps something about my recent master’s thesis- maybe I could try and promote my research? Or a review of a museum or gallery visit? May be even some reflections of my trip to Liverpool and the conference? Well, all these will come in good time, but as my first blog I wanted to share with you my first meaningful experience of museums and galleries as a child and the art work that had left a lasting impression in my mind. (After all, didn’t Stella Duffy tell us that our work is all about sharing stories?) Well this is my childhood memory of art…


I remember being on a school trip to the National Gallery in London. I can’t remember how old I was though I know that I studied the Tudors in year 5 so I’m thinking that I must have been around 9 or 10 years old. I was sitting down cross-legged on the floor with my classmates listening to the old lady tell us about the painting and I was absorbed listening to her. The painting in front of us was Paul Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833). I was completely mesmerised by it, and as an adult it continues to be one of my favourite paintings. I remember the lady explained to us the story of Lady Jane Grey – Queen for nine days – who she was and why she died. I remember being horrified and curious simultaneously, feeling a mix of emotions as I sat in front of the painting. The lady explained to us how the garments Lady Jane Grey is wearing in the picture were actually her undergarments, that this plain dress was a sort of under dress or petticoat to go under the layers of Tudor dress women would have worn. My reaction to this was to feel embarrassed and exposed for a young woman being forced to be vulnerable and weak in front of two men she had never met, being subjected to her death in her underwear! – Even as a child this notion of humiliation struck a chord in me.

How Delaroche has painted Lady Jane Grey’s dress is beautiful in itself- with such skilful painterly techniques he makes the reflective nature of the material with its creases so vibrant that it reminds me of the shine of satin- it even reminds me a little of the material of my wedding dress. A sharp contrast with the situation Lady Jane Grey finds herself in in this painting. Though perhaps a wedding would have been more appropriate for a girl of her age? The white of her under garment combined with the paleness of her skin highlight her as this white figure that echoes suggestions of innocence and purity – there is even something angelic about her even though we cannot see her face clearly. Is Delaroche trying to suggest innocence in this painting, or were these just formal composition-based choices made by the painter? After all, the white-ness of Lady Jane Grey serves an important compositional purpose as well in that in separates her from the other characters in the painting. Composition of the image is strong – some accounts of Lady Jane Grey’s beheading suggest that she struggled to find the block with her hands and this detail has been captured by Delaroche in the detail of her outstretched hands which create a strong visual line down towards the executioner’s block, reminding us again of the horrible and gruesome event that will soon happen. This is echoed by the lines created by the minister’s arms as he guides her to the block. The irony of that kind gesture will ultimately lead to her death. This kindness shown by the Minister is unusual and (in my personal opinion) likely a detail added by Delaroche as accounts I have read of Lady Jane Grey’s death vary greatly and the painting was conceived many years after her death in 1554. The agony felt by her ladies in waiting is obvious – their grief shown by the distressed poses which they display. We might observe that the dark clothes suggest mourning but it was also customary for Protestant clothing to less fanciful, darker in colour and simple in design – something to remind us of one of Lady Jane’s many supposed crimes – being a Protestant. (She was in fact made to convert to the religion of Catholicism only days before her beheading).

Truthfully I could talk about this painting all day – the architecture in the background of the painting and where the likely location of the beheading actually was, then there’s the costume, who were her ladies in waiting and of course more symbolism, history of her family… but I fear that might make my first blog entry slightly too long! But I hope that what comes across is my passion and love of this art work – the way that it captured me as a child and continues to have a hold of me now. I know that she was a niece of King Henry VIII and it is this very loose family link that was her claim to the throne. She was cruelly used by her ambitious and greedy parent’s – the Suffolk’s, who devised a plan to bring Lady Jane to the throne a claim her as the rightful heir over Mary Tudor. I have read many accounts of Lady Jane Grey’s execution – some say that Mary allowed her the privilege of being beheaded in private and not having to the face the humiliation of public execution, others suggest not. I cannot attest to their accuracy (or indeed my own), but I do know that the context of this painting, and its narrative, was the beginnings of my love of art history and that started years ago when I was a child sitting on the gallery floor of the National Gallery.


Alison Weir’s historic novel An Innocent Traitor is based on the life of Lady Jane Grey and comes highly recommended.

All images from Google image search.

You can see Paul Delaroche’s the Execution of Lady Jane Grey at the National Gallery where it hangs in the permanent collection ( I often pop in to see it on my way home from work!)