Another highly enjoyable Women in Print day, sponsored by Sheffield Museums Trust saw us meeting in the Arundel room of the Millenium Gallery, where the Ravilious and Co.’ exhibition is currently installed until January 2018.
Our first speaker was Carolyn Trant, whose book ‘Voyaging Out’ will be published by Thames and Hudson in Spring 2019, who spoke about the friendships between Peggy Angus and Pearl Binder, Tirzah Ravilious, Olive Cook among others. She opened with an image of a beautiful cake that was recently made to celebrate the exhibition opening of the Peggy Angus exhibition at Towner in 2016, which had a cardboard model of Peggy Angus stuck into the top. Many of Peggy Angus family, Ravilious family and Bawden family attended a private tea party at a house just near Furlongs to celebrate the exhibition.
Angus’s politics were brought to the fore, with her engagement with the Artists International Association, a prototype artist’s union set up as a response to the Spanish Civil War. This had a wide ranging and diffuse influence on the visual culture of Britain during this period, with schemes such as artists’ posters, which were sold in shops such as Marks and Spencer’s thus sidelining the gallery art market. Angus herself had a wide ranging and gregarious career spanning roles as a teacher, an ‘artisanal’ tile and wallpaper maker and political activist- setting up the ‘Camden Workshops’ to encourage people to make rather than buy things for their own homes. Angus advocated that ‘magic’ art should be made for life and for love, and patterned into daily life.
Trant highlighted the importance of Angus’s travels around Russia and Indonesia, both in pointing out the transcultural interest in vernacular culture, militating against what Trant felt were parochial associations of work made in a ‘folksy’ register. Angus preferred the term ‘magic’ art to describe the meaningful creative expression of ordinary people. In Indonesia Angus had witnessed art being made for ceremonial bonfires led her to declare ‘consumable art like cakes and bonfires have much to recommend them’.The political cartoons of Angus and Binder were considered in the context of their interest in Soviet Russian politics at the time, and interestingly the first meeting of the AIA was held in a lithographic print room. Print enables ideas to be circulated to a wide audience, and also gave these women a means to earn a living. Apparently at the time there was a huge demand for illustrators to work for Russian publications. Binder’s links were closest, with her making work for ‘Krocodil’ magazine. It was fascinating too to see more of the elusive Claudia Freemans’ work both her autolithographic illustrations for the Post office, detailed drawings of beautiful shell encrusted frames for telegrams, and her puppets. Helen Binyon and her sister were puppeteers too- I would love to know more about their performances, and where the puppets are now stored!
Trant quoted Raymond Williams as saying ‘the term modernism stopped history dead’- relegating anything before as regressive and anything after as progressive. Work that was/is produced in a ‘folk’ register which references traditional forms could easily be framed as the antithesis of that made to a ‘modernist’ progressive agenda. However the way that women of this period engaged with traditional crafts and understood the anthropological significance of their engagement with vernacular art forms is far from simple, and was not confined to a ‘little England’ nationalism either. This was an idea that Lotte Crawford returned to later in the day.
Jane Audas spoke about the work of Barron and Larcher, who had a successful inter war business co-creating beautiful hand blocked textiles together. They, like many other women during this time, remained unmarried- either by inclination or because so many men were killed during the war. This opened up opportunities for self determination and creative fulfilment which married women- such as Tirzah Ravilious and Charlotte Bawden- sadly sacrificed. Audas was primarily concerned to look at the way their business worked, the way they made a living from crafts rather than being craft hobbyists, and shared her carefully research of the names in a beautifully bound order book sequestered in the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham. She pointed out that Barron was independently wealthy and well connected, leading to prestigious (and lucrative) commissions such as the Duke of Westminster’s yacht or Girton college curtains. Larcher had spent time in India with her husband before he left her, and they both enjoyed researching wooden blocks in the South of France as well. Muriel Rose’s ‘Little Gallery’ – referred to in several other talks- which sat somewhere between a shop and a gallery- stocked their work. Rose acted as a kind of agent for the women, liasing with clients over colours and prints before sending the commission to the pair who at this point in time were resident in the Cotswalds, printing in the upper storey of a whitewashed cowshed. Other customers included famous theatre actresses and people from the worlds of arts, craft and pottery. ‘Mrs Cardew’ appears (it is suggested that this is Michael’s wife Mariel Cardew). They also sold through the Red rose Guild in Manchester. Alongside furnishing fabrics, they developed ‘craft clothing’ – plain dresses and jackets, loose with no darts, rather plain, which they sold and also wore themselves. Nancy Lancaster, who went on to buy Colefax and Fowler, was also a customer.Pevsner bought fabric for Gordon Russell factory. The most important connection was with Robin Tanner, who at the time of their meeting in 1938 as the chief inspector for schools. In 1964 their archive was left to Tanner, who made a beautifully tactile record of their textiles in a series of bound volumes, which is now in the archive at Farnham. Audas spoke about the incomparable effect of handling the objects in the archive as opposed to viewing the items online- the ghost of the owners palpable, and the sensory intelligence at work in appraising the patinas of wear and the unseen but imaginatively glimpsed biographies of each scrap of information. Later, during the discussion session, the idea of empathic, emotional and ‘romantic’ approaches to the subject was mulled over, with an agreement that a spark of imagination often enables a narrative to be woven in and around the ‘facts’ that one is presented with as a researcher. Feelings – emotions- are considered to be unrigorous, however the creative response is unproblematically subjective. Is there not space in scholarly debate for something between the two- contextualised and also subjective, romantic and rigorous? This places historical research somewhere nearer the ‘life writing’ of ethnographic research. The academics I admire- Dorothy Hartley and Barbara Jones have a noticeably partisan enthusiasm for their subject matter, and combine wit with scholarly authority, which is very engaging to read.
The next speaker was Amanda Girling-Budd, who spoke about a set of hand weavers in Britain during this period. She pointed out that the interwar craft revival was the legacy of the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain, where the hand made item –made by one person- was seen as superior to ‘dehumanised’ factory work. Crafts were revived but by the middle classes. Very few forayed into industry as well as pursuing a hand craft path- Marianne Straub and Enid Marx being two notable exceptions. The inter war hand weaving renaissance was markedly female in its proponents. Girling-Budd was interested to examine the kinds of community and networks that this craft enabled. Many women were unmarried, quoting Harrod in pointing out the ‘special freedom’ achieved by staying outside marriage. In a milieu where both factory weaving and the fine arts were dominated by men, the crafts offered, as Harrod places it, a ‘third space’ between fine art and design where women could achieve recognition for their creativity and skill. The interconnected lives of Ethel Mairet, Elizabeth Peacock, Margery Kendon and Hilary Bourne were recounted. Mairet was born in Devon and on marrying the geologist Ananda Coomaraswamy travelled to Ceylon before settiling Broad Campden, near the Guild and School of Handicraft established by Ashbee previously had nurtured a community of makers and craftspeople. When Coomaraswamy left her she returned to Devon before moving to Ditchling with her second husband Phillip Mairet. Their house ‘Gospels’ was a sociable place and Mairet also ran ‘dye weeks’ where she taught (mainly middle class) young women how to dye cloth and wool. Elizabeth Peacock was one of these women, who left her family at the age of 35 (perhaps heeding the warning from the novel ‘The Unlit Lamp’ of the fate of women who did not ever manage t leave the family home) and was transformed by Mairet’s workshop, finding her life’s vocation, and also her life’s partner in Molly Stobart, whose family set them up with a house and barn to work in nearby. Margery Kendon was also a participator in one of the ‘dye weeks’ and although none of her work survives she is seen as the ‘Cecil Sharp of weaving’, and letters and journals document her travels around the British Isles and to Denmark (to the Askov school) to collect weaving practices. Girling- Budd pointed out the respectful tone of her descriptions of working weavers describing one as more a philosopher than a weaver. The rather less respectful tone of some design historians in passing on her legacy was pointed out- Alan Powers dismissive description of her as a ‘frail old maid-ish kind of person’ shows the importance of protecting and preserving the achievements – both personal and professional- of these independent women, who often had no family to champion and archive their lives’ work.
Barron and Larcher, Enid Marx all knew Ethel Mairet and would attend weekend parties at Gospels. They shared contacts within the network of small shops that they sold their work to, and also shared space in selling exhibitions. Hilary Bourne had travelled to Palestine where she was impressed by the weaving there. She was Muriel Rose’s assistant at the Little Gallery. She met Barbara Allen in Ditchling in 1945, and they moved with their mothers to Reigate where they set up weaving workshops. In 1957 they moved to Yorkshire where they set up a local museum, and in 1972 when Barbara died in a hotel fire Hillary set up Ditchling museum with her sister Joanna. I was especially heartened to see this familial harmony – something I had remarked on at Charleston with the unseen presence of Duncan Grant’s mother- often at work making needlepoint to his design – would sit companionably with him in the studio.
Girling-Budd reflected on the sexual politics of these liasons and partnerships. It is true that for women it was easier to be ‘hidden in plain sight’ as a lesbian during this time, and ambiguity surrounds the life partnerships of several of these women. Whether the women were lovers or simply preferred to share a freer quality of life with a companion may never be more than conjecture. Weaving offered the means to travel, study, be comfortable and surrounded by like minded individuals. Although they may not be feted in the same was artists in other fields, the networks and models for living a fulfilled life that weaving afforded these women was undeniable.
Lotte Crawford was the next speaker, who spoke about ‘Enid Marx and the Pioneers of Modern Craft’, focussing on two shops the Little Gallery and Dunbar Hay. She presented the idea that between 1920 and 1939 these shops were ‘short lived avant garde spaces’ – women led and catering to the middle and upper classes in which a revivial of archaic practices were held in tension with the ‘cusp of modernity’ and Crawford suggested that this be seen as part of a ‘constellation of modernisms’. This idea of branching histories seems offers a much more nuanced way of thinking , less reliant on dominant binary models of modernism based on polarised oppositions- culture/nature, public/private/male female etc. The products in the shops were modern, abstract, often made from soft materials. The legacy of the Arts and Crafts movement can be seen in a shift in craft practice at the time, with domestic workshops turning out ‘art for the home’, as Girling-Budd pointed out operating in a ‘third space’ and offered in shops that were hybrid spaces, slightly less exclusive than a gallery but more carefully curated than a purely commercial shop. Crawford pointed to the Omega workshops as part of this repositioning of craft, and Eric Gill’s pamphlet ‘Art and Manufacture’ which presented a manifesto for craft and the establishment of guilds and apprenticeships to preserve them in the face of the threat from manufacture. Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’ also written around this time, makes the case for craft using the analogy of the traditional potter working in clay and leaving a trace of themselves in the work. As previous speakers had pointed out as well, there is a comfort in craft, in the hand made, which meant that it was also seen in a political (with a small p) way of healing a nation torn apart by the world war.
Interestingly these shops clustered around the Tottenham court road and appealed to a new strata of society- professional, educated, liberal women who enjoyed travel and had an independent income. The Red Rose Guild in Manchester was evoked again, and the role of the women who ran these shops/galleries/agencies as ‘taste makers’ was considered. Again the idea that craft at this time represented a retreat into a parochial ‘traditional’ Englishness was refuted by the evidence of an intense interest in ethnographic material curiosities, especially the influence of anglo Japanese ‘fusing of cultures’ in the work of Leach and Cardew, and the eclectic influences on Barron and Larcher’s designs. Crawford positions this as representing the ‘tail end of Victorian idealism’ and the colonial idea of the explorer. It is important to acknowledge that this enthusiasm for the craft practices of ‘others’ is predicated on unequal power relationships- whether the ‘metropolitan colonialism’ of Muriel Rose working with needleworkers in the Rhondda Valley (whose work was not authored in the same way, that is their names were not recorded next to their work in the same way that the ‘professionalised’ craft workers were). Crawford pointed again to the travels of Barron and Larcher, and Mairet’s interent in weaving practices from Ceylon. African and Islamic influences can be identified in the work on display leaning towards a ‘visual transnationalism’. The shops also organised travelling exhibitions, for instance in 1930 the Little Gallery showed a display of pottery and textiles in the museum of Cleveland. Crawford went onto reflect on what kind of dynamic the shops offered the women makers. Craft enabled them to make a living from home, and the shops validated and professionalised their work, differentiating it from a hobby. The shops displayed work by male and female creators without hierarchy, and became a ‘conduit of craft aesthetic’ that is still exerting influence today. Crawford cited Leonard Koren’s idea that the selection of objects and arrangement of objects is a communicational act, and language like can generate meaning. The combination of hand made processes , the encouragement of ‘modernist’ taste and seeing the home as a site for art, as a kind of gallery in process, is still very influential. The combination of ethnographic, English and avant garde sensibilities can be seen today in shop spaces such as the New Craftsman.
Dunbar Hay was set up by Celial Dunbar Kilburn who said in 1935 ‘the gallery is altogether mor formidable, the ordinary shop is too commercial’ again positioning her shop space as something of a hybrid. She was more interested in artists working in collaboration with industry than craft produced by individuals or groups, and was an active part of the Council for Industrial Design set up at the time. This kind of collaboration is typified by Ravilious’ collaboration with Wedgwood, but also seen in the textile work of Straub and Marx for the London Underground.
The next speaker was Amy Goodwin who spoke about her research into the ‘World’s fair’ newspapers which have been produced weekly for the traveller/fairground community in the since the 19thc and still continue today, and which provide a nexus for announcements, buying & selling equipment & grounds to let & contain nuggets and clues of fairground women who although powerful in their own time have slipped off the radar of historical narratives. She focussed upon the intertwined lives of Sophie Hancock and Martha Haslam who were rivals (the flip side of friendship perhaps). In her research Goodwin is concerned with restituting a sense of the ‘everyday’ to fairground life, so often presented as outside this – as a carnivalesque other to everyday life. By weaving a story of Sophie and Martha’s rivalry into the historical contexts of the suffragette movement and two world wars, and embedded in the minutae of the Worlds Fair magazine, she presented a fascinating story of secret marriages, illegal political meetings and finally betrayal and arson. She says ‘the fairground is full of secrets’ ,and she used her self coined methodology of the ‘illustrative turn’ – a series of hooks and triggers- to direct, misdirect and reveal much as a magic trick is presented to an audience. This is in essence good storytelling, and Goodwin presented stories of the vivid lives of both Sophie – who ran the W. C. & S. Hancock fairground while wearing high hats with ostrich feathers and flamboyant dresses, and Martha who ran Anderton & Rowland’s, in charge of accounts, logistics and publicity. Their long running rivalry teased out of the printed archive, although Goodwin admits that finding the stories in the print was like finding needles in a haystack. The occasion of both fairs wintering in Plymouth in 1913 created the pivotal set of events- from suffragette meetings being held in one of the carousel rides to the subsequent fire that destroyed the bulk of Sophie Hancocks business (and which was blamed in the press on Suffragettes) turns out to be another secret- revealed at the end but threaded through the presentation in illustrated letter form- that ‘Martha lit the fire’. The friendship between Sophie Hancock and Phyllis Kneebone was also a poignant glimpse of their ‘everyday’ lives found in the archive, with only scant documentation of their long attachment – a photograph of Phyllis cooking breakfast in the firebox of a steam engine, and a heartfelt few lines in an obituary – to build a sense of the lives these women led side by side.
The creative licence of the academic researcher was discussed at the end of the day, and our tendency to ‘romanticise’ and create comfortable stories from these fragments was questioned and reflected upon.
The last speaker was Liz Mitchell who presented her work in finding the ‘Mary Greg’ collections within the vast and diffuse holdings in Manchester Museum. Greg was a few generatons older than the other women considered and being from a wealthy background married Thomas Greg out of choice rather than necessity at the age of 45. Mitchell is interested in the way her collection became a manifestation of friendships and belonging, a way of creating a network. Greg was enormously generous with her collections, giving thousands of pieces away to over 30 museums, including the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood (of which only faint traces of her correspondence with Arthur Sabin of the V+A survive due to over vigorous ‘weeding’ of this archive in the 1960s’). Her interest in collecting‘bygones’ – objects of daily use, and often ‘made with love’ – such as pincushions, embellished cutlery, engraved button hooks, embroideries and toy- sits uneasily within museological narratives of canonical individuals and heroic achievements. Her interest in these ‘everyday’ objects places her as an interesting precursor to the scholarly work and collecitons of Marjorie Quennell, Dorothy Hartley and Enid Marx, who all sought to write histories that acknowledged the role of in ‘everyday things in England’ in shaping wider trajectories of social practices, tastes and aspiration. Mitchell drew attention to Greg’s interest in ‘things of the least’ by drawing a parallel with her nature diaries, which celebrated the minutae of seasonal change with a ‘lyrical attention to the immensity of small things’, which Mitchel terms a kind of ‘sensory anthropology’. She spoke of the ‘glimpses’ of narratives that attending to these things offer, ‘tiny narratives of a shared past’.
In 1922 Letharby wrote about the need to cherish ‘the common art’. 1922 was also the year Wyndham Lewis declared to by ‘Year 1’ of the modernist era, a time for history to start again and reject the failures of the past that had led to the carnage and trauma of the first world war. It was also the year that the BBC and the W.I. were founded and Tutenkhamoun’s tomb was exhumed. A tumultuous time, the propulsion was to look forwards, on the cusp of a new world.
Craft, Mitchell observes, was seen as a means through which a nation devastated by war could achieve a pscychological as well as economic recovery, and many councils and policy papers were built around an idea of synthesising ‘craft and industry’. This psychological alignment with craft, working with the hands and making things that would be ‘treasured’ brought Mitchell to her second key point, which was the importance of recognising emotion – of reading out the emotion from objects and responding to them with emotion as well as academic ‘rigour’. Things that are made with love, or at least with care, and the humility of everyday things, require a sensibility that cuts through aesthetics and skill as measures of value. This incorporation of an emotional, subjective, sensibility within the academic endeavour was a theme that was discussed at the end of the sessions, with all speakers agreeing that the ‘leap of imagination’ (in Neil McGregor’s words, at the start of his ‘History of the World in 100 objects’) required to understand the material culture of the past, combined with careful attention to sources and ‘facts’, can provide an insight into more organic, unbounded ecologies of practice- collecting and giving away, making and consuming, private and public space- that grow within the insterstices of conventional hierarchies of design histories, and their focus on canonical texts, authorship and orthodoxies of taste. This can be framed as a feminist endeavour- to include, to nurture, to share, to care– and to find ways of writing this into academic discourses to give these approaches visibility and authoritative weight, is an ongoing project. One of the reasons I love Hartley’s writing so much (and Barbara Jones too) is the unapologetically partisan enthusiasm they display in their writing for their subject matter. Hartley invites you into her book ‘Food in England’ as though it is a welcoming ‘farmhouse kitchen’, where you invited to sit and have a leisurely conversation with the cook. The relationship with the reader is much more relaxed than that of teacher to pupil, although Hartley and Jones are authorities on their various subjects.
The idea of art that is made to be ‘consumed’ – whether in cake form – as Trant’s talk began- or as objects of use points to another ecology of creative practice, the porous and transactional nature of objects made with love, as gifts or for use. This is different to the idea of art as a precious commodity, as an investment that cannot be touched for fear of intefering with its resale value. Angus’s term ‘magic art’ starts to resonate here– and in magical practice an object made ‘with intent’ becomes charged and potent. To think of art as being something for consuming, using, exchanging, wearing out, eating or even burning- is to acknowledge the ritualistic and talismanic role of handmade or customised objects in people’s lives. This kind of art is braided into the everyday, being absorbed into a sensory patina of memory of places, people, things- the mulch if you like, from which history grows. Mitchell showed how Greg’s collection was full of items which showed signs of wear, ‘well loved’ and worn, again militating against the predominant impulse of museums to preserve things in an ideal, pristine form.
Mitchell showed examples of ‘amateur’ art made from paper, butterflies wings, straw marquetry by disabled soldiers and prisoners of war, one of which had been marked as ‘appalling’ on their record cards by previous curators at the museum. The biographies of the objects – as a form of redemptive craft practice – places them in this emotive category of ‘folk’ perhaps, which seems to be a term that resists so much of the modern, rational, scientific world and offers a way to find new/old ways of valuing art that are braided with love and friendship.
The final friendship found in the archives was a series of letters between Greg and a museum official named Mr. Batho in Manchester, who was not her social equal. Nevertheless the letters unfurl over time into friendship and care for each other as well as the ‘things’ that were being transacted between Greg and the museum. It was extremely affecting to see her letter written on learning of Mr. Batho’s death. Between the age of 70 and 100, making use of the perhaps least acknowledged freedom for women- of being old- as well as rich- Greg entered a hugely energetic phase of her life. She donated over 2,000 items over 32 museums and wrote over 700 letters facilitating connections between people and things. Her achievement is dispersed, diffuse- but she is very much one of Lupton’s ‘underground matriarchs’. It was heartening to see from all our speakers, so much attention to the fragments from which we can glimpse the wide ranging mycorrhzial traces these women have left in the archives.
Many thanks to all our speakers for sharing their research so generously, and to Rosie Eagleton at Sheffield Museums who enabled this event to happen and Lauren who ensured that it ran so smoothly on the day!