Women in Print : Everyday food in print- report

Dorothy Hartley, who lived at Froncysyllte, near Llangollen, was the setting out point for this day of talks by food writers and illustrators, scholars, friends and family members foregrounding the cultural importance of the illustrated cookery book. Hartley’s writing is direct and, as Jojo Tulloh pointed out, addresses the reader as a friend and equal, inviting them into the book as though it were a farmhouse kitchen.

Steffan Jones Hughes and myself were lucky enough to visit Roger Mansbridge at home near Chirk earlier this year. As one of the executors of DH’s  will he is in possession of many personal litems, photographs and manuscripts. The story of DH’s papers is sadly familiar in the case of the archives of  independent, unmarried and childless women- much of it was put into a skip. However,  the bulk of what survives is now at MERL in Reading, or in the possession of Adrian Bailey, who is writing a biography  of Hartley. I came accross this anecdote in Bailey’s introduction to an anthology of her Daily Sketch articles ‘Lost Worlds’ ( Prospect, 2012)

“I first encountered Dorothy Hartley in the late 1960’s when she was in her mid seventies. …My diary records my meeting with Dee as friends and family called her. ‘Most hospitable but house is difficult to find. Living on a pittance. Served lamb chops. Very proud and independent. Folk historian of rural life. English eccentric and national treasure.” (p.19)

She is still woefully under acknowledged as such, despite a recent documentary about her life and work she is not as well known or well regarded as a scholar as she should be. Perhaps this is because of the multimodal nature of her books- she refers to her drawings constantly, approaching drawing as a continuum of her writing.

Hartley’s work as both Hattie Ellis and Jojo Tulloh pointed out is ever more relevant, with her insistence on understanding the materiality of history and tradition, as well as knowing the provenance of, and the importance of respecting and understanding your food. Her ‘History of Water in England’ is a scase in point, still stunningly original in its concept and execution.  ‘Food in England’ is her best known work , and has never been out of print since it was first published in 1954. It is a prototype self sufficiency manual which is also a history lesson and an essay in English identity. She not only gives you the recipe but tells you how to build the oven to cook it in. Jojo Tulloh termed her an ‘athropolgist in the kitchen’. I have written elsewhere about her blend of writing and illustrating in an article entitled The jobbing artist as ethnographer: documenting ‘Lore”

Roger’s treasure trove is occasionally dusted using a hairdryer- just one of the fascinating insights we learned of from the day.

The short introduction to Dorothy Hartley was highly enjoyable, supplemented with reminiscences and anecdotes from Roger about her life and adventures

The next speaker was Elisa Oliver from MMU, who edits the academic journal ‘Feast’ which  is a series of online publications that explore our relationship with food as a social event, a marker of identity, a product of history and a commodity for trade. Elisa outlined the ways that artists had intervened in our everyday relationships with food by placing it in the gallery or foregrounding the ritualistic aspects of food production and consumption through participatory art practice.  She highlghted how illustrations, specifically phtographs, in cookery books ‘erase the labour’ involved, and looked at the ways that recipes are presented as aspirational instructions. She also talked about the recipe as a site of memory, citing the example of women in WW2 concentration camps who shared detailed memories of meals they used to make as a way of shoring up their personal and collective identities.

Dr. Eleanor Byrne, also from MMU,  spoke next, examining the cookbook as memoir in the work of Alice B Toklas. She traced the ways that Toklas’s relationship to Gertrude Stein is played out in the reminiscences in the book. The ways through which the writing and illustrations ‘folded in’ members of their wider acquaintance was explored, analysing the use of illustrators drawn from their acquaintance.  The illustrations often referred to artists who had painted Stein and herself,  creating a protected space in which queer identites and friendships were celebrated and nurtured. Their adventures in France and Italy in their two cars ‘Aunt Pauline’ and ‘Lady Godiva’ taking supplies to field hospitals and moving freely around occupied France raised questions about their privilege and friends in high places. The recipes often name drop their famous friends- the dishes made for Picasso for example- and are more often than not recounting food that their succession of chefs had produced as they travelled.

After these two highly interesting talks we broke for a delicious bread and cheese lunch generously provided by Oriel Wrecsam, with bread from the Wild Loaf in Liverpool  and locally sourced cheeses.  I was especially delighted to be offered a glass of homemade grape juice from the Cambridge garden of Miranda Gray, who had also kindly brought windfall apples and quinces for the tabletop for their perfume. It was a privilege to be able to talk to Miranda about her mother’s work, and her friendship with Peggy Angus, at whose house Furlongs Patience had met Norman Mommens, the sculptor with whom she moved to Italy. The life they shared together forms the basis of her celebrated book ‘Honey from a Weed’ (1986) which was 30 years in the writing.

Patience Gray and Dorothy Hartley were the subject of Jojo Tulloh and Miranda Gray’s presentation after lunch. Jojo coined the term ‘vagabond cooks’ to describe them, and outlined their inspirational lives spent wandering and gleaning traditional knowledge from everyone and anyone that they encountered- from Charcoal burners in the New Forest to water carriers in Puglia. What communicated itself so strongly was the inspirational way the two women approached the business of living as country women, and the vast amount of  practical knowledge and detailed observation of the landscape that this entails. Miranda recalled her mother regularly collecting mushrooms such as chantarelles  when she was a child, and leading them on walks where they would forage for sorrell and such edible herbs. The accounts of her life with her mother cast a spell over the audience who were in thrall to the romance of the creative life she had  created for all around her. We could have happily listened for the entire afternoon. Jojo had undertaken a pilgrimage to Patience Gray’s kitchen the year before and has written about it, with beautfully evcative photographs here . She has also shadowed Dorothy Hartley’s method of cooking taken from a ‘bargee’, the type of cooking that informs her interest in self sufficient food production and cooking represented in her book ‘The Modern Peasant’ (Penguin, 2014) Miranda also read out a letter from her mother and recalled the way that she and Primrose Boyd had created an illustrated business card after working at the Festival of Britain as young women,  which outlined the many jobs they felt qualified to take on for five shillings. bargees-dinner-680x390

img_5951img_5949Our next speaker was Elisabeth Luard, who spoke entertainingly about her ‘posh’ upbringing, learning about food from ‘behind the baize door’ as her mother’s interest in food extended only to ordering it in from Harrods.  She spoke of her double life on leaving home, as art student by morning and typist for Private Eye by afternoon. She continues the association by having a regular column in Richard Ingram’s ‘Oldie’ magazine. Elisabeth recounted stories of taking her children with her to live in rural Spain, and how they were a rich source of information about the food culture of the region. She spoke of the importance of sketching rather than photographing (taking a photograph is intrusive, whereas making a drawing is much more likely to draw people to you) and explained how through documenting a woman winnowing cumin seed she learned that this allowed the salt in the air to attach to the spice, making it last longer and taste better. The process of creating her book ‘ A Cook’s Year in a Welsh Farmhouse (Bloomsbury, 2011) was described, with its combination of photographs (taken by friend and ‘gallery artist’ Clare Richardson over the course of a year) and her own paintings informing the writing with her careful observation of the ingredients she uses.

We broke again for afternoon tea at this point, with homemade cakes made in tribute to our authors. Jojo Tulloh had brought some homemade bread and wild plum jam as fitting food for Dorothy Hartley, and Ellie Byrne had made the biscuits that Alice B Tolkas would serve her friends. I made a seed cake (inspired by DH but actually a very good Delia Smith recipe) and had made a stab at making ‘soul cakes’ from an ancient recipe. However these came out a bit solid and medieval looking and potentially posed a risk to the teeth of anyone who tried them. There was also a very lovely windfall apple cake made by Jeanette Orrell and Bara Brith made by Roger Mansbridge and other cakes supplied from Wrexxham county market.

The final speaker was Hattie Ellis, who presented a robust defense of the illustrated cookery book and its future. Speaking of her own book ‘The One Pot Cook’ (Head of Zeus, 2015) and the conversations she has had with editors at Grub Street and  Bloomsbury about the use of illustrations vs photographs in cookery books. ‘Photographs date’ whereas illustration takes you directly to the time of writing. She championed the sort of cookbook that was for cooks rather than chefs, and read a quote from Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed’

“Cooking is not to be regarded as a display of virtuosity, it is far more vital than that.”

As ever the generosity of those speaking was reciprocated in the enthusiasm of those listening, and the discussion at the end of the day had us all determined to illustrate (not photograph- pah!) every meal we  produced from now on! As an exercise in history writing, the spots of time that recipes represent- however ‘everyday’ these memories are, are important to acknowledge as a continuum of traditional ‘lore’ hard won over time and we all responded to the ‘heritage technology’ of print and paper  as a means to pass on what we know to others.

In a similar vein the chapbooks that are produced  for these events are an exercise in ‘history from below’ create a space for a personal and creative  tribute to the women in question. I was delighted to recieve text and artwork from Jojo Tulloh and Miranda Gray for a chapbook about DH and PG, which joined the growing collection from diverse artists and writers. Thanks too to Rhi Moxon for her beautiful chapbook in tribute to Elisabeth Luard. img_5918

I keep returning to Ellen Lupton’s phrase ‘the underground matriarchy’ when thinkng about these Women in Print events. Often the  legacies that are passed on by these women, for those who were lucky enough to have known these women first hand, and for the rest of us who know them through their books,  is a pervasive sense of a life well lived, rather than accolades for their particular ‘virtuosity’ .Their influence as writers, artists, teachers, art directors, mothers, hostesses, is produced ‘both by producing their own work and by creating contexts in which innovation can flourish’. Lupton says-

‘Women seem to spend more time underground, gaining collective recognition and regenerating the field in intangible ways….An important goal of feminism is to make the values traditionally associated with the world of women into values recognised across the social and sexual spectrum: to nurture, to include, to respond, to support, to enable. As the influence of women continues to grow in the coming decades, such skills may no longer be regarded as distinctly feminine or as the exceptional product of women’s achievement. Design competitions must begin to include new categories – such as lectures organised or given, exhibitions curated, new curriculum planning and special research in areas such as cultural iconography. In this way, we will be in a better position to acknowledge all levels of accomplishment – from the surface of the page to the underground of the community.’

Thanks to Oriel Wrecsam for their generous support of this event.It was funded by Arts Council Wales.





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