Saturday 16 January 2016


In the autumn of 2013 I did a three month artist residency at Guildhall Library in the City of London. The residency followed on from a 2012 commission for Maggs Antiquarian Booksellers 'Maggs Beneath the Covers' and offered another opportunity to make work inspired by a collection of books.  My proposal was to weave together the different strands of the Guildhall collections into one final installation of works.

For various reasons I didn't write a blog at the time - so here, somewhat belatedly, are my recollections and images of a fascinating and stimulating time.

The historic medieval Guildhall in the heart of the City of London
Guildhall Library is the library of London history.  Once part of the medieval Guildhall itself it is now housed in a modern building close by in Aldermanbury, just off Guildhall Yard and contains the largest collection of books and manuscripts in the world (over 200,000 items) devoted to the history of a single city - many of which are rare volumes hundreds of years old. 
Just to give a sense of perspective, that's my orange satchel next to the largest book in the world
It is also home to one of the single largest books in the world - so large that it has to sit alone on reinforced metal shelves and it takes eight people to lift it and two people to turn its pages. Not that there's much point in turning its pages as they are all blank! It was made as an exercise in bookbinding.
I felt, as I saw it on the first day of my residency down in the stacks, that it represented the size of the task ahead of me and the same feelings of 'where do I begin?' that I'd encountered at Maggs - coupled with the nervous excitement of a new page of basketry waiting to be written.  I needn't have worried, the librarians are all experts in different fields and more than happy to share their knowledge and passion for their favourite books.
Exposed core coiled basket made from cordage from free newspapers - stitched with paper string
Guildhall is a reference library and people come from all over the world to research there.  Anyone can join for free and make use of its extensive archives. Its collections include, for example,  all the archives of the London Livery Companies including that of the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers, a newspaper collection dating back to 1785, Lloyds List of Shipping from 1741 onwards, a huge gastronomic collection, rare maps, illuminated manuscripts and much more.
I was looking forward to browsing the collections and having some quiet time reading and making notes.  I was aware though that, having been given a space in the public reading room to work and to engage with visitors, it wasn't going to be very interesting for them to see me with my nose stuck in a book.  They'd probably prefer to see me making something.  So I devised a plan whereby I'd try to make at least one basket each week over the course of a single day and on other days I'd do the research and the reading.  The first few weeks of my residency co-incided with an exhibition of the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers (there are regular exhibitions of the London Livery Companies or guilds) so it seemed appropriate that I did make actual baskets rather than my  usual abstract woven structures.
I decided to make all the baskets from paper of one sort or another using as many different basketry techniques as I could - stake and strand, coiling, twining and plaiting.  I also planned to source all the paper from in and around the library using as much free material as possible - in much the same way as basket makers all over the world have gathered freely available materials from their immediate locale.  The librarians gasped in horror though when I asked if they had any old books or newspapers I could cut up!  It was a rare and special privilege that I was allowed to bring scissors and other sharp basketry tools into the library - normally they are on the list of banned items.
Luckily the City Business Library is in same building and each morning they had lots of fresh copies of the free newspaper, City AM.
          Stake and strand basket woven from paper spills from free newspapers
I started off making these paper baskets in a more or less speculative way not really knowing if or how they would become part of a particular theme.  As they were finished they went on temporary display on top of the bookcases in the reading room. 
However, it wasn't long before I realised I could use the residency to do some related in-depth research for another project - a collaborative commission for Unravelled Arts at Uppark National Trust (see previous posts 2014).  Before too long I had a theme to focus my making and the final installation of works and a title to promote my accompanying public talk about the residency:  SEX in the CITY: FOOD, FLOWERS and FORNICATION. Sara Pink, the head of Guildhall Library, felt confident it would be a crowd puller.
Emma Hamilton by George Romney.
Emma was always coy about her past but the several V shaped compositions formed by her crooked elbow, fingers and the folds of her scarf would have been instantly understood as references to the vulva and her early life as a courtesan.
For Uppark, ceramicist Robert Cooper and I proposed making a large porcelain serving dish inspired by the relationship between Uppark's owner in Georgian times, Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh, and a 15 year old courtesan, Emma Hart, whom he'd hired for the season as an after dinner entertainment for his male friends.  Reputedly she danced naked on Uppark's dining table.  She would later become  Lady Hamilton, the muse of painter George Romney and the lover of Lord Nelson.
I wanted to find out more about upper class food and dining in the Georgian period and it happens that Guildhall Library has the largest public collection of food, drink and cookery books in the UK including many rare volumes from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. 
A bill of fare from 'The London and Country Cook', Charles Carter, 1739
The head librarian guided me to some of his favourite Georgian cookery books. I loved the illustrations of table settings with their flowing copper plate inscriptions which gave me ideas for the form of the final installation and for decorating individual baskets.  Dining for the rich meant there was often a minimum of 20 dishes of different meats, fish, poultry, vegetables and sweet and savoury pies laid out in one serving in symmetrical patterns.
                                                      Mrs Raffald 1733-81
But the Georgian period was also the time when dessert was being more widely served as a separate course in fashionable upper class circles.  I was especially fascinated by the life and work of one Mrs Raffald, a working class lass from south Yorkshire who managed to contend with nine children and a drunken, spendthrift husband to become one of the pre-eminent cooks and entrepreneurs of her day.  She opened her own confectionary shop, cookery school and midwifery school, wrote best selling books and cooked for the aristocracy. She was the Georgian equivalent of all our celebrity chefs rolled into one indomitable force of nature. 
Her particular forte was desserts, expensive sugary confections beloved of the fashionable set - her wildly popular signature dish being a rendition of the Temple of Solomon in jelly decorated with fresh flowers! 
Mrs Raffald's 1769 Temple of Solomon as recreated by food historian Ivan Day            
This reference to floral decoration then set me scouring the vast collection of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners for images of eighteenth century floral arrangements but I got side-tracked by a gloriously illustrated 1905 book by the eminent rosarian William Paul - out of my period by a century but I permitted myself a bit of artistic licence.  I love roses. Colour photocopied pages were plaited into baskets.
At Guildhall Library, home to many archives of the multifarious ancient trades of the City, I found no shortage of references to the oldest trade of all - the sex trade.  Narrowing my searches to the Georgian period made sifting through the plethora of material only slightly less daunting.
Plaited paper basket from photocopied images of roses inscribed with the name of one of  Harris's Covent Garden Ladies
In one set of volumes, Harris's Lists of  Covent Garden Ladies (1757-95) - ostensibly a series of pocket guides for sex tourists but arguably a titillating set of soft porn pamphlets for armchair enthusiasts - I found not only many references to women described as food and flowers (especially roses which were a symbol of highly prized virginity) but also discovered that the 'Jelley' shops popular in the Georgian period as purveyors of expensive sugary sweetmeats were also renowned cruising grounds for high class sex workers and their wealthy clients.
Likewise the Georgian toy shops, such as the one in German Street in Covent Garden where Miss Harriet Lloyd supposedly plied her trade, were not the sort we now know as selling playthings for children.  These exclusive establishments sold expensive consumer goods such as porcelain, jewellery, carriage clocks, pocket watches and much more besides - trinkets and playthings for rich city bankers, merchants and lawyers. 

It was one of those uncanny examples of circularity that one edition of the City AM newspaper that I'd used early on to weave a basket had carried a special feature on  men's designer watches.  Georgian courtesans often wore fob-watches as much as a symbol of their trade as for timing their liaisons.
The collections were indeed beginning to weave together.
Georgian London was the sex capital of Europe and Covent Garden, known then as the great square of Venus, was its locus with 30,000 of the capital's 50,000 sex workers to be found openly plying their trade beneath its neo-classical colonnades and in the surrounding streets, shops and taverns.  The word fornication is derived from the Latin word for arches which was also where illicit sex typically took place in Roman times.
I made several more plaited baskets from photocopies of Roques maps (1746) of the Covent Garden area, some  interwoven with modern day tourist maps of the City given out free by Guildhall Library.

The coal cellar in Wardour street still exists - it's now a tapas bar!
photo: Arnold Borgerth
A noted feature of Georgian London was its coffee houses.  In the seventeenth century these had been places where men of letters met to read and circulate pamphlets, discuss politics, philosophy and the arts.  By the eighteenth century though they'd degenerated into pick up places for lower class prostitutes. 
As I walked to Guildhall Library along the narrow City streets I realised the coffee shops are still there except now they've re-incarnated into international chains selling caffeine shots by the cardboard cupful to bleary-eyed office workers.  Sometimes I'd find abandoned cups littering pavements and street corners. I took them to the Library, washed them out, and twined them with paper string. 
Inside I wrote some the most common euphemisms for Georgian sex workers, Nymphs, Nuns, Posture Molls, Harlots, Thiais and Votaries of Venus as I realised that my baskets were becoming repositories of memory for these anonymous young women - many of whom were servants who'd been literally thrown out on the street - disgraced and made destitute by abusive employers.

Text is a feature of much of my work and here I spent days teaching myself copper plate script copied from the 18th century style still used into the 20th century in the libraries collection of huge leather bound ledgers of Lloyds Lists of Shipping.  I would have preferred to have written with pen and ink but spillable liquids were an absolute no-no so I had to make do with felt tips.
My favourite lunch time spot on fine days was one of the benches by the pond on the corner of Gresham Street and Aldermanbury, a tiny wildlife oasis of overgrown flag irises, congested bulrushes, dragonflies and water snails.  It being autumn the bulrush leaves were beginning to turn golden and I was patiently waiting for them to be ready to harvest.
Then one day I arrived to find the City gardeners had drained the pond, relocated Gary the resident ghost carp and were in the process of digging out all the flags and bulrushes! The horror!
Bulrush bias check weave plaited basket 
Nevertheless I managed to glean a few leaves for a basket I'd been planning (the one exception to my paper rule) in tribute to the philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram who'd established the Foundling Hospital in 1739 to care for some of the thousands of babies abandoned on the City streets by desperate, destitute mothers.  
I'd found an image of the Paris foundling hospital by Henry Nelson O'Neil (now in the Foundling Museum, Bloomsbury) where women could leave their babies in wicker baskets in niches outside the walls.
Photo: Arnold Borgerth
For the final installation I planned to place jelly babies inside the bulrush basket.
Other baskets were to be filled with pink roses - high class courtesans often wore pink silk as a sign of their profession.
Photo: Arnold Borgerth
The centrepiece of the installation was to be a large open basket.  Coils of thick cordage were made from two copies of the Financial Times - the only paper I had to buy and at £2.50 a pop for a few of its low-grade, flimsy pages it pained me to spend the money.  But the characteristic FT fleshy pink colour was perfect for my purposes. The coils were attached via holes punched in a laminated photocopy of a pale rose.  The text is taken from a rare 1792 edition of Mary Woolstonecraft's 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' - a passage which seemed to sum up the commodification of women as objects of an all consuming male lust. "Women ... would not contentedly be the slaves of casual lust; which is the now the situation of a very considerable number who are, literally speaking, standing dishes to which every glutton may have access."
Bill of Fare for December 2013

For the opening 'late view' the rare books table, covered in a damask cloth, was set in the reading room with an accompanying 'Bill of Fare' (a list of all the baskets).  Here the table setting had a somewhat intimate, 'homely' feel and visitors obviously felt they could pick up the carefully arranged 'art work' - perhaps they simply didn't see it as such even after listening to the Powerpoint talk I'd just given.  They even ate the jelly babies! There's something about the familiar haptic nature of basketry that invites an intimacy of knowing through handling and defies the distancing of a purely optic experience.  This can be used to advantage though in subverting expectations.
Later though I  recreated the table setting for a studio session with photographer Arnold Borgerth.  He imbued the tableau with a cool, god's eye sense of distance by lighting and shooting from a high angle against the grey background.  It seems to emphasise and make strange the slightly off-symmetrical composition. 
For me, it has an ethereal, dream-like, floating quality and the exaggerated lighting and sharp focus of a trompe l'oeil still life which I find appealing.  The baskets have become one with the shadows and the cloth - a complete, static, immoveable entity that I defy anyone to dream of touching. 
As a maker I'm torn between wanting people to see and touch and engage with all aspects of the work and wanting sometimes to maintain a  distance and respect for the subject matter.  Sometimes, as in this case, it is possible to have both - but there are losses and gains.  In these images the text is lost.  We also don't always get the opportunity to speak directly about the work and the research/making process and fill in the lacunae, it has to stand alone without interpretation. Social media has made that possible too - for better or worse?

Friday 23 October 2015

SECOND NATURE - gallery at the Knitting and Stitching show Alexandra Palace 2015

For those who saw the details of my new work for SECOND NATURE in my previous post here's an up-date showing a  selection of the work in its gallery setting at the Knitting and Stitching Show at Alexandra Palace 7-11 October 2015. Grateful thanks to curator Liz Cooper and her team for their help with the hang, to Jan Westbrook and his team for the plinths and to all at Twisted Thread/Upper Street Events for their organisation of the show.


Me with NOVA 2, 3.10 x 2.5 metres,  painted willow, jute and rattan,
photo: Addy Osbourne
From left: DARK MATTER (wall), GEO-METRIC (plinth), BIG BANGLE (plinth), ANOTHER STAR (wall), BLING (wall), MYTH (wall), TRUE NATURE (wall),
A selection of geometric plaited works incorporating vintage linen and steel tape measures.
GEO-METRIC, vintage linen tape measures, spun paper tape, rivets, 50 x 40 cms
KEPLER'S SNOWFLAKE: Vintage etched steel tape measure, spun paper tape and rattan, 75 x 75 cms
MYTH: painted Hazel and Willow, 120 x 45 x 12 cms
My new CRUCIBLE series: carbon steel, various sizes - largest 70 x 65 x 50 cms
SUN BLOOM: dogwood, apple, flax and rattan, 100 x 60 x 15 cms

FLOW: painted Hazel and rattan, 140 x 40 x 12 cms
This is the first time contemporary basketry has been shown at the Knitting and Stitching Show and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Thank you to everyone who visited the gallery and for your generous feedback.  There'll be another chance to visit when the Knitting and Stitching Show is in Dublin (RDS) 12-15 November and Harrogate (HIC) 26-29 November.  See you there!