Monday, 17 November 2014


Get into to the festive season with a fun weekend of FESTIVE WILLOW WEAVES at Morley College, Lambeth, London
I'll be teaching a range of simple basketry techniques to weave your own decorations including wreaths, stars, tree hangings and spiral baubles for home and garden using freshly harvested 'green' willow from Somerset.  The subtle colours and evocative scent are a sensual delight to rival all the high-street bling of shop bought decorations and you can share what you learn with family and friends.
Course code VTX148A
Fees: £85 full fee, £43 concessions, £69 seniors
Take home as many as you can make - all materials provided.
Please enrol by Monday 24th to secure a place
contact for enrolment

Friday, 2 May 2014

UNRAVELLING UPPARK 3: unravelling the weave

Unravelling Uppark opens to the public on May 4th and runs until November 2014 at Uppark House and Garden, West Sussex.

All the months of planning, researching and making are now over and our collaborative piece, 'Dish of the Day: chicken in a basket', was installed in time for the private view on Friday 2nd May.  This will be the first time we'll have seen it since it was delivered for photography in February.  Unpacking it then, there was some apprehension as we wondered how it would look in situ atop an elaborately carved marble topped table in the Stone Hall at Uppark.

table - Stone Hall, Uppark
Until that point we'd only seen it on the old Ikea pine-topped table in our living room surrounded by the paraphernalia of the making process.  Even there it was in a state of continual change - never standing still as it gradually evolved over time. 
Although our initial proposal  had been tight enough to give a sense of what we would eventually deliver - a large, ceramic basketry dish decorated with relief mouldings, ceramic transfers and on-glaze enamels - it was also loose enough to allow for creative developments in the making. 

Robert Cooper - drinking vessels
Robert Cooper - Tea Caddies - photo: Trevor Springett
We share a similar making process in that we both respond to 'intuitively' to materials and to the gestural marks of the hand, making over time.  In other words we enjoy the challenge and unpredictability of responding to how the material behaves in the moment, to the accidental mark and to not knowing exactly how something is going to turn out.  Robert Cooper literally hand builds these elements of happenstance into his process by using found objects and reclaimed glazes on his drinking vessels, boxes and collaged, recycled narrative pieces.  The firing process adds a final element of chance - not knowing how each batch of glaze will react - although after over 30 years experience he's got a pretty good idea!
Stella Harding - 'Dark Bloom' - photo: Arnold Borgerth
I enjoy the signs of life and movement in natural materials although I often seek to de-nature them in some way with paint and mark-making.  I also use assembly as a technique for combining contrasting materials and text - often in unexpected ways.
How then were we going to rise to the challenge of working together on a commission that was, to a degree, predetermined?  How would we adapt to each other's working process and how, if at all, would we make space for the unpredictable?
After months of research on the Georgian sex trade and the lives of Amy/Emma and Sir Harry, ideas for the form and surface decoration had begun to take shape in our minds.  Only problem was - they weren't the same shape. Well, that much we could have predicted!  So the original proposal became the point of reference when it came to negotiating our different visions.
One of a pair of mid 18th century Sceaux faience baskets - the Little Parlour, Uppark
Underside of Sceaux basket showing check-weave technique
We'd mentioned in our proposal that our dish would reference a pair of Sceaux ceramic baskets - possibly collected by Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh - and we'd also made visits to the V&A to gather further inspiration from their collection.
                                   19th century Beleek porcelain basket, V&A
Glazed earthenware basket with stake and strand pairing technique, V&A.
It was clear that these baskets had actually been woven with clay using recognisable basketry techniques rather than being slip cast or press moulded from existing baskets.  Though some of the design elements such as handles, foot rims and borders were not  consistent with actual basketry techniques they were close approximations. The skill involved was impressive - a hard act to follow.  But how many had survived the firing process we wondered? 
These types of decorative ceramic baskets were very popular and several factories made their own versions.  They not only reflect the increasing emphasis on the elegant presentation of food but also the 18th century fascination with all things pastoral.  Depictions of nymphs and shepherds cavorting in Arcadia, often with an overturned basket of ripe fruit close by, representing sensual appetite and the abandonment of conventional morality, were a recurring theme in painting and the decorative arts.  The fact that these neo-classical pastoral conceits were far removed from any real working people and the products of their labour made them all the more exclusive as high status objects of desire. 
woven paper clay base  #1
Many of these ceramic baskets, including the Sceaux pair, were woven using a lattice-work or plaiting technique, so that's where we began.  Though it was to be a skills sharing exercise, in a way this collaboration deskilled us both.  Neither of us had woven clay before and neither had used porcelain paper clay - chosen for its strength and lightness when fired.  Porcelain was also highly prized in the 18th century, being more expensive than gold.
Our first attempt at a check-weave base was quite successful in technical terms.  The weave was surprisingly straightforward and the paper clay performed well - Mr C felt the weave wouldn't have worked so well with his usual earthenware body. Unfortunately, it was just too reminiscent of a pie crust.  But  at least we had a test piece for firing and something we could play around with as we tried out ideas for the side weave.
It became obvious we'd need a mould of some sort to support the side weave. 
First attempts with cardboard, string, paper and foam were abandoned in favour of expanded polypropylene pipe insulation duct-taped to a Victorian meat platter.  The opening in the side of the tubing was a perfect fit for the rim of the platter.
As the basic form began to take shape we had not lost sight of the purpose of the dish, which was to draw parallels between the story of Emma and Sir Harry and modern day slavery - focussing on human tracking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children.  So, we were simultaneously collecting and developing imagery that could be applied as relief mouldings and surface decoration. 
I'm aware that, in writing this blog, I'm reconstructing the whole process as a highly conscious, pre-planned, linear process - but that's far from the reality.  We were making and thinking on our feet much of the time, trying and refining some ideas, backtracking and rejecting others.  And, just like the weave, we had several interconnecting lines of thought developing at the same time.
So, to give a sense of this I'll select some images at random (or as randomly as possible) to give a flavour of the process.
Uppark 'de-acquisitions' - items that were catalogued after the fire but couldn't be reconstructed - in this case fragments of 20th century dinner plates with lattice work and floral relief decoration on the rim, kindly donated to us by Uppark staff.  We particularly like the crazed and darkened surfaces produced as a result of the fire.
More de-acquisitions - detached flower heads forever parted from the pots they'd once embellished. ('Re-arranging the crumpled petals of the rose' was the 18th euphemism for medical restoration of the hymen to prolong 'virginity' indefinitely.) These de-flowerings are now on display at Uppark.
                      Hand painted flower decoration on the tin glazed Sceaux basket. 
Press moulded hands from some of our own 'deacquisitions' - body parts from china dolls found on the Thames foreshore.  (Towards the end of her stay at Uppark, Emma became pregnant by Sir Harry, at which point he cast her off - never acknowledging the daughter she bore him.  The child was cared for by a family in Cheshire and Emma rarely saw her.  Only days after the birth she was sitting for painter George Romney at the behest of her new protector Charles Greville - who later passed her on to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton.) 
Press moulded bodies, heads and chains
Withered lily head.  Lily: a symbol of purity and virginity but which also has funereal connotations. We had photographic transfers made in black and white.
Phallus - ancient symbol of fertility used over the doorways of Roman brothels.  (The Romans brought sex slaves to Britain where they were held in chains in the brothels - an early example of sex trafficking.  The practice of confining sex workers, sometimes in cages, to break their will and prevent escape, continues today.)
Play table
A happy accident - the mould, made of un-fired earthenware, broke but we carried on regardless and actually preferred the scarred and distorted faces.  (UNESCO estimates that 1.5 million children worldwide  are trafficked each year - many for purposes of commercial sexual exploitation, others into domestic servitude.)
After the dish was finished we found this painting of Emma by George Romney (circa 1785) in the National Portrait Gallery.  The focus is on her hands and face - which, with its large child-like eyes, is curiously disembodied.  Note all the V shapes described by her bent arm, thumb and forefinger, and the various folds in her clothing.  18th viewers in would have understood the coding here.  The V sign was a lewd gesture referring to female genitalia and prostitution - V shapes stood for the vulva or mound of Venus and female sex workers were often referred to as 'votaries of Venus'.  This may have been a knowing reference between Emma and Romsey to her past.
Base #3 with open bias plait.  Applying the first strip to the rim. In effect we've inverted the Sceaux design which has a solid base and lattice sides thus subverting any practical function. 
Rolling out, measuring, cutting and smoothing the strips of paper clay was one of those repetitive time consuming processes that you just have to do before the fun bits.
Adding the inner rim which we decided early on would need to be wide enough to carry text from Mary Wollstonecraft's 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' 1792. 
Me fettling chains.  We shared the more laborious tasks but here I was on a roll - whacking them out.
On a recent trip to Amsterdam we found the same design of chain (with embellishments) used outside a sex boutique - nice baskets too.  Even the liberal city of Amsterdam is now bringing in legislation to control the spread of sex trafficking.
Top side finished.  We were concerned we'd gone a bit over the top with the moulding - until more research at Guildhall Library reassured us that 18th century pie decoration was not a minimalist art form.
Edward Kidder - master pie decorator and pioneer (no pun intended) of adult further education?
Suddenly our dish looked decidedly understated
Fun time! After all the careful cutting, weaving and joining on the highly formal top side we were both desperate to loosen up.  The underside gave us the chance to engage in some 'sloppy craft'  as we randomly applied more heads, hands, chains and, yes, penises (small and highly stylised) over a base of sloppy clay - leaving the edges raw and the cracks unfilled.  I write 'we' but this was the only part we did separately.  Mr C went to Milan after starting the process and while he was away I carried on.  Most of this relief moulding is hidden when the dish is displayed - just as the child sex trade, which was highly visible in the Georgian period, went 'underground' in the Victorian period, where it has flourished ever since.
The underside before the first firing and glazing.  Shame most of it won't be seen ... 
First firing - although it was porcelain paper clay Mr C decided only to take the dish up to high earthenware so as to minimise any movement and distortion of the form during firing.  Thus our dish is described in the catalogue as 'faux porcelain'. There's no real equivalent in basketry to the firing process.  Although I've done some ceramics before I was surprised this time at how anxious I was for our dish and whether it would survive in one piece.  Thankfully it did as delivery date was fast approaching. 
Muppets glazing - in Mr C's freezing cold studio.  The dish looking alarmingly small in this new context after its first firing.
Once glazed it was ready for the application of on-glaze photographic transfers.  This passage from Mary Wollstonecraft's 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' 1792 was photographed with kind permission of Guildhall Library.  The foxing and discolouration on the original pages can still be seen on our finished dish.
We were particularly struck by this passage and Wollstonecraft's likening of female sex workers (the 'slaves of casual lust') to standing dishes.  A 'standing dish' referred to a dish served at every meal.  Mary was a friend of the artist Henry Fuseli who lived in Covent Garden, so it's highly likely she was familiar with the work of 'posture molls' - tavern harlots who performed strip tease on large pewter platters (see previous post).  'Standing dish' is also a term used in horse racing, one of Sir Harry's favourite sports, to refer to a horse that often wins in a particular  race or at a particular racecourse.
Trying out arrangements of photographic transfers - dead lilies and photocopies of tabloid headlines. 
Modern slavery, human trafficking and the sexual abuse of children were constantly in the news throughout the making process so we had no shortage of press cuttings to choose from - sadly.  The UK government is currently spending £9 million on research to find ways of protecting vulnerable migrants from human traffickers.
The outer rim with transfers of the Wollstonecraft text.
          A shortened version of the Wollstonecraft text is repeated on the inner rim.
In the final firing something we really hadn't predicted happened which caused us some initial concern.  The transfers of dead lilies burned away in parts leaving incomplete images.  We might have tried to reconstruct them in the manner of restorers faced with the fire damage at Uppark.  Then we realised that the lilies had been reduced to loose gestural marks which exactly echoed the 'stain on humanity' referenced in the text below them.  We couldn't have planned it better. 
Some may not read the marks around the rim as the remains of flowers, withered or otherwise  - hopefully there's enough cultural resonance with ceramic decoration to at least make a connection - but for us they work to subvert any vestige of pastoral allusion left in the dish. 
'Dish of the Day: chicken in a basket' Robert Cooper and Stella Harding
We wanted the dish to operate as 'stealth craft'.  Blending seamlessly into its surroundings until, upon closer inspection, its content is revealed.
So now it stands alone and still.  Small on the large table in the Stone Hall surrounded by paintings depicting the ravages of the hunt.  No title. No artists' statement.  Nothing to unravel its story.*  Waiting for visitors to stop and take notice.  Or, to pass by...
*(Actually there are several very helpful and knowledgeable Uppark volunteers on hand to provide information and the beautifully illustrated Unravelled catalogue gives further insight.)

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

UNRAVELLING UPPARK: 2. Dish of the Day

On beginning our collaborative commission for Unravelling Uppark one of the first tasks was to research the period and to find out more about Emma Hart and Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh.  Who was this young woman, why had Sir Harry brought her to Uppark and what was she doing dancing naked on the dining table?  The research process was helped by the fact that, between September and December 2013, I was fortunate to be offered a residency at Guildhall Library, which, as the Library of the City of London, holds collections on the history of London and its trades as well as the largest collection of food related books in the UK.  The significance of the latter to our project was to be crucial.  But it wasn't long before I became fascinated by Emma's early life and her connection with the Georgian sex trade.

Emma Hart as Circe, painted by George Romney circa 1782 when she was just seventeen, shortly after she'd given birth to a daughter by Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh. (Tate Britain)

Emma Hart, as she came to be known, was baptised Amy Lyon in 1765 in the parish church of Ness, a mining village on the Wirral peninsula in the north-west of England.  The daughter of a colliery blacksmith, she might have been destined to a life of back breaking drudgery hauling coal to the surface in baskets or perhaps working as a low paid domestic servant.  There were few opportunities for uneducated lower-class women in the eighteenth century and, as there was no legal requirement to pay girls under sixteen, they were widely used as menial labourers - beginning their working lives at around twelve years old.  Even if they were paid, many female domestic servants earned only £5 a year at a time when the average yearly wage for a skilled male artisan was £50. 

Amy's father died in mysterious circumstances when she was two months old and she was brought up in the home of her maternal grandmother in North Wales where there were many mouths to feed on a low income.  When she was twelve Amy, like many poor migrants from the countryside, made her way alone to London seeking work. 

She was taken into domestic service by a Doctor Budd and his wife but after a few months was thrown out on the street, penniless and homeless.  This wasn't an unusual occurrence.  Young females were arriving in London every day by the wagon-load and the supply of domestic servants out-stripped demand.  If one girl didn't suit another could be easily be found.  The only recourse for destitute girls was prostitution.  In the Georgian period a fifth of London's female population, including children, worked in the burgeoning sex industry which, with an estimated annual turn over of £20 million (multiple billions in today's money),  was more profitable than brewing, the docks and construction combined.  London was the sex tourism capital of Europe. Covent Garden was the epicentre with over 30,000 sex workers openly plying their trade in the surrounding streets. Prostitution wasn't illegal and neither was sex with young children.  Demand for very young girls, especially virgins, was high as sex with a virgin was thought to cure venereal disease and punters would pay 50 guineas for defloration rights.

Plate 3 of William Hogarth's 'A Rake's Progress' which depicts a posture moll at the Rose Tavern in Covent Garden.  The young harlot in the foreground is removing her outer garments whilst the landlord brings in the highly polished pewter platter on which she will perform.

The sex trade wasn't an easy option despite the fact that girls were at least getting paid for what was otherwise often being taken for nothing.  For most girls it was a short life. The majority were dead after five years of disease, alcoholism or drug addiction, bodged abortion, childbirth, violent assault or even suicide.  It's believed that for Amy street-walking, the lowest form of prostitution, was a temporary solution to a short term problem.  Although she would never talk about this aspect of her early life, much of which is shrouded in myth, it's believed that Amy may have first worked in the taverns of Covent Garden where she would have been familiar with the work of 'posture molls' - tavern harlots who performed striptease and lewd postures on large pewter platters to arouse the punters.  It is known that she variously worked as an artist's model, a maid to the wardrobe mistress at Drury Lane theatre in Covent Garden, as a 'goddess of health' (read exotic dancer) in Dr John Graham's spurious Temple of Health at the Adelphi (also known as the Temple of Hymen) and that then, at the age of fourteen, she was taken in by one of the most infamous madams of the day.

Charlotte Hayes, aka Mrs Kelly, ran a string of high-class brothels in St James frequented by royalty and the aristocracy.  Dressed in silks and jewels, elaborately coiffed, powdered and perfumed, as one of Mrs Kelly's 'chickens' the beautiful Miss Lyon would have taken a new name, Emily, and been groomed as a high class courtesan.  As well as the more obvious talents she would have learned the arts of singing, dancing and polite conversation - all for the pleasure of men like Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh whose name appears in one of Mrs Kelly's account books. 

Painting of Sir Harry by Pompeo Batoni,1776, in the red drawing room at Uppark

Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh was born in 1754 the only child of Sir Matthew and Lady Sarah Fetherstonhaugh.  Aged only twenty he inherited Uppark and a vast fortune on the death of his father who had made his money from the coal trade and his stock in the East India Company.  Spoiled, rich, charming, fun loving - and, by all accounts, a bit dim - Sir Harry was no stranger to sexual scandal. He had been packed off on the Grand Tour after getting a village girl pregnant.  Then, whilst on a debauched spree in Naples with the Duke of Hamilton, he'd seduced a young gentlewoman whose family were paid off to the tune of £300 by the Duke's uncle Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy in Naples - who, ironically, later became Emma's husband. 

From the pages of 'Town and Country' magazine 1775 - the story of a young Marquis who 'date raped' Miss S after spiking her drink with a sleeping potion.  Having 'lost' her virtue and good reputation she is then forced to become his mistress. Stories such as this fuelled the popular perception of men as sexual predators. (courtesy of Guildhall Library)

Back in England Sir Harry spent a good part of his inheritance - £3,000 in just a few months - enjoying the pleasures of fashionable London society: attending court balls, drinking, gambling and frequenting high class brothels. He was a  regular of the gossip columns of such society magazines as 'Town and Country' and 'Bon Ton' which titillated their readers with salacious accounts of the sexual exploits of aristocratic men.  According to some sources Sir Harry earned the nickname Baron Harry Flagellum for his reputed sexual predilections.  (Posture molls often offered flagellation as a side line.)

At Uppark he gave lavish country house parties - the days spent hunting and shooting and the nights spent wildly carousing.  If the hunting ground was the place to win friends in high places and gain political influence (just as the golf course is today) then the dining room, an innovation of the eighteenth century reflecting a greater emphasis on the elegant serving of meals, was the place to ply those friends with fine food, drink and after dinner entertainment. 

Sir Harry employed a French chef, 'service a la Francais' being the height of fashion for the rich in Georgian times.  Nowadays we eat in the Russian style with savoury and sweet dishes succeeding each other in separate courses.  Then the French style dictated that all dishes were presented simultaneously, somewhat like a buffet, with sweet and savoury food laid on the table together.  Though by the mid-eighteenth century a separate dessert course, from the French desservir - to 'unserve', had become increasingly popular in smart circles.

A serving suggestion of small birds from  Charles Carter, City and Country Cook, 1736 - courtesy of Guildhall Library.  Couldn't resist this: shades of Monty Python with the young Rooks!
A dessert course of sweetmeats, hot-house fruits, jellies and syllabubs from Charles Carter (ibid).  Desserts using sugar imported from the West Indies - fruit of the slave trade - were expensive luxuries only the rich could afford.
For a large dinner party up to 50 dishes might be arranged in symmetrical patterns - the food decorated with fresh flowers and herbs.  Roasted meats, game, fish, waterfowl, seafood and small birds would be accompanied by vegetable dishes, pies, exotic fruits and sweetmeats (boiled sweets and candied fruits).  Guests would help themselves to as much as they liked of the dishes closest to them or pass portions to those seated nearby.  The food, often having come from the kitchens along long draughty passages, was served either cold or lukewarm.  It was considered déclassé to eat hot food as only the lower classes ate food straight from the fire. (One of Sir Harry's innovations at Uppark was to build the underground passages linking the kitchens with the servery and dining room that inspired H.G. Well's Time Machine - perhaps he preferred his dishes hot!)

We've perhaps become used to thinking of the Georgian era as a time of gluttony and overindulgence, especially by the upper classes.  But food on this scale was more about status and conspicuous consumption than it was about appetite. It was just showing off!  It was a time of great extremes.  The super rich of their day were a small minority and it's easy to forget that the vast majority were often on the verge of starvation. In just a few years the French Revolution would be reputedly sparked by Queen Marie Antoinette's callous comment, 'Let them eat cake'.

It was some time around 1780 that Sir Harry reputedly met Emily Lyon.  Some accounts say he first saw her dancing around the Celestial Bed (couples could pay 50 guineas to have sex in it as a cure for infertility or impotence) at Dr Graham's Temple of Health, others that he hired her for a year from Mrs Kelly - at considerable expense - and took her to Uppark to serve and entertain his male guests at dinner. 

Whatever the truth we began more than ever to wonder about the nature of their relationship and Emma's role as hostess at Uppark.  Was she herself the elegant and expensive dessert dish served up once the table had been cleared after dinner and did Sir Harry's guests devour her with their eyes only?

Getting into the spirit of making at home with our collection of vintage kitchenware and a bag of paper clay. Love the 1950s colour co-ordination! 

With all this in mind it was now time to clear our own dining table and assemble the ingredients for our dish of the day...