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.)