"This is just what I saw"

Our Marion Richardson collection has inspired a research project exploring the material cultures and cultural politics of educational spaces. Marion trained at Birmingham School of Art (1908-1912) before embarking on a successful career as a highly influential art teacher who travelled internationally to promote her ideas. She developed experimental methods of teaching both art and handwriting that had a profound impact on schoolchildren in the UK for many decades. Marion’s revolutionary approach was to reject the prevailing idea that children should be taught to draw or paint an accurate copy of items in front of them. Instead, she sought to arouse children’s visual awareness, to encourage self-expression and to enable pupils to evaluate their own work. Her pupils would sit with closed eyes, perhaps listening to a description, and wait for images to appear in ‘the mind’s eye’.

Photo credit: Katarina Hruskova/ Sarah Mills, Mind pictures from the Marion Richard collection, ADM Archives

Photo credit: Katarina Hruskova/ Sarah Mills, Mind pictures from the Marion Richard collection, ADM Archives

Examples of pupils’ artwork from the collection inspired artist-in-residence Katarina Hruskova to create four recorded sound pieces that were then used in a series of workshops with children and young people in the East Midlands in April 2019. Led by Katarina and Dr Sarah Mills, there were two core components of these. First, children and young people were invited to create a 'mind picture' by shutting their eyes and then painting whatever ‘came spontaneously to the mind’s eye’. Second, they listened to one of Laura’s sound pieces and then created their own artwork inspired by the narrative, using a choice of different art materials. This is an approach favoured by Marion herself, whose descriptions of the ballet she enjoyed so much were particularly vivid.

The workshops sparked a number of creative and critical questions, including deeper philosophical ones about the ‘purpose’ or ‘value’ of educational activities and practices. Those held in less formal settings rather than in schools created a much-needed space of freedom, fun, and a playful creative break from wider structures of governance. This raised timely questions about the purpose, policies, politics and pressures of different educational spaces.

Photo credit: Katarina Hruskova, 2019

Photo credit: Katarina Hruskova, 2019

The final part of the project, an exhibition in Loughborough University’s Martin Hall Exhibition Space, is taking place this month. Its title is taken from a recurring line children taught by Marion Richardson used to describe their drawings and takes the form of an installation by Katarina inspired by the children’s and young people’s artworks. Katarina has selected and assembled elements and gestures from their paintings to create collages and patterns. These have been reproduced onto the surfaces of carpets, thereby inviting the viewer to sit down, listen to the stories behind the patterns and explore what is in their own 'mind's eye'. If you want to see the exhibition for yourself, it’s open from 3-25 October 2019.

I’d like to thank Dr Sarah Mills for her permission to use material from her own blog posts about this RADAR project.

Embroidered hanging inspires new Morris & Co collection

Staff from Morris & Co. first saw our beautiful embroidered Owl wall hanging when they visited Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (where it’s currently stored) back in 2009. When they decided to produce a larger embroidery-inspired collection in 2017, the photographs they took on that occasion became a key inspiration for the Newill fabric shown here (named after Mary Newill, who was teacher of needlework at Birmingham School of Art from 1892 to 1919).

Publicity photo of the Melsetter Collection showing ‘Newill’ © Morris & Co. 2009

Publicity photo of the Melsetter Collection showing ‘Newill’ © Morris & Co. 2009

Research photograph of the  Owl  embroidery © Morris & Co. 2009

Research photograph of the Owl embroidery © Morris & Co. 2009

Creating a new Morris & Co collection is no small feat. Each collection takes eighteen months to develop from initial idea to finished product, a process that involves research, drawing, colouring, separating, sourcing, testing and manufacturing.   While computer aided design is widely used to streamline and speed up the design process in most professional design studios, it’s not something the company consider appropriate for the origination of Morris & Co. collections. Taking their lead from William Morris’s own allegiance to hand-making, every design is hand-drawn by an artist who uses an original hand-crafted source as inspiration.  They regard beauty, balance and something that conjures the spirit of its time and maker as important considerations when choosing design sources. You can gain a sense of the variety of stitches and characterful design that made our Owl hanging such an appealing starting point for a modern furnishing textile from this image of a detail.

The final image shows the artwork painted by designer Alison Gee, using motifs from the original embroidery and rearranging them to create a balanced, repeating design.  The process of adapting embroideries stitched to be used as self-contained panels into flowing repeats was a challenge in developing all the designs in the collection.  

Alison Gee, artwork for  Newill  printed textile design © Morris & Co. 2019

Alison Gee, artwork for Newill printed textile design © Morris & Co. 2019

Is it one you’d like to take on? If so, we’ve a few examples of smaller embroidered textiles in the Archives here at Parkside. We’re also going to be gaining a larger collection of historical dress that includes lace and embroidered garments dating from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the next few months.

Bestseller draws on research into the history of the School of Jewellery


Best-selling author Annie Murray is to publish her latest novel The Silversmith’s Daughter this Thursday, 21 March. Set in 1915, it features Daisy Tallis, who has recently qualified as a silversmith at Birmingham’s School of Jewellery and is now skilled enough to become a teacher at the School. Much of the book centres around her relationship with her father’s business rival, an older married man whom she met while studying at the School. Annie spent two days in our archives researching the background for her novel, so I’m interested to uncover any evidence of this in the book.

If you’re a creative writing student, how might you use archives in creating a believable setting for your stories? Why not come along to see what we’ve got and if anything inspires your own writing?

Textile designer creates sofas inspired by Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's archives

16th-century embroidered bodice, SBT 1993-35, photograph by Lee Lapthorne.

16th-century embroidered bodice, SBT 1993-35, photograph by Lee Lapthorne.

This Saturday, textile designer Lee Lapthorne will be at Hall’s Croft to unveil two specially commissioned bespoke pieces of furniture that he’s created in response to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s archives. He’s currently artist-in residence at the Trust, where he’s responded with great enthusiasm to the wealth of over one million Shakespeare-related items in their collections. In his own words:

The Trust’s archived items are aesthetically rich. They have both excited me as beautiful pieces in their own right and as totems of all that our creative forebears can teach us about the past, and the present. During my residency I have been privileged to have had the opportunity to visit and view the archives with experts explaining the fascinating collection to me personally. I’ve had access to amazing items, some more than 500 years old, that have inspired me to create new textile pieces.

We’ll be taking a collection of historic costume into the Archives over the next few months. Perhaps it’ll help inspire your own creative work. We’ll let you know when you’ll be able to access it, but already have a wealth of visual material that could help you to find primary sources for researching your projects. In the meantime, why not visit Hall’s Croft and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage to see the two pieces of furniture Lee’s created? They’ll be on display from 11 March - 15 September 2019.

V&A fashion resident explores issues around clothing and sustainability

This caught my eye in view of recent reports on the environmental impact of ‘fast fashion’ - apparently the production of poor-quality garments that rapidly wear out and are thrown away causes as much damage as air travel. That may not be news to those in the industry working on the creation of more environmentally-friendly garments, but I found it particularly striking. What changes might we make to reduce waste? Perhaps we might focus more on repairing garments…

Bridget Harvey, the current Fashioned from Nature resident at the V & A, finds repair-making “to be full of exciting actions, communities and politics, changing objects, mindsets and habits”. It’s something that she’s been exploring through her own practice over the last few years. During her residency, she’ll be looking at the garments, shoes and bags in the V&A collections to understand how they were made, altered and repaired in the past. She’ll be exploring these ideas in contemporary textiles, taking them apart in order to understand them fully.

Bridget Harvey,  Blue Jumper  (2012, ongoing)

Bridget Harvey, Blue Jumper (2012, ongoing)

As an activist, her practice has a strong political and environmental leaning to it. She argues that clothing repair is '“a route to personal empowerment – offering choice against pressure to buy new and a political stance against over-consumption and supply chain slavery”. During her residency, she’ll be leading drop-in workshops to explore both the social and the material elements of her practice. Taking a broad and playful approach, she considers wearing her works, protesting, facilitating workshops, researching, writing, and giving talks as vital as the making itself.

There’ll soon be an opportunity for students other than those studying fashion or costume to study historic eighteenth and nineteenth century garments for themselves as we’re planning to take part of a collection into the Archives. Some of them were gifted to the School of Art by Pre-Raphaelite artist Kate Bunce. How might you respond to such items?

VR enhances visitors' experience of GSA's plaster cast collection

A typical image seen in the VR set, photograph courtesy of GSA School of Simulation & Visualisation & ISO Design, 2019

A typical image seen in the VR set, photograph courtesy of GSA School of Simulation & Visualisation & ISO Design, 2019

How can we use creativity to encourage more people to visit museums and archives? Glasgow School of Art has been working on one possible solution, and last month launched Digital Laocoon, which uses VR and Augmented Reality technology to tell the story of Laocoön, one of the GSA’s collection of plaster casts that was damaged in the fire of 2014.

The VR/ AR experience brings the viewer right into the heart of one of the Mackintosh Building studios, where they encounter a life-size rendering of the sculpture. Walking around the space, the viewer’s experience is then augmented with historic images from the GSA’s Archives & Collections and specially made films that tell the story of Laocoön and how industry-leading techniques were developed to conserve it and other casts following the 2014 fire. The exhibition has acquired a special poignancy following the fire last June in which the plaster cast was almost certainly lost, but was originally developed in order to show how 3D technology can be used to increase visitors’ learning and enjoyment.

Is there anyone working on VR/AR here at BCU? If so, how might we use it creatively to increase students’ interaction with our own collections? We have a few plaster casts, but we also have other 3D objects and a large number of photographs. Could we use them to create stories of how life might have been for students a hundred years ago or more? Have you any thoughts on this?

Inspired by Royal Worcester's archives

Are you interested in ceramics? If so, you might like to visit the Precious Clay exhibition in Worcester. It’s a collaboration between Meadow Arts and the Museum of Royal Worcester and is on until 20 March. It features work by 19 contemporary artists alongside the latter’s own historic collections. Among them are pieces by Laura White and Emily Speed, who have made specially commissioned works in response to the Museum’s archives.

Studio work by Laura White for the  Precious Clay  exhibition, 2018, photo by the artist.

Studio work by Laura White for the Precious Clay exhibition, 2018, photo by the artist.

Laura worked with the Museum of Royal Worcester’s archives and collections to create a new installation called White Mud. She digitally scanned key objects from the museum to make 3D printed replicas, which were then used to make moulds to cast from. Similar moulds were made from more familiar, everyday objects, including plastic containers and household ornaments. In the artist’s own words:

“Bringing these different types of objects together using the same material conflates different histories and questions how we value objects depending on their materiality and the context in which we come across them – from the museum to the domestic, the perfect to the damaged, and what our expectations are of different materials, in particular porcelain.”

Laura’s installation encourages us to reflect on the ways in which the development of new technologies has impacted the production of porcelain today. How does it affect the value of handmade collectable items if they can be reproduced as easily as the slip cast crockery we use every day in our homes?

Have you thought about how the same technologies might affect the value of other craft or handmade items?

Wake up and dream

Have you heard about Bristol University Theatre Collection’s latest project, putting on an exhibition and a series of related events to celebrate the completion of their cataloguing of the Oliver Messel Archive? One of these events is of particular interest to budding artists and designers. The workshop Oliver Messel – Artist, Maker, Magician to be held on the afternoon of 30 January looks at his creative work across the fields of theatre, ballet, opera, film, portraiture, mask-making, interior design, architecture, illustration and textiles, and will focus on exploring the physical act of ‘making’ that sits at the heart of all his practice. Participants will be invited to consider creative responses to original items such as costumes, designs, props, photographs and correspondence in whatever medium they choose. They’ll also have an opportunity to see the exhibition Wake Up and Dream – Oliver Messel: Theatre, Art and Society, which is on until April 2019.

The magic of Oliver Messel,  Image by James De Vries

The magic of Oliver Messel, Image by James De Vries

If you can’t get down to Bristol for the workshop, we have some material on set and costume design here in the Archives. Perhaps either or both might inspire your own creative work?

The sweet taste of archives

I just came across this great example of an artist’s creative use of archival material. Last week performance artist Ulla von Brandenburg re-staged an unusual exhibition from the Whitechapel Gallery’s archive. In 1973, the gallery installed an enticing display of sweets including Belgian chocolate coins, French lollipops shaped like the Eiffel Tower, gummy mice from Germany, Italian marzipan fruits and toffees from Yorkshire as part of the Fanfare for Europe celebrations marking Britain’s entry into the EEC. Billed as a Sweet Feast, visitors were invited to sample the candies. The exhibition came to an abrupt end on 28 January when 500 children visited the gallery, overwhelmed the guard and devoured all the displays!

Ulla von Brandenburg, still from  Sweet Feast , 2018

Ulla von Brandenburg, still from Sweet Feast, 2018

The film she’s made with children from a local primary school recreates this event, exploring the dynamics between individuals and the group. But what sweets did she use to evoke all the uncertainties over Brexit?

Rambert at 90

How can digitisation widen access to archival resources? The digital outputs produced by the Rambert Archive’s large-scale outreach project to mark the ballet and contemporary dance company’s 90th anniversary in 2016 may be of interest to those exploring this question as well as students of the performing arts.

Theatre programme for Rambert performance of  Danse  at National Arts Centre, Ottawa, February 1987

Theatre programme for Rambert performance of Danse at National Arts Centre, Ottawa, February 1987

They’ve developed the Rambert Performance Database, which draws together a wealth of information about the company's repertoire, performances, personnel, and tours over the nine decades of their performance history. Four online galleries have been created, each based on a theme related to Rambert’s history, policies, and ideals. More than 2,000 theatre programmes, cast sheets, and publicity leaflets relating to Rambert’s tours in the UK and abroad between June 1926 and March 1989 have been digitised and are now available online. Thirty-six people from eight decades of Rambert's history have been filmed talking about their involvement in the company between 1941 and 2017. They include dancers, choreographers, artistic directors, music directors, members of staff, a conductor, a stage designer, a television producer, an audience member, and Marie Rambert's grandson. Finally, four teams of young people from Lambeth and Southwark made a short documentary about Rambert’s visit to one of four venues the company visited while on tour: Norwich Theatre Royal, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Theatre Royal Brighton, and Garsington Opera. The videos include footage of class and rehearsals, interviews with key members of staff, and clips of archival films from the Rambert Archive.

All of these make the Rambert’s performance history much more widely available to a wide range of people interested in contemporary dance, set and costume design. They can not only use it for research, but as a source of creative inspiration. We’d love to be able to digitise more of our own collections, but in the meantime you can always visit us to see the originals!

Exploring archives at Kingston

We’ve run projects in which art and design students have been encouraged to create pieces of work inspired by an item they’ve found in our Archives, and now Kingston have done the same!

Exploring the theatrical world of Sheridan Morley, 2018

Exploring the theatrical world of Sheridan Morley, 2018

Since the beginning of term, third-year BA Graphic Design students from the School of Art have been working on a project for which they were asked to make work inspired by materials held in the University’s Archives and Special Collections. Six groups explored collections relating to novelists Iris Murdoch and Wendy Perriam, biographer and theatre critic Sheridan Morley, writer and political activist Vane Ivanovic, the performing arts and the history of Kingston University. Others chose to look at the LP Collection of popular broadcaster and disc jockey David Jacobs held in the Nightingale Centre at Kingston Hill.

Students researching the life of Vane Ivanovic in Kingston University Archives, 2018

Students researching the life of Vane Ivanovic in Kingston University Archives, 2018

Eight weeks into term, the resulting works have been produced in a range of media including computer animations, commemorative stamps, theatre reviews, cocktails, travel posters and music boxes. They really demonstrate the variety of ways in which archival material can be viewed and its scope for generating new ideas and new areas of research. When installing their final pieces for the exhibition marking the end of the project, the students each selected an archival item to display alongside their work. Many also wrote accompanying captions which explain the inspiration and aims behind their designs.

The students’ exhibition Exploring Archives: We Made, You Look opened on Monday 19 November and is on until 17 February 2019, so there’s plenty of time to go and see it!

Jewellers draw on personal archives to create narrative pieces

Have you ever visited STEAMhouse in Digbeth? Last week’s School of Jewellery research away day included a tour round the impressive workshop facilities there. However, what interested me most were the ‘lightening’ talks by several practitioners, three of which revealed a strong interest in narrative jewellery. Each of these makers drew on their personal archives and the sense in which the past leaves a trace in the present.

Jo Pond, brooch shown in the Vittoria St exhibition  Rationed , 2018.

Jo Pond, brooch shown in the Vittoria St exhibition Rationed, 2018.

Jo Pond spoke about how she had drawn on a collection of diaries, family stories and trinkets amassed by her grandmother during the London Blitz to craft her own heirlooms. She spoke of how she was descended from generations of habitual hoarders and how she had embraced that legacy, working with misplaced memories to create pieces that encourage the viewer to engage with the lived experience of her grandmother as a wartime wife and mother. Her exhibition, Rationed, was shown at La Joaillerie par Mazlo in Paris earlier this summer.

Toni Mayner, installation shot of  Small Histories , March 2016

Toni Mayner, installation shot of Small Histories, March 2016

Toni Mayner talked about her research on the theme of bereavement, loss and remembrance. This included spending a period as artist-in-residence at the Foundling Museum in 2014, which led to her creating an interactive art installation inspired by the token collection in the archives there. These record the day-to-day running of the Foundling Hospital, a children’s home established in the 1700s for the education and maintenance of children left there because their families were no longer able to care for them. Each mother would bring a token, which would be broken in half. Half would be given to her so that she would be able to reclaim her child if her circumstances changed; the other half kept by the Hospital. The tokens in the collection therefore symbolise the children who were never able to return home. The jewellery she made for Small Histories encouraged the viewer to reflect on those forgotten lives.

Together with Naomi Clarke’s brief talk on the enamelled brooches and other pieces she’d made that incorporated photographs, press cuttings and snippets from her grandfather’s diaries, this led me to wonder how the individual stories contained in our own archives might inspire other examples of narrative jewellery. Our Marion Richardson collection, with its large number of personal letters (some from well-known individuals) immediately springs to mind. Could this be something you’re interested in exploring?

Artists to challenge existing narratives at Wellcome event


Have you ever wanted to challenge existing narratives about the past? If so, archives could be the place to start. Over the next four days, the Wellcome collection will be hosting a series of events that will explore the links between art, activism, politics, health and print. At its core will be the production of DAYLIGHT, a collaborative artwork in the form of a newspaper that explores the presence of women through their writing, art and ideas. Participants can bring a favourite quote to work with or explore texts about women from their archives. They’ll learn how to set letterpress type and operate the Farley proofing press before setting inspirational women’s names and words in print, creating pages for DAYLIGHT.

joy gregory.jpg

On Friday evening, there’ll be an discussion led by the founders of the Women of Colour Index Reading Group, who will talk about this unique collection of slides and papers collated by artist Rita Keegan that charts the emergence of women of colour artists during the ‘critical decades’ of the 1980s and 1990s. For some of them, the archive is the only written record of their work. Reading group sessions aim to improve the visibility of women of colour artists whilst using material in the archive to generate discussion, thought and practice around current social and political concerns. Friday’s session will focus on Joy Gregory, who will talk about her work as a photographer and how the Index acts as a ‘time capsule’, ensuring that this moment in history is not overlooked or forgotten.

Are their voices you feel are missing from the archival record? Is this something you’d like to explore within our own collections?

Bluecoat celebrates its 300th birthday by digitising its archive

What are you doing for Black History Month?

The Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool has chosen to celebrate the building’s 300th birthday by digitising its archive. They’ve highlighted 15 particular items that tell the history of the building and the artistic milestones at the gallery. One of these is their contribution to the multi-venue project Trophies of Empire (1992-92), curated by Keith Piper and Bryan Biggs in collaboration with the Arnolfini in Bristol and Time Based Arts in Hull.


Trophies of Empire invited 16 artists and artist collectives to make new site-specific works in response to the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ so-called ‘discovery’ of the Americas in 1492. They explored the legacies of colonialism and imperialism in three English port cities, Liverpool, Bristol and Hull, each having a particular historical connection to the Atlantic Slave Trade. Piper himself showed Trade Winds, a video installation that examined Liverpool’s significant role in Transatlantic slavery, at Merseyside Maritime Museum.

He would have drawn on material in the Bluecoat’s own collection of material relating to its history. Originally founded as a charity school for the town’s orphans, the building was largely funded by donations from those profiting from the trade generated from the expanding port. At least 65% of regular subscriptions were derived directly from the trade in enslaved Africans or slavery-related commodities like sugar, tobacco and cotton. The archive also includes material about contemporary artists’ responses to the historical material on slavery. Now that it’s digitised and readily available, perhaps you might view it as a spur to your own creative work?

Archive to Blockbuster

When you see someone mentioned in an archival record, do you ever wonder what their lives might have been like? A new project, Archive to Blockbuster, has given four academics the opportunity to pitch their own ideas for films based on their original research to film industry experts. All four have chosen to focus on BAME histories, hoping to create more opportunities for Black and Asian actors and professionals both in front of and behind the camera.

Jack Benjamin as John Blanke in Ade Solanke’s  The Court must have a Wife , July 2018

Jack Benjamin as John Blanke in Ade Solanke’s The Court must have a Wife, July 2018

Next week, one of the four will be the first speaker in this year’s Big Ideas Seminar Programme at the National Archives. Michael Ohajuru will discuss The John Blanke Project, an art and archive project which works with historians, artists, poets, rappers, photographers, musicians and playwrights to re-imagine the first person of African descent in British history for whom we have both an image and a record – John Blanke, who was a trumpeter to the courts of Henry VII and Henry VIII. There are two images of him in the 1511 Tournament Roll and he is also mentioned in court records receiving wages and gifts. Michael’s proposal for a film in which he plays the leading role is set in 1533, more than twenty years after his tournament appearance.

I wish I could get along to hear him speak, but perhaps there may be stories about BAME students or those from other under-represented groups hidden in our own records?

BCU celebrates 175 years of art education in Birmingham

Did you know that BCU's roots date back to the foundation of the Birmingham Government School of Design in October 1843? This was the forerunner of the Schools of Art, Visual Communication and Architecture & Design within ADM. To mark the occasion, BCU are running a series of events in September to November 2018, beginning with opening the School of Art to the public this Saturday as part of the Heritage Open Days programme. 

Marion Richardson in the early years of her teaching career

Marion Richardson in the early years of her teaching career

A selection of items from one of our collections will be on display at one of the proposed events, a seminar at the Medicine Bakery and Cafe on Tuesday 30 October that will be led by artist Cathy Wade, Course Leader of the MA in  Arts in Education Practices at Margaret Street. It will focus on Marion Richardson, a former student (1908-12) who went on to become internationally known for her innovative methods of teaching art.

In the earlier part of Marion's career, the penal reformer Margery Fry encouraged her to work with women and young offenders in Winson Green and Holloway prisons. We have a number of  private letters and papers about this work that will be shown alongside Lucy Orta's Procession Banners, an exhibition of work she made in collaboration with women prisoners at HMP Downview. They designed 30 banners to mark the centenary of British women winning the vote. More than a thousand suffragettes were imprisoned in Holloway during their struggle to achieve this: perhaps Marion Richardson met some of them?  

Either way, it'll be interesting to explore the synergies between Marion and Lucy's work. Why not come along to the seminar to find out more?








Remastered: taking a fresh look at items in the Crafts Study Centre collection

Ever wondered how you might respond creatively to an archive or museum collection? MA students in the School of Craft and Design at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham have been doing just that. ReMastered is the sixth in a series of collaborative exhibitions between them and the Crafts Study Centre, but this is the first time that they've focused on using the collections as a source of inspiration for contemporary art practice. 

Students were invited to visit the stores to select an object or set of objects which captured their attention – whether it was the material, the technique, the colour, the texture or the maker. They then worked either individually or in collaboration with others to create responses to those objects and to curate their work in an exhibition at the Centre and online. Greta Bertram, the curator at the Crafts Study Centre, remarked that it had been 'fascinating' to see which parts of the collection appealed to the students and why. If you're interested in working with archive collections, why not take a look at their website? 

Bowl by Lucie Rie, Crafts Centre Collection, P74.52.

Bowl by Lucie Rie, Crafts Centre Collection, P74.52.

Helen Twigg-Molecey,  Moonlight , 2018.

Helen Twigg-Molecey, Moonlight, 2018.

I particularly liked Helen's response to a Lucie Rie pot, perhaps we've got two here in our own collections. 


Drawing on the cast

Have you ever wondered why there are a number of plaster casts abandoned in the corridors and basement of Birmingham School of Art? If so, you may be interested in a display we've just installed in the showcase at the bottom of the main stairs at Parkside.

Panel V of the West Parthenon Frieze (detail)

Panel V of the West Parthenon Frieze (detail)

In the mid-nineteenth century, it was widely believed that students could develop their artistic skills most effectively by studying and copying from the `best` ancient and classical examples. In response, Birmingham School of Art assembled its own collection of plaster casts of classical statues, busts and friezes for their students to draw, paint and model. They also obtained the ten-volume set of Description of the Ancient Marbles at the British Museum for the library at the School. First published in the early nineteenth century, it contained detailed engravings of ancient Greek sculptures. Alongside one of the open volumes, we're showing three drawings from the cast made by a student in the early 1870s and two late Victorian photographs of other students making such drawings in the first floor studios. The emphasis is clearly on accurate observation and the achievement of high levels of technical skill. 

Tom Brotheridge,  Standing Discobolus, Innit , 2018

Tom Brotheridge, Standing Discobolus, Innit, 2018

But how are we using them today? Do they still have a role within contemporary practice? Staff at Glasgow School of Art clearly think so. Back in May, their Head of Fashion Tom Brotheridge collaborated with GSA graduate Ruth Switalski in putting together his show Material Objects for the Glasgow International Festival. On seeing some of the casts recovered from the Mackintosh Building after the fire in 2014, he opted to clothe some of them in a way that invited new interpretations of these very traditional pieces. One compelling example is his Standing Discobulus, Innit (2018), in which the classical figure of Discobulus is re-cast as a contemporary youth in a hoodie slouched over an imaginary mobile phone by draping swathes of white fabric around it. 

More recently, international students attending a pre-sessional English course at GSA earlier this month were invited to respond creatively to an item from the Archives and Special Collections that especially appealed to them. One chose to focus on a cast taken from the ear of a copy of Michelangelo's David, producing two posters that showed a very innovative use of space. One of these was a design for a swimming pool!

cast of ear and response.jpg

How might you respond to the casts at Margaret Street?

Life on the Outskirts

How can archival collections inspire your own creative practice?  There are some helpful ideas on a website created by a team of people from Leeds and Manchester Metropolitan universities and the the Helen Storey Foundation. They collaborated on an AHRC-funded project that looked at ways in which fresh ideas could be developed by revisiting past practice. Perhaps it'll encourage you to consider visiting the ADM archives at Parkside...

David Betteridge, photograph of Helen Storey's  Dress for Our Time , 2015

David Betteridge, photograph of Helen Storey's Dress for Our Time, 2015

Over more than 30 years as a fashion designer, Helen Storey has produced beguiling creative responses to innumerable briefs as a means of communicating her ideas about some of the world’s most complex issues. These include climate change, resource scarcity and the mass displacement of people. Eleven emerging creative practitioners from both universities attended workshops around the archive in Manchester and Leeds. The themes found in Helen Storey’s digital archive are echoed in their own work, which is to be shown in an exhibition opening next week at the Project Space Gallery at the University of Leeds.


Why not go and visit it? The designers' responses will be displayed alongside images from the Helen Storey Foundation Archive and a film by David Betteridge exploring it from the perspectives of its creators. Alternatively, take a look at the website.


Contemporary artists celebrate the achievements of a feminist pioneer


Has your practice ever included responding to a historic house and its former inhabitants? The artist collective CommonAs has been doing just that at a National Trust property in Lincolnshire. They've researched the life of Emily Massingberd, women's rights campaigner and nineteenth-century heiress of Gunby Hall. A keen advocate of women's suffrage, she preferred to dress as a man and became known for her tireless work in support of temperance and the well being of women. Her many achievements included founding the Pioneer Club, one of the first and most influential female members’ clubs, and being one of the first women to run for public office.

CommonAs are creating a contemporary art installation from a series of artist-made objects that reflect Emily’s interests, passions and opinions. They hope that, by bringing these objects together, visitors will be encouraged to consider her unconventionality, energy and motivations. The art installation will incorporate references to the Pioneer Club, Emily’s capacity for subversion and her time at Gunby, and will be created from an intriguing mix of neon, mirror, photography and handcrafted seating. It will also include recipe ideas for temperance inspired mocktails created by Gunby volunteers. If you'd like to catch the exhibition, it'll be on in the Orchard Gallery at the Hall throughout August. 

Perhaps you might consider responding artistically to the life of one of the former residents of a well-known historic house in Birmingham? Or maybe someone linked with the School of Art itself? Just a thought...