Unboxed: Artists and the Archive

Have you heard that the Hayward Gallery is to hold a two-day event to celebrate its re-opening in January 2018? They'll be bringing together artists, writers and curators who'll use different elements from their own archive to explore 50 years of creating radical exhibitions at the gallery. On the evening of Tuesday 5 September, the Australian artist collective Barbara Cleveland will deliver The History of Performance, a participatory work in which members of the audience will be invited to recall their memories of historic exhibitions at the Hayward. 

Installation shot of live peformance of The History of Performance at the Sydney Biennale, 2015.

Installation shot of live peformance of The History of Performance at the Sydney Biennale, 2015.

The following day artists, researchers and curators will be invited to contribute to panel discussions about why we archive particular items and how to exhibit archival material. There'll also be a series of informal sessions to allow participants to present their research projects in greater depth. Artists Larry Achiampong, Marysia Lewandowska and Florence Peake will show new work in response to the Hayward's exhibition archive, which includes material relating to two of its most significant shows - The New Art (1972) and The Other Story (1989). I'd love to be able to listen in to get some new ideas for the Art & Design Archives here at BCU!

If you're interested in working with archives, why not go along?

 

Criminal Quilts

Have you heard that students from the University of Wolverhampton are to work alongside artist Ruth Singer and archives staff on a project inspired by photographs of women criminals held by Staffordshire Record Office? They were all arrested in the 1880s. Many of them are shown with the splayed fingers of both hands held against their chests, presumably because the authorities wanted to know if they had any missing fingers that could help to identify them. 

Installation shot of exhibition of Ruth Singer's exhibition Court Hands at the Shire Hall Gallery, Stafford, 2015.

Installation shot of exhibition of Ruth Singer's exhibition Court Hands at the Shire Hall Gallery, Stafford, 2015.

Ruth has been working with these images since being commissioned by the Shire Hall Gallery in 2012 to produce a series of six miniature quilts now on display outside the historic courtroom in Stafford. Her work is all about memory and personal stories, both real and imagined. She's really excited to be starting a new project taking this further, having just received funding from the Arts Council to develop new work, exhibitions and community partnership projects based around the original archival material relating to Victorian women criminals. Ruth will be working alongside staff from Staffordshire Record Office and students from Wolverhampton to produce a new exhibition and publication. They'll also run a seminar exploring the lives of these women in more detail. 

If you're interested, you can go along to the project launch at Staffordshire Record Office on Friday 8 September to hear more about it and see the archive documents which inspired it? Alternatively, you can follow its progress @CriminalQuilts

Sharing insights on student engagement with archives

How can we encourage students to use our collections more? That was the question being considered at a symposium organised by the Association of Performing Arts Collections held at the University of Leeds yesterday. 

One of the speakers mentioned that their hands-on sessions for students proved much more popular when they included cakes inspired by items from the collections! I'm not sure we can provide those, but perhaps we might follow some of the tips suggested by Joanna Baines from the University of Kent. She spoke of students' difficulty with reading handwritten documents or those in unfamiliar Gothic fonts as well as of their anxieties about handling fragile items, but had found a way round these particular problems by focusing on visual material which didn't need to be handled so much as it was mainly flat. To introduce a note of fun into using the University's archives, she considered ways in which greater use might be made of the British Cartoon Archive in their teaching sessions.

One of these was to include examples of theatrical cartoons in a module on Victorian and Edwardian Theatre for second-year drama and theatre students that was taught in their Special Collections reading room. This year's students were invited to pick a character featured in one of the cartoons to research in some detail. They were encouraged to use the primary sources in the University's collections to do so. In the following session, they had to argue in class about why their particular character should be allowed to stay in a hot air balloon.

For their final assessment, the students drew on material from the collections to design and curate an exhibition shown in the Templeton Library's gallery space. They divided into two groups looking at very different topics, one of which looked at how Victorian playwrights responded to the public's fascination with scandalous crimes like the Jack the Ripper murders. The other focused on the establishment of the pantomime tradition at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in the late nineteenth century. 

What would encourage you to use the archives at BCU more? Would it be more online resources and guides? Project placements? Workshops on using archives? Including sessions in the archives as part of taught modules? Why not let us know?

Archive project boosts students' presentation skills

How can you increase your chances of getting a job? Archives staff at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture recently thought up a project that would do just that - as well as increasing the profile of their own collections.

They collaborated with Middlesex University’s employability team to develop a new scheme to give students training in communication and presentation skills. After receiving some coaching in public speaking, three students created short videos in which they talked on screen about MoDA's collections. The students were encouraged to reflect upon how the collections related to their own creative practice, and to think about their emotive, personal responses to individual items within them.

Winifred Mold, Design for a printed textile for the Silver Studio, 1919.

Winifred Mold, Design for a printed textile for the Silver Studio, 1919.

After researching their chosen objects, each of them created a storyboard for their video. They then returned to film their videos, which you can see them on MoDA's blog. Two of the students chose to focus on designs by Winifred Mold, the first female designer to be employed by the Silver Studio in 1912. As a woman, she would have been at a distinct disadvantage, being paid much less than the men. She also worked from home, only visiting the premises once and never seeing the men at work. Boss Rex Silver would correspond with her by letter to discuss her designs, thereby unknowingly providing a rich source of information for textile historians. 

One of the students opted to use her own experience as an Illustration student to reflect on Mold's style and use of colour and the experiences of women artists working in the 1910s. The other chose to consider the stories that could be creatively imagined from two of Mold's images, one of King Cole and the other of medieval hunters. 

 

We've got our own collection of textile designs here at BCU - why not visit the Archives to see if they can inspire your own work?

 

 

 

 

 

Archival collections inspire the creation of drama

I've just learnt that there's to be a one-day conference for all those working with community archives in London next Tuesday. This year's theme is Creativity, so I very much wish I could be there. The key note speaker is award-winning artist Mohammed Ali, who will talk about how archives provide communities with opportunities to explore their sense of place and identity. You can find out more about his work on the Strong Rooms project in one of our earlier blog posts.

One of the other speakers is Jefny Ashcroft, a drama specialist who will talk about about the Arts Friendly Archives project, which has been funded by the Arts Council. Over the past year, he has put on three tailor-made plays inspired by collections held  by archives in Wolverhampton, Dudley and Stratford upon Avon. The most recent of these was Bram and the Guv'nor, which imagines Bram Stoker debating with Ellen Terry how leading Shakespearean actor Sir Henry Irving might be persuaded to accept a proposal  that he play the Count in a future production of Dracula at the Lyceum Theatre. The audience was immediately drawn in to the question of whether Irving would agree, but he kept them in suspense until the very end. The question on the lips of many visitors was whether he ever did go on to play the Count.

Ellen Terry and Bram Stoker discuss Stoker's plans to produce Dracula at the Lyceum during performance of Bram and the Guv'nor, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, 16 May 2017. Photo credit: David Ashworth.

Ellen Terry and Bram Stoker discuss Stoker's plans to produce Dracula at the Lyceum during performance of Bram and the Guv'nor, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, 16 May 2017. Photo credit: David Ashworth.

The play drew on material in the Bram Stoker Collection, which is owned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and held at Stratford upon Avon archives. Exhibitions of material from the collection were shown alongside the play when it was performed at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in May.  

If you're a creative writer, have you ever thought of using archives for inspiration? 

 

 

Getting hands on with collections

How can archives and museum collections directly inspire creative studio-based students? That's a question that's been actively explored at MoDA, where students from Middlesex's MA and BA Crafts courses recently took part in a three-day workshop on creating their own textile designs.

Applying race paste through a stencil onto fabric.

Applying race paste through a stencil onto fabric.

The workshop was part of MoDA's current research project, Katagami in Practice: Japanese Stencils in the Art School. It was run by Sarah Desmarais, whose practice-based research is focused on the themes of slow-making and the relationship of craft to wellbeing.  Part of her method was to ask participants to slow down and take their time to really look at  some of the katagami stencils in the collection.  Although they were first struck by how intricate and delicate they are, taking the time to engage with them through close observation and drawing made it possible for them to use them in a critically engaged way.  Over the course of the workshop, they cut their own stencils, mixed a traditional rice paste to act as a ‘resist’, and dyed their fabrics using indigo.

Reading about the project, I was led to wonder how our own archives could be used to encourage students to learn more about older ways of making. Given the recent revival of crafts and the hand-made, I think there's scope for more of this kind of activity. 

  

Textile artist invited to respond to collections at Gawthorpe Hall

Have you ever thought of creating a piece of work in response to a particular museum collection? As part of a year-long project by Arts & Heritage, ten artists have been invited to do just that. They'll be working in different museums across the north of England. Among them is Serena Partridge, who will be working with the textile collections at Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire. 

Serena is best known for her exquisitely stitched miniature art works inspired by historical costume and storytelling. Her works are usually presented as museum acquisitions, complete with labels that blur the boundaries between fact and fiction. For this particular commission, she's exploring the idea of making work on a larger scale. She'll create unusual interventions in rooms around the Hall that reflect on the work of their founder Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth as a maker, teacher and collector fifty years after her death in 1967. Each will consist of a large collection of small-scale embroideries, illustrating an element of Rachel's life, her character or a quote attributed to her. In keeping with her ethos of wanting to open up learning opportunities and keep traditional textile skills alive, Serena will also be working with a variety of community groups who will stitch additional elements for each of these ‘landscapes’.

Serena Partridge at work in her studio, from artist's website. 

Serena Partridge at work in her studio, from artist's website. 

The exhibition of Serena's work will be on show at Gawthorpe Hall from August to November. If you have time over the summer, why not go and have a look at it?

Craft residency offers opportunity to work with Dorset archives

As archivists, we're frequently considering how we can encourage more people to engage with our collections. At Dorset History Centre, they're working on an HLF-funded project in partnership with Walford Mill Crafts and staff at the National Trust's Kingston Lacy property in Wimborne. They're aiming to stimulate interest in the Bankes family archive by appointing a craftsperson to produce contemporary works in response to the stories contained within it. 

Photograph of Henrietta Bankes with her three children, Kingston Lacy estate, Dorset, 1908.

Photograph of Henrietta Bankes with her three children, Kingston Lacy estate, Dorset, 1908.

Over 3-6 months in the coming year, they'll spend time with the team at the Dorset History Centre to explore the scope of the Bankes archive and become familiar with the Kingston Lacy estate, exploring the site and property in liaison with National Trust staff, volunteers and tenants. They'll show their work within the house, landscape or grounds and will be expected to engage with the local community during their residency, perhaps by working with staff and volunteers at Kingston Lacy to uncover its hidden stories or by inviting local residents to a craft workshop at Walford Mill Crafts. 

It sounds like a fascinating opportunity for uncovering family secrets. Just imagine ... you've a legitimate excuse to read other people letters!

 

Winterbourne offers creative opportunities this summer

Did you know that Fourth Wall has been awarded a Heritage Lottery grant to train young people in running cultural events through a project to be run at Winterbourne House in Edgbaston over the summer?

Up to twenty people aged 17-25 have been recruited to create, devise and present ‘Within These Four Walls’.  This will consist of three theatre performances and an exhibition on the themes of Leaders of the Past, Women’s Education and Communication. The plays will be performed at Winterbourne in September, and the exhibition will run at the house for ten weeks beginning in October.

During the project Fourth Wall will train the participants to run the project and help them to recruit a group of young performers aged 11-18.  The two groups will then use the archives at Wnterbourne to research the Nettlefold family, who built the Arts and Crafts House in 1903. Working from a base in Northfield, they will explore the contrast between the Winterbourne house on the one hand and the Moor Pool estate in Harborne that John Nettlefold helped to develop and the back-to-back slum housing in Birmingham city centre that he helped to clear on the other.

I'll be interested to see what they come up with ....

Latest Parkside exhibition draws on BCU's Art & Design Archives

If you'd like to get a glimpse of the wealth of archival resources accessible to students, why not go along to Parkside Gallery's latest exhibition, Cabinets of Costume

Installation shot of Cabinets of Costume exhibition showing theatrical costume designs for The Threepenny Opera by students in the early 1970s from BCU's Art & Design Archives, Parkside Gallery, May 2017.

Installation shot of Cabinets of Costume exhibition showing theatrical costume designs for The Threepenny Opera by students in the early 1970s from BCU's Art & Design Archives, Parkside Gallery, May 2017.

Over the last few weeks, two third-year students from the BA (Hons) Design for Performance course have been in and out of the Archives, taking the opportunity to browse our collections. Not only have they learnt all about the challenges of exhibiting archival material, but they've also gained valuable experience in selecting works to meet a particular brief and faced the challenges of mounting and framing them. However, I'll let them speak for themselves. Alessia Mallardo said that

'my involvement in Cabinets of Costume as a collaborative designer has been a gratifying experience, but first and foremost I have mainly enjoyed discovering the meticulously detailed and beautiful archival material to exhibit.'

 These sentiments were echoed by her colleague Rachel Shore, who said

'I have really enjoyed the opportunity to engage with the archives. A lot of the costume designs we have seen from the archive are from the Theatre Design course, which is now my course - Design for Theatre, Performance and Events. It has been an amazing experience to be able to look at and engage with the history of my course and the costume design course. It is also interesting to see how techniques have changed or remained similar over the years and with the advancement of technology.' 

Both of them felt that the project had helped in the development of their careers as designers after graduation.

Installation shot of Cabinets of Costume exhibition showing designs for a book cover and theatrical costume designs by Meredith Hawes, 1930s, from BCU's Art & Design Archives, Parkside Gallery, May 2017.

Installation shot of Cabinets of Costume exhibition showing designs for a book cover and theatrical costume designs by Meredith Hawes, 1930s, from BCU's Art & Design Archives, Parkside Gallery, May 2017.

We hope to be able to collaborate with more students in the curating of exhibitions. If you've an idea you'd like to explore further, why not get in touch? 

Colour, Costume and Movement

Have you ever considered designing costumes for the theatre?

To complement next month's Cabinets of Costume exhibition, our latest showcase display features André Levinson’s Bakst: The Story of the Artist’s Life from the Library Treasures collection. It’s a biography of Russian artist Leon Bakst, richly illustrated with his drawings and costume designs. Bakst used bright eye-catching colours for his costumes so they would be more visible on stage. Some of them are more extravagant than others, depending on the shows for which they were designed, but there is a very real sense of movement in all of them, suggesting that Bakst had a clear mental image of the dancers wearing them.

Andre Levinson, Bakst: The Story of the Artist's Life, Plate IX, Sheherazade –first eunuch, Benjamin Blom: New York, 1923.

Andre Levinson, Bakst: The Story of the Artist's Life, Plate IX, Sheherazade –first eunuch, Benjamin Blom: New York, 1923.

Alongside them, we’ve included paintings of set designs by children at Dudley Girls’ High School that form part of the Marion Richardson collection in the Archives. Richardson trained at Birmingham School of Art, becoming an art teacher in Dudley when she was only 19 years old.  She saw the children’s skill and passion in drawing from their imaginations and colourfully described her trips to the Ballets Russes in London so as they could paint the scenes she so vividly conjured up for them. Like Bakst, Richardson valued a strong sense of colour and encouraged the children to experiment with mixing their own paints, feeling this would add to the power of their artwork. 

Installation shot of our latest showcase display, 24 April 2017.

Installation shot of our latest showcase display, 24 April 2017.

If you'd like to find out more about her life and career, why not visit the Archives?

Manchester School of Art staff and students collaborate on heritage project

Have you ever considered the creative opportunities provided by working on a heritage project? Second year student Harriet Redfearn from Manchester School of Art has been doing just that. In a recent blog, she describes how she chose a placement working as a research assistant alongside Jenny Walker, who's leading a project to collect and preserve the memories of those associated with the city's London Road fire station. 

Benjamin Green, photograph of detail from London Road fire station, 2017.

Benjamin Green, photograph of detail from London Road fire station, 2017.

Built in the early 1900s, it was much more than just a fire station: it was part of a thriving community that include homes for forty-two firemen and their families, a police station, a coroner’s court, a bank, a club room, a gym, workshops, and more. Its current owners, Allied London, plan to lease spaces to be converted into a variety of commercial uses, including a hotel, restaurants and apartments. Before that happens, staff and students from Manchester School of Art have been given an opportunity to visit the site and gather inspiration for creative projects related to the fire station's history. 

Alicia Hill, photograph of former resident of London Road fire station being interviewed for project, 2017

Alicia Hill, photograph of former resident of London Road fire station being interviewed for project, 2017

Over the last month, Harriet has been focusing on recording interviews with former residents on site, often in the flats they used to live in. She's also been collecting and documenting old newspapers, fragments of vintage wallpaper and other physical material that may provide evidence of what life was like at London Road Fire Station.

Harriet Redfearn, photograph of sample of vintage wallpaper in former flat at London Road fire station, 2017.

Harriet Redfearn, photograph of sample of vintage wallpaper in former flat at London Road fire station, 2017.

Her documented findings, together with the photographs, written material and objects that those she interviewed were willing to share, will be digitised in order that the memories they made at London Road Fire Station can be preserved. In this way, future students will also be able to draw upon them for creative inspiration.

With all the redevelopment going on in Birmingham, perhaps you might consider a similar project?

Gaining an Insight into Archives

My name is Jessica Skidmore and I am an art student at Birmingham City University. Work placement is an important part of my Art and Design Honours degree. It's important to choose a placement that is enjoyable and fascinating for you, which is what I did.

I have been working in the Art & Design Archives in Parkside for two days now and have picked up many skills that go along with my studies and my passions. I have been taught how to mount different types of work in different ways for both display cases and wall-mounted frames. This has involved working on a display for the showcase at the bottom of the main stairs in a way that links in with a larger exhibition called Cabinets of Costume that's soon to go in the Parkside building. This will explore the contribution that costumes have made to different cultures over time. As we had to keep this theme running throughout all the displays, Fiona and I began to look through the archives to find artworks relating to theatrical costumes and the stage. Our main focal point was a large volume, André Levinson’s Bakst: The Story of the Artist’s Life from the Library Treasures collection as some of Bakst’s drawings of costumes in this book had already been selected for the display. One of these was Stravinsky’s Bird of Fire featuring bright and bold colours that would be eye-catching to an audience member seeing it on stage. We chose images from the collections that featured similar colours such as orange. These were some paintings that had been done by a group of children depicting a play being performed on stage. These children created their drawings after hearing their teacher Marion Richardson describing her many theatre visits in vivid detail. They drew the mental images she had inspired in them. By giving the display a colour theme, we hoped to draw the eye of people passing the showcase.

A Costume: "Narcissus" Ballet. Plate No. XXI, André Levinson’s Bakst: The Story of the Artist’s Life,The Baynard Press: London, 1923.

A Costume: "Narcissus" Ballet. Plate No. XXI, André Levinson’s Bakst: The Story of the Artist’s Life,The Baynard Press: London, 1923.

My second day in the Archives has been spent learning an entirely different skill. Before my placement began, I was taught to search the archive cataloguing system for things needed for a project of personal interest. This learning continued with photographing several files containing many different pieces as a first step in setting up a way for people to gain greater access to the Archives. This was an interesting and useful skill to pick up as it gave me the chance to research the different subjects that could be found here and the opportunity to log into the records for many different pieces of work using the cataloguing system. The code for each piece was insightful and interesting to learn.

What was particularly exciting was exploring the files depicting old stained glass designs and religious imagery as that is my current field of study and of great personal interest. It was important to keep checking how far through the work I was as I ran the risk of getting lost and losing my place in the lists I was making but doing this job unrushed was definitely a skill worth learning. It also gave me the chance to research pieces of art or artists that I like and to learn more about them and their work. What I found fascinating in doing this was seeing how students from many years ago were so well equipped and skilled in basic drawing and painting techniques and how they applied these skills to different things later in their studies and careers.

Florence Camm, Head of Christ, 1903. Birmingham City University Art and Design Archives.

Florence Camm, Head of Christ, 1903. Birmingham City University Art and Design Archives.

Florence Camm, Study for a rectangular stained glass panel of St Francis of Assisi and the birds. 1898. Birmingham City University Art and Design Archives

Florence Camm, Study for a rectangular stained glass panel of St Francis of Assisi and the birds. 1898. Birmingham City University Art and Design Archives

The past two days have been insightful and I have had many opportunities to fuel my passion for the history of art and pieces of work from years into the past. I enjoy researching history in any form but art history is something I always return to and one of my main enjoyments in my studies. I have one day left at the art archives and I look forward to what that brings and what more I can learn that I will value in my career as an artist.

Award-winning artist uses archival film footage

Did you know that the Whitworth is currently showing John Akomfrah's multi-screen video installation Vertigo Sea, first shown at the Venice Biennale in 2015? My attention was drawn to it by the way in which he combines recently-shot footage with archival material and readings from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Heathcote Williams’ epic poem Whale Nation (1988) to create a powerful piece that comments on our turbulent relationship with the sea and its role in the history of slavery, migration and conflict. There's a link here with the early history of the Surrealists and their view that you can encourage people to look at things in radically different ways by setting two apparently unrelated objects down beside one another. As you struggle to understand what you're seeing and hearing, you're compelled to think more deeply about familiar sounds and images. 

John Akomfrah, Still from Vertigo Sea, 2015, 3-channel HD video installation.

John Akomfrah, Still from Vertigo Sea, 2015, 3-channel HD video installation.

If you're someone who uses film in your own artistic practice, have you ever thought of using archival material in your own work? We've a large selection of lantern slides and photographs relating to the history of Birmingham School of Art that you could draw on if you were making a piece around ideas of memory and the ways in which it's embedded in a place.   

Jewellery students to create work inspired by Ikon exhibition

Did you know that MA students from the School of Jewellery are spending a week at the Ikon Gallery, creating work in response to the Jean Painlevé exhibition on there at the moment? I went down there yesterday to see the show before taking a look at what they were doing.

Still from Jean Painlevé's Acera or the Witches' Dance (1978)

Still from Jean Painlevé's Acera or the Witches' Dance (1978)

Widely celebrated for his films exploring marine life, this French filmmaker won the respect of several well-known avant-garde artists working in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. The exhibition revealed the ways in which he often took a cross-disciplinary approach to film-making, working with both visual artists and composers. He used sound and image in imaginative ways, but without compromising the scientific dimension. I was particularly struck by the way in which the poetic dance of tiny hermaphrodite molluscs in his film Acera (1978) had been set to a soundtrack by Pierre Jansen. But another for the films would be a rich source of ideas for textile design .....

Still from Jean Painlevé, Transition de phase dans les cristaux liquides (1978)

Still from Jean Painlevé, Transition de phase dans les cristaux liquides (1978)

The students' work is still in its early stages, but it's still possible to see links between what they're producing and the somewhat unsettling surreal images of these tiny sea creatures. Why not take a look for yourself? They'll be working in the Events Room until Friday, with the pieces they create being on show there between 4th and 9th April. 

Women's Art Library launches new app

Did you know that the Women's Art Library recently launched a new app to broaden awareness of the broad range of materials that they hold on the work of female artists? These include slides and photographs, artists' statements, newspaper cuttings, exhibition catalogues, CDs, video and audio tapes. As the initial app can only hold 60MB worth of content, they decided to focus initially on seven women artists linked broadly in one way or another to the theme of 'magical realism'. There's a temporary exhibition about how the app was made on at Goldsmiths' Library in London until 13 April 2017.

Taken together, the artworks featured represent the wide diversity in women's artistic journeys. The app's launch certainly reminds me of the need to make our own collections more widely available. Could it be a valuable resource for inspiring your own work? 

 

Birmingham's tradition of fine metalworking

Have you seen the latest exhibition of contemporary craft now on at Parkside? If so, have you ever wondered about the types of craft objects being made at Birmingham School of Art around 100 years ago?

Florence Camm, Design for jewellery, 1901.

Florence Camm, Design for jewellery, 1901.

For our latest showcase display in collaboration with Library and Learning Resources, we’ve put together a selection of designs for fine metalwork made at Birmingham School of Art around 1900. Among them are two examples by internationally-known stained glass designer Florence Camm, who studied at Margaret Street between 1892 and 1908: one for jewellery and the other for a casket in silver, enamel and jewels intended to contain a scroll granting the Freedom of the City of Birmingham to John Thackery Bunce, editor of the Birmingham Post, former chairman of the School of Art Management Committee and a founder member of the Museum and Art Gallery. There's also a brass bowl decorated in an Arts and Crafts style by Robert Catterson-Smith, who worked as a painter and illustrator as well as designing for jewellery and fine metalwork. Before becoming headmaster of Vittoria St (1901-1903) and then Birmingham School of Art (1903-1920), he'd worked as an engraver for William Morris's Kelmscott Press.

Robert Catterson-Smith, Detail of brass bowl (originally with silver gilt), c.1890s.

Robert Catterson-Smith, Detail of brass bowl (originally with silver gilt), c.1890s.

Alongside them is an illustrated catalogue published by Burlington Fine Arts Club to accompany an exhibition of a collection of European silversmiths’ work that took place in London in 1901. The book is open at a plate of an elaborate seventeenth-century German table ornament in the form of a ship. It's in marked contrast with the style of works being produced by Birmingham School of Art staff and students at the turn of the twentieth century. Why not take a look in order to see the differences for yourself?

Prejudice and Pride

Are you aware that this year marks 50 years since the partial decriminalization of homosexuality? To mark the occasion, the National Archives and the National Trust will collaborate in recreating the interior of 'The Caravan', a queer-friendly members' club in Soho that was once described as 'London's most bohemian rendezvous'. The club existed at a time when being openly gay frequently led to prosecution and imprisonment. In 1934, it was raided and closed down by police.

National Archives, Interior of the Caravan Club, Endell Street, London 1934

National Archives, Interior of the Caravan Club, Endell Street, London 1934

Photographs, court reports, police papers and witness statements will be used to re-create the striking bohemian interior of the underground club. Selected from The National Archives’ extensive collection, these documents provide an important insight into club culture and the everyday prejudices facing the homosexual community at the time. The recreation, entitled Queer City, will take place at the well-known Freud Café-Bar on almost the exact site of the original club. 

It'll form the focus of a series of LGBT+ heritage tours looking at queer culture in Covent Garden and Soho during March. There'll also be themed talks, debates and performances capturing the spirit of The Caravan and wider queer culture.

It's great to see this wonderfully creative response to marking such an important milestone in the development of personal freedom. Why not go and see it for yourself? 

Chance to hear about artists' creative use of mental health records

Would you like to learn more about using archives as part of your creative practice? If so, you may be interested in a free workshop to be held at the National Archives on Tuesday 4 April 2017. Following this, there'll be a Q & A session with artists who've recently produced work in response to the mental health records held there as part of the In Our Minds project run in collaboration with the University of the Creative Arts. There'll also be an opportunity to view the touring exhibition developed in partnership with the National Archives.

Display panel from the In Our Minds touring exhibition developed in partnership with the National Archives, 2016.

Display panel from the In Our Minds touring exhibition developed in partnership with the National Archives, 2016.

Susan Merrick expressed an interest in using a language that wasn't readily understood - like Morse code or semaphore - to communicate what she'd learnt from the mental health records in the National Archives. Was she expressing the idea that those suffering with psychological problems often face difficulties in being understood? Why not take a look at her video and see what you think?

Statement in Semaphore, video by Susan Merrick, 2016.

Statement in Semaphore, video by Susan Merrick, 2016.

Craig Jordan-Baker chose to focus on the reports on suffragettes being held at Holloway and the links that were often made in them between campaigning for votes for women and hysteria or weak-mindedness. He produced an audio piece using extracts from documents held by the National Archives and UCA Archives that highlighted conflicts between the different views of those involved as a starting point for inspiration. 

Audio piece Hysteria by Craig Jordan-Baker on exhibition at UCA, Farnham Campus (2017). 

Audio piece Hysteria by Craig Jordan-Baker on exhibition at UCA, Farnham Campus (2017). 

Diana Williams was moved by the personal stories of sufferers from mental health, but particularly struck by the unexpectedness of some of the items that she found - like the images of patients detained in mental hospitals dressed neatly in what appeared to be their Sunday best  to pose for photographs. In her artwork, she chooses to contrast this with the way in which they were described in official reports as 'lunatic', 'fallen woman' or 'flighty woman'. 

Keepsakes, glasswork by Diana Williams, 2016. 

Keepsakes, glasswork by Diana Williams, 2016. 

Sparrow Davies chose to respond in a deliberately naive way, believing that this would help to encourage a child-like empathy for the patients whose personal stories were contained within official documents. Her colourful artwork recalls a game of Jenga in which the pieces are potentially unstable, with each of the individual pieces being inscribed with words that might precipitate mental distress. 

Crumbling…falling…down, sculpture by Sparrow Davies, 2016

Crumbling…falling…down, sculpture by Sparrow Davies, 2016

How would you respond to some of the documents described in the National Archives blog post?

Latest display at Parkside relates to Level 5 student project

We've just installed our latest joint display with Library & Learning Resources in the showcase at the bottom of the main stairs in Parkside. The idea for this exhibition developed from a visit to the Archives almost two months ago by a group of Level 5 students who'd been asked to design costumes for characters from one of Chaucer's late 14th-century Canterbury Tales, supposedly told by an ill-assorted bunch of pilgrims journeying from London to visit the shrine of St Thomas in Canterbury. While they were here, they looked for inspiration for their designs amongst the studies of historical dress and the cartoons for stained glass panels in the School of Art's archive.

Paul Lacroix, Le Cortege de la Jeune Mere, plate from Moeurs, usages et costumes au moyen âge et à l'époque de la renaissance, 1871, BCU Library Treasures. 

Paul Lacroix, Le Cortege de la Jeune Mere, plate from Moeurs, usages et costumes au moyen âge et à l'époque de la renaissance, 1871, BCU Library Treasures. 

As they continue work on their designs, we've put together a display that focuses on the strong revival of interest in the medieval period during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cultural historians expressed an interest in accounts of medieval manners and customs; poets and novelists drew inspiration from tales of chivalry and the songs of the troubadours; and  the Pre-Raphaelites produced numerous paintings of medieval damsels and knights on quests. The illustration above is taken from a 19th-century history by Paul Lacroix, a French author who wrote Romantic historical novels as well as more serious works on social customs.

The influence of such medievalism on the work of Birmingham School of Art during this period can be seen in two stained glass cartoons by Florence Camm, each featuring one of the characters mentioned in the Canterbury Tales - a friar and a knight. We've also included an edition of The Prologue to Chaucer's work that was produced in Birmingham School of Printing in 1949.

Birmingham School of Printing, Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, 1949, BCU Art & Design Archives

Birmingham School of Printing, Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, 1949, BCU Art & Design Archives

Why not come along to see the exhibition? It might give you some ideas for your own work.