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

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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

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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...

GSA exhibition of work inspired by early 20th-century costume designs

There's a new exhibition opening next month in the Reid Gallery at Glasgow School of Art in which  three women artists are showing work inspired by items among the Fashion & Textile holdings in the GSA's Archives & Collections. One of them is researching the work of Dorothy Carleton Smyth, who seems to have been a very lively and talented student. Her fascination with exotic clothes, combined with a love of the theatre, drew her into becoming involved with costume designs for many of the plays and masques that were produced within the School.  

 Dorothy Carleton Smyth and Alex Milne in fancy dress, GSAA.P.1136

Dorothy Carleton Smyth and Alex Milne in fancy dress, GSAA.P.1136

After leaving Glasgow School of Art in 1904, she worked as a costume designer for the Shakespearean producer F. R. Benson. For the next ten years, she continued to work as a theatre and costume designer for several companies in Glasgow, London and Europe including the Paris Opera. In 1914, she returned to Glasgow School of Art as head of Commercial Art, teaching miniature painting and the history of costume and armour. Her abilities in this role must have made a particularly strong impression on the then Director, Francis Newbery. In 1917, he described her as:

"the life and light of anything we may do here as regards the art of the drama. Her instincts are unerring, her taste pure and refined and her feelings shrink from every form of ill considered art”. 

She would have become the first female head of the Glasgow School of Art (and possibly of any art institution in the UK) in 1933 if she had not tragically died of a brain haemorrhage before the appointment could be made public. She was only 52. 

Hanneline Visnes has chosen to respond to several of her costume designs for Shakespeare's Macbeth and Wilde's Salome in a series of gouache drawings. She will show her own cast of characters in paintings alongside Dorothy's costume studies of theatrical casts. If you'd like to catch the exhibition, it's on from 23 June to 16 August 2018. 

 

UCL to screen film inspired by archive of French Surrealist Claude Cahun

Next Tuesday, UCL Art Museum will be screening Confessions to the Mirror, a film that gives cinematic life to the photograph and written archive of the French Surrealist Claude Cahun. It will be followed by a Q & A session with its creator, Sarah Pucill

 Still from  Confessions to the Mirror  by Sarah Pucill, 2016

Still from Confessions to the Mirror by Sarah Pucill, 2016

Sarah's film takes its title from Claude Cahun’s incomplete memoir (Confidences au miroir, 1945-1954). Following Cahun's text, the film includes her early as well as later life and work, which included the making of anti-fascist propaganda and  her imprisonment in Jersey alongside her partner Suzanne Malherbe during the Nazi occupation of the island.  Amidst a visual extravaganza of costumes and hand-made sets,  Sarah explores the multiple identities Cahun expressed in both her startling black and white self-portrait photographs and her book. In the film, she dresses and makes her face up in many different ways, swapping identities between different genders and  ages. The narration of the text is likewise split between different voices that overlap at certain times, and at others are in conversation.

 Still from  Confessions to the Mirror  by Sarah Pucill, 2016

Still from Confessions to the Mirror by Sarah Pucill, 2016

Cahun and Sarah Pucill both share an interest in the exploration of their own identities, and of relationships between women. Perhaps you can think of ways in which your own practice could create a dialogue between yourself and a 19th or early 20th century artist who shares some of the same interests and concerns? One that springs to mind is the current interest in the sustainability of the natural world and the emphasis on drawing from nature at the School of Art in the late 1800s. If you're interested, why not visit the Archives to see our artworks and other records? 

 

Archives student collaborates with artist in residence

 Jonathon Beaver, Work in progress for  Dream of the Dead, Hear from the Living , 2018.

Jonathon Beaver, Work in progress for Dream of the Dead, Hear from the Living, 2018.

There's a new show opening at the Domino Gallery in Liverpool next Wednesday.  It's of work by local artist Jonathon Beaver on the theme Dream of the Dead, Hear from the Living. Back in March, he became the Liverpool University Centre for Archive Studies's first ever artist in residence. 

Jonathon started his residency on the anniversary of the death of his grandmother and has been exploring themes of family and local history. The title of the exhibition is taken from one of her superstitions. As he explained:

I want this work to explore the family tree and the phrases, habits and memories that disappear from history so easily”.

He's been assisted by University of Liverpool student Beth Grant, who carried out genealogical and local history research in archives across Merseyside as part of her training as an archivist.  However, he's also spent time in the Centre for Archives Studies himself, using them to explore records on microfilm and enjoying stitching his work in the search room. 

Perhaps you too can get inspiration from archives - why not come and visit us at Parkside, Room P.037? 

 

Artists at the National Trust

Did you know that three BCU graduates have been awarded artists' residencies at National Trust properties in the Midlands over the summer?

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Each will last for just five days. Larissa Shaw will be heading to Elgar's birthplace at The Firs,  Worcestershire; Ailleen Doherty to Attingham Park, and Grace Williams to Mr Straw's House,  Nottinghamshire. As Kate Stoddart from the National Trust explains:

 “The short residency format is designed to encourage experimentation and foster innovation. These residences offer new ways of working, allowing artists to engage with a place and develop site-specific responses to the stories, collections and landscapes of the National Trust.”

The Trust have worked with more than two hundred artists since the creation of their New Art programme in 2009.

 Interior view of Mr Straw's House, Nottingham

Interior view of Mr Straw's House, Nottingham

Have you ever considered making art in response to a particular site? If so, archives can shed new light on its history. Our own contain plans, written records and photographs relating to the history of the School of Art in Margaret Street if you're interested in making work inspired by the building in which you're working or studying. Why not come and take a look at what we've got?

 

Cardiff University archives inspire new knitwear designs

Have you ever considered archives as a source of inspiration for new designs for knitwear or even bedding? I was just searching the internet for new ideas about ways to engage staff and students with our archives here at BCU when I came across this blog by Sian Collins from the University of Cardiff's archives. Her references to the use of their collections to inspire the creation of a giant knitted cardigan and a patchwork quilt caught my attention, and I decided to find out more.  

 Lisa Hellier, Installation shot of the  Aberteifi Cardigan , 2010.

Lisa Hellier, Installation shot of the Aberteifi Cardigan, 2010.

More than 300 people contributed to the creation of the 5m wide Aberteifi Cardigan over nine months in 2010. It was designed by textile artist Lisa Hellier, who has a particular interest in old maps and is often looking for ways in which to combine this with collaborative projects involving members of the community. Contributors listened to talks on the history  of the town during their weekly meetings to knit individual pieces that were later sewn together to make the finished cardigan. They had complete freedom to design their own patterns and shapes, but cable stitch was encouraged as it recalled the ropes of Cardigan's shipping heritage. 

Could this idea be adapted for regular size knitwear, perhaps using some of the patterns or images we've got in the archives?

Challenging dominant narratives

Have you ever considered that archival documents may only tell part of the story? Or only tell a story from the perspective of those in positions of power? There's a project beginning in Newcastle this month that will challenge the views of mental health and well-being voiced by those in the medical and counselling professions, both now and in the past.

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Heads & Tales is a two-year project to create a new heritage archive for the North East that will explore the experiences of adults experiencing mental health conditions, thereby ensuring that their voices are heard. Two artists, Lalya Gaye and Nelli Stavropoulou, will be running workshops in which they will encourage participants to respond creatively to archives in the North East that relate to the history of provision for those affected by mental distress from the 1800s onwards. Those invited to join will include patients, volunteers and staff. The sessions will be shaped by the participants' own ideas,  and may include sculpture, collage, installations, drawings, digital art, song or poetry. As well as this reflective work, they also aim to create new material for the archives that encompasses a greater diversity of perspectives. This will focus on the memories and experiences of an underrepresented group, namely those suffering from mental illness. 

Have you considered what other voices might be missing from official records? Here in the Archives we're aware that the student voice is often missing - though we do have some recordings of interviews of people studying at the School of Art in the mid-twentieth century. 

Women artists: book illustrators in the 1890s

Did you know that Birmingham School of Art was regarded was as a centre of excellence for book illustration and production in the Arts and Crafts style in the 1890s?

 Georgie Cave France, illustration for 'Little Tom Tucker',  Nursery Rhymes and Songs , 1895

Georgie Cave France, illustration for 'Little Tom Tucker', Nursery Rhymes and Songs, 1895

Growing literacy rates in the nineteenth century had led to a rapid increase in the demand for illustrated books. By the 1860s, wood engravings could be reproduced mechanically using photographic techniques, enabling the production of cheaper, mass-produced books – but at the expense of quality. However, towards the end of the nineteenth century there was a revival in the manufacturing of fine quality, hand-printed illustrated books using traditional techniques and materials by Arts and Crafts practitioners such as William Morris. 

With its strong Arts and Crafts ethos, Birmingham was quick to respond to the demand for these from wealthier customers. Among the books produced at the School were A Book of Pictured Carols (1893) and Nursery Songs and Rhymes (1895). In each case, a number of the illustrators were female students. They included Kate Bunce; Georgie Gaskin (under her maiden name of Cave France); Violet Holden; Celia Levetus; Agnes Manley; Mary Newill; Florence Rudland; Mildred Peacock and Winifred Smith.

 Mary Newill, frontispiece to  Nursery Rhymes and Songs  with border by Georgie Cave France, 1895

Mary Newill, frontispiece to Nursery Rhymes and Songs with border by Georgie Cave France, 1895

Some of these women gained a national reputation for their book illustrations. Georgie Gaskin developed a reputation as an illustrator of children’s books while still a student, producing the illustrations for ABC: An Alphabet (1895); Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1896) and Hornbook Jingles (1896). In 1895, The Studio devoted an entire feature to Mary Newill, stating that her black and white drawings were ‘quite remarkable for their vigour of line and complete mastery of a convention which by its apparent simplicity tempts many to disaster.’ Meanwhile, Walter Crane described Celia Levetus as ‘one of the leading artists of the Birmingham School’ in his influential book The Decorative Illustration of Books Old and New (1896). Among her later works were illustrations for two volumes of William Blake’s poetry, Songs of Innocence (1899) and Songs of Experience (1902).

How do these illustrations compare with the type of work being done today? Do they inspire you to try using more traditional techniques?

Opening the Cabinet of Curiosities

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What might museums and archives reveal about the history of collecting? At the Victoria and Albert Museum, Dr Hannah Young has been investigating some of the links between British slave ownership and the development of the museum.  Absentee slave-owners used their wealth to invest in collections in the metropolis, and many of the objects once collected by them and their descendants can now be found at the museum. They've just appointed Victoria Adukwei Bulley as artist-in-residence to explore how this history has been 'hidden in plain sight' within the museum and how its legacy continues to shape the way in which we see the world today. Over a period of three months, she'll seek to challenge the way in which visitors think about the collections. 

Victoria is a British-born Ghanaian poet, writer and filmmaker based in London. In her own words, she aims:

to respectfully unearth the names, lives and experiences of individuals whose enslavement is ineffably tied to items housed within the V&A's collection.

She'll be drawing closely on Dr Hannah Young's research and the extensive Legacies of British Slave Ownership compensation database, using text, film and photography to provide a human face to this history in ways that archives are incapable of doing. This programme of exploration will be linked with a selection of public-facing events under the title A Series of Unfortunate Inheritances. Why not go along to one of these if you're in London?