Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Gunnersbury Park and a very unassuming frock

At Sutton House I run a community group called the Recycled Teenagers. They're a group of over 55s, who started off as a short term project around 20 years ago documenting the experiences of Caribbean women living in Hackney. The remit of the group has since expanded, and anyone over 55 is welcome. The group largely comprises people in their 70s and 80s. We meet three terms a year for and for about 8 weeks each term we meet every Friday afternoon, and take part in activities such as dancing, singing, working with artists, life drawing, creative writing and loads more.

The Small Mansion, Gunnersbury park
Last week, with the help of one of our volunteers, Sharon, I took the group across London on a trip to Gunnersbury Park, which is jointly owned by Ealing and Hounslow councils. I chose Gunnersbury Park partly because I've visited before and thought the Recycled Teenagers would enjoy it, and partly because my very close friend, who I met on the Museums and Galleries in Education MA, Ellie works there. She has a very similar role to me, and very kindly said we could come and spend the day.

Ellie, expertly demonstrating how to wash clothes
We split the group in half, and took part in two activities, one was wandering around the park and hearing about the history and the community projects that they do at Gunnersbury, and the other was an object handling and reminiscence session led by Ellie, and Sarah Gudgeon.

The museum is currently closed for renovation, due to be re-opened in 2018, so the bulk of learning and community stuff happens in the Small Mansion next door at the moment. Gunnersbury House, which sits in the middle of the park was built in the late Georgian period and later bought by the Rothschilds. The house and land was sold in the 1920s on the condition that it was to be open to all as a place of leisure.

In the handling/reminiscence session, we learnt about the roles and life of the domestic staff in the house in Victorian times. We also handled a variety of objects from the collection, and reproduction objects, on the theme of domestic service, including carbolic soap, a bed warming pan, irons, a variety of brushes and polishes, a jelly mould, and a load more. A lot of them were unfamiliar to me (especially the wooden butter shapers!) but were very familiar to the Recycled Teenagers, for whom they weren't just historic artefacts, but objects from their past. Led by Ellie and Sarah, we discussed the objects and they all reminisced about old jobs they used to have.

The item we spoke about most, both during the workshop, and afterwards, was a beautiful dress that Ellie showed us at the beginning. When I first saw it, I thought it was kind of underwhelming, but hearing the story about it changed my mind, and it really resonated with many of the Recycled Teenagers.

It's a plain lavender print work dress, it's hand sewn and would have belonged to a maid. It was donated to the museum in 1954 by a Miss Lilian Bottle, and came with a scrap of paper saying 'working frock, belonged to aunt, died, 1891'. It's dated as circa 1890 on the museum catalogue, but we can safely assume it was from earlier than that (thanks to Ellie for providing me more info about the dress!). That is all that is known about the dress. The stitching is so generous and beautiful, this was likely worn by a more high ranking maid who was 'on show' more. There are a few light stains on the dress, most probably because such dresses would have been passed down generations. Ellie told us that in spite of its humble and unassuming appearance, this dress is one of the most valuable items in the collection. The reason for this, is because most Victorian maid's dresses would have been passed down until they fell to pieces, or were beyond repair, at which point they would have been cut into rags and used as cloths for cleaning. That one of these has survived, been looked after by its owner, and then cared for by a museum, is really remarkable.

The next time I saw the Recycled Teenagers, we spoke about the workshop again. Everybody was still talking about the dress. I said that I thought it was exciting that the dress was the most valuable item in the collection because - and Joan, one of the Recycled Teenagers, finished my thought for me - 'it belonged to a normal woman'. It was such a lovely and rare treat to see an item that belonged to an everyday working woman, and to see it being revered, and spoken about with such tenderness and import. It was a lovely moment to see how this had resonated with a group of working class women from Hackney, who through a reminiscence session, had learned they had much in common with the kind of woman who might have worn this dress. I'm so excited to see how the dress is put to use once the museum transformation is complete, and I can't wait to revisit it. Thanks to Ellie, Sarah and Sharon for hosting such an inspiring day!

Monday, 6 November 2017

May Morris: Art & Life (& Lesbian Erasure.... again)

My favourite historic butch, Mary Lobb
I seem to start every blog post with an apology for how long it's been since I last blogged, so I won't with this one. But I will try to blog more regularly now that my thesis is out of the way. I want to post about some of the work I've been doing at Sutton House recently, a recent visit to Gunnersbury Park and some amazing interpretation at Nunnington Hall. But in the mean time, I want to address a glaring problem with the May Morris: Art and Life exhibition (on until Jan 28th 2018) at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow.

It is, of course, really lovely. Morris' talents have long been in the shadow of her father, so it's no wonder that such a comprehensive overview of her design and craftswomanship is so beautiful to behold. The problem I have with it is, perhaps predictably, the lack of mention of Mary Lobb.

To get up to speed with this particular bugbear of mine, check out my earlier posts about similar problems I had with Kelmscott Manor, former home of May Morris and Mary Lobb, and the artworks I made in response to it here, here, here and here. (I should note that an exhibition about Mary Lobb has just finished at Kelmscott, I didn't get the chance to see it, as it's difficult to get to Kelmscott if you don't drive, so I can't comment on how it covered their relationship, but it's great to see a spotlight on her).

First, I'll highlight all of the mentions of Mary Lobb in the exhibition, then I will address some of the objections I often encounter when highlighting the absence of a queer narratives in such exhibitions, with this one in mind.

Mentions of Mary Lobb in the exhibition:

  • A text panel about Kelmscott Manor begins: 'In her later years, the majority of May's time was spent at Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire, which she shared with her 'housekeeper, cook and companion' Mary Lobb'
  • A photograph of the pair on holiday in Wales in 1926
  • Two further small photographs of the two in Iceland in 1931
  • A caption for a photograph of May on a pony in Iceland from the same trip, which reads: 'William Morris first visited Iceland in 1871 and was captivated by the dramatic landscape. In 1926, May and Mary Lobb followed in his footsteps. They returned to Iceland twice more. One their last trip in 1931, they were accompanied by Mary and Margaret Pierce, whom May had befriended during her lecture tour of North America'
  • In a display case of jewellery, all of the items were given to the V&A by Mary Lobb. It fails to mention that this is because May bequeathed the majority of her money and belongings to Lobb when she died. 

Nowhere in any of this do we get a sense of the closeness between the two that would be evident with better interpretation. They lived together for the best part of 20 years, and hearsay has it that they shared the same bed, this seems to me that once again Mary Lobb's significance in May's life is being overlooked or swept under the carpet, whether platonic or otherwise.

The following are things I often hear in response to historic figures being read as LGBTQ, so I thought I would respond to them here. I also expect these would be the kind of defences people would make about Lobb's exclusion from the exhibition:

The exhibition was a showcase of Morris' work, not a biographical exhibition

That's not strictly true. The exhibition of work is shaped around a timeline of May's life, which includes biographical information throughout. Curator Michael Petry once said (I'm paraphrasing) 'if you mention the wife, you have to mention the relationships he had with men' (about a male artist), and since there is mention of the May's relationships with George Bernard Shaw, and Henry Sparling, so too should there be information about her relationship with Lobb.

There is no proof that their relationship was anything but platonic

There is also no proof that she was sexually attracted to George Bernard Shaw or Henry Sparling. There is proof that Lobb and Morris lived together. A few years ago I spent a day at the archive at the William Morris Gallery and asked to see all of the material relating to Lobb, so I know that there is plenty of material that shows that other people around them thought that there was an atypical closeness between them, or more to their relationship than merely companionship (in fact, I made a sound piece called The village folk had a lot to say about it using the words of their contemporaries verbatim).

Lobb was not a designer/ well known figure/ pre-Rephaelite beauty/ important enough to feature

All the more reason to include her. She was a working woman, and an important part of May's life. Figures like her are all the more relatable to visitors today than anyone else in the exhibition. I was first drawn to Mary Lobb because she is an androgynous figure, she instantly spoke to me in a way that many historic figures do not.

Lobb, and more specifically, the relationship she had with May Morris is not well documented enough

Indeed not, but curators and interpretation staff in museums draw conclusions every day. I'm not asking that they 'out' May Morris, but that they aren't dismissive of such an important relationship, or that perhaps they acknowledge that many, even in their lifetime, assumed the two were a couple.

The curators did not want to make any assumptions/ jump to conclusions

To say this, assumes heterosexuality as the default, or that May Morris being a lesbian, or bisexual is somehow shameful. How often do we assume that someone was straight with no proof? There's plenty of proof that Morris' relationship with Mary Lobb was a more enduring and important one than any she had with a man. I think it's not too far of a reach to jump to this conclusion.

Those are just some very quick thoughts about it. I'd be really keen to hear from anyone who visited, or was involved in the Mary Lobb exhibition at Kelmscott Manor, to see how they approached the relationship, and to hear if any more archival material was dug up in the process. That all said, if you want to have a look at a load of very beautiful embroideries, for free, then I recommend the exhibition. If you're looking for any mentions of the queerness of the relationship between May Morris and my favourite historic butch, Mary Lobb- then you'll probably be disappointed.

Be back soon.