An Altered Book
'The smallest creatures cause the greatest concern"
I recently came into possession of a badly damaged and worn book called The History of the Earth and Animated Nature by Oliver Goldsmith MB. First published at the end of the 1700's, this edition was printed in 1834. The cover of the spine was missing, as were several pages and a child's scribbles were scattered throughout the book.
The book was intriguing. It was over 150 years old. Written in the language of the day, it captures a period of time when new discoveries were being made about the natural world. Published prior to Darwins On the Origin of Species, this text illustrates the early days of classification where animals are grouped according to their "kind" or their 'tribe' for example 'Fish of the Ray Kind".
The phrase 'the smallest creatures cause the greatest concern' had stayed with me following my last visit to the Hall. The damage tiny creatures such as moths and beetles can create in old buildings or libraries is of real concern for conservators. I had noticed some of the books in the library were in need of some restoration, and thought about how devastating it would be if an infestation should get hold in a collection like this.
I wanted to alter a book, as though it had been infested by insects. The History of the World and Animated Nature seemed the perfect starting point as it was already in such a poor state. After some deliberation and debate about should I use it or not - (I was brought up to respect books hence the ambivalence), the decision was finally made when it fell open onto a page about the history of the beetle. The reference to Norfolk at the bottom of the page 'sealed the deal'! Was this synchronicity guiding the process! Work is under way.
The Long Gallery
Blickling Hall has an impressive Library, with an estimated 13,000-14,000 books and manuscripts in the collection. They line the walls of the 123 feet Long Gallery. These are presently being catalogued by John Gandy who has spent the past five years sorting through the collection. It is estimated this will require a further 8-13 years to complete.
The majority of the collection originally belonged to Sir Richard Ellis (1682 -1742), a cousin of the Hobarts. Following his death this significant collection came to Blickling in the 1740's. It includes books on a wide range of topics including classical texts, arts, politics, antiquities, travel and science.
Of 12,500 books, over 10,000 were printed before 1801. The collection is packed with 'the rare, the curious, and the beautiful'. It includes magnificent illustrated books, thousands of pamphlets, medieval manuscripts, books of distinguished Provence and superb bindings.
The collection has subsequently been added to with books ranging from novels read by Caroline, Lady Suffield early in the nineteenth century, through to books of the Liberal politician Phillip Kerr, 11th Marquis of Lothian. In conversation with a national trust volunteer, I was informed there is a first edition of Jane Austen's Emma and Sense and Sensibility 'somewhere on the shelf'!
This summer the Library is undergoing conservation work. This is of course an never ending task for old properties like this. Staff are always on the look out for signs of insect infestation, and aware of the swift action needed if spotted! The damage caused by moths and beetles can be devastating and presumerably every conservationists nightmare! I left with with a phrase in my head that could be the start another piece of work - "the smallest creatures can cause the greatest damage"
As Long Ago...
Having gathered some background information, and some ideas, the next step is deciding on a book structure which might be sympathetic to the content I wish to include. I have decided to use an accordion fold. This allows movement through the book with some areas which can be discovered as the pages unfold.
Working with a clean sheet of paper is always a bit daunting so my favourite method of getting underway is to make some marks on the paper. This gives me something to respond to, and generally allows me to stay 'loose'.
I start with the image of the plaster walls on the top floor of the house. The wash of colour gives a warm aged tone to the pages. The book evolves and becomes a book of rememberance of two widows, the first lady of the house Dorothy Bell and the last, Constance Harriet Mahonensa Kerr.
The marks guide my next step. They suggest a ghostly faded atmosphere onto which the portraits Lord and Lady Hobart look across the page to each other. He in all his finery, her in h widow attire. I wanted these portraits to be soft suggesting their presence remains in the fabric of the building.
I used the idea of muslin curtain as the central heart of the book. Diffused light filters through suggestive of mourning. It reminded me of the old custom of drawing curtains when someone in the house had passed away.
On the other side of these dark pages are the portraits of William Kerr, 8th Marquis of Lothian and his wife Lady Constance.
The folded concertina structure allows hidden images to be 'discovered' as the book opens, revealing an angel from the tomb in St Andrews Church. The tomb, by Watts, was commissioned by Lady Constance when her husband died.
The tomb is of it's time - typically Victorian full of sentiment and romance. It is beautifully carved and captures the love, and grief Lady Constance may have experienced.
I included a few lines form a contemporary poem by Christina Rossetti which capture some of this Victorian sentiment.
Come to me in the Silence of the Night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope, love of finished years.
Yet come to me in dreams that I may live
My very life again though cold in death:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath;
Speak low, lean low
As long ago, my love, how long ago.
A follow up visit to Blickling Hall enabled me to gather some further information about the social history connected to the building. The house was bought by Sir Henry Hobart, 1st Baronet in 1616. He employed architect Robert Lyminge to extend and develop the property to what can be seen today. Sir Henry Hobart died in 1625 before the work was finished. His wife Dorothy Bell, Lady Hobart outlived him by sixteen years. Their portraits have been retained in the house.
Moving forward in time to the Victorian age, the Hall was passed to the last couple to occupy the house. William Shomberg Robert Kerr, 8th Marquess of Lothian, and Lady Constance Harriet Mahonesa Kerr. Like the first owners this couple also had simular misfortune - William died prematurely age 37 in 1870. Widowed for thirty one years, Lady Constance took over the running of the estate. She commissioned George Fredrick Watts to design a tomb in memory of her husband. This rather large and impressive tomb can be seen in small church of St Andrews opposite the Hall. She was well thought of by those that worked for her.
Following the first visit I left thinking about the "exposed' bare walls- the marks and graffiti left over the centuries. This return trip has been more focussed on the personalities who have lived in the Hall. I am particularly drawn to the first Lord and Lady of Blickling, and the last couple who lived in the property. There are similarities in that both wives were left as widows. With the death of Lady Constance in 1901 an era had come to a close, both for the large country estates and for Blickling Hall. While Phillip Kerr was the last to inherit the estate he never married, or had children, and apparently did not want to take up the life of a country gentleman. He was a liberal MP who among other achievements, became instrumental in establishing the National Trust.
On cold February day, accompanied by fellow artists Jules Allen, Jo Howe, Heather Hunter and Jean Mold Hart, I visited Blickling Hall in Norfolk. Our aim was to gather inspiration and information about this beautiful historic house in preparation for a group show. The exhibition will be held in the Loft gallery during May and September.
The house was being woken from it's winter slumber in readiness for this seasons visitors. The conservation team were busy cleaning and unwrapping the contents of the house. All around intriguingly shaped objects wrapped in tissue had an appealing air of mystery.
Curious red crosses appeared on various objects. I was informed these indicate items that are of particular importance or value. The red crosses are a visual aid, highlighting which objects should be removed first in the event of in fire.
We were taken on a 'behind the scenes' tour of the servants quarters. Climbing the stairs to the top of the building, the carefully preserved interiors of the main house give way to bare plaster walls, and plain floorboards. Today this area is mainly used for storage. I think all of us appeared struck by this bareness and the worn marks on the plaster and wooden beams. For me they seemed to have a different kind of beauty to the valuable wallpapers on the lower floors. I started wondering about the previous occupants of the house - all those people who had lived within these walls over the past four hundred years. Hints and traces of memory could be glimpsed here and there.
Windows, draped in black muslin, cast interesting shadows, creating a melancholy atmosphere. The house has had it's share of sadness and loss over the years. There has been early deaths leaving a number of widows, as well as childless couples. The house has been passed from family to family, rather than through the usual channels of inheritance.
There are so many avenues that could be explored in response to the site and the history of Blickling Hall. As we left at the end of the afternoon, I made the decision to use these first impressions as my starting point.
#200 Fish is a community project coordinated bt Biff Vernon. It aims to highlight the issues regarding declining fish populations in the Atlantic. Open to all people were invited to choose a fish from the list of two hundred found around Britains coast. Having chosen a subject, people were asked to submit a drawing or painting to be included on their web page This will then become a resource for others to use, raising awareness about diversity and the state of our oceans.
My contribution consists of an artist book about the Thornback Ray. it is an interesting fish to draw. The marbling and spots, along with thorns, appealed to my love of texture and pattern. The pen drawings were done over a sea chart which had been painted with a wash of ink.
I found a description of the fish from an account published in 1834 - Oliver Goldsmiths A History of the Animated World and Nature. It was written before we had developed a clear system of classification. Therefore creatures are described as "...of the Ray kind" or even more amusing, they are referred to as "tribes". This was written pre Darwin and seems to be of another age. It is so easy to take the vast amount of information available to us today with just the click of a button!
For more information concerning the project
Given all the work I did last year regarding whales, it was a must to visit the Natural History Museum exhibition about these fascinating mammals. The show was beautifully curated,- a visual treat as well as being informative.
The exhibition explored whales and dolphins evolution and adaptations to their underworld environment. So glad to have caught it before it closed!
Following the recent winter storm when temperatures dropped to an unusually low degree, the pond in the local park froze. It was an opportunity to observe the ice as it began to thaw and consider the similar processes that occur on a small scale here in the pond and those a larger scale in the arctic regions. Without a context the images could be seen as being either on a micro or macro scale.
Living in an urban environment, the inevitable rubbish was also present. Someone had thrown a bin into the pond scattering rubbish and plastic everywhere. It was now lying frozen in the ice. A reminder of the present concerns regarding the vast amounts of waste and plastic found along coastlines and in the ocean.
As well as the rubbish, twigs and feathers could be seen floating everywhere. It appeared as though Icarus had got too close to the sun again! All this detritus leaves an uncomfortable feeling but the resident birdlife seemed oblivious, too absorbed in their local rivalries. The Coots humorously chasing each other around in circles.
The feathers all seemed to drift to the edges of the pond - seeking a way out, clinging to anything they could find. The following day the ice continued to thaw exposing a larger reflective surface. There were some beautiful transitory marks sweeping across the pond. The world hangs upside down - tree and sky lay across the surface . While some reflections remain sharp, others were distorted by the movement of birds, or the gentle breeze. Nature was the artist here - playing at mark making.
By the end of the afternoon the ice had dissolved. These photographs managed to capture a few transitory moments. Inspiration to put in store for another day, another project.
I am also part of Bookscapes Collective.
Bookscapes is a group of six artists that have developed a group practice specialising in site specific interventions and exhibitions.