With the Association of Art Historian’s Annual Conference less than a week away, I’m publishing the session abstracts here on the blog. Be sure to drop in if you’re heading to Edinburgh for the conference – our session will be held in 50 George Square, Room G.06 on Saturday 9 April from 09:20 until 17:20.
Session Conveners: Sarah Laurenson and Freya Gowrley (University of Edinburgh, firstname.lastname@example.org & email@example.com)
Material things have been used to fashion identities and form social relationships throughout history. This panel seeks to shed light on the intersecting histories of materiality and process in the production and consumption of material culture. It invites papers that examine how physical and intellectual practices such as collecting, repurposing and remaking conveyed materially embedded messages about the subjective experience of their owner-makers, as well as the period in which they were undertaken more broadly. Such practices performed not only physical but semantic changes upon these objects which, due to their revised contexts, reciprocally enacted changes upon their possessors. Examining how these processes allowed individuals to construct identities, spaces, and social bonds, this panel will address issues central to the ‘material turn’ that has characterised recent scholarship within the humanities and, in particular, that of art history.
Papers included within the session will examine issues such as object biography, construction and reconstruction, adaptation and alteration, collage and assemblage, display, and the transformative potential of acquisition, with a broad focus on objects between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.
09:20 Opening Remarks
Erika Hanna (The University of Bristol) Family Albums and Family Secrets: Making sense of the limitations of photographic sources
In the early years of the twentieth century, Desmond Cantwell (1905-38) kept a photograph album, in which he recorded the happy and carefree life of a prosperous Irish family: elaborate picnics, days at the beach, family celebrations; a conventional use of a photograph albums as analysed in an extensive literature (Spence, Chalfen, Kuhn). However, on closer inspection, this album is not quite as conventional as it first seems. Desmond was never present when these photographs were taken. Shortly after Irish independence he left for South Africa and spent the rest of his life living a peripatetic existence across the Africa and Canada. His family posted him photographs across thousands of miles, which he diligently pasted into his album and annotated. Making sense of Desmond’s album, and exploring all the historical uses it can be put to, requires an exploration of so much more than the form and content of the images. The social biography of both the individual photographs and the album as a whole is key to making sense of their significance, and using these objects to explore Desmond’s life fully. In the captions written and re-written, the gradual deterioration of Desmond’s handwriting across the years, many hands each individual photograph passed through, and the movements the album underwent from Dublin, to South Africa, Kenya, and Canada we discover a story of loss, silence, and longing across great distances. Indeed, it is the dissonance between the narratives created by these two divergent methods—the aesthetic and the material—that give the album its resonance.
Freya Gowrley (University of Edinburgh) Object Biographies: Family histories and textual afterlives in the commonplace books of Ellen Warter
This paper will focus on two commonplace books made by Ellen Warter c.1885 (CRC, University of Edinburgh). Unlike many commonplace books, which tend to comprise transcriptions from a wide variety of texts by a range of different authors, over 300 pages of Warter’s texts refer to the history and literary productions of the Brontë family, including excerpts from the sisters’ writings, literary criticism relating to their publications, and information pertaining to their home in Haworth, North Yorkshire. Beyond her documentation of the Brontës, the practice of commonplacing was firmly intertwined with Warter’s own family history. Her father had edited the letters and commonplace books of his father-in-law, the Romantic poet Robert Southey, whilst her mother’s own commonplace book was published in 1861. For Warter then, commonplacing was not only an educative practice, but also an inherently familial one, with her compilation of ‘Brontëana’ consistent with the domestic, material practices of her own literary family.
Employing the framework of the object biography, the paper will consider Warter’s commonplace books in terms of literary assemblage, tracing the constitutive elements of Warter’s commonplace books as they passed from one literary form into the next. At the same time, the paper will demonstrate how the books were inherently biographical objects, redolent with potent familial association, both of Warter’s own family, and that of the Brontës, and whose compilation created material and familial afterlives for its collected contents.
10:50 Tea/Coffee Break
Sarah Laurenson (University of Edinburgh) Crafting stories: past, place and self in Scottish freshwater pearls
Scottish freshwater pearls have been desired as objects of beauty and rarity for many centuries. Created by living things under the surface of lochs and rivers, the pearls’ earthy hues – white and cream through to pink, lilac, grey and gold – and their uneven, imperfect shapes told a tale of their origins in the Scottish landscape. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century ‘Scotch pearls’ were displayed as rare specimens in curiosity cabinets and worn as jewellery to express complex and shifting cultural identities. These gems of the sea, and the objects made from them, contained layers of meaning that swirled around ideas of past and place.
Drawing on jewellery artefacts, portraits and documentary sources, this paper traces the life cycle of native pearls in nineteenth-century Scotland, from their watery origins in the landscape through the jeweller’s workshop to worn objects. The people involved at each stage of the transformation from natural to cultural – pearl fishers, craftsmen-retailers and owner-wearers – are considered to explore how stories of past and place embedded within pearls connected makers and buyers, and shaped ideas of the self. By unlocking evidence from objects made at different points during the nineteenth century, we see how the meanings of these rare and precious materials, and the ways in which they were crafted, consumed and worn, shifted over time. These subtle shifts shed light on the role of materials and making processes in shaping how crafted things were designed, made, used and passed on.
Jacqueline Riding (Birkbeck College, University of London) ‘Look, Love and Follow’: Formation and transformation in the imagery of Charles Edward Stuart
From the time of his birth in 1720, the image of Charles Edward Stuart, Jacobite Prince of Wales, was carefully constructed utilising standard pictorial models for the representation of European monarchy. Such imagery was reproduced, adapted and disseminated (within the United Kingdom covertly) to loyal supporters of the exiled Stuart dynasty.
During the ’45, when, for the first time, he was in complete control of his own self-image, Charles strategically alternated his appearance from that of a fashionably dressed European/British prince, to that of a tartan-clad Highland Chief. In so doing, the prince was attempting to answer the expectations of his predominantly Highland army while, at the same time, responding to the urgent need to appeal to, and ultimately win over to his cause, the majority of Britons: many of whom (Lowlanders and English alike) considered the Highlander (as represented through tartan plaid) a barbaric anachronism.
After the Jacobite army’s defeat at Culloden in April 1746, the prince spent five months as a fugitive in the Western Highlands and Islands. The Highland garb he wore at this time was no longer symbolic, but vital for his survival. Yet it is from this period, when tartan and Highland clothing in general was outlawed and the ancient Clan system was being dismantled, that the image of the prince undergoes its most dramatic and enduring reconstruction, both in terms of representation and meaning.
This paper will chart this transformation, through specific examples of contemporary visual and material culture (including literature), from the reality of an Italian-born British Prince, to the myth of the ‘Highland Laddie’.
Colleen Hill (The Museum at FIT) Memories & Mysteries: Repurposed clothing in the museum at FIT Collections
This paper will examine a small but significant number of objects in the collections of The Museum at FIT that were repurposed from an older garment or textile. While many such objects are overlooked in museum collections for being “inauthentic,” they can be fascinating tools for interpreting the economic, emotional, and/or creative value that many garments and fabrics once held.
A few examples to be discussed include: a circa 1840 dress, refashioned from an eighteenth-century Spitalfields silk gown; a circa 1900 opera cape remade from a paisley shawl; a man’s dressing gown from 1936, cut from a nineteenth-century crazy quilt; a 1960s man’s Italian suit crafted from a paisley shawl; and a circa 1972 maxi skirt from the boutique label Serendipity, made from two worn pairs of jeans. In some instances, the garment’s history was provided by its donor. In many others, an examination of the object—in addition to extensive research into its materials and date of construction—are the only means to better understanding its biography.
In conclusion, I will relate historical methods of repurposing to contemporary practices by labels such as Maison Martin Margiela and Anne Valérie Hash. These one-of-a-kind garments are collected and valued by museums, not only for their uniqueness and artistry, but for their connections to the increasingly important sustainable fashion movement.
Hannah Lee (Queen Mary University London) Shape Shifting Objects: A 19th century snuff box and the atonement of the HMS Black Joke
Through the medium of an object biography, this paper explores questions surrounding object adaption and reconstruction. It traces the story of how a Brazilian slave trading vessel was first re-appropriated by the British navy, to police and suppress the trade in slaves, before it’s timbers were eventually transformed by Chinese craftsmen into a 103mm snuff box commemorating the abolition – a pungent irony lingering in the fact that this abolitionist emblem was purpose made to hold the by-product of a slave crop.
The re-purposing of materials is central to the story of this object with its own transformation intended as the symbolic marker of a key historical moment. Yet it can also be placed within a wider global narrative of movement and diverse interaction, with the Americas, China and England all playing leading roles. How does the global history of this snuff box manifest itself materially? Was the re-appropriation of ship timber common practice and if so what other forms did its afterlife take? How can we place this object within the wider collective of abolitionist material culture? Using close visual analysis this paper will discuss how the identity of an object can be shaped by both creator and commissioner, whilst highlighting how material sources can often rebel to reveal more to the historian than a surface-led pictorial reading might allow.
15.20 Coffee Break
Hadley Jensen (Bard Graduate Centre, New York) Visualising Craft: James Mooney and the cultures of collecting and display in the American southwest
This paper investigates museum collections as subjective visualizations of indigenous peoples in the North American Southwest by looking at the imaging of Navajo culture through the collection and display techniques of nineteenth-century ethnologist James Mooney.
Mooney traveled to the Southwest in 1892 to collect objects for two dioramas of Navajo weavers and silversmiths to be shown at the Chicago World’s Fair. After the diorama’s initial exhibition, it was installed in the Smithsonian, where it remained on display for over a century. This paper presents Mooney as a case study to examine the imaging of craft in the Southwest, with an emphasis on photographs of Navajo craftsmen and their later use as mediators of an ethnographic/cultural image. In so doing, I seek to reconstruct the “cultures” of collecting and exhibition in the region during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Considering what is communicated through material culture—and how this is achieved over time—I examine the artifacts he collected to elicit a fuller understanding of the field of representational activity at the time, which included photographs, dioramas, and museum displays. Attention will also be given to their respective contexts and venues for circulation, exhibition, and consumption. Mooney’s Navajo diorama at the Chicago World’s Fair, and its later public life in the museum, provided a widely seen visualization of Navajo culture that persisted well into the twentieth century.
Marie-Eve Marchand (Independent scholar) The Making of a Museographic Object: Transforming the domestic interior into a period room
Period rooms are organized to mirror domestic interiors of the past. Yet, their making necessitates the collecting and repurposing of artefacts—including architectural components, pieces of furniture, and decorative objects—upon principles which are embedded in the present, that is the socio-historical context during which the period room is constructed. Considering the extent of material and intellectual transformations needed for their creation, period rooms not only rank among the most complex strategies used to exhibit material culture in museum: they can be considered as “museographic objects” in themselves.
To offer a new perspective on the epistemological issues involved in the process of transforming a domestic interior into a period room, this paper will focus on the case of Madame de Sérilly’s Boudoir as exhibited in the South Kensington Museum during the years following its acquisition in 1869. I will examine the functions and multilayered statuses given to this French eighteenth-century room in nineteenth-century London, and explore how the visitors were invited to experience this unique object and interact with it. To do so, I will analyze visual and written primary sources both in the light of the historical context and through the lens of the theoretical background provided by “Thing Theory.” The combination of these two approaches will allow me to probe the Sérilly’s boudoir agency in a way that will further our understanding of the various meanings given to material culture through its institutionalization and exhibition, and to explore the specific role of this newly created object for the construction of the self at that time.
17:20 Closing Remarks