IASH Twitter Takeover – Favourite Collages #1 – ‘Collection of botanical collages from the circle of Booth Grey.’

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As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, this week I’m over on the IASH twitter talking about my research project, Collage before Modernism. Yesterday, I asked you what some of your favourite collages were – and the results included: Joseph Cornell’s amazing boxes; quilts from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 2010 exhibition; and queer zines, such as those preserved on .

Each day for the rest of this week, I’m going to introduce you to some of MY favourite collages, and first up, it’s this series of Botanical Collages from the Circle of Booth Grey, now housed at Yale Center for British Art (YCBA).

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I was lucky enough to spend a month at YCBA in May this year as part of their Visiting Scholarship programme. During this time I looked at a huge amount of amazing material, but perhaps the most puzzling was the ‘Collection of botanical collages from the circle of Booth Grey.’ With their black grounds and stark attention to the details of the plants that they replicate, the collages clearly echo those made by Mary Delany, many of whose infamous and extensive series of botanical collages – what she called her ‘paper mosaicks’ – are now in the collections of the British Museum. Delany’s collages just one example of Delany’s industrious material production – she also made shell work, engaged in needlework, and drew and painted. As such, the collages have been discussed in terms of feminine accomplishment, craft practices, botanical amateurism, and female friendship, all of which provide compelling contexts in which to understand these works. Grey’s collection, however, complicates this paradigm.

The attribution to Grey – an elite male – is accordingly tentative. The series’ current record title on the YCBA catalogue – ‘Collection of botanical collages from the circle of Booth Grey’ – indicates only an ambiguous relationship to Grey. He is not necessarily identified as artist, or owner, we are told only that the collages have some connection to him. Yet this identification was prompted by some fairly compelling evidence: an inscription on the original album that once held these collages ’98 Plants done by the Honble. Booth Grey’, ‘done’, here, of course, suggesting that they were ‘made’ by Grey.

Grey certainly could have come into contact with Delany: as the younger son of the Countess of Stamford, and whose older brother was married to the Duchess of Portland’s daughter Henrietta, Grey was part of the elite, and crucially, creative, social circle in which Delany also moved. Kohleen Reeder also supposes that Grey even gave Delany some of her specimens, highlighting a potential relationship that was directly related to these material and artistic practices. Yet despite these corroborating details, there is a palpable reluctance to link Grey to these objects, a feeling that something about this picture must be wrong. Key to this hesitancy, I think, is a general assumption that men simply did not make collage – certainly not during this period, in the late eighteenth century. By 1912 of course, and the advent of Modernism, men certainly did make collage, and that collage was definitively art. This is the date of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque’s earliest papier collé, as exemplified by works such as Picasso’s Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper of 1913. By this point, collage has become a key visual weapon in the attack on traditional painted representation; a central form of Modernist experimentation. This narrative of the Modern invention of collage, however, entirely divorces it from those images and objects that preceded it. The paper flowers of Delany, and, maybe, of Grey, lie far from Picasso’s radicalism, tinged by their association with the explicitly female frameworks of craft, amateurism, and the domestic.

Yet attention to collages like those ‘from the circle of Booth Grey’ – whatever that ultimately might mean – provide a chance to challenge this neatly drawn timeline with its rigid, teleological chronology. Instead they allow us to rethink the relationship between collage and craft; between masculinity and modernism. During my Postdoctoral Fellowship at IASH, I’ll be teasing out this complex relationship in my article, ‘Collage, Masculinity, and the Modern: Gendered Art Histories 1780-1912’, which is forthcoming as part of the Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies Special Issue, ‘Making Masculinity: Craft, Gender, and Material Production in the Long Nineteenth-Century’ that I’m co-editing with Dr Katie Faulkner. Whatever the ‘truth’ around Booth Grey’s collages, they provoke a number of questions that I am excited to try and answer.

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