About Me

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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book; and teach the history of printing at other institutions. I research language usage during the First World War, and lead the Languages and the First World War project. Author of Discovering Words, Discovering Words in the Kitchen, Evolving English Explored, Team Talk - sporting words & their origins, Trench Talk - the Language of the First World War (with Peter Doyle); How to Cure the Plague; The Finishing Touch; and Words and the First World War. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.


Thursday, 3 May 2018

Print, loss and preservation

The past week has seen an increase in election material coming through the letterbox, all of which will ultimately go into the recycling bin. But as it goes we should be conscious of the ephemerality of so much printed material; when the next local elections come around, will the incentives to vote this way or that be printed on the same kind of paper or card, be full-colour, will they have glitter or 3D effects, or something we have not yet thought of, or with they even be material at all? One of the items the History of Printing class at the Bishopsgate Institute looked at in March was a flyer for a Trades Union meeting in Hackney in 1983, printed on a duplicator, probably a Gestetner, a stencilling machine that was common in offices through most of the twentieth century, now superseded and rendered obsolete by a few generations of office printing processes. The flyer is on a rough dark yellow paper, instantly recognisable as cheap stock paper from those times, and has a shoeprint across it – it would not have survived if I had not picked it up and used it as a bookmark, in a book that remained closed for a few decades. And it stands as a challenge to keep all those flyers urging me to vote this way or that, as a record of print history as much as political history, since few things are as irretrievable as a copy of yesterday’s newspaper.

There are many stories of creation, loss and destruction in the world of print: Sherman Denton produced a wonderful book of butterflies and moths of North America, published in 1900, containing extraordinarily truthful prints of the species he was describing – truthful because each illustration was made from the wings of a captured specimen, ‘transfers of species from life’ as the book describes them. There is an apocryphal story told of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, his allegory of the Christian life, which was one of the most read books in the English-speaking world for 300 years. Bunyan’s book was so popular when it was first published in 1678 that a new edition was published every year for ten years; people read it till it fell apart, and then bought a replacement, to the extent that there was a story that only four copies have survived from the first printing. Though this is not the case, it illustrates the paradoxical fragility of successful print.

The Bishopsgate Institute Archives hold several examples of printed material whose survival is a source of delight; the recent History of Printing class examined a collection of nineteenth-century playbills from the Grecian Theatre in Islington, block printed in exuberant designs and colours, but intended to serve only to advertise a few performances, and then to be pasted over with the following week’s playbill. We also handled material which was produced in secret, and which the authorities surely wished had been even more ephemeral: samizdat publishing from the former Czechoslovakia, novels typed out by hand with five or six layers of carbon paper. Maybe a month’s work, producing five or six copies, in a labour intensive process to rival that of Gutenberg and his fifteenth-century followers.

The title page of a samizdat novel, Upilované Mříže by 
the Czech novelist and philosopher Jiří Pechar

Such items are deeply precious, handled with care (and wonder), and yet handling them is what they were made for. But walking round the reading rooms of the British Library you can trace where people have been reading material produced between 1870 and 1945 from the flakes of brittle brown paper on the floor, as the process of reading is also a process of loss. Every touch creates, in the encounter between printed word and image and the eye and mind of the reader, but every touch wears away and unintentionally destroys. The fibre laminating processes that were introduced to strengthen the pages of fragile books frustrate the reading process, as the eye struggles with the loss of contrast produced by the fibrous covering; but this is surely preferable to the complete loss of physical contact that comes with digitisation. Except that digitisation allows far greater access.

The items shown here illustrate how people in earlier centuries struggled to keep up with the accidents and wear that threatened to take from them their obviously much loved books. The immediacy and care of the repairs and strengthenings show how much these books mattered to their owners. As much as books allow the conquering of time by bringing us the words and images of the past, they have their own struggles with time.

Repairs to a page of Bloomfield’s A Farmer’s Boy published in 1806, 
showing a wood engraving attributed to Thomas Bewick

Repaired and/or strengthened children’s chapbooks 
from the early nineteenth century

My one-day course An Introduction to Printing in Europe (26th May) at the Bishopsgate Institute will be looking at how and why printing began, the introduction of new techniques and technologies, the struggles with authority and the demands of the reader, the questions of easy access and the production of luxury items, the ephemerality and the permanence of print, with opportunities to handle objects from seven centuries of print.


Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The Nature of Intervention - Nymans, 2012                   

This essay was first published in the catalogue for Unravelling Nymans, curated by Unravelled Arts, at Nymans House and Garden, may-October 2012 

Let us accept straightaway that Nymans is preserved in a way that renders it very different from how it was when people lived here. It is not the business of the National Trust to pretend that we are all invisible, and that the real inhabitants have gone out for the day. As we walk round enjoying objects and views we may not see ourselves in the space; but our presence is an intervention, and the nature of the site as it is depends on our engagement with it. The positioning of new artworks within a site like this disrupts our vision, putting us in a position where we can acknowledge our own presence.

Nymans is a site which is about change; the destruction of one form on the site has created space for a different form, a number of times, both deliberately and through the agency of catastrophe. How do we read the removal of the pre-nineteenth-century house, the extension of the Italianate villa, the replacement of this with a medievalist building? How do we understand the burnt part of the house beyond the locked door, which confounds our sense of space; is it outside or inside, is it predominantly resentful, romantic, challenging, anomalous or mournful? Do we read it as documentation of history, as a reference to the Gothic, as a forlorn hope for reconstruction?

In this context, where the site is a palimpsest on which people and fire have inscribed new identities for the building and its surroundings, proposing different kinds of engagement, the insertion of works of intervention and alteration is entirely appropriate. It is not only the house’s own identity, but also the engagement and reactions to it by the former owners that invites engagements and reactions from others. 

Works made to engage with a site can enlighten, inform, critique, outrage, delight and amuse; they can lead us to look at things and places in new ways, and they can ask us to look at our own way of looking – even in leading us to reject them they help us to confirm our own standpoint and opinions. Making work that reacts to and is situated within a site of heritage is bound to excite comment, often discomfort, annoyance and frustration. Both as makers and viewers we should note these feelings, and use them as a space to look at our expectations, to consider and note the relationships others have with things and places that mean something to us.

My own work has involved taking things apart, undoing worked textiles before I rework them; this is not preliminary to the work, it is part of the work. Making work that involves a certain amount of destruction of ‘heritage’ material opens a door to many difficult questions. Having initiated the process of alteration, can I complain if someone takes my work and alters it? – No, I cannot. What gives me the right to change another’s work? – The same right with which I change anything in the world. Does not presenting this kind of work here run counter to the role of the host organisation as a custodian of heritage for posterity? Art is in a position to ask new questions about how we relate to the culture we operate in; we should not allow the concern that things will not survive for posterity to prevent us from asking those questions in the present. What about the cultural value of the thing I am altering? – The intervention shifts its cultural value, inviting new ways of thinking about both the item and the structure of cultural value surrounding it.

Destruction has a recognised place in contemporary art. In 1953 Robert Rauschenberg was making work that involved erasing his own drawings; fascinated at that time by the work of Willem de Kooning, he asked that artist for a work that he could erase. De Kooning gave him a crayon and ink drawing; it took Rauschenberg a month to almost completely remove all the marks, creating Erased De Kooning Drawing. In 1960 Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York destroyed itself, as it was designed to do, and in 2001 Michael Landy destroyed all 7226 of his belongings, including a Tinguely drawing, in the work Break Down. In 2003 the Chapman Brothers exhibited Insult to Injury, a ‘rectification’ of Goya’s Disasters of War etchings (1937 printing), the heads of the subjects being overdrawn with the heads of puppies and clowns, in what Jonathan Jones described as ‘an extension of his despair’. All of these works are reactions to something already in existence, reactions that build upon that existence and create something which was not there before. They are works which are wholly related to the context of the material they developed from.

The irrevocable works just considered operate through a complex series of actions and marks. In the case of my interventionist embroidery works made for Nymans the undoing is irretrievable, but the marks made are infinitely removable, like digital marks; the mark made is patently a committed three-dimensional thing, the thread inserting itself through the ground, the mark tying itself down.  The act of taking away, seen through the deliberately left marks of undoing, is a greater irretrievability, a deliberate act marked by a trace, a mark of memory; the unmaking is permanent, while the making is capable of being changed.

The works I have made for this exhibition are clearly specific to this site, but the items I start with, having histories before they come to me, have become sites themselves; as such the context of my working on them has to be considered. There is no question of avoiding the issue of gender in this medium. It is fundamental to the process that we should be aware that embroidery in the West has traditionally been undertaken by women, and my intervention as a named individual thus is a male intervention in a female site. I am working with a clear knowledge of, and a clear reference to, the embroidery school set up by Maud Messel, in which local girls were taught embroidery, with the help of some of the housekeeping staff of Nymans. Given the context of the work, the process of named intervention in embroidery here turns works of ‘craft’ into works of ‘art’, explicitly authored, and with the rights of authorship.

Yet, despite the anonymity of the makers who originally created the objects I work on, the context of all of these handmade embroideries is that they were once closely associated with individuals, and mostly became family possessions. The process of becoming commodities detached them from those associations, rendering them more able to accommodate new stories, imagined, adapted, projected or transferred. In this sense they are ‘rehoused’ into a new context of meaning; very domestic artworks given a new home.

Each of these works must then be about loss, the loss of the previous work or the loss of the empty clean space. The work I Don’t Want To Lose You, while referring to the medievalist plaque, also relates to the loss of the work on the cushion, necessary to make the new work just as much as it is about the history of loss within Nymans itself, the desire not to lose the medieval, and the desire not to lose the part of the house destroyed by fire. We carry the past around with us. Ultimately these works open up a conversation with the role of the National Trust, which alters the route towards entropy by preserving sites such as Nymans, allowing the continuing questioning of how we see and know this aspect of the world and of ourselves.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Post-referendum thoughts

Reading Nick Cohen’s article in The Guardian[1] led me to look again at the images of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in the aftermath of David Cameron’s resignation speech. They looked like they had been temporarily recalled from the naughty step. What had they expected? Quite possibly not to be in that position. Neck and neck was a good state to be in, and possibly a close defeat – it was not they who had been claiming that 48:52 would be so close that the referendum would be seen as unresolved. A close defeat by the establishment, especially with others shouting ‘Unfinished Business!’, would have given them an enviable position – tribunes of the people, the mouthpieces of a broad church embracing the protest voters alongside those who had actually thought about the EU and decided to vote Leave.

They now have various courses of action: stand as a new team, fight between themselves, or allow a ‘unification’ candidate to stand for the leadership of the Tory Party and the role of unelected Prime Minister. If the last course of action is chosen, this will be seen as running away and letting someone else clear up the chaos ensuing from the referendum, discrediting both themselves, the campaign and those who supported it. If they fight between themselves, this will indicate that the referendum campaign was little more than a platform for their own individual ambitions. So they have to stand; while part of the Tory party clearly sees Johnson as an electoral liability, others see how easily marketable he is; Gove is a bit more of a successor to Thatcher, his expert-ditching appeal to middle England likely to bring with it all those Daily Mail readers who will quickly forget the Daily Mail’s own reporting of the broken promises[2]. If elected, they will have to deal with a disturbed economy, reaction to their collapsing promises, the at least partial removal of the financial sector to the Eurozone, a rampant UKIP, the resurgence of Irish tension, the likely secession of Scotland, an EU unlikely to succour secessionism in other member-states by acceding to a desire for a relationship for the UK, and a host of other unforeseen results, including chaos for cross-Channel movement[3], and a change to the status of the English language[4].

Ian Duncan Smith can be disregarded. His apparent outrage at the pressure being heaped on the poor is blatant crocodile tears; my only direct contact with my MP has been when I asked for help in the saving of our allotments, and his response showed that he didn’t know which borough they were in. The ‘quiet man’ was obviously the Lepidus of this Tory triumvirate.

So what were Gove and Johnson hoping for? I suspect a close defeat. A close defeat would have meant the following:

·      Both would have had to be given a seat in Cabinet, and a massive power-base.
·      They would have walked into the top jobs following Cameron’s eventual resignation.
·      Cameron and Osborne would have been seen to have ‘won’ on 23 June, and would have had to deal with, and be seen to be responsible for the results of, the fallout – increased calls for a second Scottish referendum, civil tension in high migration areas.
·      UKIP could have been returned to the shadows until the next election, with a large part of its support base probably not voting or returning to the Tories.
·      Though Cameron’s gamble would have been seen to have paid off, it would have been seen as a cynical exercise in disenfranchising UKIP supporters, and discredited him as a politician.
·      Any civil strife would have been blamed on Cameron and Osborne as a result.
·      The supposed Labour heartlands who voted Leave would have felt even more disenfranchised until a General Election gave them a chance to put Johnson/Gove in power, probably with a landslide majority.

No wonder they looked as if they had lost a pound and found sixpence. They pretty much had.