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I lead workshops at the British Library, on literature, language, art, history, and the culture of the book. 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. As an artist I work in performance, public engagement, and intervention using drawing, curating, text, changing things and embroidery.

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Saturday, 10 October 2015

Mr Taylor's Valentines







Curating an exhibition is an act of care and creation. Not only are works to be seen to their best advantage, but the curator must be aware of opportunities to stimulate emerging meaning, must be aware of the implications of the visual relationship between works (above/below, left/right, opposite?), the view of the audience, the wider context of site. It is a lot harder than it looks – indeed the work involves making it not look hard at all, unless we want it to look hard, which is probably even harder.

Having put together the exhibition at Valentines Mansion ‘Mr Taylor’s Valentines’ I have been reflecting on the process. My initial concern was how the works – framed dense arrangements of shells – would sit in the cases available. Would the frames of the cabinet windows impede the view of the works? Would the spaces be large enough? Would the lighting cause annoying reflections? Would I be able to show all the works? Ultimately there are few spaces in which these questions do not cause curatorial problems. Choices have to be made, uncomfortable ones, often with limited time; there are few possibilities of trying an arrangement out; we have to make do with what we have got. But equally there are going to be dialogues between the works and their environments – plural because these are spatial, personal, they involve opening times, other events going on in the space, health and safety, conservation demands. There is no neutral space, and exhibited objects have these dialogues with the context we put them in whether we like it or not.

In putting together the show I had some concerns, not about how I felt about the work, which I have felt was superb since I first saw it, but about questions about the making of the works might impede actual appreciation of their composition and meaning. I anticipated questions like ‘how long did each one take to make?’, ‘how many shells were there in each piece?’, or even ‘why are they pretending to be antique?’ All of these are perfectly legitimate questions, but maybe more useful for the maker to ask him or herself. The show was arranged because I wanted others initially to have the experience I had had, the sudden intake of breath and the rush of delight - in effect I wanted people to say ‘wow’ - but I wanted there to be a lot more after the ‘wow’.



Terry Taylor’s sailors’ valentines are works of dedication and exploration. They stemmed from his collecting originals, and follow the delight in the object through the compulsion to make. For many they are eccentric, obsessive, bizarre, a little uncomfortable, and overtly referential to the antique. Equally they are wonderfully eccentric, in-the-face obsessive, beautifully bizarre, and challengingly uncomfortable as well as comfortingly antique. Their stories challenge their own face value: the nineteenth-century sailors’ valentines were not made by sailors but by craft-workers in Barbados using shells from Indonesia. They were sold to British sailors to take back to Britain, and no doubt on occasions were palmed off to waiting sweethearts as the returning sailor’s own work. They are only ‘sailors’’ because sailors bought them, their ‘authenticity’ suspect from the start. Terry Taylor’s valentines use the language of the nineteenth century, and their ‘authenticity’ with their sentimental messages, their use of the octagonal frame, their overt reference to crowded Edwardian parlours and chocolate-box nostalgia edges them towards the originals. We are invited by the visual references to want them to be ‘authentic’, though we know that this word is rendered meaningless by the objects themselves.

And as we read their arrangements as patterns, or occasionally words or flowers, we still know that they are just shells, and that knowledge pushes us further into complicity – the complicity of art that makes raw objects, pigment, clay, charcoal, into something that we use to talk to ourselves about the business of being human in the world. 

Part of their strength is that they pull us towards them, pulling us into the world of the collector, the arranger, as well as the child on the beach, the adult with a pocketful of holiday souvenirs; but equally the nostalgic world of empire, navy, wealth and comfort, and that is where another edge comes in, as we remember that the setting for this exhibition, Valentines Mansion, was largely a product of profits made from world trade under the protection of imperial power. And being sailors’ valentines they were already in a deliberate linguistic context.  Though as makers we want our works to be perceived as themselves rather than as something that fits into a context, we know equally that art itself is in a context, art in the context of sitting-room wall, the garden, the museum shelf, the church, the National Gallery, the investment portfolio, the white cube gallery or the wider context of art history. For that reason I wanted to make the works seem immediately less eccentric by placing them in the context of the human relationship to shells. The more I looked at the history of the use of shells as art, artefact, symbol, decoration, the more obvious it became that the appeal of the shell has been with us since we started to react to our environments. Think petroleum, grottoes, Botticelli’s Venus, nursery rhymes, Pacific Island fish-hooks, Neolithic necklaces, aphrodisiacs, Bachelard’s ‘daydreams of refuge’, wood-inlays, la Casa de las Conchas in Salamanca, Molly Malone the shellfish peddler, Stone Age refuse piles, The Lord of the Flies, barter-tokens, cutlery handles, sandcastles. The valentines are contextualised by shell-shaped teapots, shell badges, mother-of-pearl gambling tokens, books open to references of grottoes and shell statues, masks with shells, a shell cross, and more.

The contextual material in the exhibition then – shells as artefacts and decoration, and shells as themselves – serves to show that Terry Taylor’s works, far from being eccentric outsider art, sit within the mainstream of both art and the nature of being human in the world. They are part of a mindset that encompasses both wandering along the shore and thinking that a certain shell has to be picked up and taken home, and exploring our own perception of what appeals to us. The context is both wide and multi-layered, and in the middle of it lies our wonder and delight at the shell, which drives these works because it drove the original sailors’ valentines. Putting the exhibition together put me in the way of handling several shells, and I was aware of several questions emerging: why is the outside of a clam so rough and the inside so smooth? What is the space inside the cowrie? What inside the conch lies beyond the farthest place my fingers can reach? A shell, which is both the covering and the creature that lives within it, is a being whose outside charms us, but whose inside confounds us, confronting us with our inability to feel the space inside the vortex of the conch, to comprehend the being of the clam, to believe the grip of the limpet. As Bachelard says ‘the imagination is defeated by reality’.

'Mr Taylor's Valentines' is at Valentines Mansion, Gants Hill, until 28 October 2015, Tuesdays and Sundays 11-3, plus 26-28 October 11-3


Bachelard, G, 1994, The Poetics of Space, Boston 105 & 107