Art Sparklets is an ongoing online scrapbook, serving as a partial archive of some of my favourite domestic objects - all of which have extraordinary twists. I have discovered these objects whilst perusing the British Library's collections during my time here as the Creative Research Fellow. There are images, excerpts from texts, my own thoughts and sketches. Some require explanation, a few do not. In fact, some are better left up to the imagination.
Ghosts of stockings
At a time when spirit photography was popular, George Cruikshank wrote a humorous essay mocking what he felt to be the absurdity of the mediums' claims to contact the dead. According to Cruikshank, if there are spirits of people, then for them to be able to present themselves before company, there must also be:
'the spirits of trousers, spirits of gaiters, waistcoats, neckties, spirits of buckles and shoes and knees; spirit of buttons, bright gilt buttons, spirits of caps, bonnets, gowns and petticoats; spirits of hoops and crinolines, of ghost's stockings'.
What do reversed-heel shoe footsteps sound like?
Patent 3, 823,494:Reversed-heel shoes, patented July 19th 1974
Boots and Ribbons
Official Secret - The Remarkable Story of Escape Aids - Their Invention, Production and the Sequel; Clayton Hutton; Max Parish; 1960; 9196.1.22
Clayton Hutton worked for MI9 designing and manufacturing escape aids for RAF officers fighting in enemy territory during WWII. These escape aids fitted into two categories: those which were 'pre-capture' devices and those which were surreptitiously sent to POW's in camps through a network of fake organisations.
This page from my sketchbook illustrates two designs.
The first on the left is an image of a design for a new flying boot. Hutton heard many complaints about boots from airmen returning to Britain. The boots became wet in damp weather and caused swelling in the feet and legs when marching for any length of time in dry weather. At all times they were noticable because of their distinctive appearance.
The new escape boots contained a tiny blade in a cloth loop at the top of the boot, allowing the wearer to detach the bottom part, thereby creating an ordinary walking shoe. The leather-lined top half could be used to form a warm winter waistcoat. The laces also contained a powerful 'Gigli' saw and within the cavity of the heel were hidden silk maps, a compass and a small file.
On the right are sketches made whilst at the RAF Museum in Hendon. Here, I was shown the original artworks commissioned by Hutton for a pamphlet entitled 'The Quick Change Act', issued by MI9 to all officers. One item was an illustration of handkerchiefs wrapped in floral ribbon. It transpires that each combination of flower and leaf on the ribbon represents a letter of the alphabet in Morse code. Although there was no further information about precisely how this would have been used, I imagine that it would have been included in packs sent to POWs, alerting them to escape aids hidden elsewhere, either within the parcel, or on their own person.
'Sometimes the battery heated, and leaked, and once I well remember, the old lamps having worn out, I had some new ones given to me that were a wrong resistance for the battery. It heated, and we barely had time to cast the battery into the bath before the gutta-percha sides gave way, and the acids poured out, taking off all the paint. So, having spoilt a dress, a carpet and a bath, I abandoned personal electric light decorations'.
Decorative Eliectricity; Mrs J.E.H. Gordon; Sampson Low and Co.; 1891; 8757.bb.31
Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt photographed in 1883 wearing an 'Electric Light' ballgown, designed by Frederick Ward. (From Articificial Sunshine: A Social History of Domestic Lighting; Maureen Dillon; National Trust; 2002; m02/39683).
Personal electrical adornments became popular in the early 1880s, initially for the stage but later as a fashion accessory. Excited by the novelty of electricity, other inventions soon appeared, such as electric tablecloths and table decorations.
'Electric lights may be nestled in plants themselves; growing strawberry plants look charming with little lights beneath their leaves; so do dwarf orange and lemon trees, the fruit scooped out and the lamps hung inside the empty rinds.
Decorative Electricity; Mrs J.E.H. Gordon, Sampson Low and Co.; 1891; 8757.bb.31
Death, Heaven and the Victorians, John Morley, Studio Vista; 1971; x.800/5741
Detail taken from my sketchbook of one of Queen Victoria's embroidered handkerchiefs. After the death of the Prince Consort, the Queen - and the nation - went into mourning. To show the extent of her bereavement, the Queen had all her monogrammed handkerchiefs stitched with black and white teardrops. (White was considered deeper mourning than both grey and mauve).
The Art of Decoration; Mrs Hawes; Chatto and Windus; 1881; 7954.de.13
'Burial and exhumation being fixed ideas in the mind of society, death and destruction were subjects to be played with and made pretty. They were not always made pretty though: skulls were introduced into the pictures of the most seductive women; the courts adopted funeral trinkets, and the merriest ladies pursued pleasure with death's heads and cross-bones embroidered on their dresses, people sniffed essences from skull pomanders, liked the semblance of decay everywhere and cultivated a charming chair de poule even at the dinner table. Objects which were perhaps intended to remind people that they ought to mend their ways, only preached the doctrine 'Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'.
The Art of Ornamental Hairwork; F.L.S.; London, 1856;Mic.A. 12318(11.)
Self Instructer in the Art of Hairwork, dressing hair, making braids, and hair jewellery of every description; Mark Campbell; New York, Chicago, 1867; Mic.A.8093(3)
Trollope family letters and memorabilia; Loan 109
Quite early on in my research, I kept finding references to sentimental and mourning hair jewellery, but it wasn't until more recently that I actually got hold of some real pieces from the collections, rather than just looking at pictures. Two bracelets belonging to a member of the Trollope family, possibly Fanny, were enclosed in a book, alongside other containers holding a painted miniature, a watch and several private letters.
In the case of both bracelets, the clasps are made of metal and are the part that gives the jewellery weight. The straps, made of intricately braided hair, appear like very fine metal thread. It's the lightness and elasticity of the strap, and a few rogue hairs that have freed themselves that reveal that it is hair.
This hair jewellery is strange stuff - I washed my hands after touching it, somehow it just felt too intimate. And after quite a long period of doing a lot of looking, reading and thinking, but not much making, it inspired me to create the drawing above: An 'Elf Lock' in ink on paper. It was named after the old belief that tangled hair was deliberately knotted by Queen Mab and her elves and would bring the wearer bad luck.
Workshop with Highgate School for Boys
I ran a workshop with a group of year 9 students from Highgate School for Boys several months ago, who were a really great group to work with and threw themselves into some fo the quick drawing exercises I'd asked them to have a go at. The examples above show two activities. Top: drawing an object without taking the pencil off the page by Callum Davey. Below: drawing familiar objects with the wrong hand by Raza Habib. I think they're fantastic!
Room of Shadows
Knight & Forbes-Robertson Papaers Vol. XII, Add. 62706
The pallid remains of withered flowers, locks of hair, silk ribbons and fading photographs pinned into albums or pressed behind glass, all seeking to convey a material connection to events or people long forgotten.
Domestic Copybook for Girls, 1879.b.20
In a time when printed text wasn't as ubiquitous as it is today, but when words were more readily available in a handwritten form, the style of the written word spoke volumes about the individual and their social standing. Lawyer or teacher, lady or gentleman of leisure, one's position in society was demonstrated by the style of handwriting one practiced. Previously, handwriting was far less homogenous, with some professionals such as lawyers being masters in several different styles. Each style was appropriate for a different duty. For women, a narrow, sloping hand was considered befitting.
Collecting and arranging monograms into albums was a peculiarly middle-class British habit, and like many other scrapbooks of the Victorian era, they were subject matter for parlour small talk. The importance of the collection was less about the craftsmanship of the album (which was what impressed me) and more about the status attributed to a correspondence with someone of higher rank or influence.
Blackwoods Young Men's Magazine, Ashley 157
As engravers became capable of increasingly more detailed inscriptions in the nineteenth century, so the popularity of its usage rose. Religious texts, particualrly The Lord's Prayer and The Ten Commandments, were favoured in miniature form. Ambitious decorative elements alongside tiny words, that required a magnifying glass to be read with ease, added to the complexity of the piece.
Charlotte and Branwell Bronte preceeded this trend when they created Blackwoods Young Men's Magazine in 1829. They would have been aged 13 and 12 respectively. The miniature magazine written in black ink to impersonate the look of printed text, measures just 5cm in height, and to me was almost completely indecipherable. However, even I could read the 'CHARLOTTE BRONTE' scrawled with a flourish in upper case across the last page.
Mock inventory, Barrett Collection, Vol. XIII (ff 145)
In the seventeenth century, Thomas Browne created The Musaeum Clausum or Bibliteca Abscondita, a 'catalogue of remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures and Rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living'. An example of one of many items listed:
Draughts of three passionate Looks; of Thyestes when he was told at the Table that he had eaten a piece of his own son; of Bajazet when he went into the Iron Cage; of Oedipus when he first came to know that he had killed his Father, and married his own Mother'.
What is remarkable about Browne's collection was that it was entirely fictitious. None of the rarities that he described existed in any physical form: it was merely a list of what could potentially be the most incredible collection ever to be seen.
When I came across the mock inventory of household goods belonging to Jonat Swift, I was reminded of Browne's Bibliteca Abscondita and what a wonderful idea it is to create an imaginary repository all of one's own. No need to worry about expense or how feasible it is to track down the material contained within it. The sky is the limit.
Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations - Official Descriptive & Illustrated Catalogue Vol. III, V.6415
Many of the objects that I have looked at contain references suggesting a yearning for the natural world, whilst also celebrating the brilliance of modern technology. It's also interesting that these household items, with distinctly feminine visual qualities, refer to an outside world that would have not been accessible to the majority of women. The parlour is often considered to be the environment through which women made contact with the public world, while still remaining within the private sanctum of the home. As such, this desire for the exterior is mirrored in the objects that would have been on display: scrapbooks contained pressed flowers, newspaper cuttings, or calling cards; landscape paintings; floral patterned wall paper; arrangements of wax fruit and flowers. And so on.
The 'Wardian case', an airtight glass chamber designed to keep plants in a humid atmosphere, was a favoured parlour ornament. It offered a way to create a garden inside the home. Ferns were particualrly popular as they flourished in humid, dark conditions and had long been regarded as mysterious plants. (Interestingly, Wikipedia notes that in Finland, it was once believed that anyone who held the seed of a fern in bloom on Midsummer's night, would be bestowed the gift of invisibility).
Birds were popular pets and whether parrots, canaries or finches, the cages that imprisoned them were often highly ornamented. The picture overleaf shows a bird cage designed for the Great Exhibition. It was created in japanned (imitation lacquer) tin ware, with in-laid mother of pearl. Brilliantly, it fulfils both the function of a bird cage and an indoor garden. And if you look closely at the sphere dividing air from earth, you'll be able to see fish swimming. Whether this is purely decorative, or an aquarium included in this exuberant device, I couldn't be sure. Although I rather like the idea that it might be.
Mr Tassie offers humorous interpretations of pictorial engravings in his Catalogue of Mottos and Devices - an instruction manual for jewellers. The translation for 'crosses' made me laugh: 'Such is life', and I made a drawing in my sketch book.
A Catalogue of that part of Mr W. Tassie's Collection of Impressions from Engraved Gems, Consisting of Devices and Emblems, with mottos for Seals, William Tassie, 7709.a.15
Not to be mistaken for a shaving cup (a cup containing shaving utensils), the moustache cup was a normal cup adapted to include a special 'lip'. This device prevented liquid becoming too closely acquainted to a man's facial hair.
The Art Journal Illustrated Catalogue of 1851, RB.31.c.162