It is 1st August, and it is raining and grey. I have my sheepskin slippers on and am looking for my snuggly cardigan. It feels like October. I’ve opened the big window in the studio as it has the sun blind on (ha ha) and I can’t turn the window around to undo it (I’m too short) but it is terribly gloomy. Smells nice though.
The lists are long, and there are also growing lists for Monday and Tuesday, sensible lists. There should be a list for today too, a shopping list for dinner, not forgetting shampoo (not for dinner, obviously) now written on completely the wrong list.
So, I ask myself again, what am I actually doing?
Well, I am contemplating my forever unfinished Fairy GM. She hangs in the studio, and recently claimed a rather fetching green jacket I was given. It needs a little work, but I couldn’t reach the sensible sewing To Do box as it was behind everything else, so I popped it around her shoulders. It suits her very well, and now I fear I have lost the chance of claiming it for myself. She was intended to be rather partial to soy and canola – the two main GM plants across the planet, but it turns out she prefers good old natural Bindweed, and just loves Japanese Knotweed too.
This is a problem with my work, it doesn’t always do as I intended.
The poor little Lost Children of the F1 Hybrids (who never grow true) or at least their bodies, were recently on loan, and are now back in the studio too. I wonder what I did with their heads? I remember thinking I wanted to “remake them anyway” so could quite possibly have ditched them.
Clearly I am sneakily, without admitting it to myself, considering Fairy GM progress. Which makes all the lists I am writing totally pointless. I need to pull myself out of this creative nosedive and stop trying to work out how to make a crinoline hoop skirt cage for the Fairy GM and the Lost Children; and focus on the first list.
Inspiration and earworms follow the same path. A glimpse, hardly seen and barely heard, reminds the brain of something else, and then the great slow clocks of the mind start turning. Where they will stop, nobody knows. Will it be exciting inspiration, or will it be a song lyric that leads to an entire back catalogue?
My brain of course mostly goes for the latter. Take this past week. A friend posted a comment on social media to promote her current exhibition. She said “another opening another show”, and I was off.
What? Did you not immediately burst forth into Another Suitcase in Another Hall? Most odd.
Well, since then, the whole libretto of Evita has been rattling around in my brain, so much so that one old friend had to comment on the fact that she was previously unaware of my Evita problem. Must admit, I don’t see it quite like that. And it did tie in rather nicely with a late night David Essex ‘best of’. He sang the part of Che in the original (do keep up).
My friend Lynda’s dad bought the Evita album when it first came out. Lynda and I were two halves of one Saturday girl in a local shop, and had become very good friends by the time we were old enough to be two complete Saturday girls. We would lay on their dining room floor with the lyrics and sing along. We knew every word. When we both became students (she, nursery nursing, me, secretarial) we obtained Student Standby tickets to see the show. Student Standby was a fantastic initiative whereby anyone possessing a student card, could buy unsold West End show tickets for a fraction of the price. We had brilliant seats. By then, Evita was sung by Stephanie Lawrence and David Essex had sadly moved on. The show was amazing, utterly spellbinding and never forgotten. And we sang along, all the way through. Must have been awful for the people around us.
One day I may make an Evita-maid, but to be honest, if she hasn’t insisted on being made this week, it probably isn’t going to happen. I am however listening to the sound track whilst I work in my studio. There is much to be done because next Friday 23rd July, the Mermaid crew return to Show Off Gallery and Pop Up in Harbour Street, Whitstable.
This time I shall be sharing the pop up with Alma Caira and Hannah Sydney for Doyle & Leech, and as well as displaying our own wares – mermaids, fused glass, and beautiful hand made leather bags – we shall be promoting the Made in Whitstable Art Craft & Vintage Trail, handing out flyers and maps and answering any questions.
The MiWTrail is an artists open house for the Whitstable Oyster Festival. The Oyster Festival this year is being held over the August Bank Holiday weekend. Full details can be found on Instagram and facebook, as well as the website.
Or pop in and see us at the pop up! 23rd to 29th July. Open daily.
We have an exhibition. Rescheduled from last year, I’ve become so used to things being cancelled, it came as rather a shock to discover that this time we are going ahead! When I say ‘we’, I mean the Dolls of course, but also three other non fabric friends.
Meg Wroe, Bev Sage, Clair Meyrick and myself will be returning to the Pie Factory Margate from 30th April to 4th May for Neon Blue Tales II. Using paint, print, mixed media, textiles, spoken word and poetry, our work complements each other while transforming the space into a place of wonder.
Of course I am busy making new work, but there will be some old favourites wanting to get out as well. Just depends how much we can get into Nobby van, and how much we can then get on the walls. Neon Blue Tales was a special show, and I am so very much looking forward to being back together again for part II.
The Pie Factory is a wonderfully spacious gallery, so as long as visitors observe all social distancing measures and behave sensibly, we should all have a glorious time!
Do you remember to say White Rabbits before you say anything to anyone (or anything) on the first of the month? Especially the first of March?
If you don’t – tut, tut. That’s a bit risky you know. And, if you do – do you know why?
As usual, with all sorts of daft habits, no one really knows where the whole thing began, or quite why. By 1909 enough White Rabbits were making themeselves heard to provoke a scholarly question regarding the matter to be raised in the august journal Notes and Queries. At this time, at least amongst the journaling scholarly type, it was regarded only as a matter of children saying Rabbits. And probably the lower classes too, but what do they know hmmmm? However, once notable types like the writer and Gallipoli war correspondent Sir Herbert Russell shamelessly admitted to White Rabbiting
“From sheer force of unreasoning habit I do it still—when I think of it. I know it to be preposterously ludicrous, but that does not deter me.”
Well, that puts the rabbits amongst the pigeons, make no mistake!
One learned gentleman suggested that his daughter believed the outcome would be a present. How lovely! Not just Saint Nick at Christmas, but Rabbits at the beginning of every month. I must say, I’ve never thought of rabbits and presents – but then again if you consider the Easter Bunny, that line of reasoning makes perfect sense. Excuse me a minute, I lost focus then as I was convinced there was a six foot rabbit reading over my shoulder. Harvey, of course. Always comes to mind when I consider the Easter Bunny. Can’t help it.
Back to the rabbits in hand; according to the father of the present hopeful girl the words simply must be spoken up the chimney to be most effective. Definite Santa Bunny conundrum here! And sooty knees.
Whoops, gone again – the Present Hopeful Girl was swinging on the back of my chair, threatening to tip us backwards. I am imagining the hopeful girl to be like Wendy as drawn by Mabel Lucie Atwell in my favourite edition of Peter Pan. Wendy as drawn by MLA is not too dissimilar to Alice drawn by MLA, or to be fair, Little Ida or the Little Mermaid, but perhaps that is why as I child I loved her drawings so much. Still do. Obviously.
Another of the Edwardian White Rabbit noters, no doubt twiddling a fine moustache while he scribed, pointed out that the word rabbit was often used in expletives, and suggested that the superstition may be a survival of the ancient belief in swearing as a means of avoiding evil.
Now you are talking my language. Rabbits AND Profanity, all in the name of Good Luck? Perfect. And you were wondering whether I actually had a point, weren’t you?
I haven’t actually made a rabbit, white or otherwise, for some time. Time to rustle up a few sweary bunnies by the first of April. I’ll add it to the Mythical To Do List.
ps. I made that up about ‘especially the first of March’. It just popped out of my fingers and I let it stay.
There is a Nick Cave song, The Sorrowful Wife, where he sings of her shifting the furniture round again.
My Mother was very much a furniture shifter. She has retired from such activities now, and sticks to shifting plants around the garden instead, but as a child, I would often return home from school to a whole new house. I had friends who moved often, but their new house was just like their old, albeit maybe bigger or newer.
The Engineer (aka my Husband) often finds the furniture shifting around him. Covid has obviously done away with the main reason for this – Artists Open Houses, when anything and everything was shifted, and the Big Dolls took over. And then they would stay, wherever they were, until the next exhibition, or someone gave us another piano, or we actually, heaven forbid, did some work on the house.
This last happened two years ago, the work on the house thing, and an awful lot of stuff was shifted to make that happen. Just now, I am shifting things back, at last. And removing enough cat fur to create several Cats That Are Ours, should I wish to.
In addition to moving, and getting rid of stuff, I am managing to do some sewing. The Profanity Embroidery Group annual exhibition cannot physically happen this year, but we are making new work, and will be showing it online instead. Right now I need to catch up on some stitches before I start moving books, otherwise all really will be lost.
Oops. Another of my throw away comments, and another doll appears on the horizon of my brain.
Holly appeared after I said I was decidedly lacking in Christmas Spirit, very Bah Humbug and disinclined to do so much as a Badly Stitched Holly. The second the words were typed, I could see her. She is currently arguing over quite where some bells go, but otherwise, has somehow managed to leap frog the proper jobs and get herself made.
It would now seem likely that Ivy will also be making an appearance. Obviously I have nothing better to do…
Anyway, Christmas Spirit is rising. The tree is waiting for decoration, and Holly has her eyes on the top spot, despite being far too big.
Wishing you all a very merry Christmas, however odd it may be this year, and looking forward to 2021 and hopefully being together again.
The studio is a mess again, which is in someways good, and someways bad. Over lockdown we set up a workbench for The Engineer under the north facing roof window, and I had the rest of the space. This meant a certain amount of keeping the studio floor a bit like a floor, as in something that can be walked upon without causing damage to self or whatever it is all over the floor, which at times can be quite hard to judge.
Now the Engineer is meant to be in his man cave in the garden, I have turned the place into something that is actually beginning to get on my own nerves. I may have to tidy up.
There are some new dolls, made from a 1970s M&S yellow flowery sheet, that are very lively. They are dancers and were supposed to be three – so I named them LaVerne, Maxime and Patty, after the Andrews Sisters (yes, I know they didn’t tap, I can’t help where brain goes, I never said I was logical). There was enough cloth for a fourth, so Betty appeared. They now have Dotty, a bigger sister (not too big), which is presenting some logistical problems – as usual.
And why am I telling you this? Because they dolls will be going OUT! After a fabulous week with friends and mermaids at Whitstable’s Show Off Gallery Pop Up in July, just after the lockdown was eased, we are back again in October.
What with one thing and another, we are not opening the house this year for East Kent Artist’s Open Houses, and so have booked Show Off from Friday 23rd October to Thursday 29th October, open 11am to 5pm daily, which coincides with the last week of EKAOH. Which means, hopefully, I’ll be able to visit some of those that do open! Hurrah!
This time in Show Off, the plan is to return to the Circus. That’s the plan. We’ll see if we get there, as creativity has been a bit random. Like a spoilt child only doing what it wants, when it wants, and not be very co-operative at all. Hence the mess.
In other news, next week a small selection of work (hedging my bets here as I can’t make a decision as to what to pack) I’ll be joining Bruce Williams and Alma Caira in the Fishslab Gallery. Do pop along and visit – the gallery is all set up to conform to current guidelines. Open from Wednesday 30th September to Monday 5th October. 12 to 5pm daily.
sharing our heritage from Bruce Castle Museum Archive
This project was exhibited at Bruce Castle Museum, and as part of their wonderful lockdown email series, they very kindly invited me to revisit this house. So, in the words of the Museum, come along “and travel back in time, peeling away the layers of history, researching, documenting, recording and sharing an extraordinary portrait of what might have seemed an everyday house, hidden away in Wood Green.”
“ ‘A Dwelling of No Significance’. This phrase sealed the fate of No.24 Truro Road, Wood Green. Officially uninhabited for almost a decade, the building was considered to be of no significance as described by planners in Haringey Council. A house with no history. It could be demolished.
I disagreed. The dilapidated building had been my neighbour for thirteen years. No longer a home, the property opened up as it decayed and shared a record of domestic life spanning the whole of the twentieth century.
The house was tucked away at the end of a long driveway on a large plot between two roads, completely obscured from prying eyes by a vast willow tree. Following a huge fire in the adjacent builders yard, the property was abandoned and sold to a developer. The garden became overgrown and wildlife increased. People began to use the house as a free material source, and tiles and pipes and floorboards began to disappear. The local children used it as their own playground, and the sound of shattering glass continued until there were no windows left to smash. Squatters came and tamed the garden (and the children) and they grew vegetables and raised pigs, and were in turn evicted *.
The garden rewilded. Rumours spread of it having changed hands again.
Climbing over my back wall, with a homemade pinhole camera wrapped in a black bin bag, I started exploring and recording the property. My process was one of trial and error, with many opportunities for things to go wrong. The camera was a hatbox, and the photographic paper I placed inside was old stock, which didn’t always react. My exposures could be up to an hour long, depending on the light conditions and the behaviour of the paper. I was using out of date paper as I wanted the images to look and feel as though they had been found in the house, and to capture the change of light as real time passed.
I picked at the many layers of wallpaper as the damp caused them to unpeel, and scavenged remnants of the house to include, reused, in layered kiln-formed glass.
The glass was recycled from the broken windows and greenhouse. Using textured plaster moulds, I formed layered and spaced glass memories. Some had an image transferred on, either a photograph or a detail from a census, and in the formed spaces I placed objects and scraps from the house.
Each individual piece was a fragment of history. Put together, splintered stories of this house and it occupants could be traced.
The blank spaces that appear in a fading memory are all too present in the history of this house, and correspond to the blank spaces within the glass pieces. These voids are waiting for recall, for the information to come to light that completes the story of this house with no history.
One day someone ripped out all the copper pipes and there was a fountain bursting up through the gaping living room floor. It became increasingly dangerous to flipflop around the house and after finding half the staircase smashed, I knew that I would soon have to leave the physical house alone.
Turning to the local archives of Bruce Castle Museum I began to construct a factual history alongside my imaginings.
Using the information I gathered, and a lot of hunches, I tracked down the family who last lived in the house. Attached to the front porch of the building had always been a homemade sign – The Swifts. This wasn’t the house name as I had expected, but the family name. They were surprised at my interest, and a little suspicious. However, they kindly allowed me to visit, and Mr Swift shared his memories. He talked not just about the house, but about his life, for the two were so entwined.
Leonard Swift was born in the house on 11th July 1911. It was his home for eighty-seven years.
Built in 1860, the house was possibly intended to be two cottages, for the end wall to the north had the staggered bricks and internal fireplace of a never completed project. It is possible this was because the Finsbury Freehold Land Society acquired additional land and the terrace of Sidney Road was built instead.
Originally known as Blenheim Cottage, it became home to a florist and gardener, who worked the large plot as a nursery. The produce from this garden continued to feed the family for many years and even earned them extra sugar rations during wartime for jam making and preserving.
The Swifts first came to the property in 1900 to rent the large outbuildings for their thriving business, Edward Swift & Sons, Microscope Objective Makers. As soon as the cottage was available, the family moved in. The four Swift sons – no longer the ‘terror of the neighbourhood’ as the young Len recounted in his stories, but busy making microscope objectives (these are the brass tubes with the lenses inside). They worked both the brass and the lenses, with Leonard’s father, Herbert, cold working the glass lenses to within a thousandth of an inch, tiring and precise work. Their cousins, James Swift & Sons of Tottenham Court Road, made the actual microscopes. In 1901 Captain Scott was supplied with Swift Microscopes for use on the Discovery.
During the First World War, the forty-foot shed was full of busy lathes constantly working, and many staff. Leonard always thought he would take over the family business, and spent all the time he could at Herbert’s side, learning. Sadly, by the mid-1920s, there was no demand.
The cottage had three rooms downstairs, and three rooms upstairs. The Swift family – Catherine, Herbert, Leonard and his brother – shared the property with lodgers, as the Objectives business became less profitable. The business ceased to be with the death of Herbert in 1932.
When war came again in 1939, Leonard joined the Air Force as a ground gunner and was posted overseas until August 1943, when he landed in Liverpool to begin a long and dodgy journey back to London. All the underground stations were crowded with sleeping families and everywhere was pitch black. As he finally reached Wood Green, the air raid siren was going, and he couldn’t get into the house as most of the rooms were let out and he didn’t have the right keys. He thought everyone must be down the underground shelter, so dumped his kit bags and went round to the police station on the corner of Nightingale Road and asked if he could sleep in a cell. At first they said no, but Leonard said “Why not? It’s got a bed hasn’t it?” So they gave him a cup of tea, and let him stay. In the morning he went home again, only to make the shocking discovery that his mother had been buried on the very day he landed in Liverpool.
After a month’s leave, Leonard was reposted to Hillingdon to work in the operations room. Here he met Margaret as they worked together, plotting the flight information. They were married in 1945 and settled down together at No.24. Leonard returned to work in Covent Garden.
The house had always been rented accommodation, with rent being about ‘thirty bob or something a quarter’. But in 1956 a couple of men turned up to look at the house, as it was being auctioned the very next day. Margaret found out where the auction was to be, and that they needed a 5% deposit. They didn’t have any money, but borrowed what they could from their neighbours.
Armed with £30, Leonard went off to Piccadilly for the auction. “We had decided we couldn’t go more than £500 for the house. There were all these people who wanted to buy it, plus there were families there who were in tears as their houses were being sold from under them and they couldn’t afford the money. So at the auction, I’m surrounded by all these big blokes bidding, £300… £400…£500… I thought what am I going to do? I haven’t got enough but we can’t lose our home. Then a bloke said £600 and I said ‘And five’ and he said ‘oh let him have it ‘.
Now it turned out that the deposit was 10%, not 5% as Leonard had thought, and he only had a matter of hours to find the other £30. Once again, friends rallied round to stop them losing their home, and his boss agreed to lend them the rest as a mortgage for two years, at two and a half percent.
Once the family owned the house, and had paid back the money, they added gas and electricity. The landlords had never wanted the expense of running power all the way from the road up the long drive, so it had been oil for lamps and coal for cooking and heat. In 1966 he was given a grant to add a bathroom block instead of the old outside brick toilet.
Over the years they made many improvements and alterations to the house. It was Leonard’s son who built the porch and added The Swifts sign.
If it were not for the fire, the Swifts might never have moved. Admittedly, the garden and the house were really becoming too much upkeep, but it was home. That night though, “I was asleep when I felt Margaret urgently trying to wake me, but when I sat up, Margaret was still fast asleep! I’ve always thought it must have been my mother, come back to warn us. The heat coming through the window was unbelievable.” After that, the Swifts decided to move, and left Truro Road for the last time on 28th July 1998.
I wish I’d gone up the long drive when the Swifts lived there. I sometimes saw a man and woman getting into their car at the distant end of their drive. I could never think of what to say – what reason could I have for going and opening their gate and letting myself into their secret garden? It was intriguing, a magical space that I wanted to know, whilst at the same time recognising that it was totally private, and that my nosiness would not be welcome.
My other neighbours didn’t share my obsession with No.24. They described the family as one that ‘kept to themselves’, but maybe they’d just seen so many people come and go in the last few years they had stopped getting to know their many neighbours. Once families would stay in the same house for generations, as had the Swifts. But as people moved away, houses turned into flats, and a new block was built along their west boundary.
My neighbours also agreed with the council verdict that the house had no history. The house doesn’t I suppose, it is rather the history of the family that lived there, and of how lives and expectations changed. Mr Swift remained nostalgic for the soft glow of the oil lamps over the bright light of the electricity he worked so hard to obtain. He grew up there and raised his own family with no bathroom, sharing the three bedroom house with others whenever necessary. He laughed a lot as he recounted tales of boyhood and fatherhood. No.24 Truro Road was a real home, with a loving family and good friends.
My partner and I used to wish we could buy No.24, and talk about what we would do if we could. We watched the final owners pull it down in 2006. The enchantment was broken, and we moved away too.
* This was the subject of a BBC Life of Grime programme. From a precarious position on top of my wall, I watched the council men try to evict the pigs and their guardians. It was one of the funniest things ever. Those travellers were the best neighbours.
The artwork and research I did on the house became my art degree show, which was exhibited at New Designers at the Business Design CentreIslington 2005 and Free Range at the Old Truman Brewery.
With many thanks to Bruce Castle Museum
“Travelling back in time to 2006, when we had an exhibition at Bruce Castle, curated by artist Annie Taylor and called No.24 Truro Road ‘A Dwelling of No Significance’. Annie as our special guest writer today guides us through this touching portrait of a derelict house in Wood Green, that she lived next-door to from the 1990s into the 2000s.” Bruce Castle Museum
Educational Needlecraft by Margaret Swanson and Ann Macbeth
Inspired by a beautiful post this morning from Arnold’s Attic, of a sampler book stitched in 1852-4, I went looking for my Educational Needlecraft book. This wasn’t easy as last year we had some work done to the house, and most of my books are still stacked along the wall behind our bed, and the smaller ones piled in triple rows on the remaining shelves. Fortunately this one is always within reach.
I’ve owned this book since 1977. When my brother was busy with his punk band, as were most sentient teenagers, I was busy listening to soundtracks from Busby Berkley musicals (complete with tap dancing) and heading back from Art Deco to Arts and Crafts. (I did wake up to punk later, but I’ve always a bit slow to catch on).
My parents were avid bookshoppers. They still are, but don’t get out so much (not at all these last few months) but even so, no bookshop en route, no reason to leave home. This one came from the Antiquarian Bookshop in Sheen, a very posh shop for us, rather expensive too. It was visited because it was a museum of a shop, and on the way to Richmond with its vast array of junk shops and second hand bookshops. It was always a pleasure to visit the Sheen shop, the book spines alone were works of art. I did acquire a few books from there as presents, as I had a habit of returning to favourite books and hunkering down to absorb as much as I could, against the day where someone else bought it and it was no longer ‘mine’. Occasionally, as happened with this volume, after a year or so, I had proved my loyalty to this book, and it was purchased for me – possibly even a discount taken into consideration by the shop owner for the same reason, and that of the fact that no-one else had purchased it. And no, I didn’t hide it, in case you were wondering. There were books at our local library which sometimes the librarian would gently suggest I might like to not renew this time, so someone else could have them. Often no one else did want them, so after a couple of weeks of the book being on the shelf, home they came again. I do own copies now of all of them, some bought new as they were reprinted, others unexpectedly turning up second hand. One large volume I lugged on Greyhound busses after finding in a vintage shop in San Francisco, and in reality it was one picture that always stayed in my memory. I can’t show it to you because I cannot reach it. Too far down the pile behind the bed. But I digress, as usual. Back to Educational Needlecraft.
It was the quality of the arts and crafts drawings and designs, and the full colour stitched panels that I was looking at. Ann Macbeth taught at the Glasgow School of art and was a friend of the Mackintoshes. She was also a suffragette.
I was stunned by the stitching, but never really thought of doing it. Obviously, I never have. But I still love the book, and it is never far from reach, and I do sew an awful lot, even if it is not exactly educational. Rereading the introduction I was struck how the authors, Margaret Swanson and Ann Macbeth talk about art and needlework and the eye of the child.
“This book represents the first conscious and serious effort to take Needlecraft from its humble place as the Cinderella of Manual Arts, and to show how it may become a means of general and even of higher eduction.”
“In becoming good craftwomen girls may become something more. Their work itself leads them to look at last BEYOND their homes, and if they look to-day, what do they see? Much beauty and happiness, work and pleasure, but also beyond these vivid glimpses of widespread misery and darkness – a chaos which waits for creators to make of it a new world. That winged power in them, the unresting creative energy, must find a new field for its labour. It cannot be CONFINED to the home. What the educated woman of tomorrow will do we cannot foretell, for she will not longer be the slave of routine and tradition.”
Here we are a hundred and twenty years later with the Society For Embroidered Work being created to loudly shout ‘Stitched Art is Art’. If I were not a member, I don’t think I’d be able to look my book straight in the eye. As it is, I’m wondering quite what Ann Macbeth and Margaret Swanson and Margaret McMillan (pioneer in the education of children and provision of free school meals) would make of ‘the educated woman of tomorrow’.