Wondering on Wandering
Being anxious and often over-caffeinated, I am perpetually early – often meaning I kill time aimlessly sauntering round London. On my wanderings, I find fascination in the decorative and public arts of the city – London’s artistic presence outside of the world-renowned museums and galleries. Join me as I share my thoughts on the things I find, and how we can escape the ticket-booking and timeslot-choosing of Galleries by treating the city itself as a work of art.
The People's Park?
Politics, Policing and Pride in the Shadow of the Burdett-Coutts Drinking Fountain, Victoria Park.
Thursday, 15 April 2021
Standing in the centre of Victoria Park in Tower Hamlets is perhaps the most striking drinking fountain I've ever seen. Ornately carved in a mix of marbles and granites, it appears as an odd melange of neo-Gothic, neoclassical and orientalist architectural and sculptural styles, and is, perhaps, everything you would expect from a philanthropic project of Victorian London's wealthiest heiress. Mind you, it's not a drinking fountain anymore. Where water once gushed to quench the people of London's east end, there are now rather unpleasant looking spikes which stop local pigeons from finding a home amongst the ornately carved basins. Unused and stationary, it sits in the landscape as a telling visual reminder of the nineteenth century’s political struggle over the East End.
Ellen Gertrude Cohen 'Socialists in Victoria Park' (late 19th century)
Designed and constructed in 1862 by the architect Henry Darbishire for a philanthropic project of Angela Burdett-Coutts of the widely renowned Coutts banking family, the fountain at first appears as just another element of the utopian whimsy of the so-called 'People's Park'. Containing a mock-Chinese pagoda, a public boating lake and a number of rustic shelters and lodges, the park was opened in 1845 as a dreamlike idyll in the midst of London's industrial East End after concerns that the lack of green space and leisure facilities was causing a public health crisis. Therefore, with issues around the accessibility of clean drinking water amongst London's poorest, it seems only reasonable that a public water fountain would be installed at the centre of the park. It's now odd-looking mix of styles would have fitted in perfectly with the fantastical dreamlike project of the park - it was ornate, it was extravagant but it was new! With this atmosphere of novelty and paradise, it is unsurprising that Victoria Park became a site for forward-looking and often utopian politics amongst the working classes. It was, amongst other left-leaning political movements, a prominent meeting place for the Chartists during the 1848 Year of Revolutions.
And, in some ways, the Burdett-Coutts's fountain tries to appeal to these progressive movements in its design. Alongside its whimsical mix of styles, the fountain's bronze drinking cups were inscribed with the message 'Temperance is a bridle of Gold' which, aside from their similarity to moralising medieval mazer cups, makes clear connections between the fountain and the growing temperance movement. Although it found its sources in both conservative and progressive ideology, the temperance movement in the 1860s was increasingly associated with social action and the women's movement - tackling issues of domestic abuse and inadequate public health resources. Interestingly, Angela Burdett-Coutts never officially took sides with any specific ideology or political party, so her own deliberately vague politics perhaps allowed for a conveniently progressive interpretation of her philanthropic presence in a politically charged space.
Henry Darbishire 'Baroness Burdett-Coutts Drinking Fountain, Victoria Park' 1862 (photo credit - Sumit Surai)
Although the temperance movement provided safe drinking water for the impoverished and was, at times, incorporated into leftist women's and labour movement activism in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, it wasn't wholly in cooperation with the spirit of the liberation of the working classes. The call for temperance was often focused not only on public health but on curbing 'public disturbances'. The movement therefore targeted working class establishments such as pubs and working men's clubs — which were seen as rowdier — over the more affluent private members clubs of London's West End where drinking was deemed more acceptable. 'Public disturbance' and 'public nuisance' are deliberately broad terms that do cover pub brawls and street fighting, but, as we have seen in the last few weeks with the introduction of the (frankly terrifying) Police and Crime Bill, they can also very easily include political protest. As Victoria Park was a central location for socialist activity, it is perhaps unsurprising that a wealthy philanthropist of the temperance movement would want to establish a water fountain at its centre — the fact that it was erected in the same year that public meetings and protests in the park without written permission were forbidden seems unlikely to be mere coincidence. Whilst providing a much valued and important source of clean water, the fountain was ultimately an expensive and aesthetically appealing sticky plaster slapped over the much bigger issue of inequality which was increasingly — and for some, uncomfortably — bleeding into London's public life. I mean, this was a water fountain that cost over five thousand pounds (over six hundred thousand in today's money), which begs the question: could the money have been better spent if the benefactor’s sole intent was to help the poor? It’s not hard to see the similarities between this project and more recent political events. David Cameron's government promoted charitable spending and philanthropy as part of its Big Society project, whilst simultaneously increasing inequality through the largest cuts to public spending since the Second World War. It also goes without saying that the limits placed on public meetings in the 1860s, which coincided with the construction of the fountain, are all too familiar to us today, in 2021.
But the fountain and the new rules were unsuccessful in curbing socialist and working class political activity and 'rowdiness'. After much public outcry, the rules on public meetings and protests were quickly retracted, and the area around the fountain became a prominent space for political speakers and rallies called The Forum which rivalled the slightly later and more famous Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park. Frequent speakers at The Forum included the socialist and women's rights activist, Annie Besant, and the anarcho-communist poet and designer, William Morris. Unlike the affluent area which surrounded Hyde Park's Speaker's Corner, The Forum was situated in the centre of a firmly working class area, and therefore provided an easily accessible space for political engagement. The socialist activity in the park was not only accessible, but inviting. The atmosphere was carnival-like, with music playing alongside the variety of speakers — the ever-grumbling William Morris affectionately moaning that it was too noisy but all-together 'very good'. Indeed, chronically awkward and often lamenting his inability to connect socially with many working men, Morris found solace in the inviting working class space of The Forum, a great help to his activist work in the East End - speaking there at least eight times between 1885 and 1888 in the shadow of the Burdett-Coutts Fountain. Therefore, rather contrary to the discouragement of working class activism that was perhaps intent within its construction, the Fountain became a site of socialist activity and cross-class solidarity, which strengthened the labour movement and later, the women's movement.
'Pride' (2014) dir. Matthew Marchus
The space around the fountain is rather quiet now - its revolutionary spirit dulled. But in popular culture, Victoria Park has remained a site of solidarity between marginalised peoples. In 1978 it hosted the Rock Against Racism concert which stood in opposition to racism in the music industry, following comments made by Eric Clapton and David Bowie, as well as rising fascist activity within the East End. More recently, the 2014 film Pride climaxes within the park when miners from Wales show up in support of the 1985 London Gay Pride parade. The convergence of these two groups challenges the encroaching depoliticisation of gay pride which threatens to marginalise the Gay Liberation movement's politics in favour of a liberal 'celebratory atmosphere'. Although the Burdett-Coutts fountain isn't visible in the scene, the tension between what political protest is and isn't seen as acceptable resonates with the presence of the fountain in the park.
This striking structure is, therefore, something like a rainbow-coloured corporate redesign for Pride Month or a fast-fashion '#GirlBoss' t-shirt churned out for International Women's Day. It is one episode in a long and ongoing history of how design is continually used to depoliticise political spaces once those political spaces become a tangible and realistic challenge to the status quo.
When Wandering isn’t so Wonderful
Confronting Street Harassment through Art
Thursday, 1 April 2021
Eliza Hatch 'Cheer Up Luv - Florence'
There’s a joy in being able to walk round aimlessly, taking the time to inhabit the public space on your own terms and absorb what it has to offer. Unfortunately, this isn’t the simple reality for women. So often, the time we spend in public is interrupted by street harassment. Through unsolicited comments, uncomfortable stares, or that hand on your lower back as he passes you by, women are told that they do not occupy the public space on their own terms. In taking time to look, consider and absorb the world around them, that shout from a passing van of ‘Nice tits!’ lets us know that we’re being ogled as if we were just another visual spectacle of the city. We become a public statue, a half-marble half-fleshy Daphne under the pursuit of Apollo.
Eliza Hatch 'Cheer Up Luv - Leyla'
Photographer Eliza Hatch captures this through her series Cheer Up Luv. Starting in 2017, the campaign documents women’s stories of street harassment through depicting them in the environments in which they occurred. Yet, the photographs are not a line-up of victims. Shown in the everyday spaces of the bus, the train station, the park, the pavement outside a favourite pub, the residential area you may call home, these women are relatable and representative of a much wider collective. I’m sure you’ve come across the recent statistic that ninety-seven percent of women aged between eighteen and twenty-four have experienced sexual harassment. Hatch’s photographic project exudes an empathetic approach that recognises that this is a collective experience.
Eliza Hatch 'Cheer Up Luv - Lucy'
By photographing these women in the spaces of sexual harassment, Hatch compiles almost a guidebook of landmarks. Her photos seem to say, ‘to your left we have the street where one of us was catcalled, to your right we have the tube station where one of us was up-skirted, just up ahead is the bus stop where one of us was groped. Oh, around the corner is the leisure centre where one of us was flashed on our way home from school, take a minute to look down this road - there is the park where one of us was grabbed at on a run’. In these seemingly unremarkable, usually unnoticed places, Hatch recognises that what goes unnoticed or uncommented upon by men, is noticeable and recognisable to women.
Eliza Hatch 'Cheer Up Luv - Maya'
Hatch’s photographs articulate an experience shared by so many women. Almost every woman I know has those seemingly ordinary, unremarkable places that are instantly recognisable to them as landmarks of harassment. There’s that coffee shop in Walthamstow, forever marked with the memory of being followed. Or the Tesco’s outside school, no longer just a convenient spot to pick up a meal deal - the road outside it always bearing the association of repeated catcalling. A friend remarks that her local train station is a reminder of a shaken confidence having been incessantly harassed and followed. Another responds with a Manchester club in which a night out won’t quite be the same again - the sour taste of being grabbed and a friend being drugged lingering uncomfortably over what used to be a site of joy. There’s a road in Durham where you always check your skirt, and a bus route in Birmingham which will never shake that memory of being leered at. The photographs of the Cheer Up Luv campaign recognise this and publicise it, confronting just how normalised and prevalent street harassment is.
Eliza Hatch 'Cheer Up Luv - Melanie'
But Hatch’s work isn’t looking for pity. It isn’t scaremongering. It doesn’t encourage a victim complex. It doesn’t do any of these things that anti-harassment campaigns are so often (wrongly) accused of doing. By presenting these women in the various places in which they were harassed, it allows them to visually reclaim these spaces. The figures in Hatch’s photographs are often alone, their presence as women dominating the space over anything else. These sites of harassment are therefore erased of the presence of the men who caused fear, who caused discomfort, who intimidated, groped, shouted and leered. In telling their stories and asserting themselves, the women in the images establish these sites as places of protest, of awareness, and of confrontation. They become the spaces of an intersectional collective of empowered women, rather than the domain of intimidation and fear.
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh 'Stop Telling Women to Smile' Boston
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh 'Stop Telling Women to Smile' Bristol
Hatch’s photographs are only one campaign amongst many art projects aiming to tackle street harassment. In 2012, artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh created Stop Telling Women to Smile, a poster campaign which displayed beautifully, finely drawn portraits of women (and people of other marginalised genders) unsmiling. Pasted on public walls around New York, these beautiful and undeniably powerful images unashamedly occupied a space on the street, their unsmiling eyes defiantly gazing at passers-by. Her work has unsurprisingly become globally successful - these posters can be found lining streets from Trinidad and Tobago to France. Again, this fosters a intersectional, international collectivity within the movement which does not seek to dwell on trauma and on pain but to take a public stand against it and to confront the normalisation of intimidation and fear caused by street harassment. The posters, like the Cheer Up Luv campaign, embrace intersectionality - recognising that women of colour, trans women, queer women and poor women face street harassment in differing and often overlapping ways. These campaigns use art not to establish a homogenous sisterhood of shared experience, claiming that all women experience harassment in the same way, but utilise the infinite differences that can be achieved through a visual campaign. These are artistic campaigns of solidarity and confrontational empowerment - not the wishy-washy ‘girlboss’ commercial feminism which can be printed on a t-shirt in some sort of performative gesture.
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh 'Stop Telling Women to Smile' Mexico City
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh 'Stop Telling Women to Smile', Baltimore
Art, therefore, addresses street harassment by being a spectacle. These works seem to scream, ‘You want something to look at? We’ll give you something to look at!’ Whilst street harassment encroaches on women’s ability to exist in the street on their own terms, these works assert themselves into the normalised, often unchallenged actions of men in public. But art, no matter how challenging, will never be enough. The end to street harassment has no simple solution. The question of how to solve street harassment has no succinct and obvious answer. It requires constantly changing, multidisciplinary campaigns in which art will only ever be one tool.
‘I am half sick of shadow'
on the Lady of Shalott, craft, and lockdown
Thursday, 4 March
John William Waterhouse's 'Lady of Shalott' in the Tate Britain (source - Guy Bell Photography)
The themes of monotony, isolation and abandon in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ are perhaps some of the most famous and most artistically reproduced poetic ideas of the English language. It feels like one only has to wander into any art gallery with a nineteenth-century art collection to find vast oil paintings of Tennyson’s Lady — floating down the river, or trapped in her tower, or entangled in thread. Having survived another month of restrictions, and quickly approaching the anniversary of the start of lockdown, the lack of access to museums in the last year would initially make us think that we’ve become more distant from these images inspired by Tennyson’s poetry. Yet, in our own monotonous lives and isolation, perhaps we’ve never been closer to them.
John William Waterhouse, I am half sick of shadows, 1915 (source- Art Institute Ontario)
When lockdown hit last year, many of us tried to find something to do with the time that was once consumed by going to museums and coffee shops, to restaurants with family, on nights out in Shoreditch with friends, going to the theatre and the cinema, and (dare I say it) to university. I, like many, turned to craft. The uptake of knitting and cross stitch increased by over four hundred percent in the first lockdown - and with desperate calls for masks and medical scrubs, sewing increased by seven hundred per cent.[i] Craft became not only a time-filler, a source of menial but rewarding entertainment, but a tangible way of dealing with a world that was quickly becoming entirely digital. Often relying on textiles and wools, it became a soft touch when there wasn’t a hug or a handshake available. And in all the idiosyncrasies of a wonky sewing project or a less-than-perfect crochet blanket, there is something wonderfully human which provides an odd, bittersweet comfort. As a way of absorbing and perhaps trying to delight in the time spent in lockdown, craft for us is not dissimilar to craft for the Lady of Shalott. She, like many of us, is trapped inside her ‘four grey walls, and four grey towers’, diligently weaving. She remains, crafting in her tower to escape a curse — as we remain crafting in our homes to escape a virus. It is as if we, in our distance from the paintings of the Lady of Shalott, have come to act them out in our everyday lives.
Sidney Harold Meteyard, I am Half-Sick of Shadows said the Lady of Shalott, 1913 (source - Pre Raphaelite Trust, Wolverhampton).jpg
Within the poem, the Lady of Shalott uses her craft to capture the images of the outside world reflected in her mirror. This, again, is not dissimilar to craft within lockdown, in which people frequently captured the experiences of their newfound everyday life. Roz Chast’s New Yorker cover ‘Lockdown Sampler’ is a prominent example, capturing in canvas and stitch an all-too-familiar experience of numbly gazing out the window. Perhaps most poignant for us is the work of Abi Whitehouse - an MA Illustration student at Falmouth who recorded her university Zoom classes not through digital means, but through embroidery. The depiction of life through zoom in embroidery inspires an interesting comparison between our relationship with lockdown, and the Lady of Shalott. For us, Zoom has become our version of her mirror - the laptop screen the surface within which real life and the world beyond our ‘four grey walls’ exists. And like how the Lady of Shalott tires of the shapes and shadows she sees within her mirror - it is fair to say that we too are tired of Zoom. ‘I am half sick of shadows’ she cries and … I agree. Maybe I’ll stop taking lecture notes and just start weaving or embroidering the lecture content. Of course, I speak in jest, but it feels tempting. Craft is something deeply analogue and tangible. It is slow and it is material. It is nothing like Zoom - and therefore I think in some way we have been drawn to use it to capture our digital lockdown experiences- because it is a release from the computer screen.
Roz Chast 'Lockdown Sampler' 2020 (source - New Yorker).jpg
Abi Whitehouse, Zoom Lockdown Embroidery Class, 2020 (source - Falmouth University Showcase).jpg
Of course, the Lady of Shalott has a miserably tragic end — having finally escaped from her tower she drowns. In my interpretation of the poem as an oddly prophetic allegory for our current situation, I don’t suggest that once we all escape from the horrors of the pandemic we’ll all drown. Rather - I see it as an expression of what might happen to craft if we move on from it, if we leave it as a practice of lockdown and not of life. Whilst crafts in homes have flourished, professional crafts have struggled. In a study by the Heritage Crafts Association, when asked about the impact of the pandemic, fifty six percent of the professional craftspeople said there was a less than fifty percent chance of their practice surviving the next six months.[i] With many of these craftspeople working in endangered crafts — chair caning, musical instrument making, and neon sign bending, amongst 103 others — there is a real threat that, like the Lady of Shalott, these crafts will drown and die in the wake of the pandemic.
Gillian Roe 'Lockdown Sampler' 2020 (source - talesfromahappyhouse.com).JPG
The Lady of Shalott therefore becomes an allegory for craft — flourishing, yet monotonous, within the trapped domestic space of lockdown, but floundering in its wake. Therefore, we have a responsibility to art history to encourage the enthusiasm for craft to extend beyond the end of lockdown. To carry on our own craft practices and to showcase and celebrate those which are critically endangered is vital to our heritage and our own well-being. Craft is grounding, it is comforting, and it is a form of art that has for too long been sidelined as an unimportant hobby. It would be wonderful to see Waterhouse’s oil paintings of the Lady of Shalott, some of the most recognisable paintings from art history, displayed alongside these declining? professional crafts, and the amateur crafts that thrived under lockdown. Bringing together these experiences of ‘making’, which at first seem so far apart, so alienated, would demonstrate craft’s ability to unite isolated people over barriers of time, space, fact, fiction, and global pandemics.
You can find a list of endangered crafts here.
The Truth of Masks
Thinking about Mask-Wearing through the eyes of Oscar Wilde
Friday, 4 February
Masks have become the most identifiable aspect of contemporary costume. Driven by the necessity of a public health crisis, they will undoubtably become romanticised in the future as the archetypal accessory of the early 2020s. Future period dramas will depict people melancholically putting masks on before they leave the house, questioning why they must do so with a sense of ennui - rather like corsets and stays are depicted in period dramas today. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of my issues with the mythology around corsets created by nineteenth century pseudoscience and period dramas — but I am interested in how masks are, and will continue to be, not only a necessity but an integral part of the performance of life today.
Like many of us, I feel rather lost at the moment. Our less-than-frequent wanderings into the real world (to take a break from being languidly draped over furniture) feel somewhat like an entrance onto the stage, a chance to perform a version of ourselves that we’re not experiencing. A simple walk around the block is a break from the housebound monotony which has come to typify our experiences for almost a year - yet it is this break from pandemic routine, this performance of pre-covid life that is mediated by the most identifiable part of the pandemic’s visual culture: masks.
This got me thinking about how Wilde would have looked at this current situation. Satirised in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience, Wilde and his contemporaries were known for their performance of artistic identity, and the paradoxes that came with it. Insincerity, secrecy, pretension — these were all recognised parts of the aesthete’s identity performance, yet they professed ideals of truth, beauty and self-expression. Indeed, Wilde wrote somewhat extensively about costume, masks and performance — both in their literal and figural senses. ‘Give a man a mask and he will show you his true face’ his 1891 essay, The Critic as Artist famously claims — but perhaps his essay on the roles of costume in Shakespeare, The Truth of Masks, is more relevant to considering our relationship with masks today.
The Truth of Masks is, despite its name, not really about masks at all. Instead it poses an idea about how costume is, in retrospect, used as an indicator of the social values and artistic culture of a period — and how this may be appropriated or consciously discarded to construct an identity. Thus, in taking on a certain costume - physical or behavioural - Wilde argues that this can be used as an indicator of character, beliefs and identity. It’s not hard to see how this becomes relevant to mask-wearing and the performance of identity today. Whilst I’ve already established that masks play a role in hindering or mediating the expression of a pre-pandemic version of ourself, as a piece of contemporary costume they also play a role in expressing identity today, able to profess a stance on what’s going on. Mask-wearing has become tensely politicised. We’ve all seen anti-mask protests — extreme expressions of individualism, conspiracy, and contempt for collective responsibility. For them, the mask has become a costume of government control, a rejection of the individual and of liberty. With facial expression distorted by this layer of protective fabric, it is easy to liken the image of the mask to the gag or the ‘thought police’ of dystopian fiction. For others, the mask - in its same removal of the self - has become the symbol of collective responsibility and putting the health of others before our own individual needs. Associated with the hard work of medical staff, diligently wearing a mask has perhaps become the costume expressing a will to do our part when we can. In this sense, the mask becomes solidarity, just as Wilde sees fallacy and weakness in the paper crown of Shakespeare’s Richard III or pathetic madness in Ophelia’s flowers.
Yet, the issue of wearing masks isn’t binary. As Wilde explores, wearing a bastardised, incorrect form of costume can be just as expressive, if not more so, that the choice to wear costume accurately or not at all. I am, of course, here talking about the under-the-nose masks, under-the-chin masks, lowering-to-talk masks. These allusions to the trappings of social responsibility and seriousness are more apathetic to the situation than any rebellion against masks. They are an explicit performance — all appearance with no care or crafting to the character of health-conscious figure behind. Yet, in keeping with Wilde’s previous comment that if you ‘give a man a mask and he will show you his true face’ - they are perhaps most representative of the true psychological state of a people in trauma. After months of unclear rules, scapegoating and grief, people are apathetic, tired and psychologically numb to the ongoing pain.
Yet furthermore, Wilde’s idea of costume is also interesting in looking at how we avoid the obstacles that masks place around self expression. The pre-pandemic world is a historical period — clothes meant for going out, for formal events, for trips to the pub, for holidays abroad have temporarily become costumes of the past. In some ways, we assume heightened versions of these costumes as a way to minimise the effect of masks - to ignore the traumatic circumstances associated with it and express a ‘truer’ version of ourself. For example, eye makeup sales have risen at least twenty five percent since last March, sales of unnatural hair colours went up too. Each trip out became an event — where jeans may have once sufficed, they no longer felt bold enough, different enough to the drudgery of staying inside. In a bid to combat limits, costume became bolder, a curated best bits of our prior wardrobes — even if it was only now and then. Costume and performance became a way to drown out the masks and the hours of lying around feeling sorry for yourself in pyjamas.
In the final throws of The Truth of Masks, Wilde reveals the truth of his own mask — artistic criticism and social position. ‘There is much with which I entirely disagree’ he cries, in regard to the argument he has presented for the last ten thousand words or so. It’s a sort of Scooby Doo ending, with Wilde performing both the unmasking of heroes belonging to the Mystery Gang and the unmasked villain. Yet, he kind of proves his point all along through doing this. His literary persona dresses up in the ‘costume’ of a debate, adorning himself in the accessories of a subject pretending a truth which, in reality, he does not believe to exist. So maybe I’ll do the same. Honestly, I don’t necessarily agree with everything I’ve said. People, for the most part, are not making conscious decisions regarding the politics of costume and performance when they put on a mask. And, of course, there is a difference to be pointed out between costume choices made by an artistic director for the stage, and the habits of people in their daily lives, just wanting to get by and survive a traumatic world event. Rather, I, like Wilde, am in costume as a speculative version of some future art director or critic — looking back on the pandemic, its costume, its performance, and what that means for how it will be used to frame social identity in an inevitable truly awful period drama.
1843 — the Reinvention of the Identity of Christmas
Thursday, 17 December
Currier and Ives, American Winter Scene
‘It’ll nearly be like a picture print from Currier and Ives’ sings the well-loved 1948 Christmas song, ‘Sleigh Ride’ - reminiscing on the images of Christmas produced by the popular nineteenth century American lithograph printer. Both sides of the Atlantic, the trappings of a modern Christmas are rife with nostalgia for the spirit of Christmas past - embracing Victoriana and enthusiastically garish imitations of the nineteenth century. Just a quick stroll into your local town centre will confront you with gilded, intertwining cursive typefaces wishing you a ‘Merry Christmas’, tempting you into shops filled with velvet sashes, nutcracker figurines and ornate candlestick displays. Special edition Christmas biscuit tins often feature somewhat charming, kitsch reproductions of nineteenth century paintings - bizarrely John Lewis’ panettone tin this year sports some vaguely Whistler-esque peacocks, which I don’t think are particularly festive. Nevertheless, the visual identity of Christmas - with all its red, gold, and green; its candles and its general festive maximalism - is saturated in the imagined world of Victorian Yuletide.
I’ll make no hesitation in attributing this to one singular year - 1843. One week in mid-December 1843 redefined Christmas in Britain, shaping it for centuries to come. By the start of the 1840s, Christmas had basically died out - as the vicar of a poor parish wrote, ‘The people here seem hardly to feel Christmas Day.’ The beginning of the industrial revolution had seen the time off work over Christmas cut from at least a week, to at best only Christmas Day itself. Christmas carols, once an important and popular folk custom, had become almost extinct. As could be expected under ‘flourishing’ capitalism, the rich were getting richer and the poor were, quite plainly, destitute. Whilst the wealthiest parts of London put on a showy facade of commercial displays, all that was really holding Christmas together were traces of festive spirit and the hope that a familial haven would help extinguish the cold and the toils of the world for just a day.
These sentiments were fully summed up in perhaps the most famous piece of festive literature ever written, Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ - published on 19th December 1843. Being a work of ghost stories, of social commentary, and of a clear establishment of a new visual culture surrounding Christmas, it was a massive success - the first edition selling out by Christmas Eve. It remains a resounding success and a clear image of what Christmas is in the UK and US today - it has never been out of print since its original publication and has inspired hundreds of theatre productions and films (including a Barbie and a Muppet version - both of which I think are rather good). Ebenezer Scrooge’s re-enchantment with the spirit of Christmas - transforming from a cold and resentful man corrupted by wealth, into a figure of joy and charity - acted as a metaphor for Christmas itself, a call to arms to rediscover an idealised Christmas of the past. But it wasn’t just a revival of sentiment - it was a whole new approach to the material and visual culture of Christmas.
BL Christmas Carol first edition source-BL
The first edition of the book itself is ‘Christmassy’ - its pea green endpapers and crimson cloth binding bearing the gilded title within a similarly gilded wreath of holly, ivy and mistletoe. The book unmistakably sets out a visual quality of Christmas before you even read it. And within its text, this establishment of a new culture of Christmas grows. The visions of the ghosts bear descriptions of bags full of treats and toys, parlour games, and music; the joys of carollers and turkey introduced to him in the Christmas morning to which he awakens. This was a very new vision of Christmas - one that revived the romanticised idea of the wintry feats of the medieval world, a joyous mix of the pagan, the secular and the religious. The visual descriptions of Dickens’ Christmas world directly contrast the perceived modernity of greyness and poverty with the nostalgia of brightness, joy and prosperity. Written contemporarily to the Gothic Revival, Dickens evokes the visual ideals of the movement, without explicitly referencing the Middle Ages. Thus, the new visual for Christmas that he invents is futuristic - yet simultaneously nostalgic. It is a manifesto of how a return to empathy, communal spirit and Christmas jollity could improve the plight of the poor. As Scrooge wakes up to bells quite literally ‘ringing the changes’ of this new bright world, filled with holly and mistletoe, toys, gifts, and games, we too are encouraged to embrace this new brightness and Christmas spirit.
And it worked. Like a storm.
Within the following years, turkey became a popular Christmas meal, the effort to revive carolling and wassailing finally took off and the new Gothic Revival churches were richly ‘decked’ with Anglo-Saxon style evergreen garlands. Christmas was back on the cards (excuse the pun). Of course, this was not just the work of Dickens - Prince Albert had a lot to do with the introduction of Christmas traditions into Britain, most famously the Christmas Tree. Talking of Christmas cards, Henry Cole - the first director of the V&A - also ‘invented’ the Christmas card as we know it today. On 17 December 1843, just two days before the publication of ‘A Christmas Carol’, he issued a pre-printed card designed by Royal Academician, John Callcott Horsley, as a way to send Christmas massages more quickly to friends and family. Bearing the image of his family feasting, alongside image of charitable acts, these Christmas Cards uphold a similar sentiment to Dickens’ novella. The use of ‘Merry Christmas’ on the card - instead of the more respectable ‘Happy Christmas’ - especially evokes the Neo-medieval joviality of Dickensian Christmas. Christmas, it seems, thrives off nostalgia for a time we have never experienced - for an idea of ‘the good old days.’
First Christmas Card - source- V&A
So what of our maintained obsession with cladding Christmas in the regalia of 1843?
Somewhat ironically, despite reviving Christmas from the destitution caused by industrialisation, it was industrialised capitalism that took hold of its revival and ran with it. Toys became cheaply mass produced throughout the nineteenth century, confectionary moved out of the workshop-kitchen and into the mechanised factory - and Christmas became increasingly a commercial endeavour, seizing upon the market of its new popularity. And as Christmas remained popular, well, the market just got bigger and bigger. As late-stage capitalism ‘thrives’ and the world is, quite bluntly, falling apart - war, the climate emergency, an ever-growing global wealth gap - we are further driven into misery and exhaustion. It seems quite telling that the location of Scrooge’s apartments given in ‘A Christmas Carol’ is now inhabited by the Lloyds Building - one grey figure of cold, unfeeling wealth replaced by another. So, desperate for the break and a ‘return to the good old days’ over the Christmas Bank Holiday, we turn to what we see as the heyday of Christmas: its blossoming in the 1840s. Commercially and domestically, we perform a version of the Christmas Carol, waking up to a bright Victorian fantasy during the Christmas period, a magical respite from the drudgery of the rest of the year. The Neo-Victorianism of the visual culture of twenty-first century Christmas - although with its foundations in the impact of ‘A Christmas Carol’ - has become the ‘splendid joke: a glorious pageant’ that Dickens described.
So this last week or so before Christmas, whilst we wander through shopping streets, flanked on either side by mock-Victorian displays of Christmas cheer, this ‘glorious pageant’ of festivity, perhaps we should wonder on what else we could take from Christmas 1843? Or perhaps what will, in the future, be romanticised and revived from the material and visual culture of Christmas 2020?
Central Park, Winter – The Skating Pond, 1862
Driving Home for Christmas
A brief history of British Transport design
Thursday, 3 December
With the beginning of the student travel window this week, many of us will be preparing to leave London, and anticipating the hours spent on motorways or trains filled with other students travelling home for Christmas. Amongst the end of term essay rush, booking train tickets, and organising a Covid test, somehow finding the time to take in the city’s artistic culture may be the last thing on your mind. But travel is steeped in design history, and has shaped the identity of British design - so rather, this isn’t Wondering on Wandering but Wondering on Travelling, which (I think you’ll agree) is decidedly less catchy.
Johnston Railway Type (credit: Crafts Study Centre)
Rail Alphabet 2 design in process 2020 (credit: Design Museum)
Somewhat unintentionally, I’m starting where I left off before, with Johnston Railway Type. Emerging from the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, it has come to define the not only the metropolitan identity of London, but the feeling of British modernism - becoming one of the most recognisable typefaces in the world. When, in the early 20th century, it was decided that the Underground needed a unified approach to its branding and signage, Edward Johnston was tasked with creating a typeface that was simultaneously modernly practical, and identifiably British. Whilst embracing the readability of a sans-serif typeface, it slimmed down the extra-bold sans-serif fonts of the nineteenth century so as not to appear like gaudy advertising. This created a typeface that was simultaneously elegant and no-nonsense, encompassing the aspirations of the contemporary British mindset.
In the 1950s and 60s, Britain’s road signage was facing a dilemma similar to the Underground just 40 years prior: it was haphazard, confusing and heterogeneous. Most of all, it was in desperate need of a redesign - so it is unsurprising that when graphic designers Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir were tasked with the job, they took inspiration from Johnston Railway Type. In contrast to the ‘bluntness’ of European modernist design found on roadsigns on the continent, Calvert and Kinneir decided to take on the roundness and ‘quaint’ British modernism of Johnston Railway Type in their pioneering new road sign designs - believing it to be more appealing to a British audience. Whilst mainland Europe’s roadside typefaces were the designs of engineers, Britain’s became the work of a graphic design student in her 20s, and her print design tutor. This both bears the legacy of the idealisation of the craftsperson found within the Arts and Crafts movement, and also upholds an aspirational British ideal of self-determination, greenness, and quaintness- a lifestyle that wasn’t available to the majority. The redesign of British roadsigns was not only in the interests of safety during a period of increasingly high-speed travel, but of forging a national identity during the breakdown of the empire. Rather than a global power, Britain reinvented itself as a ‘green and pleasant’ island - and what better way to disseminate a new national identity than through one of the most widely viewed aspects of public design: road signs.
Calvert's updated school children sign 1965 (credit: British Road Sign Project)
former School Children Sign (credit: BBC)
Yet, the roadsigns also reflected the quickly changing social landscape of post-war Britain - especially through the eyes of the young and dynamic Calvert. Taking issue with the previous ‘schoolchildren nearby’ sign, which showed an older boy leading a young girl, Calvert flipped it around, showing a girl leading a younger boy. Unlike the former sign, which marked out the boy as a grammar school student by his cap and satchel, the new design did not specify uniforms - reflecting the widespread establishment of the comprehensive school in the 1960s, alongside the idea that everyone deserved access to a high quality education. Calvert modelled the image of the young girl for the new sign from a photo of herself as a child, wanting to inject personality into a new image of British schooling that she intended to seem more caring and universal. The anecdotal personality of Calvert’s illustrations is further present in the cow of the ‘farm animals’ sign - which she based on her recollection of a cow named Patience from her childhood.
As well as designing Britains new roadsigns, Calvert and Kinneir were simultaneously involved in the rebranding of British Railways to British Rail in 1965, designing ‘Rail Alphabet'. The rebranding of rail travel aimed to modernise its image in a way that would directly rival the modernism of Transport for London, moving away from a pre-nationalisation typeface directly based on Johnston Railway Type, towards a face that was incredibly current, inspired by the modern design projects in Johnston’s legacy. Although ‘Rail Alphabet’ fell out of use with the privatisation of the railways during the 1990s, Calvert’s involvement with the visual identity of British transport is not just a story of the past. In October this year, Network rail announced that it had commissioned Calvert to update and reissue Rail Alphabet for use. The ‘muddle of different fonts’ - as Network Rail chief, Peter Hendy called today’s transport visuals - caused by the fragmentation of a privatised railway, is confusing for users, putting brand identity before practicality. Therefore, Calvert’s new commission seems incredibly timely, as the current chaos of railways in Britain is leading to an increasingly likely future of full re-nationalisation. Calvert’s Rail Alphabet design is inevitably tied to the heyday of nationalised rail - a fact that she is well aware of, having expressed her hope in 2015 that a potential nationalisation of rail under a Labour government would bring back her designs.
Rail Alphabet in Use at Paddington Station (credit: RIBA Journal)
Gouache Maquette for road signage system (image credit: Design Museum)
If, however, you aren’t facing the Christmas travel rush, and have been saved from contemplating the design history of Britain’s road signs whilst stuck on the M25, or the ‘muddle of fonts’ whilst trying to find your way to the right platform at Kings Cross St Pancras, the Design Museum has a wonderful exhibition on currently about Margaret Calvert’s past and current work. Margaret Calvert: Woman at Work is on until 10 January - and is wonderfully digitised online, perfect for killing time on a long train journey home.
eat drink and be 'morris'
An Arts and Crafts Pub Crawl in Hammersmith
Thursday, 5 November
To my amusement, the Wetherspoons outside Hammersmith station is called ‘The William Morris’ - named, of course, after the political activist, poet and pioneer of Arts and Crafts design. I’m obsessed with him. Anyone who has spent more than a couple of minutes with me will have been subjected to long, rambling conversations about his wallpaper, his socialist design principles, and the intricacies of his life in general. So, it was never going to be long before I decided to write about him here, and, to be honest, a Wetherspoons outside a tube station feels like a pretty good place to start a William Morris-themed pub crawl across Hammersmith.
But now, with pubs shut until at least the start of December, I’m sorry to say that this will have to be an intellectual pub crawl, rather than an actual one. Staggering between a couple of pubs, a few riverside houses and a whole lot of drama surrounding a bridge, we will be feasting and drinking not on a £3.50 bowl of halloumi fries and a £3 pint, but on Hammersmith’s design history.
The Dove pub, Hammersmith, London, from the river jetty. 28 September 2005. Photographer: Fin Fahey
So, let's abandon ‘The William Morris' - I don’t think Morris would have appreciated having his name put on a pub chain with somewhat questionable ethical practices anyway - and walk to another nearby pub, The Dove. The Dove is fascinating for a number of reasons besides its association with the Arts and Crafts movement. Sitting on the river with a view of houseboats, sailing clubs and Hammersmith bridge, it feels a little more coastal, rather than only being a short walk from the hustle and bustle of West London. It is not surprising, therefore, that it has attracted some memorable people over time: the writers Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and Dylan Thomas are all known to have spent time there - and allegedly ‘Rule Britannia’ was also penned over a pint within its tiny bar room, the smallest in the world! But most notably in the history of design, it was frequented by William Morris, Thomas Cobden-Sanderson and Emery Walker - all key figures in the Arts and Crafts movement - they allegedly coined the name ‘Arts and Crafts’ in the bar in 1887. Cobden-Sanderson and Walker, admittedly less well known than Morris today, were bookbinders and typographers at the centre of the Private Press Movement; an Arts and Crafts initiative that aimed to revive the art of bookmaking by taking it out of large company factories and putting in back in the workshop. The name of their press, The Doves Press, was directly taken from The Dove, the pub at the centre of their creative circle - and next door to Cobden-Sanderson’s house and studio. The Dove now houses a few copies of ‘Rule Britannia' printed by Doves Press - and the pair did publish and print a few beautifully designed limited edition runs of texts such as Paradise Lost and The English Bible before falling out over artistic differences.
Kelmscott House, credit 'The William Morris society'
Moving on, just a couple of yards up Hammersmith’s idyllic Thames-side Upper Mall, is Kelmscott House - William Morris’ home from 1878 until his death in 1896. Alongside being a family home for him and his wife, Jane Morris - the textile artist and Pre-Raphaelite model - it served a variety of other purposes, from housing his carpet looms, to hosting socialist lectures and meetings frequented by George Bernard Shaw, Peter Kropotkin and Oscar Wilde. Also prominent in the Private Press movement, Morris’ similarly named Kelmscott Press was situated just opposite the Dove, and next door to Kelmscott House. There, he designed and printed highly decorative versions of the Canterbury Tales, the works of Shakespeare and anthologies by various Romantic poets, alongside his own writings and poetry - drawing upon the craftsmanship and design of medieval manuscripts and fifteenth century printed books.
A short walk westward up the river brings us to the houses of May Morris and Emery Walker, at 8 and 7 Hammersmith Terrace. May Morris was, like her father, was an influential figure in the Arts and Crafts movement. She worked in embroidery and textile design, jewellery design, and design reform, whilst also being an outspoken socialist and women’s rights activist. Aiming to combat sexism within the Arts and Crafts circle, whilst living at 8 Hammersmith Terrace, she established the Women’s Guild of Arts as a rival to the Art Worker’s Guild which refused to admit women. She was close friends with Dorothy Walker, the daughter of Emery Walker - and in 1903, the Walkers moved next door. 7 Hammersmith Terrace remains one of the best-preserved Arts and Crafts homes, and I highly encourage you to visit once it is able to reopen. Filled with Morris & co. textiles and wallpapers, ceramics by the de Morgans, and glasswork by Phillip Webb; it typifies the ideals of Arts and Crafts design reform, favouring the hand crafted over the mass produced, the useful over the frivolous, and a curiosity towards the beauty of the natural.
Kelmscott Press printer's mark, Epistola de Contemptu Mundi, 1894.
Credit: University of Maryland
But Hammersmith’s Arts and Crafts circle was not an idyll of socialist design and innovation. With ambition, perfectionism and artistic collaboration between some of the most influential design reformers, came conflict. This played out on Hammersmith Bridge, on the walk back towards the tube station from the Thames-side residences of the Arts and Crafts pioneers. A contentious dispute broadly revolving around who could use the Doves type, and the financial value it would bring to the press, broke up the cooperation between Walker and Cobden-Sanderson in 1909, and resulted in long term bitterness between the pair. Over health fears, war scares and the dissolution of the Doves Press, between 1913 and 1917, Cobden-Sanderson dramatically threw all of the type, punches and matrices over Hammersmith Bridge so that Walker would never gain its rights. He then issued a statement in the final Doves Press publication at its dissolution in 1917, that he had ‘bequeathed [the Doves Type] to the River Thames’ - essentially hammering the nail in the coffin of what had been one of the most important collaborations of the Arts and Crafts and Private Press movements. And with that end of an era, our walk along the Thames path comes to an end too.
Returning to the station - there’s one bit of Arts and Crafts design indebted to Hammersmith that you probably see every day- the Underground roundel and Transport for London font. Well, technically it’s Johnston Railway Type, formerly just called ‘Underground’, but it was designed by the typographer and calligrapher Edward Johnston who began studying medieval manuscripts on the recommendation of William Morris and moving within the Arts and Crafts circle. He later became a teacher of calligraphy at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and worked with Emery Walker on the Doves Press. Inspired by William Morris’ mantra that ‘you should have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’, he adopted his own mantra that typography and calligraphy should be ‘the making of useful things legibly beautiful’ - which has been widely credited to have begun the modern calligraphic revival. He lived in Hammersmith - just a couple of doors down from Emery Walker and May Morris - so next time you take a tube, or read a TfL sign, remember that you’ve got William Morris, the Dove pub, and the Arts and Crafts circle in Hammersmith to thank for such an iconic piece of London’s design.
Eleanor Cross… or not?
Searching for medieval stone crosses in North London
Thursday, 22 October
Westminster, Lincoln, St Albans –. Soaring cathedrals, ecclesiastic palaces and libraries of beautifully illuminated manuscripts set the scene for a rich trove of medieval finds. But North London? Well, amongst the residential streets, Overground lines, and (quite frankly confusing) hail-and-ride bus services, medieval artworks may seem unlikely to come across..
But not all hope is lost – well, at least that’s what I thought. Like many of us in a hurry to the train station, out of the rain, or to drinks with a friend, I often rush past public art. In a city where we are bombarded by visuals – shop fronts, advertisements and the people around us – it is easy to let these public sculptures fade into the background of our lives, no matter how historically or artistically interesting they are. I’ve walked down Tottenham High Road towards Bruce Grove station countless times – but only recently stopped to look.
When I did stop to look, I was struck by what appeared to be a Gothic stone cross. Of course, ‘stone crosses’ don’t actually bear crosses anymore but are rather the decorative stone bases - the wooden crosses that would have topped them have fallen away with time. The pointed arches, crockets and quatrefoils raised my hopes that this may be an Eleanor Cross – one of the stone monuments erected in the 13th Century to mark the procession of Eleanor of Castile’s body from Lincoln to Westminster. Unlike most arranged marriages throughout history, Eleanor of Castile and Edward I are widely reported to have been deeply in love and, after Eleanor’s death in 1290, Edward commissioned 12 stone crosses to profess his undying love for Eleanor, and preserve her memory. On a route from Lincoln to Westminster, the procession must have passed through North London, so I got excited at the thought that here, in the centre of Tottenham (home to the 2011 London Riots and a football club that I know absolutely nothing about), perhaps stood a testament to one of history’s most famous love stories.
I was wrong.
Illustration by Kitty Bate
An Eleanor cross- this stone monument was not. After a quick google search and another close look, I discovered that it was actually an early 17th Century reconstruction of a medieval wayside cross for the then village of Tottenham, which had been covered in a Gothic-style stucco in 1809. In hindsight then, this was not an Eleanor Cross, a work of the patronage of the heartbroken medieval king. Despite how incongruous the ornate Gothic style may look amongst the London brick buildings that line the A10, this particular cross was nowhere near grand enough to be an expression of everlasting royal love, powerful enough to transform Eleanor’s image from generally disliked to the darling of the medieval world. But I was certain that the procession must have passed through North London, and therefore that there must be an Eleanor Cross, or at least the site of one, nearby.
Sure enough, only a 20-minute train-ride away was one of only 3 surviving original crosses out of the 12 initially built – Waltham Cross.
Situated in the centre of a pedestrianised shopping street just north of the M25 and on the border between London and Hertfordshire, this beautifully ornate, hexagonal celebration of Gothic arts, and Eleanor herself, stands out from surrounding cafes, banks and newsagents – yet no one seems to glance at it as they go about their day-to-day lives. Eleanor and Edward’s joint enthusiasm for patronage of the arts is incredibly present throughout its design, celebrating their life together. The repetitive quatrefoil flower pattern carved in low relief over the bottom third mimics (in an anglicised way) the Spanish carpets that Eleanor collected and made fashionable. Moreover, the crockets lining the pinnacles and buttresses are sculpted in the fashionable ball-flower style which was popular amongst the foliate style of the Decorative Gothic, to which Eleanor was a devoted patron in both architecture and manuscripts – perhaps also referencing her influence on and interest in garden and landscape design. Through its design and the 3 - now replica - sculptures of Eleanor which sit within it, gazing upon the people of Waltham Cross, you begin to get a sense of the person Eleanor was – or at least, the person Edward saw her as, or wanted her to be seen as. In the knowledge that this is only 1 of 3 Eleanor crosses which survived the iconoclasm of the English Civil War, this expression feels more intimate than ever, despite being in an incredibly public space.
But going back to my original confusion between the Eleanor Cross and Tottenham High Cross – perhaps there was an intent to confuse, a pride in the speculative idea that such an important, romanticised moment from medieval English history passed through this area of North London. After many monuments commemorating medieval royal love were destroyed during a short period of anti-monarchist feeling in the 17th Century, rising nostalgia for old England was strong in the 19th Century. Alongside a period of increasing imperialism, but also civil unrest, the ‘good old days’ of an all-powerful, all English monarchy was romanticised – pushing for the reinstatement of a visual medieval past, where the Church and Monarchy reigned supreme. This is evident in the rebuilding of Westminster Palace in the 1840s, and – in fact - the imaginative replica of an Eleanor Cross in the forecourt of Charing Cross station, close by to where the original, and final, Eleanor Cross would have been.
Therefore, I don’t find it unreasonable to imagine that my misidentified stone cross, sitting at a junction in central Tottenham, was a refashioning of an older monument in order to embrace these rising feelings of a romanticised medieval past. It is interesting to note that some vague legend seems to be present about some connection between the Eleanor of Castile procession and Tottenham, with a now outdated walkers route ‘Queen Eleanor Way’ including Tottenham High Road as a point on the route from Nottinghamshire to Westminster, following the Eleanor Crosses.
At a point in history when the city of London, and the world itself, was swiftly changing, people turned - whether for better or for worse - towards the past in order to look for surety. I wonder now, in a similar period of change and uncertainty, whether we will find any comfort in turning towards the past too.