By Kate Sloan
The Peter Potter Gallery located in Haddington, southeast Scotland, commissioned artist Gemma Coyle to create an evolving installation exploring the absurdities of the world represented in the rich and compelling context of the early museum archive.
The work on display brings together fascinating – and often macabre – museum catalogue entries from 1695 with the rather prim and apparently innocent art of quilling. This creates an interesting tension in the work, given the collision of the delicate and time-consuming process with the dark and disturbing objects the text describes.Image: Gemma Coyle
Coyle says she is “fascinated by the perturbing, complex, breathtaking, curious, wondrous and absurd world around us, as well as the variety of living forms on it”.A subtle and spiky humour
Her work recalls the heyday of feminist art of the 1970s, in which the kinds of arts associated with womanhood such as sewing, baking or decorating ceramics were reclaimed to create a vivid and often violent commentary on gender inequalities. Artists such as Judy Chicago and Louise Bourgeois created a practice in which these traditional crafts were subverted and controlled to question ideas of femininity, womanhood and social structure. In The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, Rozsika Parker reflected that:
“Changes in ideas about femininity that can be seen reflected in the history of embroidery are striking confirmation that femininity is a social and psychosocial product.”
In the same text, Parker quotes an 18th century source as follows:
“Sir, she’s an Artist with her needle….Could anything be more laughable than a woman claiming artistic status for her sewing?”
This offers an interesting insight into the historical view on women’s crafts, but more importantly, women’s abilities. While Coyle’s work is not overtly feminist in ethos, there is a subtle and spiky humour about the interplay of the floral patterns, decorative colours and effects, traditionally feminine techniques in contrast with the sheer savagery of the language she has borrowed. The violence of these catalogue entries relates to both genders, but taken out of context – ‘A Mans Gutts’ for example – they often create a sense of violent or troubled relationships.A suitable occupation for women of breeding
Quilling, like embroidery, was a craft which in the 18th century was considered a suitable occupation for women of breeding. The craft was practised during the Renaissance (14th century) by monks and nuns in Italy and France, who would decorate their religious objects with ornate patterns. They used golden-edged strips that were left over from bookmaking to wind around a quill, forming tight coils of paper which could then be glued in patterns to create decorative motifs. This was cheaper than using proper gold filigree and had a decorative and ornate result. It translated well to the creation of feminine pictures of flora and fauna and thus it was a suitable and relatively easy craft for upper class women of the 18thand 19th centuries to take up as part of the ongoing enforcement of the link between womanhood and decoration.A material with limitless potential
Paper itself is a sculptural material with limitless potential – it can be cut, moulded, mashed, ripped, torn, shredded, compressed, carved, layered, dyed, painted, drawn on, varnished, folded or glued. It can be used to create sculpture that is enduring and solid, or the most delicate and vulnerable tissue-thin works, intended only to survive the length of an exhibition. It is also worth noting that paper has been vital to the preservation and reconstruction of history, in the form of documents, drawings, prints and photographs. In its virgin form it is pure potential; blank, empty, silent. As soon as we make a mark or a fold, we intervene. We begin to create history. As noted, the document used for this exhibition dates to 1695, and it has endured to fascinate and inspire us today.Image: Gemma Coyle A catalogue of wonder and grotesquery
We make our histories from remains: aside from oral histories, historical narrative relies on surviving objects and paper ephemera such as documents, drawings and photographs. While there are many reasons to collect – nostalgia, fascination, greed, education, salvage – through doing so, we preserve history. This exhibition takes as its starting point the peculiarities of one historical document by Frans Schuyl, dated to 1695, which listed the content of an early museum:
“A Catalogue of all of the Cheifest Rarities in the Publick Anatomie-Hall, of the University of Leyden”
This astonishing text lists the manifold objects within the collection, which encompassed human remains, natural history and manmade objects from all over the world. The stark descriptive style of Schuyl’s museum archive list belies the curious and often grotesque and sinister nature of the artefacts it describes. Many are connected with macabre stories, imbued with the mystique of foreign climes or are fantastical to the point of fiction. The catalogue lists the items in their order of display, so the exhibits of each room or cabinet are listed consecutively rather than ordered by theme as so:
- 53 The Skin of a Man dreffed like Parchement
- 54 A Sea Dog
- 55 An arm, legg, & the fkull of a Thief that was hang’d
- 56 The Effigis of a Prufian Pefan, who Swallow’d a Knife ten inches Long, which was cut out of his stomack, & he lived Eight Years afterwards
- 57 A great Unicorn
One can imagine these objects and relics displayed side by side on wooden shelves. In this period museum practice was not concerned with drawing together exhibits by historical or critical theme in the way it is today. Instead, the museum was the site of wonder; of spectacle and magic, of the ecstatic mysteries of the unknown world. In the 17th century, the world held mysteries and fascinations beyond anything we can imagine in our age of instant information and communication.Image: Gemma Coyle
As well as wonder, there is horror too. The manipulation of objects – particularly human remains – was undertaken in the spirit of the macabre, as was the collection of artefacts pertaining to the darkest and bloodiest sins. The following selections from the catalogue illustrate the bloodthirsty side to the collection:
- 1 A French Noble-man who ravish’d his fifter, an afterwards murthered her, and was beheaded at Paris, and given to the Anatomie, by de Bils
- 7 The Sceleton of an Affe upon which fit’s a Woman that killed her Daughters Child
- 42 A Modell of a Murthering-Knife found in Engeland. Whereon was written Kill the dogs burn the bitches, and roast the whelps
It is important to note that the only available bodies for dissection and study were those of executed criminals, in part explaining why these crimes were listed along with the objects. It is also clear though, that the anatomists working on these remains had a slightly macabre and humorous take on their display. The terrifying description of a ‘murdering-knife’ above is an apt example of the kind of narrative pull an object can have. Even in description this tells a story and is suggestive of a raw violence and malicious intent that would have given viewers a shudder of unease just as it does for us today when we contemplate the printed record of this museum of curiosities.
This is an exhibition of text, but as you view it you will experience both the subtly feminine aesthetic of Coyle’s work and strong and often disturbing imagery. This is the result of the vivid interplay between word, object and the vital capacity of the mind to imagine history.
Source: Peter Potter Gallery
- The exhibition by Gemma Coyle: 88 This may be seen in the entrance continues until 23 March 2013.
- The Peter Potter Gallery is a vibrant contemporary art organisation which brings together diverse disciplines to explore what contemporary art is and could be – art, archaeology, music, poetry, craft, coffee, history, ecology and cake.
- 2012, saw the gallery take a leap into pastures new under the directorship of Arabella Harvey and Kate Sloan. Funding was secured to undertake a year long project entitled Lost Landscapes which had a strong archaeological and ecological output and saw artists, archaeologists and ecologists, working with community organisations and schools.
- Now, in 2013 a new project has begun entitled Monument and once again archaeology will feature as a major element.
- If you live in East Lothian and would like to get involved in the two archaeological digs on offer please email David Connolly for more information at: email@example.com
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The Battle of Agincourt, 15th-century miniature : Wiki CommonsNot just a King’s ransom: war was a money-spinner for the rank-and-file soldier in the Late Middle Ages
Research by a University of Southampton historian has found that the practice of ransom was widespread among all soldiers during the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453) and not, as generally thought, just the preserve of kings, knights and higher orders.
Dr Rémy Ambühl has found that ransom in war provided a valuable source of income for all classes in the Late Middle Ages, including those in the lower orders. He says: “There is widespread evidence to suggest that during the 15th century the practice of ransom is increasingly extended to commoners, not just Kings or chivalrous Knights.”
Dr Ambühl’s research has led him to examine a large number of historical sources which support this, including; court records, financial documents, receipts, ordinances of war, petitions, biographical texts and even poetry. He has concluded that contracts which drew-up the terms and conditions of ransom were commonplace between individual soldiers or small groups on opposing sides. This involved captors and captives of all ranks and the practice was an accepted way of making profit out of war. This is supported by an apparent increase in the size of the rank-and-file sections of the French and English armies during this period.
Dr Ambühl explains: “Patriotism was not the driving force to encourage enrolment and ordinary men would have been reluctant to join armies willingly if they faced death upon capture. However, under the terms of ransom, prisoners were less likely to be harmed and additionally the practice provided them with an opportunity to make money – another incentive to enlist.
“Over the course of the Hundred Years War, more and more rank-and-file soldiers captured more and more rank-and-file prisoners giving rise to a form of social recognition between equals – the principle of reciprocity meant good treatment on one side would induce good treatment on the other. It can also be argued that materialism had started to penetrate the whole of society and even a small profit gained from the ransom of commoner prisoners was thought to be worthwhile.”
From the moment of capture, prisoners became the individual responsibility of their masters who were expected to secure an appropriate place and conditions for them to be held in. The Master had to work out the appropriate value of their prisoners and enter negotiations with them, their family and friends. In turn, prisoners, or their connections, would work to raise funds or arrange an exchange for their release.
Dr Ambühl comments, “Negotiations were crucial in this process and a dialogue was kept open between masters and prisoners at all stages. The ransom culture was essentially contractual and so firmly rooted that it could even supersede or invalidate arguments from the ‘law of arms’.”
Records show that the earliest evidence of a set scale of ransom payments for the bottom of the social hierarchy dates from the battle of Agincourt (Friday, 25 October 1415). Dr Ambühl concludes this may reflect an evolution of the ransom system in the first decades of the 15th century.
By the 16th century, scales of ransom payments were based on the wages of soldiers and throughout this period and into the 17th century there was increasing control from the state. Eventually a practice which had been shaped by combatants over the centuries ended up being tightly controlled by authorities.
Dr Rémy Ambühl’s full research on this subject can be found in his recently published book, Prisoners of War in the Hundred Years War: Ransom Culture in the Late Middle Ages.Contributing Source : University of Southampton HeritageDaily : Archaeology News : Archaeology Press Releases
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