Of Plate and Place – Simon Holding
This essay was written by Professor Simon Olding, MA PhD FMA FTS, Director of the Crafts Study Centre.
In an elegant, though somewhat off-the beaten-track room of the Salisbury Museum, resides a fine collection of Wedgwood. The collection was brought together by Mrs Brixie Jarvis. She had a good eye to match her passion for China, which at first was displayed privately in a room in a modern bungalow which she shared with her husband, situated bucolically in the grounds of what remains of the Roman Rockbourne Villa, managed by the Hampshire County Museums Service. The bungalow pitched the private in with the public; and the old with the new.
And so it was a rather apt outcome when Brixie began to discuss the possibility of this fine collection entering the Salisbury Museum – first on loan, and then by purchase. A public scheme for a private collection. The transfer from the bungalow and its historic grounds was made, to premises known as The King’s House, once part of a teacher training college, with a fine frontage graced by Elizabethan mullioned windows. The Wedgwood had gone public.
The collection now sits in its often quiet room, thoughtfully organized, embracing tablewares and ornaments, the regular with the unexpected, tortoiseshell and creamware glazes, a snapshot of the wares that impacted so profoundly on taste, place, industry and ceramic art.
There is one side plate in this collection –decorated on its rim with a winning emblem of a frog, and across the base with a hand-painted scene of Mount Edgecumbe, Devon. It is Brixie’s capture of a sole piece from a once-huge, now-dispersed service made for Catherine the Great of Russia in 1773-74. It shows Wedgwood in good form, servicing an aristocratic client impeccably. The humble plate becomes more than a receptacle for food. It has more work to do than function. It is a symbol of wealth. It is sign of careful taste (of the commissioner as well as the collector). It is a cipher of class. It is a consort to an evening of, no doubt, abundant and even rareified food (with a plate or vessel for every conceivable dish). It may even have sparked a conversation about all of these things. It is a plate on active duty.
The Wedgwood plate was meant for the dining table, even if it has found an acceptable home in the plaster-ceiling side room of a great museum of archaeology (with a nice irony not in, but next to, the ‘fair, large dining room’ of The King’s House).
The Dining Room of East Cliff Hall (a ‘cement rendered Italianate villa of eccentric design’, as the Department of the Environment rather winningly described it), is a construct of the owners and inveterate collectors, Sir Merton and Lady Annie Russell-Cotes. The Hall, once private, like The King’s House, is now public, a remarkable museum of the fine and applied arts, the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth. The room is set out, as it always has been, for the prospect of food. This is food with attitude. Once the site for the grand civic repast, now it hints at the circumstances and the regalia of such a meal. There is a sturdy mahogany dining table, richly embossed Tynecastle wallpaper, stained glass windows (some depicting the countries of the British Empire), marbled Corinthian columns, a painted peacock frieze, a rank of oil paintings and a splendid, bracing view (through the sun lounge) to the distant hills of Purbeck over Poole Bay. You can almost smell the roast beef and hear the claret decanting.
We don’t know what dinner service the Russell-Coteses used – perhaps Wedgwood, perhaps Minton, perhaps Spode. Given the riot of colour surrounding the table, and the gleam of silver cutlery and cut glass upon it, it is fair to imagine that it suited these eclectic circumstances of place and personality, in a deep magenta perhaps, with prints or paintings to evoke Merton and Annie’s redoubtable travellings, patriotic zeal or antiquarian interests. No doubt the family crest appeared. This is a dining room of solid Victorian value and its plates would have added incrementally to the virtues on offer: civic stature (Merton was Mayor); commercial acumen (they owned the prestige hotel next door); a good deal of disposable income and public patronage (the building and its contents were gifted to the Council in a remarkable act of generosity in 1908).
So where did this leave Magdalene Odundo?
What has her work to do with a Victorian dining table, residing as it does in the great public and private collections of the UK and America? Her forms are a world away: spined, complexly-handled, trumpeted, flared; bellied, serenely-curved, precisely-lipped; the smoothest of polished and burnished terracotta.
These signature, slow, vessels lie at the heart of her practice. But Odundo is nothing if not experimental. She has produced ‘Millenium Pieces’ in glazed white earthenware, as crisp as any Wedgwood. She has made striking bronze vessels; she is a formidable print maker; her current practice has involved magisterial installations in blown glass; and she has drawn directly on the gallery wall.
So it may not have been such a surprise when Odundo accepted a commission (along with other artists in the craft field) to show work at the Russell-Cotes in 2002, as part of the curatorial project Acknowledged Sources. The Dining Room of East Cliff Hall became her site of practice, a wrestling with the past of place and her own past and sense of personal place, a means of responding to the project ambition to explore ‘the relationship and difference between genuine artistic influence and recognition to acquisition and appropriation of the symbols and identity of diverse cultures’.
For Odundo, a Victorian dining room, dressed by a philanthropic, travelling, self-made, knighted Mayor, gave her ample scope for the most personal of enquiries, and the most surprising of technical challenges. Who would have thought that she might transfer-print onto factory made Royal Staffordshire plates to suit her purpose? And yet this solution – to present a tableware set of dinner plates, side plates, gravy boats, teacups, covered bowls – quietly, ironically, even subversively, made a powerful impact. For this table would not have been accustomed to listen to, indeed to be forcefully told, the story of an African family childhood. The owners were meant to do the talking. The visitor may just have taken a glance at this service to see what they expected to see: regulation magenta plates. And yet what was there for the deeper, longer gaze, was private testimony. Odundo, captured from her childhood photographs. As William Quiller Orchardson’s regal scene of Queen Victoria en famille The Four Generations looks benignly on, Odundo and her family look the generations back in the eye. She has an ownership of place, too. This is a china used for personal accounting and symbolism. Personal portraiture is laid out to counterbalance the governed portraits around the room. Odundo gives the dining table a ceremony of self and she raises questions about what a museum might collect and how appropriate that may be. She started from the position that the museum is the holder of knowledge and added her knowledge to it, ‘a knowledge that has enabled me to reclaim in mind and spirit that heritage lost to Africa even if only in perception and not in reality’. This tableware is then in a vigil. It is about person as much as place. It uses place antithetically.
The Vyne is a much-changed, originally Tudor, historic house built by Henry VIII’s Lord Chamberlain, sold to the Chute family in 1653 and bequeathed by them to the National Trust in 1956. It is set in managed landscape on the outer fringes of Basingstoke: the old and the new reappearing in our narrative in the gist of private and public housing.
The National Trust has taken a gathering interest in contemporary art, as indeed have a number of historic-house-based museums of art (the Russell-Cotes; Blackwell House, Pitshanger Manor). The Unravelled is currently managing ‘Unravelling the National Trust’ a three year project responding to three of its properties, with the Vyne at the mid-point. As the directors of Unravelled – Polly Harknett, Caitlin Heffernan and Matt Smith – remark, the ten artists who were selected to make work for the Vyne, operate in charged territory. They have to navigate through the public-private interface; to fix a point in time when the place around them is loaded with time past; to make a resonance with family histories expressed through paintings, collections, furniture and the regulated functions of the rooms, all highlighting ‘the difficulty of trying to view the past with modern eyes’.
Penny Green has done this through dinner plates. To be more exact, she has created a series of 14 ceramic plates alluding to their history. This is Lady Dacre’s Wedding gift – a conceit: plates set on a fine mahogany table in ‘The Dining Parlour’ (as it was called in 1754) with walls lined by linenfold panelling and set with paintings. The plates make us look back at the paintings (or perhaps the paintings make us look more keenly at the plates). They don’t masquerade as receptacles for a meal. They have a narrative intensity. Felled oak trees from the Dacre family history fall across the Vyne’s neo-classical façade. Flemish floor tiles from the Chapel and other architectural motifs appear. Portraits and text cover some works. Not all is perfect. Some plates haven’t lasted the time they are alleged to have lived – one rim broken, another roughly stapled. It is clearly new work with the fractures and iconography of the old stories of the Dacres, the imagined wedding gift of Edward Chute and his bride Katharine Keck, which, as Penny Green says ‘remarkably…still survive’.
So here are plates as new history; as commentary on place and the people who have made the place its own; as a commentary, in passing, perhaps, to the customary, formal role, of the collected ceramic, which in the Vyne is shown in the adjacent ‘China Room’ with its regulation porcelains and maioilcas. Here, on this dining-room table, the artist is perhaps absent. Her retelling of history is in the foreground. It is a history of powerful women. The plate is contemplative, feminist and entwined in the house.
The role of new ceramic in the old house has, fundamentally, the purpose of counterpoint. Old new; history contemporary; ritual symbol; personal public. For Bouke de Vries, in the fine Queen Anne stairwell of the historic half of Pallant House Gallery, the role of the artist is expressed through curatorship and selection. For this task has been to install the Godfrey Freeman collection of Bow Porcelain, a means of making the 300th anniversary of the building of the house in 1712-13 and, a little more removed the 2012 London Olympic Games (on the site of the 18th century Bow Porcelain factory). On boards of violet-blue, the Bow Porcelains – like Brixie Jarvis’s Wedgwoods – mixed plates and figures, ornaments and vessels – float escaped from the museum vitrine. They are ordered for art.
They fly to make us take pause.