Women, Work and Commerce in the Creative Industries: Britain, 1750-1950 – Conference Day 1

This two-day conference adds to the growing body of feminist scholarship that is deconstructing the male-dominated history of commercial and industrial artistic production. The programme will bring together current interdisciplinary perspectives on women’s experiences of work and the gendered dynamics of commerce in the creative industries in Britain between 1750 and 1950.

EventBrite description of conference

What follows is not a thorough exposition of the papers delivered at the conference but merely a write up of the notes I made about aspects I found interesting or relevant to my own work.

Dr Patricia Zakreski, University of Exeter – Creative Labour: Women Writers, the Decorative Arts and the Art of Fiction

While the primary focus of this talk was on women writers in the later 19th century, it explored how these writers looked to the decorative arts as a model of creative work. I was particularly interested in her use of tessellation as a construct (Lewis Foreman Day – The anatomy of pattern), decorative arts as repetitive, patient labour vs. the romantic idea of the artist as creative genius.

The popular idea of the process of ornamental design is that the artist has only to sit down before a piece of paper, and, like a spider, spin out the fancies that may crowd his fertile imagination. Indeed, there is scope in design for all his fancy; but he is no Zeus that ornament should spring, Athena-like, full-grown from his brain. Ornament is constructed, patiently (I will not say laboriously, for the artist loves his labour), patiently built up on lines inevitable to its constancy…

Lewis Foreman Day – The anatomy of pattern, 1887; 3-4 (taken from presentation slide)

The speaker also made the point that decorative arts are creatively driven by material considerations, emphasising that these were usually domestic (hence feminine) activities using (often left-over) domestic materials. By extension this repetitive creative labour and the notion of assemblage equates to the feminine.

Decorative artists transform everyday ‘stuff’ into art.

Dr Patricia Zakreski

She also noted that this assemblage was encouraged to be harmonious in composition, unlike the practice of collage which is often one of contrasting, juxtaposing fragments. She drew examples from the practice of patchwork, discussing women’s magazines of the period which gave patterns and advice for the ‘correct’ way to combine colours etc.

The idea that female creativity is one of arrangement as opposed to creation is one that echoed through many of the papers.

Dr Kyriaki Hadjiafxendi, Bath Spa University – Edith Simcox’s Shirts: Clothes, Labour, and Professional Communities

What I found particularly resonant in this paper was the Victorian use of the shirt and the activity of shirt-making as a symbol of the exploitation of women’s labour. It made me wonder about the representation and symbolism of the act of embroidery and needlework.

Panel 4 — (In)visibility and the archive

The final panel of the day included two practice-based researchers, Caroline Douglas and Amy Goodwin, I was curious to see how they approached their research.

Caroline Douglas, Royal College of Art – ‘The Woman Who Was Alive There’: Hill and Adamson’s portrait of a Newhaven Fishwife

Douglas spoke at length about the need and desire to reduced distance from the object and their subject/makers, something I see as pertinent to my own work. She spoke about her attempts to reduce this distance by placing herself in the position of subject in the portraits she is studying and also by replicating the photographic process used. In emulating the process she discovered the material problems of the technique. She also spoke about the agency of the original makers and subjects through these reenactments.

Amy Goodwin, Norwich University of the Arts – ‘Lizzie: Striding Along’ and ‘Martha: Mesmeric Subject’

Goodwin, working with fairground history through incomplete archives and oral history, spoke of the position of practice to contribute to the expansion of these fragmentary archives. Her work uses her unique position as an ‘insider’, a member of the community she is researching, giving her access to otherwise closed knowledge as well as providing an intuitive framework in which to place her research. This is an attempt to “articulate negative spaces” through oral history and contribute to the narrative:

archival artists seek to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present. They elaborate on the found image, object and text and favour the installation format as they do so.

Hal Foster, ‘An archival Impulse’ in The Archive: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Charles Merewether, 2006; 143 (taken from presentation slide)

On a technical note, I was impressed by Goodwin’s own system for documenting archive objects.

Christine Slobogin, Birkbeck, University of London – ‘What Did You Do in the War, Mummy? Surgical Drawings?’

I really enjoyed this talk, and I’ll admit mostly for the gory drawings (@morbidarthistory) but Slobogin did make an important point that compliments Goodwin’s position as an ‘insider’, the need for care when placing yourself in relation to the objects of study – “Be careful not to craft your own affect”, in other words, assume your feelings and experiences are the same.

The panel discussion expanded the conversation around contributing to fragmentary archives, throwing up the problem of adding to archives but that that this too may become invisible.

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