27th August 2019: Research Trip/Holiday – Stratford-Upon-Avon: Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust – three approaches to heritage and a visit to the archive

26th August to 3rd September I took a holiday with my partner and combined it with an extremely productive research trip. As we were traveling all over the country on public transport, we needed to travel light, so I only took one notebook with me – which I then neglected to write anything in as we were enjoying the ‘holiday’ part far too much! I did, however, take a huge number of photographs, which are providing a prompt to memory as I write up my reflections now.

We were fortunate to be provided with complementary passes to all of the sites cared for by The Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust and began with a visit to Shakespeare’s Birthplace. The new built museum contained a selection of objects, interactive exhibits and information – a sort of general overview of the work, life and influence of Shakespeare. I particularly enjoyed the group of actors in the garden whose job it was to perform scenes on request – I was impressed by this idea of using live performance in this particular historical context. We didn’t ask them to perform, I was more interested in asking them about their job (lovely in summer but exhausting; most requested scene Romeo and Juliet followed by Hamlet). I noted with interest that the guides in the house wore replica costume which I thought was an extremely effect way to display it as you could see how it fitted and how it moved when being worn, and this reminded me of the discussion around dress as a narrative prop at the CHORD conference.

As we moved through the house, I observed something curious about the reconstructed bed hangings – one of the four poster beds was dressed with an all-in-one canopy and ‘headboard’ – a single length of fabric! This got me thinking about the large, embroidered panel in the V&A that is part of the Falkland set (T.79-1924). This panel has been catalogued as a ‘cushion cover’ but I was told by SN that the curators weren’t really sure what it was. It is almost certainly part of a bed dressing (having two matching pillow covers) but it’s far too large to be a cushion cover and too long and narrow to be a coverlet. Looking at the width and size of the bed canopy in Shakespeare’s Birthplace, I was struck by the seeming similarity in width and length to the Falkland panel – I’ve emailed SN with a photo to see what she thinks – I’d be interested to get some measurements of bed frames!

The rest of the house was laid out in a mixture of reconstructed rooms (mixing original and replica objects) and exhibition cases. I particularly liked the workshop space; the benches being laid out with replica tools and materials. Even though they were replicas, and the room layout was an imagined reconstruction, it did give a genuine ‘feel’ of how the room might have been used. I noted the placement of the objects as if someone had just stepped out of the room, reminding me of Rachel Popes paper at the CHORD workshop about how human presence can be evoke through the casual display of objects. I also rather liked the ‘interactive’ table where you could touch (and smell!) the materials, though it is a common display strategy in many museums.

The next site we visited was Shakespeare’s New Place. To me, this was a beautiful and considered response to a place that no longer exists. The New Place was the site of Shakespeare’s family home, demolished over 250 years ago. But instead of rebuilding, they Trust has created a sculpture garden, using artworks that respond to the work and legacy of Shakespeare. The (probable) layout of the original house was marked by brass strips inlaid in the ground. The sculptures are all themed around globes and travel – referencing the global influence and cultural reach of Shakespeare and the emerging global exploration that was accelerating in the Elizabethan period. The most evocative sculpture, I found, was the one in the centre of the garden – a bronze tree blowing in the wind across a globe, half smooth and half mottled with a pattern modelled on the background noise of the big bang. The sculpture is intended to be a representation of the influence of Shakespeare blowing across the world – but not all of it. The placing of the bronze tree, blowing away from the supposed site of Shakespeare’s study emphasises this idea – the site of the study itself occupied by a bronze writing desk and chair. There is something ephemeral going on here, something ghostly. We are invited, not so much to contemplate what might have existed IN this space but what was conjured and sent out FROM it. It’s almost pilgrim-like – to sit and occupy a space from which those words, so ingrained in our culture, came from. I wondered what would happen to the experience if they had somehow got it wrong, if this wasn’t actually the site of the study – would that lessen the experience? I think, to be honest, it doesn’t really matter – the work of Shakespeare (and by extension the man himself) are more of an idea, a cultural construct – in a way he’s almost a mythic figure, the legacy far bigger than a real living person. And that, to me, is what this garden, this house that isn’t there, is all about – the idea of the man. There are themes here that echo the work of Lozano-Hemmer, words that become air that become atmosphere. Beyond the sculpture garden (and through the knot garden) is the Great Garden. I like this space (I really love gardens), dotted with character sculptures and ‘talking posts’.

The exhibition space had some beautiful interactive displays and an elegant, cohesive design. The first exhibition room was dominated by a large, almost minimalist model of the house. Constructed from white, opaque plastic with stylised structural details screen printed onto its surface, it was lit from within, glowing in the middle of the room. At certain points there were little ‘peep holes’ containing animated scenes of the house – the graphics of the animations continued throughout the exhibition, such as the screen next to the archaeological fragments on display. On the next floor was an animated display (using the same graphics) giving a simple, constructed narrative that is designed to explain the day-to-day life of the household. What I really liked about how this was done was the use of mannequins to represent members of the household – full scale replica costume made in Tyvek (a material used for making protective bags and coverings for historical textiles in archives). I found these to be simply breath-taking! The full scale and attention to detail, highly stylised due to the material (again, a little ‘ghostly’ being in white?) but the costume construction is highly accurate. I spoke to Nick Fulcher (curator) about them when we met later in the day, about how they were evoking a presence and yet maintaining a distance, he said they wanted something authentic but not real. This is a really interesting approach and something I think I might be trying to get across with my own work – giving the detail and the presence of the object but not trying to create a ‘fake. This switching of material is an interesting approach, you can get a sense of the detail but just by changing the material avoid any confusion about the object (he also gave me the name of the company that made the replicas – Past Pleasures). The addition of the fabric samplers for handling I think also added to the experience – I especially liked being able to look at the back of the embroidery and feel the texture of the cloth. I wasn’t so keen on the screen heads – though they give a 3D aspect to the narrative, I just found them to be dissonant and distracting, detracting from the narrative on the wall behind and not quite fitting with the replica costumes.

The next site we visited was Hall’s Croft. I noted that these also had displays of replica dress on mannequin stands. After seeing the costumes wore by the guides at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, I couldn’t help thinking that these static displays were a little underwhelming – it was the movement, seeing the clothes being worn that seemed to spark a connection.

There was an artist’s piece in Halls Croft, a sofa that had been made by a resident artist (Lee Lapthorne) in response to some of the textiles in the collection. I liked the domestic form of the piece, very much in keeping with the domestic context of the space, and the elements taken from the archive objects – but I did think it was a bit ‘messy’ – admittedly, this has more to do with my personal taste, I’m not keen on collaged textiles!

 We then moved back to the Birthplace Museum to meet Nick Fulcher and look at some of the Blackwork objects in their collection. I was shown two Blackwork coifs – one with a stylised Tudor floral motif, filled with geometric patterns and worked with Gold plaited braid stitch and detached buttonholes, and the other a repeat motif of half-moons and flying fish with (now sadly tarnished) silver gilt and spangled for eyes. The first coif is one of the most accomplished and neat patter fills I have encountered; the back was almost as precise as the front. I also noted one of the patterns had been used in the artist’s sofa I had seen earlier. I took plenty of photos to add to my pattern archive.

The coif with the fish was made up but in rather bad condition – we wondered if the first coif had ever actually been made up and worn. The motif of the moons and fish is certainly unusual – they are both rather simplistic, but the repeat is striking. I noted the running stitches used as infill pattern and wondered if this was another example of ‘proto-speckling’ or if the embroiderer was simply trying to give the impression of fish scales? Either way, I can only imagine how it would have looked being worn with flashes of bright silver!

I was also shown an odd Scarletwork embroidery which appears to have been chopped up and restitched into panels. This was a very unusual object (or set of objects). I wondered what it might have originally been – there’s a marked similarity with the Falkland bed dressings, perhaps this was something similar? It’s not an item a clothing as it was clearly a flat panel but what sort of domestic textile, and why was it cut up and re-sewn? I would like to get images of all the pieces and try to reassemble them… This is a really interesting object in the sparseness of the embroidery – no heavy infills but details picked out in a finer stitch – I was reminded of the collars I had seen in the Marian portraits – small floral motifs without any pattern fills – the detailing in this embroidery is quite naturalistic, not as stylised as the motifs we see in earlier Blackwork (and other embroideries of the period), I wonder if this object is from a later date? I was also quite intrigued by the repair that had been made at some point – an odd attempt to match part of the motif but not quite? It’s a really curious object, I’d like to look at it again.

I was also shown a beautiful, brightly coloured cap – a wonderful object with lots on intricate stitch techniques! I’ve seen a few coloured embroideries of the same period as Blackwork and it’s interesting to note that, though the embroidery techniques vary, the overall designs are similar in motif and composition. This seem to be suggesting to me that, though the underlying designs followed the particular style of the period, it’s in the choice of embroidery where much of the creativity lies. I wonder if it might be an idea to stitch the same motifs in different techniques?

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