‘Sublime Transactions’, the work of 15 artists, sought to take us back to the roots of the museum. A journey into the representation of past and living cultures through the objects and artefacts we collect, conserve and exhibit.
It may also be seen as a process of reconnecting the objects which lie within ‘the strange organised disorder’ of the museum cabinet. The Roman bell, as one of the first museum acquisitions, offers a motif for such connections. Recorded after nearly two millennia of silence, it finds the echoes of ‘history revisited in unpredictable forms’. These are restless objects with complex histories, in many cases their survival defined solely by chance. The German philosopher Heidegger saw museum objects as ‘worldless’, they survive though their worlds have gone. They are marooned, disassociated, suggest connections and inspire a fascination through their history of human contact, their closeness and their witness to past lives. They leave the fugitive suggestion that they are imbued with dormant memories.
Such complex histories may perhaps be symbolized by a single object, a child’s leather boot from the early 17th century, adapted with a wooden-pegged sole against the wet, a generation later inserted into the fabric of a window recess of a cottage near Ambleside. From the most practical of garments it becomes an apotropaic vessel, concealed and quiescent for three hundred years. In the museum setting it becomes a thing of wonder. It is the artists’ desire to explore the frame within which this sense of wonder is maintained.
The exhibition challenges the notion of the museum as a fixed vantage point. The collaboration between the inert (the historical object) and the active (the new works and contemporary audiences) offers new perspectives on the stereotypes that define the Museum and confounds our preconceptions about them. Historically the term musaeum (a place consecrated to the Muses) was not confined to the tangible but was primarily a mental construct. As an ironic response to the construction of collections in the late 17th century the antiquarian, Sir Thomas Browne devised a catalogue to an imaginary museum entitled the ‘Museum Clausum’, or ‘Bibliotheca Abscondita’ (‘The Enclosed Museum’ or ‘Secret Library’). In its formal address he writes ‘I am bold to present you with a list of a collection, which I may justly say you have never seen before.’
Our purpose as a museum is not only to articulate the heritage of the area, to preserve memory in the same way in which memory itself functions as a museum - but to create a dialogue, to show interconnections. This exhibition offered those new insights and fresh connections. Writing in 1930 Georges Bataille described the concept of the museum as the colossal mirror in which man, finally contemplating himself from all sides, finds himself literally an object of wonder.
The Armitt Museum and Library
I was drawn to the way the fine black lines tentatively traced their way across the white terra incognita of the huge pages, quietly suggesting their proposition to the viewer, careful not to make too much of it. They were the antennae, the aerials. Their connection to the landscape outside, with its rain, its scree and rocks, its mud and water and stains, seemed tenuous and ethereal, as though they might, charged with the static crackle of their own content, float off the paper altogether.
This fine, carefully cursive text hinted almost euphemistically at the giant project, its dirty earth moving and bridge building, these pages knew nothing of soil and the soot that would - could - follow them in the name of progress.
That there were many copies of these plans at the time, served only to increase their magnetism. The little black hairline cracks of landscape and railway line must have found their way into the homes of many landowners and shareholders, perhaps sitting on quiet desks, suggesting and inventing the future by the power of osmosis alone.
The plans found opposition in the form of old man Wordsworth.
Some Kurtzian figure waiting at the end of the line rather than the head of the river, but exuding the same malevolent, hypnotic aura, a diaphanous web woven with his lifelong thread of words.
Instead of tempting artisans and labourers, and the humbler classes of shopkeepers, to ramble at a distance, let us look with lively sympathy upon persons in that condition when, upon a holiday, or on the Sunday after having attended divine worship, they make little excursions with their wives and children among the neighbouring fields, whither the whole of each family might stroll, at much less cost than would be required to take a single individual to the shores of Windermere by the cheapest conveyance. It is in some way such as this only, that persons who must labour with their hands daily for their bread in large town...can be trained to a profitable intercourse with nature where she is the most distinguished by the majesty and sublimity of her forms.
The old man wants his wild territory desolate. He retreats as modernity advances ever closer, his world is shrunk by Progress and his ego wounded by its lacking ears to hear him, or desire to listen.
Save me! Save the ivory you mean. Don’t tell me. Save me! Why I’ve had to save you! You are interrupting my plans now. Sick! Sick! Not as sick as you would like to believe. Never mind. I’ll carry out my ideas yet – I will return. I’ll show you what can be done. You with your little peddling notions – you are interfering with me. I will return. I…
Yet the old man’s will endures. He is made Laureate. The only Laureate never to write an official poem. He edits. He reviews. He picks and combs through his past youth’s work, with brittle fingers. His will endures. In 1847 his daughter Dora dies and he stops writing altogether. In 1850 he dies.
Yet still, the old man’s will endures.
Wordsworth William, Letter, 20th December 1844), Morning Post, London, cited in Harrison, C., Wood, C. and Gaiger, J., Art in Theory, 1815-1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas: (1998, Wiley-Blackwell).
Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness (1899, Blackwood’s Magazine; 1902, J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., Youth: A Narrative & Two Other Stories).
SIR PETER BLAKE
To-night To-night (homage to Kurt Schwitters)
Sir Peter Blake
Collage-‘Any collection of unrelated things’
‘A ‘scissors and paste’ of the imagination.’
(Marina Vaizey: Peter Blake 1986)
An inveterate collector, Sir Peter Blake is drawn magpie-like to the detritus of the past both recent and distant, advertisement boards for clay pipes or fireworks, plastic toys, cases of medals, personal mementoes. The often achingly poignant alongside the brash products of popular culture. A collagist and a collector, a painter and print maker, he has for over six decades continued to find new directions whilst retaining a constant thread of gentle humour.
The instinct to collect intersects at many points with the practice of collage and is integral to Blake’s work. The juxtaposition of elements, at once serious and tongue-in-cheek is fundamental to the inspi-ration behind collage which emphasises concept and process over the end product, bringing the in-congruous into meaningful congress with the ordinary.
Blake’s collecting career started early:
At the age of 14 I attended Gravesend Art School and travelled from Dartford each day. There was a wonderful junkyard which ran alongside Gravesend Station for about 200 yards: the further you went in the more undisturbed it became and the weirder the junk you found. The very first thing I bought was a complete set of Shakespeare in a leather binding. It felt like buying a library. I also bought a papier-mâché tray and a primitive painting of The Queen Mary that happened to be a kind of outsider art, and it all started from there.'
His studio may resemble a museum but Blake qualifies this with the comment ‘but not entirely so until it has nothing to do with me’. Part of his vast collection amassed over a lifetime was displayed as part of the Museum of Everything’s 2010 exhibition. Co-curated by Blake, it took the idea of non-traditional art being extended to include not only Blake's collections but other categories and collections of self-taught creativity that share similar themes and a similar aesthetic. One such example is Potter's Museum of Curiosity. Begun in 1861 by Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter, the final collection amounted to 6,000 stuffed animals, many arranged in elaborate and quirky tableaux, such as 'The Guinea Pigs' Cricket Match' featuring 34 guinea pigs in a country cricket game and school classroom of rabbits.
The concept of collage is crucial to Blake’s work and remains central to the evolution of modern art in the twentieth century. As a technique it was first used by the Cubists, Braque and Picasso when they added ephemera, often in the form of newspaper cuttings, to their paintings. This has been described as a reexamination of the relation between painting and sculpture, with the new works giving each medium some of the characteristics of the other.
Whereas the raw material of most of the montage and collage work of the times was photographic and relevant, Kurt Schwitters took his from the streets. The montages, collages and assemblages that he constructed from all this gathered refuse have an extraordinary integrity of vision. A vision which emerged from the devastation of the First World War.
‘Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz. It was like a revolution within me, not as it was, but as it should have been.’
Blake’s ‘In Homage to Collagists’ (2000) refers to the work of Max Ernst, Hannah Hoch and Kurt Schwitters and ascribes their influence on his own work as arising not just from an appreciation of their beautiful execution but more profoundly through their challenging intellectual positions. The works are a playful and perhaps self indulgent manipulation of art history but one which reassert the importance of these earlier figures.
Blake’s own introduction to collage dates from 1955, through his friendship with Richard Smith, a fellow RCA student. Smith had become aware of the technique through his connection with the Reichardt family who ran the Gaberbocchus Press and had been friends with Kurt Schwitters and Raul Hausmann.
‘Before this point, I would have been aware of Victorian screens and the use of collage in that way but I certainly would not have put a name to it’.
‘In some of my early works such as ‘On the Balcony 1955-57’ I incorporated badges, comics and graphic lettering. They are like painted collages but without the knowledge. When I eventually found collage it was a revelation.’
Since then he has frequently assumed the style of those artists who have most influenced him
‘For a little while you pretend you are that person and take on their character…. While I am doing the Schwitters collage for instance I will trawl around and if I see something in the gutter that I want to use I will pick it up and bring it back.’
His frequent return to the work of Schwitters and other collagists is defined by the fundamental pleas-ure for the artistic possibilities they open to him. In his 1985 piece ‘Make Your Own Collage’ the viewer is presented with a box of materials and invited to make a collage in the manner of a ‘painting by numbers’. In 2010 Blake again returned to Schwitters as part of his one man exhibition ‘Homage 10x5: Blake's Artists’ which consisted of fifty works in homage to ten artists who have interested and excited Blake during his career. It was his ‘…nod of appreciation, a way of saying thank-you…’
Sir Peter Blake has been at the forefront of the evolution of modern art and new thinking for over half a century. If there is a common thread among the diverse artists Blake singles out as personally influential it is the use of collage. Of Kurt Schwitters he says “In a way, he invented the idea of making a piece of art from a piece of rubbish. So I’ve always paid respect to him.”
The inspiration for this work emerged from the vast archive of glass plate negatives, the life’s work of the Windermere photographer J.W. Brunskill now held within the Armitt Collection. These are largely portraits of exceptional quality, nearly all of which are named and dated from the 1860s to 1900. Geographically they cover Windermere, Ambleside and the surrounding areas and provide a fascinating and unique, preservational study of the community.
The work is focused around communal memory and multiple voices, so the geographical specificity of these portraits remains central, as a document to a past long gone. The manipulation of these portraits is combined with an interview-led soundtrack generated through workshops with contemporary residents of Ambleside, reflecting on their own relationship with the town and its history. The resulting audio visual piece, ‘Family Tree’, offers insights into lives rooted in the same specific geographical location branched across vast periods of time.
J.W. Brunskill was a local photographer who had a studio in Bowness-on-Windermere. Biographical information about him is very sketchy, but trade directories from the period identify him as being one of the first professional photographers to operate in Bowness from his studio on Lake Road and premises on Biskey Howe, known as “Brunskill’s Wood Shed”. The Armitt holds a collection of just over 17.000 glass plate negatives by Brunskill, which weighs 1.5 tons. The plates are portraits of mainly local people and represents a wide range of social groups from yeoman farmers to the local MP as well as portraits of tourists and their servants staying in the locality.
RIITTA IKONEN + KAROLINE HJORTH
The Armitt Museum is only able to exhibit a fraction of its rich and diverse collection at any one time. A great proportion of its archives are boxed and stored, classified, neatly labelled and preserved out of sight, waiting for their turn to be revealed.
Beyond its public library, hidden from view, its reserve library is a labyrinthine maze of tight floor-to-ceiling shelving, densely packed with uniform rows of books, some wrapped in tissue paper, like fruit in a greengrocer’s. The wrapped oranges, those carefully arranged at the top of the pile, always seem to be the most exciting ones; the especially fantastic, luscious ones, selected and arranged for their promise of surprise and wonder.
In response to these lovingly wrapped books, isolated from the Armitt's main collection, which is bursting at the seams, The Lumber Room is a series of photographs of newly created and invented objects, unknown pleasures at their source of origin in the natural world. Enveloped in the sublime and epic landscape, patiently maturing and waiting to become Armitt treasures, they present conduits from the past to possible futures.
The invitation to contribute to Sublime Transactions, and with it the generous invitation to explore and respond to the rich treasures of the Armitt collection and the cultural heritage of its Lakeland location opened up an initially confusing array of possibilities that prompted me into some introspection about how I respond to the world around me and why I make work in the way I do, and how that might have changed or remained consistent over what is now a relatively long career.
To analyse rationally the deeply subjective complexities of how we are influenced and why we respond emotionally and aesthetically to the things we do is never a simple matter. Music has been central to my experience of life for as long as I can remember. And all the music that I really love, I now realise, is to some degree often completely - improvised. Only with hindsight can I see how that has profoundly affected my approach to making things, and perhaps even my values and my sense of how life should be lived.
In the early 1970s I worked with kids to build adventure playgrounds on reclaimed bomb-sites in inner-city Birmingham, using salvaged materials from loading pallets to telegraph poles to create an anarchic architecture that was completely improvised,determined entirely by their imagination and the materials at hand. It was only later that I became involved in the art world, and much later still that I began to understand how fundamental these early experiences were and still are in my practice as an artist.
It was in those early days that someone introduced me to the work of Kurt Schwitters, and I read somewhere that he had introduced himself by saying, "I am a painter, and I nail my pictures together".2 I think it was then the realisation struck that I could be an artist. It was even later that I found out about Schwitters' various 'Merzbau', and discovered the true extent of his improvisation, and his brand of anarchic architecture, mirrored on a tiny scale in his delicate, precise, but always vibrant collages. Much later still I heard recordings of him reciting his sound poems and I was blown away by his capacity to treat language just like any other material, as simply stuff in the world that can be formed and re-formed in unimaginable combinations that can transform our emotional experience.
Looking back now, almost forty years later, I can see that everything I have done since is defined by those early experiences of sharing in children's capacity to remake the world out of whatever bits of it they can get their hands on, unconsciously revealing and re-imagining its potential in the process. And I also realise now that Schwitters provided me early on with an example that art can do the same thing. So having loomed so large amongst my heroes for so long, it would have been impossible to make a work for Ambleside without some reference to him.
Throughout the last years of his life, spent in Ambleside, poor, isolated and virtually unknown, Schwitters was dogged by increasingly serious illness, but remained as ebullient as ever and as active as his health allowed him to be. Throughout this time he wrote letters to friends that poignantly demonstrate the contrasting emotions of joy at the prospect of consummating his life’s work with his latest project, the Merzbarn at Elterwater, and frustration with his failing health and faltering body. Amongst many things that excited me during my first privileged opportunity to rummage freely through the Armitt’s archives were some highly intriguing letters from John Ruskin,late in his life, to his doctor, George Parsons of Hawkshead. The story they seem to tell was irresistible, swerving erratically between misery, self-pity and hypochondria and a childlike joy at the relief provided by the drugs Parsons prescribed and the companionship he seemed to be offering, which clearly exceeded that of the usual doctor-patient relationship.
It is hard to imagine two more different personalities than Ruskin and Schwitters, and the difference in their status and wealth was immense, but I was struck by uncanny similarities between the letters they wrote in frail old age whilst living within just a few miles of each other, albeit separated by seven decades. They write of their ill health and failing faculties with a combination of pessimistic melancholy and intransigent optimism in ways so alike that some of their phrases are virtually interchangeable. So, using extracts from the letters in a fragmentary way, I began to imply a new narrative precisely by using them interchangeably.
Exploiting an improvisatory approach, and using moving text as part of a layered visual image that I had developed in other recent work, I found myself attempting to weave these very disparate strands together in my work for this show. These connections and juxtapositions have been inspired by the wonderful diversity of the Armitt collection, an eclectic mix that is inevitable in a collection as randomly acquired as the Armitt’s has been.
Extending the juxtapositions a little further, I made another discovery that led me to introduce a third dimension to my contribution to Sublime Transactions, to weave in yet another strand. Having always been fascinated by the complex relationship between language and manufacture, between making words and making things, I was delighted to discover the enigmatic inscriptions of John Longmire on the quarry-floor at Ecclerigg Crag, made, for reasons that no one really knows, in the 1830.s. It seems that Longmire was an eccentric and somewhat seditious constable from Ambleside. One of the inscriptions is simply the date, 1688, the year of what became known as the Glorious Revolution, giving a clear clue to Longmire’s political sentiments. According to an account in the Armitt library, he spent about six years of his prime in this work - labouring here alone, and in all weathers - and both by night and by day. He took great pleasure in the task, and was, as our boatman took great pains to impress upon us, rather 'dull' at the time. This phrase, as he afterwards explained, implies, in this part of the country, that he was deranged; and I thought, when looking with renewed interest, upon these mementos of his ingenuity and perseverance, misapplied though they were, that it was a happy circumstance that an afflicted creature could have found solace under calamity, in a manner so harmless. There was a method in the work, and a sense too in the poor man's ideas, which showed that his sympathies were in favour of the moral and intellectual advancement of mankind; and that, amid the last feeble glimmerings of his own reason, he could do honour to those whose intellect had benefitted and adorned our age.
There are connections that might be drawn between the radical political ideas that seem to have informed Longmire and some of the philosophical speculations of Ruskin and the radical art of Schwitters. Like them, he seems to have embodied the spirit of the maverick, the triumph of the creative human spirit over the derision of unthinking detractors, and a determination to articulate ideas that dissent from the mainstream and propose radical alternatives. Although their creator, unlike either Ruskin or Schwitters, is unknown and forgotten, the inscriptions are a monument to a labour of love, and to the essential combination of craft with ideas in anything of lasting value. Longmire’s cryptic text also invites comparison with our own times, when war, debt, liberty of thought, press freedoms, the proliferation of information and the downgrading of knowledge, the telescoping of complex ideas into concise messages, and the tensions between technological advance and humane values all remain pressing concerns.
So, using strategies for the multiple reading of texts combined with visual imagery that I have been experimenting with for some time, for this exhibition I have sought touring these three diverse lives together in a way that draws on and strives to do justice to the poetic ambition of the exhibition’s title, Sublime Transactions.
- I have written previously about the relationship of improvisation to everyday life. See Derek Horton, Beyond Order: To Live Is To Improvise, an essay in /seconds, issue 02, ISSN 1751-4134.
- Schwitters, on being introduced to Raoul Hausmann. There are various accounts of this, for example in John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, London, Thames & Hudson, 1985. p.35.
- Charles Mackay, The Scenery and Poetry of The English Lakes, London, 1856, subsequently reprinted as an article titled The Engraver of The Rocks, in a small book, The Echoes Of The Lakes and Mountains or Wonderful Things in The Lake District (Being a Companion to the Guides), by “An Antiquarian, Guide, Philosopher and Friend", London, date unknown, which can be found in the Armitt Library.
Revolve: from late Middle English (in the senses ‘turn (the eyes) back’, ‘restore’, ‘consider’): from Latin revolvere, from re- ‘back’ (also expressing intensive force) + volvere ‘roll’.
Advancing slowly, a camera ceaselessly revolves through 360° degrees, spiraling extended ellipses, scanning a serpentine circuit between Grasmere, Rydal and Ambleside, the genius loci of the Lakes Poets and their advocates. Its short course describes an anamorphic curving S, shaped by the sinuous River Rothay, which rises in the north from the south-facing slopes of Dunmail Raise to be swelled by Easedale Beck at Grasmere and Stockghyll in Ambleside. To the north the river emerges from the narrow gorge below Loughrigg Terrace, revealing Grasmere sculpted in a bowl, open to the sky; to the south it again widens into Rydal Water on its journey towards Ambleside to its eventual outflow into the head of Windermere.
Slow dervish; the camera spins…
An infinity symbol aslant: the Romantic’s favoured circuit from Dove Cottage in Grasmere, follows a woodland track over White Moss to join the A591, the main artery through the heart of the Lake District between Kendal and Keswick, and on to Rydal and Ambleside. Dr. Arnold dubbed the three roads between Grasmere and Rydal thus: the highest, “Old Corruption”: the intermediate, “Bit-by-Bit Reform”; the lowest and most level, “Radical Reform”. Returning from Ambleside the route meanders along beautiful Under Loughrigg, hugging the Rothay until it rejoins the A591 at Pelter Bridge, from where it returns to Grasmere.
Tracery in air; the camera sweeps…
Along these ancient tracks and roads that make up a short circuit of about seven miles, a disproportionate number of our most influential cultural shape-shifters have lived, visited or walked. Pulled to the revolutionary ideas of the Romantics, with Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey its nucleus, a vortex of writers, artists, poets, scientists, engineers and social theorists, converged to map dazzling new mindscapes. Sense-seismographs, with land in their DNA, they looked beyond the known to reveal invisible irredeemably “other” energies and alternative histories of people and places as a means of re-wiring into the world. Their innovative and prescient experiments with the word: the abandonment of conventional genre and narrative structure; preference for vernacular subject matter and unadorned vocabulary; an advocacy of subjective, fleeting experience and partial indeterminacy, intertwined with radical explorations of the intrinsic value of the natural environment, have girdled the globe, defining much of our understanding of, and approaches to, literature, art, ecology, human rights, politics, social economics and the wider implications of cultural evolution.
With panoptical gaze, the camera, seeks out past and future ghosts…
Succession of Presents
The twin sages of experimental modernism, Bacon and Descartes, fired the Lakes Poets’ crucible of creativity in their proposal that knowledge be induced rather than merely represented, where knowledge: “… is delivered as a thread to be spun on… delivered and intimated in the same method wherein it was invented.” In the Preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800), in what may be considered as a manifesto for the multifarious modernist movements that have followed, Wordsworth echoes Bacon’s axiom, insisting that: "all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.”
In the latter half of the nineteenth century Charles Baudelaire declared: “modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent.” And Ruskin, writing in Modern Painters, advised artists to reject nothing. The Romantic Movement’s most significant and far-reaching bequest to the arts has been our understanding of life as “consciousness” and reality as being both fragmented and yet unified: its self-reflexive aesthetics, drawing energy from the collision of disparate conceptual and perceptual elements leading to revitalization, made it the benign midwife of collage, probably the most important idea of the 20th century.
The genealogy of the 20th and 21st century’s avant-garde is a chronicle of collage and its host of supplementary concepts: juxtaposition, fragmentation, discontinuity, appropriation, intertextualality, plunder, metaphor and metonymy, excavation, aphorism, quotation, tessellation, the aside, repetition, splicing, interruption or caesura, dub, the inner voice, the mash-up and the gaze, A mutable matrix, collage and its elastic possibilities have become synonymous with all subsequent waves of modern experimental artistic and literary movements, mavericks and -isms: Nouveau Realism, Futurism, Cubism, Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Imagism, Fluxus, Happenings, Arte Povera, Conceptual Art, the Situationists, Pop Art, Land Art, Punk, Installation… the journey continues.
The spark arcing between these fellow travellers and the present is the mercurial synergist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), who is rightly acknowledged as the master of collage. Schwitters, utilising society's discarded detritus, echoed the Romantics, defining the creative process not as a separate sphere, but as intimately linked with everyday life as a process of organic transformation. Reflecting in 1930 on the formless chaos of society’s collapse following the ruptures of the First World War, Schwitters wrote: “Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments. Collage was like an image of the revolution within me – not as it was, but as it might have been.” Polymath, lyrical, radical: his explosive assemblages, experiments in primal phonetics, innovative typography, protean immersive Merzbau sculptures, and his as yet unrealised dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk: the total synaesthetic work of art, defied all categories. His irrefutable influence, through the paradigm of the collage as concept and as construct, has suffused every area of our cultural and media landscape since the 1920s.
Schwitters, pioneer of the European avant-garde during the 1920s and ‘30s, spent the last years of his life in near poverty and obscurity in Ambleside. In 1947 during his last year, he produced an exquisitely delicate and minute collage, titled For Kate, which incorporated tiny fragments from an American comic. This minute collage was dedicated to his old friend, champion and benefactor Kate Steinitz, who, having fled Nazism for America, continued to send “care parcels” to Schwitters wrapped in papers she thought might be of use to him. Due to the wartime restrictions, colour printing in England at the time was extremely rare and comics were unknown. Schwitters, ”the lonely man who was ahead of his time” must’ve been overwhelmed with this jewel-like scintilla. For Kate is now considered by many art experts to be the work that ignited Pop Art, a movement that, over ten years later in the grey transitional years of the late 1950s, reveling in the joyful appropriation of the banal, the kitsch, the everyday, brought colour into the 1960s.
One of the most influential works of the 20th century, the seed for many of today’s multimedia and installation artists, is Schwitters’ remarkable, hugely ambitious work, the Merzbau. A sprawling proto-cubist, immersive sculpture that Schwiitters began constructing in 1927. Interpenetrating eight rooms of his Hanover house, it was left unfinished in 1937 when Schwitters was forced to flee to Norway with his son Ernst to escape Nazi persecution. The eminent art critic Robert Hughes in The Shock of The New, describes it as: “supremely Joycean… a nautilus containing memory jammed next to memory in its chambered, outward-growing grottoes...”
On October 8th 1943, my Father, then a 23-year-old rear gunner flying Lancaster Bombers, was over Hanover as part of an Allied bombing raid involving 504 aircraft. Schwitters’ Merzbau and all of his works that he’d been obliged to leave were completely destroyed. Bomber Command records state, almost as an aside, that it was: “probably Hanover’s worst attack of the war.”
Bacon, Francis, The Advancement of Learning (Book II, ch. xxii, sec. viii-xiv), London, 1605.
Wordsworth, William; and Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Lyrical Ballads with Other Poems. London, 1880.
Ruskin, John, Modern Painters Vol. II, London, 1846.
Lach, Freidhelm, Kurt Schwitters: Das Literarische Werk, Cologne, 1977-81.
Mullins, Edward, The Daily Telegraph, March 17th, 1980.
Hughes, Robert, The Shock of The New: Art and The Century of Change, London, 1980.
Kate Morrell’s work aims to reveal problems with the archive and it’s claim to historical truth. Stone Axes (Group II) is part of a series of work ‘Flint and Forgery’ where questions of provenance and legitimacy are at the forefront. Integrated within the display are Langdale Group VI axes selected from the Armitt Museum collection. These are Neolithic stone axes or ‘rough-outs’ belonging to the archaeological collection.
Alpine Spoilers appropriates text from the collection of mountaineering memoirs, in The Fell & Rock Climbing Club of the English Lake District archives, held in The Armitt’s Library in Ambleside. The books are first-hand accounts of journeys in The English Lakes, The Alps, The Himalayas and further afield, from Victorian times to the present day.
The artist’s book is a playful edit of the memoirs, gathering quotes from the last paragraphs from over 100 books in which the author summarises the experience and creates a poignant finale. The book draws attention to the language typical of many mountaineering memoirs. Through the alpinist’s words, the text explores tensions between the draws of the aesthetic canons of romanticism and the real possible outcomes of pain and death. In the final pages, the author weighs the advantages of pleasure and power versus risk.
Alpine Spoilers is a new addition to the Armitt Library, exhibited alongside the FRC archive. The concise and sharp quality of the edited texts creates a way into the FRC archive for time–restricted tourists, locals and researchers during a fleeting visit. In the shortened paragraphs, the reader finds the rewards for pain and courage come at the end of the story. Alpine Spoilers fast-tracks the reader to where the narrative meets it’s affective climax.
My work began by examining the shoe closely, the surface, the leather, the skin and the disintegration. Every line, crease and mark a remnant of the shoes memory of the wearer. My work is looking at the idea of the shoe as part of a cyclical connection between the house, the shoe and the wearer. The shoe as an inanimate object that endures long after the temporal and fleeting presence of the wearer has passed through it. The shoe as both the container and the contained, each element becoming a vessel for the other, the room that contained the shoe, the shoe that contained the foot, the room as it existed in the consciousness of the wearer and the body vanishing.
Row after row, shelf upon shelf, sit hundreds of cardboard shoeboxes. Inside each, lie the remnants of objects; objects that lie on the boundary of the animate and inanimate, between human and things. Containers of malevolent forces. Inside these corridors, the collective loneliness of 1,907 shoes.
These shoes are evidence of a common but rarely reported practise of concealment. In Western Europe during the early 19th century, it was widely believed that death, disease, fire and destruction were the result of incoming malevolent forces. The practice of concealing shoes in the walls near doors, windows and chimneys was believed to be a way of preventing these forces entering the building by strengthening these weak and vulnerable thresholds. Shoes were garments that were worn for many years, continually repaired until they were in such a worn condition that they had moulded themselves to the feet of their wearer. They were thought to be the only garment which retained the shape of the body after they had been taken off, they bore the imprint of their owner. It was their ability to contain this human essence, which bestowed upon these shoes their protective function. By hiding the shoes into points of entry, they were believed to protect a building and its occupants, distracting incoming forces by drawing them in because of the human presence still held within them. These little shoes were hidden to lure and to trap.
PAUL FARLEY + CAROLE ROMAYA
I didn’t expect to spend the last three months researching sheepdogs, but the impact of Charles Walmsley’s photograph On Guard was subtle and powerful! I was astounded by all of his photographs in the Armitt Collection: their immediacy and warmth shone out and transported me – I was immersed in the scene, and it was hard to believe a photographer had been present. I tried to leave the Armitt with an open mind after that first visit (I also had the chance to look at Beatrix Potter’s equally astounding, accurate and exquisite watercolours of fungi), but I couldn’t stop thinking about the sheep dog in that photo. It was a presence: serene but alert; at rest but still on the job; beautiful, but with a hint of its ancestors, the jackal and the wolf, still visible in it’s musculature; a working dog, but with a hint of an Egyptian deity. So the sheepdog research began, and eventually drew to an unexpected but natural point of ignition as I was studying Titian’s Allegory of Prudence, suddenly wondering if I could somehow incorporate the triple portrait of wolf, dog and lion into my finished piece. In the poster, I’ve tried to separate some of the elements that make up a working sheep dog, and its relationships with landscape, sheep and owner, without explaining away too much. After all, the best sheep dog will always have to rely on its own intelligence and instinct when the going gets tough.
I noticed with much pleasure that Geoff Brown has dedicated his recent book Herdwicks to: the sheepdogs of the Lakeland fells.
Died Away Upon the Ear
A small bell is found near Ambleside within the site of a Roman fort. Again in Ambleside but 101 years later, this bell is gently activated with a number of light implements – the blunt end of a pencil, a painting brush, the flat edge of a scalpel blade. A recording is made, upon which operations of a temporal nature are performed.
Bells served many functions in ancient Rome. Plutarch wrote of an ingenious military device used by Brutus during his siege of Xanthus: nets were laid deep under the river that ran past the city. When Xanthians tried to swim to freedom they were entangled, their presence betrayed by the sound of small bells attached to the uppermost nets. “It is not beyond the realm of possibility,” notes The Collector’s Book of Bells, “for collectors to feel that their tiny archaeological bells from Roman ruins might have been used for some such clever military defense as this.”
Inevitably, given their versatility as cultural artifacts central to marking time, place and occasion, magical and military defenses, animal husbandry, decoration and the pursuit of pleasure and play, an ancient bell will invite such speculation. In The Bells of England, J.J. Raven wrote, for example, of the Roman Nola – “a little bell hung about a dog’s neck, or bird’s legs, so such a one as is hung at a horse’s breast or ear.” The Romans left Ambleside in the 4th century, yet the small copper alloy bell now held within the Armitt Gallery collection was not found until the beginning of the 20th century. For an object of such antiquity, buried under the ground for so long, it sounds, as they say, as clear as a bell. This is the remarkable property of bells. Musical instruments age well only up to a point. The materials of their construction warp, rot, shrink, decay, disappear or become too fragile for their intended use. They are also dependent on playing techniques that can change dramatically over time. A bell, on the other hand, is simply struck or rattled, and if the metal has not rusted or cracked then what we hear is a fair approximation of what would have been heard more than 1600 years ago. Bells are the embodiment of time, their sound so pervasive as to saturate living space with their presence. In his symbolist novel, Bruges-la-Morte, Georges Rodenbach wrote of bells sounding out “the death of hours”, a sound that influenced the colour of the air or itself seemed blackish turning to grey as its reverberation “moves along in sluggish, bobbing waves over the waters of the canals.”
For Rodenbach, the bell is like a living creature, mysterious and disturbing for its capacity to reach out and occupy remote space. This quality of sound, an intangibility extending from the object of its source to describe a complex geography of place, is intrinsic to its capacity to both harm and charm. William Wordsworth wrote about this time and again. The acuity of his listening is evident from vivid evocations of echoes, noises in silence, strange sounds of low breathing, fugitive sounds – “Nun’s faint sob of holy fear” – and those subtle complexities that give atmosphere to place in one specific moment – “. . . the bleak music of that old stone wall, The noise of wood and water . . .” or the “hubbub wild” heard in Paris through his “stranger’s ears”.
In The Prelude he compared the human mind to music, in both a “dark invisible workmanship that reconciles discordant elements, and makes them move in one society.” Cheek pressed to a mossy stone he listened to subterranean waters as if their murmuring echoed the resonation of his own unconscious. “He used rock to orchestrate the sounds of water,” say the authors of Wordsworth’s Gardens. “He was accustomed to using the flow of water, among other sources of natural music, to balance with the ear what he referred to in the Prelude as the domination of the eye.” An example of this urge to orchestrate can be seen in Herbert Bell’s photograph of around 1910, The Well – Dove Cottage garden, which could be mistaken for a pond in a Kyoto garden. The water continues to pour and we might imagine its sound as a murmur unchanged from the early 19th century but as Heraclitus of Ephesus famously wrote: “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.”
One fascination of an antique bell is that the object is reasonably intact yet its sound has died. As I have said above, we can reclaim it from history by striking the bell and this in itself is something of a miracle but the original sound, like all sounds existing before the age of audio recording, is lost as an actual (though not imaginative) experience. This is true of all sounds, despite the inescapable persistence of certain noise events in contemporary life, and this characteristic is where Gabriel Josipovici finds the answer to a question raised by Wordworth. “Is there are a way of interacting with nature which is not destructive?” Josipovici asks, and provides the answer with that section from The Prelude in which Wordsworth describes a boy mimicking the hooting of owls through cupped hands. He calls out to the silence of the owls and they respond to his call, the exchange falling away into a deep silence into which rushes another form of echoing, “to a complete incorporation of the landscape into the boy and the boy into the landscape.”
Perusing the Armitt Collection archive I thought of this echoing – voices flung back as shadows, as Wordsworth put it - on discovering a photograph of Grasmere, taken by James Jennings in the 1940’s. Soft reflections of the landscape are mirrored by the lake in eerie symmetry. To me, a digital composer, the image immediately suggested those intriguing shapes thrown up as horizontal wave forms in computer audio files, Rorschach-like visual approximations of sound that enable digital editing. But I was also reminded of something I had read the year before, during a holiday in the Lake District, a tantalizingly vague reference to the earliest explorers of the Lakes, a claim that they fired cannon across the waters in order to enjoy the echoes.
Three sources in the Armitt Library confirmed this. W. Hutchinson, a Barnard Castle solicitor, published a detailed account of this practice in An Excursion to the Lakes in 1773 and 1774. A barge fitted with six brass cannon mounted on swivels, sailed to the optimum spot on Ullswater where it discharged one round. “The report was echoed from the opposite rocks,” he wrote, “where the reverberation seemed to roll from cliff to cliff, and return through every cave and valley; till the decreasing tumult gradually died away upon the ear.”
Two French horns then serenaded Richardson’s party with a more aetherial concert of echoes – “All this vast theatre was possessed by innumerable aerial being, who breathed celestial harmonies” – and then, as they finished their lunch, multiple guns were discharged, tipping his perception of the landscape from sublimity into a typically Romantic excess of terror: “For on every hand, the sounds were reverberated and returned from side to side, so as to give the semblance of that confusion and horrid uproar, which the falling of these stupendous rocks would occasion, if by some internal combustion they were rent to pieces, and hurled into the lake.”
In the previous year William Gilpin, prebedary of Salisbury, had been entertained with French horns at Ullswater and also heard Windemere’s echo and the cannon of Ullswater. Like Hutchinson, he felt overwhelmed by apocalypse when all the cannon were fired in succession. “Such a variety of awful sounds,” he wrote, “mixing, and commixing, and at the same moment heard from all sides, have a wonderful effect on the mind; as if the very foundations of every rock on the lake were giving way; and the whole scene from some strange convulsion, were falling into general ruin.”
According to Norman Nicholson in The Lakers, The King’s Arms at Patterdale provided the boat and a small cannon, discharged for what Nicholson describes as trifling expense, though two cannon for four shillings and one for half a crown seems quite pricey for the 18th century. He gives short shrift to these dabblers in shock and awe: “Moreover, his echoes give us an analogy for the Picturesque at this stage,” Nicholson writes. “To him, to his contemporaries, the landscape was chiefly a sounding board. They sailed into the middle of the lake, fired off the guns of their own ego, and waited, patiently yet excitedly, to hear the echoes return to them. The world itself did not matter – what concerned them was the sound of their own voices.”
To imagine the contemporary context of these forays into audio-tourism (remarkable in themselves for anticipating similar, if more scientifically monitored investigations into echoes by Irish physicist John Tyndall a century later) we might look at William Green’s Yewbarrow from Bowderdale, the print of an etching published in 1815. Green transforms the Lake District into lush brooding exoticism, closer perhaps to a fictional Bolivian or Brazilian lost plateau than the northwest of England.
Dramatic as this appears to the eye, it places the observer outside a picturesque scene made uncanny by an accumulation of effects, all of which are suggestive of mystery, inaccessibility and remoteness. Sounding the environment, invasive as it was, may have originated in rhetoric and sermon, a colonizing blast from the gunboat, but through the violent return of its echoes a chain of events was unleashed whereby the listening point of the observer was tossed about in complex immersive patterns descriptive of geography, geology and atmospheric circumstances. All of these were heard as a function of time, a particular density of time through which one brief moment – the explosion (or the chime of a bell) - was repeated and fragmented, returning multiple measurements of spatial and reflective conditions as history revisited in unpredictable forms.
Springer, L. Elsinore, The Collector’s Book of Bells, New York, 1972.
Raven, J.J., The Bells of England, 1906.
Rodenbach, Georges, Bruges-la-Morte, Sawtry, 2007.
Wordsworth, William, The Major Works, Oxford, 1984.
Buchanan, Carol & Buchanan, Richard, Wordsworth’s Gardens, Lubbock, 2001.
Josipovici, Gabriel, What Ever Happened To Modernism?, New Haven and London, 2010.
Hutchinson, W., An Excursion to the Lakes in Westmoreland and Cumberland with a Tour through part of the Northern Counties, In the years 1773 and 1774, London, 1776.
Gilpin, W., Observations on Several Parts of England, particularly the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty made in the year 1772, London, 1808.
Nicholson, Norman, The Lakers, 1955.
Some of the earliest museums began as the private collections of wealthy individuals, families or institutions. Composed of art and rare or curious objects and artifacts displayed in so-called “wonder rooms” or “cabinets of curiosities”, these have evolved into the modern museum. Whether it be the vast echoing metropolitan temples of culture with their grand exhibitions or the beautifully intimate and eccentric local collection; they continue to exert an influence, recalling the past and edifying the future.
The Armitt Museum and its collections reflect the essence of an idiosyncratic atmosphere, recalled from my childhood visits to local museums. Time Echoes is a response in celebration of the parochial and diverse nature of this archive.
The objects chosen for this very personal and intuitive piece remind us that all inert materials are charged with significance and meaning, acquired through time and use. The Langdale stone axe roughouts, were crafted and discarded five millennia ago. They have lain for centuries around the quarrying sites along the vein of greenstone from Scafell to the Langdales, yet when retrieved, retain that powerful tactile link which gives them meaning. To hold one, to balance its weight in the hand is to understand that connection which disregards the passage of time. The King James I Bible with its almost too beautiful cover has through the fervent and controversial history of its creation and four centuries of human touch taken on an astounding patina, both physical and spiritual. Beatrix Potter’s natural history watercolours, astound us with their prowess and her gift for recognising detail in the natural world. They are works of exquisite beauty. Finally, the piece, constructed in the form of an assemblage, recognises the influence of Kurt Schwitters as the visionary father of collage.
Time Echoes is the artists own collection of unusual and diverse objects, his ‘cabinet of curiosities’ encompassing many of the elements he finds personally significant in the archives of the Armitt Museum. It is a spiritually intuitive collection, which also reflects a capacity to recognise and identify historical significance.