The Secret History of the Beggar’s Benison Collection

(approx. 4 min read) 

Trigger Warning Disclaimers:  

This blog post concerns sexually explicit content which potentially includes historical non-consensual sexual activityPlease proceed with caution. Resources can be found in the Resources tab of this microsite for anyone who is affected by these issues.  

Language used in these blogs refers to cis, heteronormative gender identities owing to the historical context of the Beggar’s Benison Club. Today, we are aware of and acknowledge a wider spectrum of gender identities. 

From 1732 to 1836, Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife was home to the Beggar’s Benison Club. The secret all-male club was devoted to the idea of male sexual liberation. Members created symbolic sexual imagery and may have practised sexual rituals. Members also had interests in subversive politics and illegal smuggling.  

From medals and seal matrices to phallus shaped drinking glasses, the Collection of the Beggar’s Benison has survived the 185 years since its disbandment in 1836, yet it has spent much of that time hidden.  

After 1836, the Collection was left in the hands of one of the last Club members, Matthew Foster Conolly.  Since then, the objects have passed through multiple hands. The Collection held at the Wardlaw Museum is likely only a fraction of what existed during the Club’s height. Even before the Beggar’s Benison disbanded, some of the records of the Club and its objects had already been lost.  

Throughout the life of the Collection, no one has really known what to do or make of it. Certainly, Conolly, who had control of the Collection for about forty years, appears to have been conflicted over whether to preserve or destroy it.  

His uncertainty around what to do with this Collection is somewhat understandable. For instance, on one hand, the Collection contains objects connected to illustrious figures in society at the time. Indeed, the Collection includes a snuff box that is thought to have been gifted to the Club by the then Prince Regent, the later King George IV, whilst visiting Scotland.  He is said to have been intrigued by the Club and was subsequently given an honorary membership. However, on the other hand these objects, due to the imagery displayed, form and function, after the Club’s decline leading to its eventual disbandment may have seemed less warrantable to preserve without its once captive audience.1 For instance, the snuff box is said to have once been filled with pubic hair belonging to the mistress of the then Prince Regent. 

The Prince Regent (later George IV) 
 
George IV (1762–1830) as Prince Regent, after Lawrence, Bequest of Collis P. Huntington, 1900, Open Access API, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/435697 

Indeed, the historian David Stevenson, who has written a book dedicated to the history of the Club, believes that Conolly’s eventual decision to preserve the Collection mostly probably came down to the fact that he was an avid local historian. However, it is clear this decision was not made without serious consideration, highlighted by the fact that he burnt many of the records, clearly intending to destroy them, but not before he partially copied many. He passed the Collection down to his son-in-law, a Reverend Gordon, on his death. 

Reverend Gordon believed that, despite its nature, the Collection was significant enough to warrant preservation.2 This is evidenced by the fact that after Gordon, the Collection passed to Mcnaught Campbell, who worked at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow. Once in his possession, he loaned them to the Kelvingrove Museum who reportedly displayed some, yet not the more obscene, of the items that formed part of the Collection.  

The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow  
 
The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (Glasgow), © Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, CC BY 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/72746018@N00/3839582240 

The Collection later passed on again to a new owner who tried to sell the Collection to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, now the National Museum of Scotland. The Museum seems to have considered purchasing them but instead chose to pass on the sale. The Collection, it seems, was too obscene for the Museum, making it difficult to display.3 

Eventually, after the death of its last owner, the Collection was donated to the University of St Andrews. For a long time, the Collection sat in the basement of the stores. A University Librarian left a note stating that the Collection “was not for female eyes.” In addition, the Collection was later covered with a sheet. The Collection has since been preserved in storage, deemed unfit for display.   

Now the Wardlaw Museum will publicly display the Collection for the first time as part of the exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy, Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club.  The Exhibition will explore the hidden stories behind this controversial Club and its members. The Exhibition team, along with co-curators from our Advisory Panel, aims to highlight the issues and themes surrounding the Beggar’s Benison Club and its activities. 

In this Exhibition, we particularly wish to examine how the unequal balances of power wielded by the Beggar’s Benison Club relates to continuing issues surrounding sexuality and gender in today’s society. Certainly, this Collection, when explored in a sensitive, collaborative way, can highlight and spread awareness of issues related to sexuality, sexual injustice and gender discrimination. 

Written by Nicola Law, student in MLitt. Museum and Galleries Studies at the University of St Andrews

[1] Stevenson, Chapter Two 

[2] Stevenson, Chapter Two 

[3] Stevenson, Chapter Ten 

  • Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals, 2001. 

Exploring Merryland: Fantasising About Sex

(6 minute read) 

Trigger Warning Disclaimers:  

This blog post concerns sexually explicit content which potentially includes historical non-consensual sexual activityPlease proceed with caution. Resources can be found in the Resources tab of this microsite for anyone who is affected by these issues.  

Language used in these blogs refers to cis, heteronormative gender identities owing to the historical context of the Beggar’s Benison Club. Today, we are aware of and acknowledge a wider spectrum of gender identities. 

From 1732 to 1836, Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife was home to the Beggar’s Benison Club. The secret all-male club was devoted to the idea of male sexual liberation. Members created symbolic sexual imagery and may have practised sexual rituals. Members also had interests in subversive politics and illegal smuggling.  

Indeed, a central activity of the Beggar’s Benison Club was to fantasise about sexual exploits. This came in many forms, from conjuring grandiose origin myths, appropriating mythological and Biblical stories, to reading pornographic texts, and drinking toasts to genitalia. These ideas were essentially tied to sexual imagination as a way to satisfy male lust and fantasy. However, they also served a more practical purpose; to support the Club’s quest for sexual pleasure, to validate its rituals and to be ‘enjoyably ludicrous.’1 

It is important to note that here, in this context of the Beggar’s Benison Club, ‘fantasy’ is not associated with innocent, positive connotations. The ways in which Club members fantasised about sex were from a male perspective that was exploitative and misogynistic. These dynamics have not been explored in great detail thus far by historians, especially in terms of the impact and implications for the young women hired by the Club. We endeavour to explore these dynamics within this exhibition and investigate the unequal sexual power dynamics. 

Possibly the most important myth conjured by the Benison was that which explained the Club’s origins, ‘The King and the Beggar Maid.’ The folktale is attached to King James V of Scotland [1513-1542], who possessed hero-status according to the Benison, as he set an example of sexual licence within high society.  

James V 
 
James V, King of Scotland. Reigned 1513-1542. Father of Mary Queen of Scots. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0), https://wellcomecollection.org/works/a3qh5udr 

While disguised as a commoner, James V visited the Dreel Burn, the river boundary between Anstruther Easter and Anstruther Wester in the East Neuk of Fife. He did not want to wet his feet crossing the water (the height of royal heroism); therefore, he received the help of a beggar maid to carry him across the water. As thanks, James gave her a gold coin and in return, the maid thanked him in the form of a blessing or ‘benison’. 

In this context, ‘benison’ is a colloquial term for sexual favours. Indeed, the Old Scots rhyme associated with the myth describes its sentiments towards wealth (the gold coin) and sex (the benison):  

May your purse naer be toom (never empty) 

And your horn aye in bloom. (always) 

The club also referred to the punchier, anglicised version as their toast and motto:  

May Prick nor Purse never fail you. 

The name of the Club was thus a most suitable title for their endeavours and desires. It references the Beggar Maid myth and its connotations of sex and money. Members idolised King James V as an archetypal figure of sexual fantasy and saw themselves in him; ‘for they too were rulers, by right of the phallus.’2 

Other fantastical origin myths for the Club go even further back than the reign of King James V. Club members metaphorically imagined that the Beggar’s Benison originated with the biblical Creation. This biblical reference can be found on one of the surviving Club medals within the exhibition, where a depiction of Adam and Eve is accompanied by the phrase ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ This coy play-on-words appropriates God’s directive to procreate, into such a meaning that justifies the Club’s desire for sexual pleasure. 

Even within a small town such as Anstruther, the Beggar’s Benison found ways to attach sexual innuendos to their surrounding environment. The Isle of May, off the coast of Anstruther and visible from its harbour, found its way into the Club’s imagination. Members speculated about sex-crazed monks that inhabited the island, taking it for granted that masturbation was a monastic speciality. The name ‘May’ also added to their fantasies as it bore a girl’s name and the month of May was associated with spring and fertility. 

 Isle of May 
 
Isle of May, © Jerzy Morkis, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/5491174 

It must be reiterated that these sexual fantasies were conjured to satisfy only the male perspective. They were not simply cheerful, innocent imaginations of consensual sex. Indeed, Club members may have enabled and encouraged one another in their objectification and fantasising of the female body. As well as drunken songs, toasts and general debauchery, Club members would read and celebrate pornographic texts in order to satiate their male lust. In line with the Club’s love of sexual innuendo and double entendre, 1700s pornographic texts describe the female body through metaphor.  

In texts such as A New Description of Merryland, the notion of male sexual dominance is rampant. The author consistently highlights the imperfections of female genitalia while simultaneously praising his own penis. Female masturbation is considered abhorrent, yet male self-pleasure is considered natural and normal. The female body, denoted as ‘Merryland’, is a foreign country to be conquered as a man’s rightful territory.  

A New Description of Merryland 
 
A New Description of Merryland P.C.20.b.7.(1), title page, British Library, Public Domain, https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2019/02/smutty-stuff-for-debauched-readers-the-merryland-books-in-the-private-case.html 

Other texts read by the Beggar’s Benison include Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland, or more commonly known as Fanny Hill. The text describes Fanny, aged fourteen, as lewd, promiscuous and sexually insatiable, with a theme of shame which she should feel for her pleasures. Again, the double standards of celebrated male sexuality and shamed female sexuality is shown here, not to mention the shocking imbalance of power concerning the sexual relations between a fourteen-year-old girl and older men. We know that this text was read by the Benison on St Andrew’s Day in 1737, where ‘two nymphs’ of eighteen and nineteen years old exhibited themselves nude for the members.  

This act of hiring girls to pose naked will be explored in the ‘Subversive Sex’ and ‘Women of the Beggar’s Benison’ blogs. In this context, however, it shows us how Club members were obsessed with fantasising around the female body in male-dominant and misogynistic forms. This sexual imagination was compounded with the exploitative physical observation of naked young women.  

Written by Leonie Leeder, student in MLitt. Museum and Galleries Studies at the University of St Andrews

Sources:

1 Stevenson, 14. 

1 Stevenson, 17. 

  • Dubois, Sharon O’Toole, ‘Merryland: Gender and Power in an Eighteenth Century Pornotopia’, Utopian Studies, 11:2 (2000). 
  • Lord, Evelyn, The Hell Fire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies, 2008. 
  • Peakman, Julie, Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century, 2004. 
  • Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals, 2001. 
  • Stretzer, Thomas (pseudonym Roger Phequewell), A New Description of Merryland: Containing a Topographical, Geographical and Natural History of that Country, 10th ed, 1742. 

Subversive Sex

(Approx. 3 minute Read) 

Trigger Warning Disclaimers:  

This blog post concerns sexually explicit content which potentially includes historical non-consensual sexual activity and images. Please proceed with caution. Resources can be found in the Resources tab of this microsite for anyone who is affected by these issues.  

Language used in these blogs refers to cis, heteronormative gender identities owing to the historical context of the Beggar’s Benison Club. Today, we are aware of and acknowledge a wider spectrum of gender identities. 

From 1732 to 1836, Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife was home to the Beggar’s Benison Club. The secret all-male club was devoted to the idea of male sexual liberation. Members created symbolic sexual imagery and may have practised sexual rituals. Members also had interests in subversive politics and illegal smuggling.  

The Exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club at the Wardlaw Museum aims to explore this Club and its Collection through the three central themes of Subversion, Fantasy, and Power.  

Taken at face value, the objects from the Collection displayed within this Exhibition will likely elicit shocked gasps and exclamations, especially due to their appearance with many featuring phallic imagery. Certainly, as is explored in our ‘The Secret History of the Collection’ blog, these objects have been left undisturbed in storage since the mid-1800s as they were simply deemed too obscene to show to the public.  However, the Club’s fascination and celebration of sex must not be misunderstood and dismissed as merely raunchy. The Club used the idea of sex to be politically subversive, to fantasise about male dominated sexual exploits, and to exhibit power over women. This blog will briefly discuss the subversive nature of the Club’s relationship with sex, which is reflected by the objects from the Collection and the activities of the Club. 

Indeed, the surviving relics of, and records belonging to, the Club explicitly highlight their members’ convivial advocation of male sexual freedom. They emphasise the Club’s belief that sex should be enjoyed for pleasure, which at the time was extremely subversive, rebelling against the widespread belief in the 1700s that sex should be purely for procreation.   For instance, the records belonging to the Club, which will be presented as part of our online exhibition, describe a version of the initiation ceremony in explicit detail. From these we learn that new initiates to the Beggar’s Benison Club were required to demonstrate their ability to perform sexually. This included exhibiting his phallus to his fellow members-to-be, masturbating in front of existing members, and sometimes masturbating together as a sociable activity.  

The novice (prospective member) would be ‘prepared’ in a closet in which two members would ‘[cause] him to propel his Penis until full erection.’ Coming out of the closet (an interesting choice of words given the Club’s disapproval of homosexuality, as shall be explored in later blogs), the initiate was greeted by existing members who wore sashes and medals in full fanfare. He was required to place his phallus upon the Test Platter to demonstrate his ability to perform sexually.  

Test Platter from the Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Test Platter, 1783-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1072, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/test-platter/762421 

This action was accompanied by ‘four puffs of the Breath Horn’ to simulate ejaculation. The records then note ‘The Members and Knights two and two came round in a state of erection and touched the novice Penis to Penis.’  

 Breath Horn from the Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Breath Horn, 1732-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1062, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/breath-horn/762410 

A wine glass displaying the Club’s motif was then used to drink a toast to the new member, who was bestowed with his own sash and medal. The ceremony was thus concluded by reciting the Club’s motto: ‘May Prick nor Purse never fail you.’  

Wine Glass from the Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Wine Glass, 1732-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1064, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/wine-glass/762412 

This ritual was inspired by the founding myth of the Club. According to this, in the mid-16th century, King James V travelled around Scotland pretending to be a common subject. He acquainted himself with his subjects in this way. In Anstruther, he met a maid whom he offered a golden coin for carrying him across a stream. In turn, she thanked him with a ‘benison’, a slang term for sexual favours.   

Another activity adopted by the Club in the 1700s was to add pubic hairs of mistresses to a wig. Specifically, the mistresses of King Charles II (1660-1685). The King offered it to his friend and Club member, the Earl of Moray. Later Minutes of the Club confirm in 1775 that new members must kiss the wig and wear it during their initiation ceremony. The collection and use of pubic hair in this way is an example of how these sex clubs attempted to objectify, possess and control the female body. It was an act to wield power over women through somber mockery.  

Initiation rituals were adopted by the Club to legitimize their male sexual activity and advocation of male sexual pleasure. They served to prove a potential member’s ‘manhood’ and sexual capability. Both these criteria were essential to be accepted into the Club.  

However, discretion had to be taken to ensure such interests did not cause public scandal, as such sexual conduct went against the moral and ethical teachings of the Church and State. Hence, the secrecy that surrounded the Club. As the historian David Stevenson, who has written a history of the Club, puts it, the Club’s activities had ‘the spice of being naughtily outrageous’.  

Indeed, throughout the 1500s and 1600s, there was a rise in religiously inspired sexual repression, where sex for anything other than procreating was strictly prohibited. Until the end of the 1700s, a strong taboo surrounded masturbation. This theme will be explored in a later blog, ‘Sex as Science’.   

The Age of Enlightenment in the 1700s and 1800s was important for developing new ways of thinking about sexual liberation (for heteronormative men). The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical revolution where scientific inquiry was favoured over religious faith. The idea of sexual freedoms and sex as pleasure fitted perfectly into progressive thinking at this time. As such, the attitudes of the Beggar’s Benison Club toward sex align with this wider movement. 

Fast forward to the present day, it is interesting to think that whilst the Beggar’s Benison Club was sexually subversive during the 1700s and 1800s, the Collection of the Club was still deemed to be too subversive and obscene to display until very recently. Indeed, our Exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club at the Wardlaw Museum will be one of the first bold public displays of the Collection at the University. The exhibition aims to explore the theme of subversion further, and deconstruct and discuss the taboos surrounding the Club. Certainly, this chapter in Fife history and display of sexuality and sexual freedom, can also help us to explore and discuss issues relating to sexuality and sexual freedom ongoing today.    

Written by Leonie Leeder, student in MLitt. Museum and Galleries Studies at the University of St Andrews

Sources:

  • Peakman, Julie, Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteen Century, 2005 
  • Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals, 2001 

Scotsmanless

Scotsmanless Scarf designed by Atelier, E.B, EDINBURGH, ©Atelier E.B, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: HC2018.17

The Scotsmanless scarf is a remarkably concise object. Fabricated out of supple grey and black lambswool, the piece features the historical masthead of The Scotsman newspaper reimagined in the form of a football scarf. The graphic simplicity of the pattern, inverted from recto to verso, resembles in no small measure the contrastive black-and-white layout characteristic of historical newspaper printing. The Scotsman was founded in the early 19th century as a radical liberal paper that set itself against what it regarded as privilege and corruption. Broadly supportive of parliamentary reform, regional self-determination, and transparency, the newspaper grew increasingly prominent in the decades that followed and eventually came to occupy an iconic Edwardian building in central Edinburgh.

The history of the newspaper serves as a kind of shorthand for broader changes wrought by economic modernisation over the course of the 20th century, not only to once-thriving Scottish industries but also to a broader marketplace of information. Over the course of the 19th century the paper—a longstanding voice of Scottish political liberalism—was quick to adopt new technical innovations such as the electric telegraph in 1866 and the use of a rotary printing press in 1872. More recently, this has included the decline of hot metal typesetting and attendant introduction of computers into the production process in 1987, followed by the launch of a website in 1999. The significant contraction of print media in subsequent decades has seen The Scotsman’s geographic displacement from the centre of Edinburgh and its material downscaling from a broadsheet to a compact tabloid size whose smaller format is better suited to use by commuters. It is tempting to read these forms of contraction and displacement as emblematic of broader decline in the power of prestige print media and of traditional regional information ecosystems. The original remit of The Scotsman had been to expose local forms of corruption and malpractice; it seems deeply suggestive that the paper’s subsequent headquarters in Holyrood Road were recently taken over by a Scottish video game maker, which trades in highly immersive, fictive digital media environments.

Design for ‘Scotsmanless Scarf’, Atelier E. B, EDINBURGH (Designed by), ©Atelier E.B, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: HC2018.20(9)

Of course, the text of the paper’s name is conspicuously missing from the masthead in Scotsmanless. Instead, the motif frames the subtly variegated fabric of the lambswool itself. Here another history comes into view: that of the weaving industry that thrived in mid-19th century Scotland. The scarf was made in collaboration with Begg x Co, which, like The Scotsman, dates to the 19th century. And, like the paper whose masthead it partially reproduces, the scarf is very much a product of regional Scottish histories of labour and technology. The company was founded by Alex Begg in 1866 in Paisley. The Scottish town was the centre of the weaving industry in Victorian Britain and was famed for its production of textiles bearing the Persian and Indian teardrop motif now synonymous in the English-speaking world with its name. In the early 19th century, highly skilled Paisley weavers were known for their political radicalism and their influential support of reform during the economic downturn that followed the Napoleonic Wars. The weaving industry was also notable for its inclusion of women, who had traditionally done a great deal of spinning and who made up more than half of the industrial cloth production workforce by the middle of the century. The Scottish textile industry was — and still is — particularly vulnerable to shifts in consumer behaviour and international supply chains. By the time Begg x Co was founded, many of Paisley’s mills had already gone bankrupt in response to both the economic crises of the 1840’s and the later disruption of the cotton supply brought about by the American Civil War in the 1860’s. The company relocated to Ayr on the west coast in 1902 and the last of the Paisley mills closed in 1933.

To an extent, then, the Scotsmanless scarf is a product of two of the foremost industries of 19th century Scotland, industries particularly embedded within a tradition of radical progressive politics. Animated by steam-powered rotaries, the printing press and the power loom were agents of economic modernisation and political reform that were deeply rooted in Scottish regionalism. Rather than read Scotsmanless as a eulogy for these industries, though, we might think about how their histories are revived and refashioned into a new kind of living object. The piece remains a product of highly skilled Scottish labour but one whose mobility and mutability can accommodate a much more diverse set of identities and lived practices.

Author Details:

Stephanie O’Rourke is a lecturer in art history at the University of St Andrews. Her research focuses on 18th- and 19th-century European visual culture, particularly in relation to scientific knowledge, spectatorship, and media technologies.

Doug Cocker’s Rotterdam

Rotterdam, Doug Cocker, Hollow L-shaped wall-mounted sculpture made of mulberry and yew wood and depicting the distinctive qualities of the port of Rotterdam, HC2017.2, ©Doug Cocker

Doug Cocker’s Rotterdam belongs to a body of work that the artist created between 2004 and 2006. In 2004 he successfully applied for a major award from Creative Scotland, with a proposal to visit cities that he had never previously visited and which were linked by the North Sea, with the objective to create works inspired by the spirit of each place. Over the following months, Cocker travelled to Copenhagen, Hamburg and Rotterdam.

In Copenhagen, he was struck by the hand-wrought nature of the architecture and the extent to which the built environment is punctuated by numerous towers and spires.

In Hamburg, his attention was drawn to how the city’s footprint is determined by two sizeable bodies of water, the Aubenalster and the Binnenalster, which are connected by a narrow waterway.

In Rotterdam, meanwhile, it was the sheer magnitude of the port that inspired Cocker, extending as it does for forty-two kilometres inland. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he was drawn to the towering verticality and gigantism of the docks’ infrastructure.[i]

On his return to his studio in rural Angus, Cocker developed his impressions of these three port cities in drawings, etchings and small-scale models. Later, he embarked on a number of large-scale sculptures in timber. In each of these media, sinewy, hard-edged forms predominate, some loosely reminiscent of the angular shapes of buildings silhouetted against low, maritime horizons, others suggestive of the diagrammatic line of a watercourse as it might appear on a map.

Cocker, however, operates at a high level of abstraction, and the viewer who is intent on identifying detailed, recognisable motifs within these works is likely to be disappointed. It is considerably more helpful to regard these visits as his creative catalysts, stimulating him to introduce new themes and shapes into his already-rich, form-making repertoire.

Cocker is a sculptor who frequently seeks inspiration from specific topographies. In the years preceding his 2004 travels, he undertook similar trips to County Mayo in Ireland and to Malta, journeys which, in both instances, generated new bodies of work.

He also created multi-part relief works with titles such as Landsongs, Fast Horizons, and Travelled Landscapes, which writers justifiably associate with the undulating fields and farmlands of Tayside, where he was brought up, and where he has chosen to make his home.[ii]

The serial format of these abstract sculptures encourages viewers to notice small variations in the compositions, and to interpret their rhythmic modifications as reflective of the ever-changing play that weather, mood and point of view have on our impressions of a place.

There is, however, no poetics of locality of the kind that Cocker explores without an attendant investment in travel. Only by actually being in a topography and moving through it can anyone experience place as an enveloping presence, and only by passing onwards is it possible to become receptive to changes in the character and ambience of different surroundings.

While the works comprising Cocker’s ‘Nouns of Europe’ series are about places, they also invoke an associated interest in movement and connection. Rotterdam is no exception.

Rotterdam is currently installed in a stairwell in the School of Art History building on North Street, and is over two metres high, looming well above anyone who is passing from one storey to the next. As you ascend from the building’s ground level it looms suddenly into view, and feels disproportionately large, which is in keeping with Cocker’s intent on conveying the industrial gigantism that is to be seen in this major port.

It’s also worth remembering that Rotterdam’s docks are an international transportation hub, connected by water to hundreds of other harbours around the globe. And this linear work, which loosely resembles a giant L-shape, also strongly implies a sense of directionality, as if marking a definite course between points.

There is another dimension to Rotterdam, though, which is unmissable to anyone who pays the work even a passing glance. Rotterdam is constructed from tree boughs, and Cocker preserves in the finished piece the bulbous, undulating, curving surfaces of the stout branches from which it was sawn. The prominent lower, right-angle bend is, for instance, the crook of a limb.

But if you pay the work further attention you soon notice that Rotterdam is not exactly a found form, and that the timber has been substantially worked. The bark and pithy outer layers have been filed down and abraded before being sanded over, fissures have been filled with epoxy, a small wedge extends from a knothole plug in the lower, horizontal section. There are also visible saw lines running the length of the branches from top to bottom. If you stand at right angles, you also notice that a square channel appears to be gouged into the wood, implying that the branches are at least partially hollow.

I discussed the construction process with Cocker and was surprised to learn how elaborate the procedure had been.[iii] He told me that the timber derived from two sources. He had been approached by a farmer who owned a field near Coupar Angus which had a row of damson trees running along the banks of a burn on one side. In 2004, several had blown down in a gale, and were blocking the water’s passage. In exchange for clearing up the banks and restoring the stream’s path, the farmer invited Cocker to take the timber.

Damson wood is not commonly worked and is seldom commercially available. But it is prized by woodturners for its deep rich tones, which we see in the upper section of the work’s vertical element.

The lower segment of the sculpture, however, derives from an entirely different tree. It is formed from a mature yew branch, which was also locally sourced, although this time from trees that were felled on the Murthly Estate in Perthshire and were subsequently made available for Cocker to use.

Although the tonality of seasoned yew happens to be relatively similar to damson, it is a demanding and very different type of wood with which to work. Yew is identified by the dramatic colour differentiation between the light orangey sapwood and the dark heartwood and it is this that gives the lower lengths of Rotterdam its unusual pied tones and its distinctive protuberances.

Cocker identified a branch that also included a small perpendicular bend, and which matched the thickness of the damson, and carefully jointed the two limbs together securely. Once you know to look out for it, the juncture is clearly visible in the finished work, and the more you study the intersection, the more vivid the differences in the qualities of the species appear, with the damson’s dynamic, swirling grain contrastingly offset against the more placid yew.

To secure this joint mechanically, Cocker made some labour-intensive interventions into both branches of wood. He cut both the damson and the yew lengthwise, carefully feeding them through his bandsaw. Given their awkward dimensions, this can hardly have been a straightforward operation. Then he sliced a long central groove down their now-exposed inner, flat sides, extracting much of the heartwood, and enabling him to insert long, loose tenons into the cavity. Then he glued up and reassembled the branches into their current configuration, ensuring that a concealed length of timber linked both damson and yew.

These details about the source of Rotterdam’s materials, as well as Cocker’s account of the construction process, provide a somewhat different perspective on the sculpture. We see it now in terms of his sculptural practice, involving, as it does, his close engagement with workers on local farms and estates, and as the outcome of a sequence of time-consuming and technical workshop procedures.

As an artist, Cocker is widely admired for his skills in using wood (although he is careful to avoid the impression that his objective is to draw out the inherent beauty of his materials). Learning of the wood’s origins, and thinking of the sculptor in his Angus studio, confirms our impression that Rotterdam derives from the rural Scottish landscape in a tangible sense, and makes it a sculpture about a very different place to that which it is representing.

It is perhaps disjuncture – between geographies, between the wood as a material and the urban, industrial themes it is symbolizing, and between the two timbers themselves – that makes Rotterdam such a compelling and hybrid work.

Places, after all, are connected to one another. We pass between them, and we link them up in our lives in order to make sense of who we are. The damson and the yew grow apart, but here their branches have been cut and aligned, and Rotterdam is not Scotland, although the sea that fills its docks also washes against these shores.


[i] Doug Cocker, Artist’s statement, in ‘Nouns of Europe’, exhibition pamphlet, White Space, University of Abertay Dundee, 2008.

[ii] For a discussion of these works, see the essays by Robin H. Rodger and Finlay Coupar in Leaving Jericho: New Work in Response to Scottish Landscape & Language, Doug Cocker & Arthur Watson, exhibition catalogue, John David Mooney Foundation, Chicago 2013, pp. 37 and 39.

[iii] Doug Cocker, telephone conversation with the Author, 2 October 2020.

Author Details:

Alistair Rider is Senior Lecturer in the School of Art History. He writes about modern and contemporary sculpture, and about art making as a social practice. He is currently preparing a study on long-term artists’ projects since the 1960s.

An Interview with Barbara Rae

Achill Beach, Barbara Rae CBE RA FRSE, HC2013.60, ©Barbara Rae

In 2020, Clare Fisher, research fellow at the University of St Andrews has been focusing on the Harry and Margery Boswell Collection. Some of this work has included conducting interviews with some of the well known Scottish contemporary artists who have works in the collection. A number of the works are by Barbara Rae CBE RA FRSE. Here’s what she had to say about her work!

A number of your works in the Boswell Collection reference places in Ireland. What is the personal significance of these places?

BR: The Celtic culture, the archaeology, pre-modern and contemporary history of the Ireland is fascinating. The people are the dividend, their sense of community, and their intimate knowledge of their heritage. I have travelled to the West of Ireland for twenty years now because there is always something new to discover.

In the past you’ve spoken about the importance of becoming familiar with a setting and gaining an insight into its history. How does this influence your practice?

An artist has to know what it is they are painting. Research is the key. They have to have an intimate knowledge of their matter. My inspiration is socio-political; I record the passage of time. I refine and refine. To do that, I visit a place for weeks sketching and taking notes, and only later – sometimes years – begin creating paintings or prints in my studio from the sketches.

When you look back on your works do they conjure memories of the particular place they relate to?

Sometimes I look at past work and think of revisiting the place, to see what changes there have been since last there. I visit a place many times, for example, I visited the Arctic four times, each time seeing something new. The time frame is important to me.

Are there any artworks or artists that have had a significant influence on your practice? Can you see this influence in any of the works in the Boswell Collection?

There are a few notable painters – mostly Spanish – who have relevance to what I do, but I have never absorbed their work to the point my output is influenced in any way. I evolved my own ‘style’ of expression and techniques from early art school days, developing them endlessly, which is probably why I have never seen any artist of distinction do what I do.

You have mentioned before that you are drawn to places ‘where people have intruded on the landscape’ (2007). Has the current climate crisis had an impact on how you approach subject matter?

Yes, of course. I am forced to cancel trips to far off places. There are a dozen places I want to visit but cannot because modes of transportation are extremely limited in the pandemic. For example, I cannot get back to Ireland unless I quarantine for two weeks.

Have you ever felt compelled to do some work on the landscape and seascapes of St Andrews?

I am not a landscape artist. Topography is not the attraction; people and the history of the location is the motivation. Also, I prefer the distinctive quality light of the west coast, its sharpness and drama, superior to the east coast.

How big a part does the viewer’s reaction to your art play in the making of it?

None at all. An artist would never lift a brush or open a tube of paint if worried about

what the public thought of the end result.

Strong horizons and horizontals are dominant in many of your works in the Boswell Collection (e.g. Moy Bank, Sea Gate, Dead Sunflowers). What is it about this axis that you find so appealing?

It all depends on the subject – if painting Leith Docks there would be no horizon, and in fact there is none in quite a few others.

Do you use colour for symbolic meaning in your work?

No.

The majority of your works in the Boswell Collection are silkscreen prints, what is it about this method that you are drawn to?

I don’t like ‘screenprints’ because if not handled correctly the outcome can be flat, poster-like. The process is difficult to achieve the perfection I need because it’s a multilayered process. Often I layer anything from 30 to 60 different colours to achieve the print image I want. Other printmaking techniques, such as collagraph and etching, are much more forgiving for creating surface and texture. For all I try to create what is in my imagination, I welcome dissonance, that is, unpredictable results.

Dr Barbara Rae CBE RSA RE

J.M Barrie: Stories of Courage

Bronze statue of Peter Pan created by Sir George Frampton, HC801, image courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums

Since World Book Day is near, we thought we’d write about a certain Scottish Novelist and Playwright who has a strong connection with a small bronze statue in our collection, a famous arctic explorer, and stories of courage.

The writer in question is Sir James Matthew Barrie (1860-1937), who grew up in Scotland and worked in London, and is best known for creating the character of Peter Pan. His full play was titled Peter Pan: A Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up and was written in 1904 and later adapted into a novel in 1911. In the story, the main character is a magical boy who can fly and never grows up. Peter Pan perfectly encapsulates what it is like to be a child – the world is stuffed full of adventures to be had, and there are many dangers too which can be overcome only if you have the courage to face it.

When the Wardlaw Museum opens, Visitors will be able to see a statue of Peter Pan in our collection sculpted by Sir George Frampton. The statue was presented to the female students of University Hall by J.M. Barrie in 1922, and it was originally placed outside University Hall before becoming part of the Museum collections. At the time when the statue was placed, University Hall had been open since 1895 and was the first all-girls student accommodation in Scotland. The statue was very a popular feature within University Hall which for some has been sad to see it moved from it’s former home but it is hoped that being part of the exhibitions in the newly refurbished museum will allow many more to enjoy seeing this beautiful sculpture.

J. M. Barrie (as Hook) and Michael (as Peter Pan) on the lawn at Rustington, August 1906, Wikimediacommons

Peter Pan is indeed a much-loved literary character, and there are  multiple statues of Peter Pan which can be found across the world. Our statue is a smaller version of one which was placed in Kensington Gardens in London. The Kensington Gardens statue is particularly magical because it appeared overnight in May 1912, and no one knew how it got there or who placed it there. The statue of Peter was supposed to be modelled upon photographs of Michael dressed as Peter Pan. However, in the end a different child was used as a model for the sculpture, leaving Barrie disappointed with the result, believing “It doesn’t show the devil in Peter”.


During his life, J.M. Barrie was Rector of the University of St Andrews from 1919 to 1922. Although an acclaimed author, J.M. Barrie was terrified of giving his rectorial address, and put it off for a while because he was uncomfortable with public speaking, stating in his address ‘This is my first and last public appearance’. He was friends with the famous explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott and was godfather to Scott’s son Peter. Barrie spoke about this friendship and was touched by Scott’s bravery and courage which he possessed to the end, and his refusal to give up hope. They were such close friends that Barrie was one of the seven people whom Scott wrote letters to shortly before passing away from hypothermia during his ill-fated Terra-Nova Antarctic expedition (1910-13), asking Barrie to take care of his wife Kathleen and son Peter.

JM Barrie Rectorial Address 1922
J.M. Barrie, Rector at the University of St Andrews in 1922, Image courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums

As part of the role of being Rector, a rectorial address must be given. When Barrie gave his address on the 3rd May 1922, he gave it with a small fold of paper in his breast pocket. It was a letter from  Captain Scott which spoke partly of Scott and his men singing and laughing cheerfully in their tent despite the sad situation they were in due to the unrelenting bad weather outside.

“. . . We are in a desperate state–feet frozen, etc., no fuel, and a long way from food, but it would do your heart good to be in our tent, to hear our songs and our cheery conversation”.

 It turned out to be some of Captain Scott and his men’s final hours, and the letter was amongst the last he ever wrote. When Barrie died years later, the letter from Scott was still in his breast pocket.

Often, when we tell stories about successful people and their achievements (whether they be academic, or heroic acts of courage) it is easy to forget that the people we are talking about are human. It is easy to forget that they get scared, that they have fears and doubts. I am sure that Captain Scott and his men were very scared in their tent, and that J.M. Barrie was very very scared of giving his rectorial address. But what makes them brave is that they managed to act despite their fears, it is this which transforms them (and anyone who can face their fears) into heroes. Captain Scott and his men had courage to stay hopeful and cheery to the end, which in turn inspired J.M. Barrie to face his fear of public speaking and commit his own act of courage and in turn inspire others.

 Such stories of courage are valuable in times like these, where each of us must have courage to help others as much as we can, and the courage to maintain the hope that there are better days ahead.

There are a great many courageous characters to be found in the pages of books. Indeed, in Peter Pan, Peter has the courage to face the fearsome Captain Hook and all his pirates, and the children have the courage to make the journey to Neverland where they have many magical adventures.

 We will end on the following quote from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan which discusses bravery:

“There are many different kinds of bravery. There’s the bravery of thinking of others before oneself. Now, your father has never brandished a sword nor fired a pistol, thank heavens. But he has made many sacrifices for his family, and put away many dreams.

Michael: Where did he put them?

Mrs. Darling: He put them in a drawer. And sometimes, late at night, we take them out and admire them. But it gets harder and harder to close the drawer… He does. And that is why he is brave.”

We are very grateful to our student volunteer bloggers who help us to produce the content for our museums blog! This blog was written by Kat McLaren currently studying for an MLitt in Museum and Galleries Studies at the University of St Andrews. Kat was really inspired by Barrie’s rectorial address from 1922 on courage and maybe you will too! Wishing you all a very happy World Book Day from all of us at the University of St Andrews Museums!

Great Expectations?! World Book Day 2021

World Book Day is a day dedicated to celebrating books and encouraging children to read. It takes place on March 4th this year.


Charles Dickens, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: ms37103/1/11v/2

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, follows the story of Philip “Pip” Pirrip as he grows from boy to man. As its name suggests, Pip struggles to fulfil various and occasionally conflicting expectations that other people have of him, such as those of his wealthy childhood benefactor Miss Havisham, his crush Estella, and his father figure Joe Gargery, but most of all, the expectations he places on himself.

Like most other novels at the time, it was written as a series of instalments which were individually published.1 By the time Dickens started publishing it in his periodical All The Year Round2, in 1860, he had almost thirty years of writing experience under his belt, from the comedic The Pickwick Papers to the sombre A Tale of Two Cities. Readers hung onto his every word – Victorian literature scholar Robert Patten estimates that around 100,000 copies of All The Year Round were sold each week3, some of which have made their way into our Special Collections. At the time, Britain’s population was only about 29,000,000 people.4

When the instalments were collated into three volumes in 1862, people once again rushed to buy it – one library bought 1400 copies!3 Even now, time has not diminished Dickens’ appeal. Instead, it has transformed his works into staples of English literature that are known all around the world.

Despite being considered classics, Dickens’ stories are not purely relics from the Victorian era. His stories have been adapted for modern mediums such as the radio, TV, and the silver screen countless times, which would make him turn cartwheels in his grave – Dickens was a professional actor for a time, and loved giving dramatic readings of his own work, so much that he would push himself until he collapsed during the more strenuous readings.2

However, the sheer dramatics of his works’ adaptations is not the only thing Dickens would have loved about them. His contemporaries knew him as one of London’s most prominent human rights campaigners2, and this is reflected in many of his books, which denounce human rights violations such as child labour, public executions, and slavery. This philanthropic spirit is reincarnated in adaptations such as BBC Sounds’ A Tale of Two Cities: Aleppo and London, which aims to raise awareness about the Syrian civil war by reimagining A Tale of Two Cities set there, instead of in the French Revolution.5

A Tale of Two Cities:Aleppo and London, title image from BBC Radio 4, image courtesy of Goldhawk Productions Ltd.

          Thus, there is something for everyone in Dickens’ works, whether you prefer short stories or novels, comedy or tragedy, audiobooks or paperbacks. And libraries are free, so get reading!

Without our student volunteers we wouldn’t be able to produce all this great content for our blog. The author of this content is Patsy Ng, a first year Computer Science student at the University of St Andrews. Over her time with us Patsy, who has been studying remotely from home in Hong Kong during the pandemic and has been meeting regularly with Cathy Cruickshank, her mentor from museums. As well as producing content Patsy has challenged Cathy (a reluctant reader of Dickens!) to read more Dickens! Generally a fan of contemporary fiction she is now working her way through A Tale of Two Cities and thoroughly enjoying it! Why not challenge a friend to read something new?! We here at Museums have great expectations for your World Book Day!

[1] “Victorian Serial Novels.” University of Victoria, accessed February 25, 2021. www.uvic.ca/library/featured/collections/serials/VictorianSerialNovels.php.
[2] Collins, Philip. “Charles Dickens.” Encyclopædia Britannica, October 22, 2020. www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Dickens-British-novelist.
[3] Patten, Robert. “Return to Chapman and Hall.” Charles Dickens and His Publishers, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 292. archive.org/details/charlesdickenshi0000patt/page/292/mode/2up.
[4] “UK Population Estimates 1851 to 2014.” Office for National Statistics, July 6, 2015, Excel sheet “ukpopulationestimates18512014”, page “UK Total Pop 1851-2014”, row 5. www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/adhocs/004356ukpopulationestimates1851to2014.
[5] Carr, Flora, ““All of Dickens is about child abuse”: reworking Charles Dickens against the backdrop of the Syrian civil war.” RadioTimes, June 3, 2018. www.radiotimes.com/audio/radio/reworking-charles-dickens-a-tale-of-two-cities-aleppo-london/.


 

Making History in St Andrews: A Line in the Sand

Line in the Sand 2019 Photo credits to Ben Markey

Joining the global climate action call on Friday the 20th of September 2019, 1200 people gathered on West Sands Beach in St Andrews for a Line in the Sand to voice their concerns about climate change and stand together in solidarity for climate action.

The Line in the Sand received international media attention, was recognised in an Early Day Motion at Westminster and prompted the University of St Andrews to accelerate action on sustainability and spearhead climate initiatives to become carbon net zero.

Students, academics, school children, parents, grandparents, toddlers, and locals all joined in for the biggest climate strike ever seen in the 600-year-old University town. Since that day, we have seen an increased recognition of environmental concerns and more commitments to change and actions taken for the climate.

At the beginning of 2020, the University created the Environmental Sustainability Board (ESB) as the highest level of governance for sustainability. The ESB is chaired by Sir Ian Boyd and unites initiatives for sustainability in the curriculum, operational adaptation to achieve carbon neutrality, research, energy, estates, and environment, as well as student and community initiatives for environmental sustainability.

Beyond the work of the University, different initiatives have expanded and accelerated. One of it is the town-wide Sustainable St Andrews initiative. Another example is the Green Faith St Andrews Network which was established as an informal forum between various Christian churches in St Andrews. Many churches and faith groups have taken efforts to highlight the Climate Emergency at services and thus increase public awareness and sustainability action. Fife Council has declared a Climate Emergency and so has the Scottish Government as the first one in the world to do so.  

However, despite this local response we are still a long way from where we need to be and the need for global climate action has increased more dramatically than ever. This has not least been revealed trough Covid-19 which is a global pandemic born out of wildlife trafficking and human’s increased invasion into wilderness and nature (Aguirre et al., 2020). It has killed thousands around the world and forced to halt our whole global community in the tracks. It has changed our lives and – for better or for worse – we will unlikely be returning to the world as it was before. The challenge is now to use this historic opportunity to build back better. Many agree that this is a turning point. Scientists, conservations, and public health specialists have warned us that if we do not address the Climate Crisis, we are not equipped to address our survival and thus risk increasingly more and increasingly dangerous pandemics as well as weather events and natural disasters (Aguirre et al., 2020; Briggs, 2020; Spyro, 2020; Wyns, 2020).

While we long to go back to normal we must also recognise that what we call normal brought us and our world to where we are now. The time has come to imagine a new normal. It is time to use this opportunity in our history to build back better. We need a green recovery. A way to build a world that is more sustainable, most just and nature- centred. Protecting and respecting nature also means protecting ourselves. The big issues of our time such as climate change, social justice, and health all interlink and require an intersectional response.

That is why this year, on Friday the 25th of September 2020, as St Andrews students and community members, we made sure to add our voice to the global climate action call in a unique for the Line in the Sand 2.0. Where last year we had the continuous line of people we now formed a line of around 120 socially distanced shoes from StAndReuse and before that line of shoes individuals, families, community members and student representatives came at different times of the morning socially distanced in small groups of maximum 6 people from 2 households to write climate messages and artworks of hope in the sand.

In difficult times it becomes more important than ever to stand together for a future on a habitable and sustainable planet and call on politicians to lead a green recovery.

These are challenging times, but they also teach us that human and planetary health are deeply interlinked. Furthermore, the effects of Climate Change and nature exploitation are impacting the world sooner than expected. Our future lies in the hands of those leading and making decisions today. May their actions and inactions be remembered. As the messages in the sand state: “Climate Crisis: don’t bury your head in the sand. Act Now!”, “Our recovery must be green”, “Climate Justice is Social Justice”, “Plant Hope”, “One Earth One Home”.

I am reminded by a saying analysing the fictional conception of time travel and how people in movies and books always worry about how their small actions in the past could radically change the present. Yet, rarely does someone in the present think they can radically change the future by doing something small.

Picture by Ben Markey

This is a historic moment in time determining our future. Whatever you do, no matter how small, makes a difference! Climate Change might be humanity’s biggest collective challenge, but it is also our biggest opportunity to create a better world – one that is greener, more nature-centred, healthier, and filled with more kindness. Kindness to ourselves, each other, to the animals and our beautiful home – Planet Earth.

-Léa Weimann

Students’ Association Environment Officer at University of St Andrews 2020-21

4th year MA (honours) Sustainable Development & International Relations

Bibliography

Aguirre, A. A. et al. (2020) ‘Illicit Wildlife Trade, Wet Markets, and COVID-19: Preventing Future Pandemics’, World Medical and Health Policy, 12(3), pp. 256–265. doi: 10.1002/wmh3.348.

Briggs, H. (2020) ‘Sir David Attenborough warns world leaders of extinction crisis’, BBC News, 28 September. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-54329813.

Spyro, S. (2020) ‘David Attenborough: COVID-19 may wake up the world to global warming’, Express, 22 September. Available at: https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/1338544/david-attenborough-global-warning-coronavirus-latest-life-on-our-planet.

Wyns, A. (2020) ‘How our responses to climate change and the coronavirus are interlinked’, World Economic Forum, 2 April. Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/climate-change-coronavirus-linked/.

Maud Sulter’s “Significant Others”

C’est moi…, Maud Sulter (HC2019.5(7) © Maud Sulter Estate, all rights reserved. Image courtesy of University of St Andrews.

Dr Catherine Spencer, lecturer in Art History at the University of St Andrews writes about the inspiring work of Maud Sulter. Catherine’s research and teaching focuses on art since the 1960s in the US, Latin America and Europe, particularly in relation to performance; technologies of mediation; internationalism and transnationalism; sociology, psychology and psychoanalysis; and sexuality, gender and histories of feminist practice.

The writer, artist and curator Maud Sulter’s Significant Others series (1993) comprises nine large-scale silver gelatin photographic prints, each measuring just over one metre by one-and-a-half metres. They are presented in bespoke wooden frames which the artist painted black and annotated with chalk, sometimes including the individual work’s title together with dates relating to the events captured. All are enlargements of what were originally much smaller snapshots taken from Sulter’s family archive, intimately embedding the series in the artist’s longstanding creative exploration of her Scottish and Ghanaian heritage. Sulter (1960–2008) was born in Glasgow, and despite moving to London aged 17 to pursue her studies at the London College of Fashion, maintained close ties with Scotland throughout her career, before returning to the country later in life and spending her last years in Dumfries. Sulter wrote poetry in Scots vernacular and old Scots, exhibited at institutions including the City Arts Centre and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, and worked with the Scottish Poetry Library on photographic portraits of Scottish poets in 2003–4. Significant Others relates to a number of key concerns in Sulter’s practice, notably the centuries of rich diasporic exchange between Europe and Africa, black feminist thought and activism, and the pioneering interrogations of history and representation forged by many artists associated with the Black Arts Movement in Britain during the 1980s. Significant Others moreover manifests an aspect of Sulter’s work that remains under-studied: her use of family photography, and exploration of both its ideological and affectual qualities.

Sulter created Significant Others during a period which the art historian Deborah Cherry has identified as a ‘highly productive’ one for the artist, as she worked freely across photo montage, film and installation in the mid-1990s.[i] This built in turn on an efflorescence of activity during the preceding decade, including participating in the ground-breaking exhibition The Thin Black Line (1985) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, curated by the artist Lubaina Himid. The show featured eleven black women artists who came together under a shared conceptualisation of blackness as a political identity, while working from a variety of perspectives and across a range of media. As Himid has stressed:

It suited us to show alongside each other, presenting a whole variety of beliefs, life choices and philosophical perspectives. We exhibited in this way to make visible our richness of vision. We did not all think about audiences in the same way or use materials in the same way.[ii]

Sulter’s specific approach within the heterogenous field encompassed by the Black Arts Movement in Britain involved adopting the portmanteau terms ‘blackwoman’ and ‘blackwomen,’ in order to signal her intersectional black feminist politics. These terms appear in the titles of her poetry collection As a Blackwoman (1985), and Passion: Discourses on Blackwomen’s Creativity (1989), an important anthology that Sulter edited. Sulter’s engagement with family photography ran in parallel with, and was deeply informed by, these endeavours. In 1989 she produced the poetry collection Zabat: Poetics of a Family Tree. This relates in turn to another large-scale photographic series from the same year, also entitled Zabat, which re-imagines the nine muses – represented in the Eurocentric art historical canon as white women – as black women creatives and thinkers. This body of work signals how Sulter’s commitment to black feminism and diasporic imaging and imaginings were closely intertwined.  

Significant Others can be understood as a statement of self-imaging, in which the self is depicted as intrinsically relational, sustained by generational links of familial love and support. These are the ‘significant others’ invoked by the overarching title: the parents, grandparents and extended relatives who people Sulter’s Scottish photographic family archive. Sulter herself appears in four of the nine images, including Snap I, which reproduces one of Sulter’s favourite childhood photographs. Taken by a street photographer, it captures the artist as a baby propped up in a pram, with a parrot balancing cheekily on the hood. Best Buddies shows Sulter playing on the beach with her maternal grandfather, who wrote poetry and experimented with amateur photography, providing an important early influence for her subsequent career. C’est moi is a solo photograph of Sulter at Edinburgh Zoo, sitting in front of the penguin enclosure. The title of this image in particular constitutes a statement of becoming, of laying claim to identity: ‘this is me’.

But perhaps the most powerful image in this respect is Maud and Elsie, a photograph of Sulter clasping hands tightly with her mother, who worked as a conductor on Glasgow’s trams. Both are smartly dressed and smiling, with sprays of flowers pinned to their clothes, suggesting a formal family occasion like a wedding or christening. The implications of this celebratory dynamic, however, are dramatically expanded by the chalked words that Sulter has written on the wooden frame: ‘Mexico Olympics,’ ‘1968,’ ‘Blak Power Babe,’ and ‘Panthers’. These powerfully triangulate the revolutionary politics of the Black Power movement which emerged in the United States during the 1960s, its emblematic expression in the formation of the Black Panther Party, and the iconic protest at the 1968 Mexico Olympics by the gold and bronze-medal winning 200-metre sprint athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists in Black Power salutes on the podium. Connected with the title ‘Maud & Elsie’ along the bottom of the frame, Sulter points to her vital formation through networks of black diasporic political thought spanning Africa, the Americas and Europe. The resulting image underscores the need to understand Scotland’s history as fundamentally bound up with continued struggle and resistance in the ongoing aftermath of slavery, imperialism and colonialism. It offers a visual manifestation of Sulter’s assertion: ‘I believe Blackwomen’s Creativity to be revolutionary in its potential. It confronts racism, sexism, privilege, abuse, but tries soulfully not to lose its integrity.’[iii]    

The annotations that Sulter makes on the frames across the Significant Others series provide both a way of training the viewer’s attention on the image, and of excavating layers of embedded meaning. In a 1992 interview with Mark Haworth-Booth, Sulter reflected:

I feel that we’re surrounded by photographic images – we engage with them in newspapers and magazines, on billboards, we read film, we read television images, and so it’s a very immediate process in terms of its production; and it’s a very immediate process in terms of catching the viewer’s attention in the first moment. But obviously the challenge is then to get beyond that superficial glance, to convert that glance into a more concentrated gaze (Sulter, 1992: 264).

Together with the use of annotation, another way that Sulter promotes this ‘concentrated gaze’ in Significant Others is through the rips, tears and creases in First word ‘gaga’, Memories of veils and kisses and Maud Elsie. Rather than creating new prints from original negatives, Sulter re-photographed the images, preserving their signs of use and interaction. These marks convey a sense of the photographs being treasured: periodically unfolded to be looked at, then refolded for safekeeping. While the Significant Others images in some respects conform to the socialising, potentially disciplining effects of the family album, Sulter’s selection, annotation, and attention to the evidence of interaction on their surfaces testifies to the possibility of using photography to (re)construct the self in a positive, empowering way. The use of scale, whereby small, private images are blown-up for public display, underscores this valuation of the often overlooked or ostensibly everyday.

Sulter continued to work with the ideas in Significant Others well beyond 1993, notably through Sekhmet in 2005 at the Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries. Like Zabat, it took the form of both a poetry collection and an exhibition, incorporating images relating to Significant Others with photographs from Sulter’s Ghanaian family archive. In addition to gathering family images through research in Ghana, Sulter also made the film My Father’s House (1999), which draws on footage from her father Claude Ennin’s funeral. For Cherry, these works expand the concerns of Significant Others to address ‘the distances between families, cultures, countries and continents,’ and reflect on ‘appearance, legacy, inheritance, kin and culture, the shared and distinctive nature of family archives.’[iv] Building on the important exhibition Maud Sulter: Passion at Streetlevel Photoworks in Glasgow in 2015, the acquisition of Significant Others by St Andrews University Museums provides a significant prompt and opportunity for more research to be done into this deeply compelling series, both in terms of its interaction with other aspects of Sulter’s prolific artistic, curatorial and poetic output, and its trenchant engagement with photographic histories, the construct of the family album, histories of diaspora, black feminist thought and artmaking, and the connections between Scotland and Africa.

References

Cherry, Deborah (2015). ‘Poetry – In Motion.’ In Maud Sulter: Passion, pp. 8–19. London: Altitude Editions.

Cherry, Deborah (2013). ‘Image-Making with Jeanne Duval in Mind: Photoworks by Maud Sulter, 1989–2002.’ In Women, the Arts and Globalization: Eccentric Experience, edited by Marsha Meskimmon and Dorothy Price, pp. 145–68. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Himid, Lubaina (2013). ‘Exhibiting Black Women’s Art in the 1980s.’ In Politics in a Glass Case: Feminism, Exhibition Cultures and Curatorial Transgressions, edited by Angela Dimitrakaki and Lara Perry, pp. 84–9. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Sulter, Maud (1992). Interview by Mark Haworth-Booth. History of Photography 16, no. 3, pp. 263–66.

Sulter, Maud (1991). ‘Passion: Blackwomen’s Creativity,’ Interview by Ardentia Verba. Spare Rib, no. 220 (February), pp. 6–8.

Further Reading

Aikens, Nick, and Elizabeth Robles, eds (2019). The Place Is Here: The Work of Black Artists in 1980s Britain. Berlin and Eindhoven: Sternberg Press and Van Abbemuseum.

Cherry, Deborah (1998). ‘Troubling Presence: Body, Sound and Space in Installation Art of the mid-1990s.’ RACAR: Revue d’art canadienne/Canadian Art Review 25, no. 1/2, pp. 12–30.

Ewan, Elizabeth, Rose Pipes, and Jane Rendall (2018). ‘Maud Sulter.’ In The New Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, https://search-credoreference-com.ezproxy.st-andrews.ac.uk/content/entry/edinburghsw/sulter_maud-/0?institutionId=2454


[i] Deborah Cherry, ‘Image-Making with Jeanne Duval in Mind: Photoworks by Maud Sulter, 1989–2002’ in Marsha Meskimmon and Dorothy Price (eds) Women, the Arts and Globalization: Eccentric Experience (Manchester University Press, 2013), p.157.

[ii] Lubaina Himid, ‘Exhibiting Black Women’s Art in the 1980s’, in Angela Dimitrakaki and Lara Perry (eds) Politics in a Glass Case: Feminism, Exhibition Cultures and Curatorial Transgressions (Liverpool University Press, 2013), p.89. Emphasis in original

[iii] Maud Sulter, ‘Passion: Blackwomen’s Creativity,’ Interview by Ardentia Verba, Spare Rib, no.220 (February, 1991), p.8.

[iv] Cherry, ‘Poetry—In Motion’, in Maud Sulter: Passion (London Altitude Editions, 2015), p.19.

Grant, Catherine (2019). ‘A Letter Sent, Waiting to Be Received: Queer Correspondence, Feminism and Black British Art.’ Women: A Cultural Review 30, no. 3, pp. 297–318.

Himid, Lubaina (2011). Thin Black Line(s). London: Tate Britain.

Mabon, Jim (1998). ‘Europe’s African Heritage in the Creative Work of Maud Sulter.’ Research in African Literatures 29, no. 4, pp. 149–55.

Marsack, Robyn (2008). ‘Maud Sulter,’ Obituary. The Herald Scotland, 22 March, https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12460747.maud-sulter/

[1] Deborah Cherry, ‘Image-Making with Jeanne Duval in Mind: Photoworks by Maud Sulter, 1989–2002’ in Marsha Meskimmon and Dorothy Price (eds) Women, the Arts and Globalization: Eccentric Experience (Manchester University Press, 2013), p.157.

[1] Lubaina Himid, ‘Exhibiting Black Women’s Art in the 1980s’, in Angela Dimitrakaki and Lara Perry (eds) Politics in a Glass Case: Feminism, Exhibition Cultures and Curatorial Transgressions (Liverpool University Press, 2013), p.89. Emphasis in original

[1] Maud Sulter, ‘Passion: Blackwomen’s Creativity,’ Interview by Ardentia Verba, Spare Rib, no.220 (February, 1991), p.8.

[1] Cherry, ‘Poetry—In Motion’, in Maud Sulter: Passion (London Altitude Editions, 2015), p.19.