Monday 21 January 2019

Entranced by Spellbound: a personal reflection on The Ashmolean’s recent exhibition by Sophie Parkes-Nield

Our marketing and comms manager, Sophie Parkes-Nield, visited The Ashmolean in Oxford to learn more about ritual, magic and witchcraft

Who doesn’t love a good bit of witchcraft? Perhaps the fascination is in us all, as The Ashmolean’s Spellbound exhibition – subtitled ‘magic, ritual and witchcraft – was packed when I visited in December 2018.

Miniature queues formed good naturedly at cabinets full of illuminated manuscripts, talismans and charms, but the exhibition made good use of the diminutive space – and anticipated popularity – by offering booths and immersive experiences, to negate the need for a linear narrative or lengthy interpretation panels. In short, this exhibition was neat-but-complete.

Spellbound delighted in giving us a little bit of what we already know, using witchcraft as the hook. For example, one of the first major moments we stop and pause is at the scales on which women were weighed against copies of the Bible. Then there’s the poppets, the witch bottles (objects which have captivated our Anna FC Smith recently) and the art depicting witches with their familiars, in orgies or plotting 'our' demise; it’s familiar stuff.

But most powerful was when the anticipated and expected was interpreted through another medium. In what felt like the centre of the exhibition sat a booth where visitors were invited to listen to the 1646 testimony of Katherine Parsons, who accused her neighbour, Ellen Garrison, of ‘pulling her to pieces’ and bewitching her children to death. To read the confession of one accused witch – tormented by the death of her husband and children, and living in abject poverty – would be moving, but hearing it proved, appropriately, haunting.

The exhibition hoped to reimagine, too. Contemporary artworks from Ackroyd & Harvey, Annie Cattrell and Katharine Dowson sat side by side with historical artefacts, and with little interpretation, we were invited to view them with the same curiosity. It was Katharine Dowson’s installation, Concealed Shield, from which  I took most enjoyment: enticed into a pulsing red sanctuary, I soon realised this was no sanctuary at all. What were those scuttles I could hear in the rafters? What creatures made those shadows?

An unsettling experience, the installation takes its inspiration from the objects found concealed in the walls of cottages, barns and outhouses to watch over the family that live there, to bring good luck and ward off evil spirits, to which a good third of the exhibition was also dedicated. Mummified cats and children’s shoes secreted in our domestic walls seem eerie to us now, but, the exhibition was keen to point out, rituals and charms are still an integral part of our lives now, as the wall of urban love locks demonstrated.

Magic, ritual and witchcraft, Spellbound told us, is less about the occult, the weird and the supernatural, and more about the very human needs to explain, to understand and to feel. This, of course, won’t be news to fans of Doc Rowe’s work, but if you missed the exhibition, the very excellent accompanying catalogue, Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft, is available from the Ashmolean’s website.

Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft ran between 31 August 2018 to 6 January 2019 at the Ashmolean in Oxford.

Sunday 2 December 2018

Lore and the Living Archive – in London!

We're delighted to announce that Lore and the Living Archive opens in London in January 2019.

On 30 January 2019 until 14 April 2019, visitors to Cecil Sharp House will be able to artefacts from Doc Rowe's personal archives and collections, alongside the artworks created specifically for this exhibition by Bryony Bainbridge, Natalie Reid and Anna FC Smith.

If you saw the show at Touchstones in 2018, you'll be glad to know that there are a couple of slight differences: another image from Natalie, and a couple of different shots from Bryony – so well worth another visit, we think! We're looking forward to seeing how Anna manages to suspend her 'oss from the ceiling, too...

See you there/then!

Sunday 13 May 2018

Lore and the Living Archive goes live: Touchstones, 5 May – 30 June 2018

Well, after a hot, sweaty opening day at Touchstones, we're delighted to announce that Lore and the Living Archive is open, running until the end of June 2018.

It's the culmination of two years of research, development, delving through Doc's archive and pleas to pose, so we're really interested in what you make of it. Hopefully you'll have chance to make it down, and if you do, please do let us know what you think.

The exhibition will be travelling to Cecil Sharp House in 2019, before moving onto Whitby, and we're hoping to have some other venues in the pipeline, too, so keep your eyes peeled.

And if you're in the Greater Manchester area, make sure you get down to the gallery on Saturday 26 May for the Wakes Day celebration: talks from Doc and the artists, clog dancing workshops, music, storytelling, crafts – and a beer festival! For more information, click here.

Obviously, we don't want to reveal too much of the exhibition and give the game away, but here's a selection of installation and opening photos, courtesy of Seth Tinsley.

Saturday 28 April 2018

Modern lore: Boxing Day in Wigan, by Anna FC Smith

The main project I have been working on alongside my work for the Doc Rowe Archive has been an Arts Council funded residency with Wigan Libraries called Imago Wigan. Through this residency, I have been researching the unknown origins of the unique custom of dressing up on Boxing Day in my home town of Wigan. Though the custom is modern, it mirrors more ancient customs of masquing, guising and license around the Christmas period.

For as long as I have been going out, Wiganers have donned fancy dress costumes on Boxing Day and have gone out drinking in the pubs and clubs around the town. “What are you going as on Boxing Day?” is as common a Christmas question as “Where are you spending Christmas Day?” – and to some, a more important one. The custom expresses a mass creativity and joviality, alongside satirical and transgressive elements which can push the boundaries of decency and societal acceptability (often as acts of extreme rebellion/humour). People vary from planning an outfit all year, creating something closer to the time in direct response to recent national news or in-jokes with friends, or throw something totally random together at the last minute. There is a mix of the homemade and the bought or hired, and couples or friendship groups often dress in themes.

I have pinpointed a number of core roots for the tradition. The first being the Rugby Union Football Club whose chairman, Frank Morgan, organised fundraising fancy dress parties from 1978 to the early 80s. Though a ticketed event, party goers would drink in pubs along Wigan Lane either before or after the event, and would go on to ‘Pemps’ nightclub or others in Wigan after it had finished. Others have reported late 70s charity fundraising pub crawls on Boxing Day from areas such as Pemberton; after these collections were over, the participants would head into Wigan still in their fancy dress.

In the early to mid 80s, football match goers began to dress up at matches on Boxing Day – a custom, it has been suggested, that was copied from fans of other teams. After the match, Wigan fans would go drinking.

And finally, Wigan was the home to two or three ‘fun pubs’ in the early 80s, and though not specifically connected to Boxing Day, it has been suggested by Chris D’Bray that the experimentation and costumed levity of these establishments created an atmosphere that encouraged fancy dress.

As well as collecting stories and images of past Boxing Days, I invented a new custom, celebrating the drunken revelry and costume. Its central processional figure was a fancy dress mummer made of elements of many of the costumes I’d seen in photos – representing all the costumes worn on Boxing Day. It was taken through Wigan town centre by a team of fancy dress dancers, performing moves developed by choreographer, Ruth Welch. The dance and actions crossed club dancing, drunkenness, and other processional activities such a walking days.

The work and procession was called Delight in Masques and Revels Sometimes Altogether.

Wednesday 7 March 2018

New (and old) methods of practice, by Natalie Reid

The chance to explore and respond to Doc’s archive has given me the opportunity to collaborate and discover new methods of practice. Recently, I’ve been working with master printmaker Lee Turner, owner of Hole Editions in Newcastle upon Tyne. Lee’s invaluable skill in the traditional craft of hand lithography has enabled me to realise my drawings as unique lithographic prints.

The first piece of work I created with Lee was inspired by the annual planting of the Penny Hedge, also known as The Ceremony of the Horngarth. The delicate willow structure, planted in the silt of Whitby harbour, made an impact on my memories of our first research and development weekend as part of this project. Although the origins of this ancient tradition remain a mystery, it has become connected to a local folk tale dating to 1159, in which a hermit from Eskdale loses his life during a violent boar hunt. Allegedly, the huntsmen, guilty of fatally wounding the hermit, have their land taken from them. However, the Abbott agrees to lease it back to them if they perform an annual forfeit. The forfeit, is to plant a penance hedge in the east harbour of Whitby, made from nine hazel stakes and nine pliable willow yethers, on the morning of every Ascension Day Eve. The hedge must withstand three tides or the men forfeit their land. It is also believed by historians that the ritual may be connected to the traditional upkeep of hedges and hedgerows expected from tenants of the Abbott’s land.

I’m fascinated that this discreet and modest custom continues to this day and I see it as an important and unique performance, with power to enrich a sense of identity in a place and unite a community. For me, the seemingly fragile Penny Hedge, resisting the tidal force, forms a poetic metaphor. This small ceremonial gesture has survived the forces and demands of modern society; of changing times, fashions and values.

In Lee’s workshop, the smell of ink is rich and heady. On a large slab of soft limestone, I began by drawing with a waxy crayon directly onto the meticulously smoothed surface. When my drawing is finished, Lee treats the stone to a cocktail of acid and gum Arabic, which then etches gently into these greasy areas. The open areas of limestone are coated in the gum, which in turn attracts water. When the stone is rolled up, the open wet areas repel the oil based ink, but the ink sticks to my drawing, allowing it to be transferred on to paper under the pressure of the printing press.

The chemical process of lithography relies on the natural immiscibility of oil and water. However, there is an alluring mystery, a sense of magic in the method, as the drawn image disappears as it’s etched away, yet is revealed once more as the water and the greasy slick of ink resist each other on the stone.

The term lithography is derived from the Ancient Greek lithos, meaning ‘stone’ and graphein, meaning ‘to write’. As well as making prints, I have been responding to Doc’s archive in poetry writing. For the project’s forthcoming exhibition at Touchstones Gallery in Rochdale, the visual work I present will be accompanied by some new poetic reflections exploring thoughts on social practice within selected customs to which Doc devotes his time and passions. My writing reveals personal reflections, memories and musings of my own present-day connection to the cultural heritage of the British Isles, as well as my imaginations on the continuation and future possibilities of these traditions in our ever-fluctuating Digital Age.

Monday 3 July 2017

This Girl Can Morris Dance!, by Steph West

Project manager, Steph West, recently visited Dr Lucy Wright's solo exhibition on the theme of 'Fluffy Morris' at Cecil Sharp House. Here she tells us more about the tradition and the show... 

My first experience of ‘fluffy’ or ‘carnival’ Morris dancing was seeing it on a one of the dance talent show programmes on TV. I was amazed when they described themselves as Morris dancers; they looked just like cheerleaders and they were dancing to American pop music! I’d been involved in Morris dancing for nearly my entire life, but I’d never seen anything like that. I have to admit that at first I thought it was a joke and I’ve since heard a lot of people from the ‘traditional’ Morris teams express ridicule towards this form of Morris, or at least dismiss it as ‘not really traditional.’ Perhaps due to this attitude, Fluffy Morris has remained separate from the wider Morris community and is not well known outside its North West heartland.

However, it could be argued that Fluffy Morris is one of the few dance traditions that has maintained ties to its roots and to the community that originally instigated the dance form. It is a fascinating example of how a traditional expression can change and evolve over time. Rather than trying to recreate a past era, as most other traditional forms of dance attempt to do, Fluffy Morris has unconsciously adapted to incorporate contemporary fashions. However, underneath the sequins and the glitter, the origins of the North West Morris dance form can still be seen in the precise figures and incredibly neat polka step.

More recently the wider Morris community has taken notice of this style of Morris, with Platt Bridge Morris Dancers performing to great acclaim at the rebooted ‘Dancing England’ showcase earlier this year. The dance has also been the focus of an exhibition currently on display at Cecil Sharp House, where I was able to visit on a recent trip to London. ‘This Girl Can’ Morris Dance!: Girls’ Carnival Morris Dancing in the 21st Century by artist and ethnomusicologist Lucy Wright features contemporary photographic works, as well as a range of artefacts and archival photographs.

The photographs on display show Fluffy Morris in all its sparkly glory, demonstrating the preoccupation with appearance that has almost as much emphasis placed upon it as the dancing. Above all, Fluffy Morris is intensely competitive and the photographs that I found most intriguing were those that showed the End of Season results ceremony. In particular one photograph shows the Trophy display, a vast array of enormous shining trophies, which are apparently revealed to great fanfare and even indoor fireworks!

Though my own tastes and personal experience of Morris dancing lead me to find it all somewhat kitsch, it is undeniable that the existence and history of Fluffy Morris helps to demonstrate the major role that women have played in the performance of Morris dancing in the North West of England. The use of the Sport England ‘This Girl Can’ campaign logo in the title of the exhibition subtly introduces this theme; and archival photographs, many taken from The Morris Ring Archive, show teams of girls, women and even mixed teams from as early as 1905. It makes me wonder if perhaps one reason why Fluffy Morris has been largely ignored by the broader Morris dancing community is because it challenges the widely held belief that women’s and mixed Morris is a recent phenomenon, and the hopefully less widely held belief that women should not participate in Morris dancing.

Visiting Lucy’s exhibition has been great food for thought when contemplating our own exhibition, which will similarly be made up of both new contemporary works and archival material. Yet, this is not the only similarity between the two. Both seek to explore traditional expressions that have their roots in the past, but are very much relevant and alive today; expressions that are continuing to change and evolve, sometimes even influencing and inspiring the creation of new traditions.

This Girl Can Morris Dance is on at Cecil Sharp House, London, until 30 July.

Wednesday 10 May 2017

On the trail of the Oss, by Anna FC Smith

I have just returned from an intense trip to the West Country, attending some of the May Day festivities that I have long yearned to see. Luck had it that I was down that way for a hen do weekend and so arranged to meet with Doc in Padstow, Cornwall, for the first of their Obby Oss Days. I’d wanted to meet with Doc and gang on the Sunday evening for the night singing but given the nature of my weekend this wasn’t possible. Instead, we met with him on the Monday in a little cottage he had hired with friends.

The weather was fairly miserable, so everyone was taking a break in the dry after having already spent a morning following the Oss around town. This was Doc's 55th time at Padstow, and he and his friends discussed the custom, alongside other customs including Crying the Neck, as we sat around and drank tea. Doc and his friends are all genuinely cool! I know this is a trivial sounding compliment, but I had such a great time hanging out with them all and listening to their knowledge and tales, they are simply the epitome of cool in my world. We listened out for the drumming to see when the Oss were on the move, leaving when we heard the intoxicating beat calling us out.

We joined with the Blue Ribbon Oss. Some of its supporters were decked in flowers and wore blue tourist style anoraks over their outfits. The drums and other instruments were inside plastic bags to keep off the incessant drizzle. The streets were packed and there seemed to be as many people documenting the event on their phones as there were revellers. There were lots of youths drinking, singing and running about like any festival or party, but to the same repeated song, which goes round again and again. The Maysong is a very catchy tune and surprisingly you don’t get bored of it (well, I didn’t). I thought it was interesting how the teasers dance with the Oss in a ‘festivally’ or ‘ravey’ kind of style and the whole event has a revelling atmosphere. Doc told me that the Blue Ribbon Oss was originally the 'Temperance Oss' but that soon after its first appearance, its supporters were as debauched as the other groups.

At one point, we were with the Oss as it was beaten down and so the song lulls into its gentle verse, ‘The Night Song’. I looked up and watched an old lady singing to a baby in a window overlooking the street. I couldn’t help but well up, witnessing the passing on of a custom from one generation to another.

We went in and out of the cottage all day, losing Doc most of the time because he was in prime position at the front of the crowds. We finally saw the two Oss meet beneath the maypole in the centre of the town, and they raucously danced together in the middle of a heaving crowd. They broke branches and flowers off the maypole and after they continued their journey up the hill, I collected them as souvenirs. We left Doc to continue the next few days of the festival in Padstow and headed over to Devon and Somerset.

Doc had given me the number of Paul Wilson, a key organiser for The Original Sailor's Hobby Horse, Minehead, Somerset. They only dance in the evening of the 2nd so we made use of the day by driving over to Combe Martin, Devon. This is where The Hunting of The Earl of Rone takes place every year on Spring bank holiday weekend at the end of May. Though we wouldn’t be able to see the custom, I wanted to see if I could find anything out about it and see its location. I visited the Combe Martin museum and incredibly they had one of the original hobby horses plus costumes for the Earl of Rone and The Fool. The staff told me loads about the custom and one even did a demonstration of the dance they do in the procession. I bought a pamphlet about it and was given contact details for an organiser. As with the other West Country customs, the faces of the horse and the Earl himself is painted in a very stylised form, with bold shapes and colours defining the features similar to Japanese Kabuki masks.

We then set of to meet Paul and the Sailor Horse. We’d missed the start of their procession so were driving around looking for somewhere to park when we heard the drums and the Oss coming down the street. We quickly parked up and then followed the supporters as they danced through the town and out into the suburbs. This horse is more colourful than those at Padstow; it is in a boat-like shape and its top is covered in shaggy ribbons. They stopped on a green where lots of children joined the group and a little girl demonstrated her skill on the accordion.

Here, I got chance to speak with Paul about the custom. He is not originally from Minehead but got involved through his interest in folk music and custom. We remarked how embedded folkies can become in the traditions they take an interest in. I noticed that the horse had someone’s name and dates painted on its side and Paul told me this was to commemorate a young lad who was part of their group and had died tragically young. The horse attended his funeral.

After being on the green for a while, we heard more drumming and the Town Horse came around the corner with its supporters. We were lucky to have bumped into the right horse as we did! Our group decided to go on their way rather than collide with the oncoming troop. There is rivalry between the groups, and a child noted that in the previous year the Town Horse had pushed The Sailor Horse. It was exciting to learn that they were going to dance together later with another horse, the Black Devil, who had not been out for many years. After more processing and chatting, watching the children being chased by the horse, we had to leave for Wigan.

This trip solidified what I want to create for this project. I’ve returned to texts by Jeanette A Bastian, and her thoughts on tradition and carnival itself being the living archive. Seeing how significant events have been captured and marked by tradition, how Doc himself is so entwined with the customs he records and how him and his archive have been the source of newer folk events, I have decided to create a new ‘custom’ and ‘character’ inspired by everything Doc.