Category Archives: Catherine

Domestic Sphere at the top of the lake

IMG_5244Earlier this month I gave a paper at the ‘Domestic Sphere in Europe, 16th to 19th Century’ conference at the Schloss Schadau in Thun, Switzerland. The conference was run by Joachim Eibach, as part of his NSF-Sinergia-project Doing House and Family, based at the Universities of Bern, Basel, Lausanne and Lucerne.

In addition to offering a trip into the mountains alongside fondue-eating locals, accompanied by the sound of cow bells, it brought together the largest group of people I’ve ever been in a room with (and a very grand room at that) who are actively engaged in thinking about the pre-modern house. Three days saw a thought-provokingly vast scale of papers, focused across Europe and from the early sixteenth to the nineteenth century. I wanted to draw together a few of the preoccupations that connected them here, to try to lay out the bones of shared concerns in a way that might suggest a way forward for studies of domestic life.

Joachim’s opening thoughts were very useful in establishing a framework for the ensuing discussion. He considered the ‘domestic sphere’ as a focus in relation to more established terms such as ‘family’, ‘household’ and ‘kinship’, and he pointed to the practical focus of the event, on doing, discussing the challenge faced by cultural historians in analysing the self-evident elements of the everyday. The notion of ‘co-presence’, of face-to-face interaction, with its concerns about shared space and communication, became an important strand in the papers. For instance Claudia Opitz-Belakhal spoke about the ‘emotionalised language’ of time spent together, and Julie Hardwick about the ways in which young couples in early modern France calibrated their intimacy in relation to their location – how they tied the registers of inside and outside space to the progress of their relationship.

Another important theme was closure, one of the key elements of the Doing House and Family project. ‘The changing degrees and different ways of ‘doing’ closure and openness of domestic spheres may serve well as a paradigm in family history’, Joachim suggested at the start, and Maria Agren’s summary comments identified a thread of argument through the papers that increased enclosure over time was a significant but complex narrative, with some elements always kept secret and the outside always present through light and glances in both directions through windows. We saw these connections in the papers on religion within the home – in Tine Van Osselaer’s identification of priests and ceremonies brought into the domestic environment, and in Irene Galandra Cooper’s arguments about the relationship between devotional forms used in both the churches and the lower status houses of Naples. The connections were also made evident in Frank Hatje’s argument that we should see bourgeois groups’ need for privacy to read as connected to their investment in patterns of sociability through which they might display that reading. Interesting points were made about openness as involving both inviting people in and talking about the household outside; about the description of relationships as part of their performance (Sandro Guzzi-Heeb) – for me, a larger question emerged – how are physical and narrative experiences of space and co-presence linked to one another at different times and in different places?

But, as was frequently pointed out, levels of closure are not just about modes of accessibility – they provide a key way for historians to understand social control. Focusing on what’s seen and unseen, known and unknown across the threshold is a way of exploring the relationship between the state and the house; the Political and the political; public and private spheres. The opening remarks asked how we might articulate what is apparently a broad shift from the relative heterogeneity of the ‘household family’ to something more nuclear and ‘privatized’; ‘From relatively open ‘mixed zones’ to a retreat into privacy behind walls and curtains (‘Rückzugswohnen’)’? Thinking through that broad chronology as a series of points in time demands a combination of micro-histories of the house with macro-historical questions. This is a crucial task, it seems to me, for the study of early modern domestic process – partly because by undertaking it we get at the heart of early modern identity, and partly because we rescue the study of everyday life from perceptions of triviality and inconsequence.


So what kind of insights were gained in Thun from the micro-macro connection? Inken Schmidt-Voges’ quiet revelation of a ‘conflict biography’ of court case in which upholding the peace was seen to be more important than upholding patriarchal rule demonstrated with great power what is at stake in a fuller understanding of these relationships. Sandra Cavallo’s careful work on annotations on printed medical texts showed that textual knowledge was not passively received, and in doing so undermined apparently clear distinctions between professional and domestic cultures. The work on emotion was also interesting here: Claudia Opitz-Belakhal considered how social relations might be structured by ‘public’ rules and discourses as well as ‘subjective practices of emotions and emotionality’, and Julie Hardwick considered what she called ‘sexual scripts’ – the generally understood phases through which individual relationships moved. These were very thought-provoking examples, but we still need more methodological work that explicitly examines ways of connecting up these levels of discourse, and the role of material, oral and literate cultures in those connections.

Of the four ‘guiding aspects’ of the conference, then, 1) material culture, 2) social space and habitat, 3) gender and 4) transformations, the least was said about the former. Joachim asked us to consider whether we would act, communicate and feel differently if we met in an ordinary seminar room at the University of Bern – undeniably true! I spoke about it in relation the decorated interiors of early modern English middling houses (of course), advocating the key relationship between space, objects and actions with which Tara and I are so concerned, but the majority of the evidence was undeniably documentary.

Finally, we were asked ‘Is there any such thing as ‘the European domestic sphere’’? It remains an important question, linked to a growing sense across the period of the differences between European and Eastern domesticities – curtains, doors and locks were mentioned, but we might also want to think about actions of sitting and modes of sociability in this light. Philip Hahn’s paper on the spread of ‘how to do household’ books across early modern Europe gave a solidly-grounded textual answer, as he asked what was found useful/acceptable across national boundaries and considered the rewriting of husbandry advice to take account of different climates and soils. Can we do the same for the material cultures of intimacy and display we heard about in Thun, and can we then connect it to those macro-questions on a European level? The Doing House and Family project will undoubtedly provide many useful answers, but I suspect there will still be more work to be done…



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Film on YouTube: Reconstructing the Early Modern Domestic Interior

IMG_2462The film which I mentioned a few posts ago is now up on YouTube:

Part of the findings of the AHRC ‘Ways of Seeing the English Domestic Interior 1500-1700’ network, it explores how research into surviving documents relating to houses can be brought together with extant buildings and objects, digital media and modern craft skills to help us to understand how the early modern domestic interior functioned. So the whole thing is an argument for interdisciplinary ways of approaching the topic.

The film starts in Melissa White‘s studio, with her thoughts on how early modern painters created the wall painting from which she was working – her detailed analysis of their work – and her own practice and the raw materials she has used. It then moves on to the hall at Bayleaf (shown here), to my discussion with Danae Tankard about who would have lived in a house like this, and how it would have been furnished, and what the documentary evidence is for our ideas about this. In the final sections the three of us discuss how people might have interacted with these cloths – their visual impact on both the modern & the sixteenth-century viewer, and how they work in the hall space. One of my favourite parts of the film is the part where the digital media becomes a part of the research: the timelapse photography (like the film itself, beautifully shot by Darren Mapletoft during our night in the house) where you can see the way the cloth changes in the shifting lights of dusk and sunset, fire and candle, dawn and sunrise. We’d be very interested to hear which parts of the film you’ve found useful for understanding domestic life…


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Writing the past with the Treaty Canoe: public engagement as material process

treaty-3Here are some further thoughts on different ways of bringing the early modern past and the present into conjunction with one another, prompted by an unexpected encounter with a canoe! As the darkness fell last week in the cool and expansive space of the double-height foyer of one of the colleges at Kent, a 12ft papier mâché and birchwood canoe swayed gently on a long steel line. It was being rocked between members of the audience at the event to mark its launch, as they absent-mindedly tried to centre it. Alex McKay, the artist who had spent several weeks making it in situ, talked about the significance of his work, called Treaty Canoe. The texts with which it is covered are transcriptions of treaties made between the British colonial territories and their indigenous people, texts which date back to the early seventeenth century and have a continuously troubled history into the present day. One of the main aims of the project is to explore the history of the relationship between indigenous peoples – such as Native Americans and First Nations Canadians – and the Crown, and its ongoing significance to indigenous rights, as part of the Idle No More movement.

This has been a ‘public engagement event’ with a difference. For a start, Alex, David Stirrup and their team have been camped out in the foyer for a couple of weeks, and they’re excellent at engaging people of all ages and backgrounds in conversation – I’ve seen them in equally effective action with students, heads of department and small children. Intrigued, they’ve come and discussed the gradually-emerging form of the piece, and in doing so been drawn into dialogue about its meanings. Then they’ve written out those documents again themselves, encouraged as they did so to think through the process of writing and rewriting, codifying and replicating promissory notes about land. It’s those pieces of writing which have formed the outer skin of the canoe.

And then there’s something about the object itself which is immediately, disarmingly appealing. It’s instantly recognisable and simply beautiful. The methods by which it is made are traditional ones, so one element of its appeal is a kind of practice as research – seeing something take shape in the way it has always taken shape, and viewing it as a tangible connection of process to early modern makers of such objects.


After the speeches, the canoe was raised up way above our heads by two enormous men from the Estates department, and I asked Alex whether he was pleased with the way it had turned out – it’s the second one he’s made. That turned out to be terribly hard to answer – was I asking him about the physical form it had taken (more regular than the last one), or about the effect its making had had upon those people who had been involved in the process (very satisfying)? Was I asking an aesthetic or a political question? That tension’s at the heart of what I’ve found so fascinating about this project – the simultaneous allure of the object and repulse of the message it conveys; its physical beauty and the deeply complicated ideological issues that beauty gestures towards. Listening to the formal speeches, and then standing up above later on in the silence of the mezzanine taking this photo, I was struck by the barely-contained emotions circulating around the treaty canoe, by how rare it is that early modern history has such a direct connection to live and heartfelt political activism, and by how central a material object has been to bringing those things into the same space. Someone apparently came up to the team and suggested they were wasting their time: ‘you’d be much better off trying to get people to sign a petition’ she said, demonstrating a remarkable lack of perception in every sense of the word!

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Next AHRC workshop announced – Museum of London Cheapside Hoard Exhibition

Emerald-Watch-2It’s time to register for the next workshop! Come and join us to continue the discussion about the relationship between different kinds of pre-modern materiality and how we analyse and display them…

Following on from the first two in the series of AHRC Collaborative Skills Development workshops hosted by the Museum of London at The London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre, and University of London Senate House Library, the third workshop will take place at the Museum of London. This workshop will examine the practicalities and challenges of displaying objects in museum exhibits.

An initial session will examine a small group artefacts relating to death and mourning from the early modern period and formulate ways that such themes might be interpreted in a display for a variety of different audiences. After having worked up ideas and possible strategies for delivering textual information and display requirements, an area of the Museum of London’s War, Plague and Fire gallery will be studied to learn how objects and text come together in practical terms as part of a grand narrative of an exhibit. This will be followed by a visit to the Museum’s temporary Cheapside Hoard exhibition. Here, the focus will be on analysing specifically the design of a major exhibit and how visitors engage with very small objects as well as related supporting content, reconstructions and illustrative material.

To register go to:

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Comfort Zones

unity2Two things have happened recently which set me thinking about comfort zones, now and in the past. First, I gave a talk for Unity Arts as part of their HLF-funded project ‘A Restoration Wyfe – A Saucy London Life’. The talk was called ‘The interior life of the Restoration wife’, and it was about the changing relationship between interiors and women’s lives between the 16th and the 18th Centuries. I started off with the china scene from William Wycherley’s 1675 play The Country Wife, with its blistering run of double entendres:

Mrs Squeamish: Oh Lord I’ll have some china too, good Mr. Horner, don’t think to give other people china, and me none, come in with me too.

Horner: Upon my honour I have none left now.

Mrs Squeamish: Nay, nay I have known you deny your china before now, but you shan’t put me off so, come —

Horner: This Lady had the last there.

Lady Fidget: Yes indeed Madam, to my certain knowledge he has no more left.

(you can watch it here, about half way through the clip:

Then we cut back to Thomas Bentley’s 1582 The Monument of Matrons, in which he outlines a routine of early morning prayer in the chamber: ‘Putting on your neerest garment [your clean smock], praie thus:…O cover thou my nakednesse and shame with the fine linnen robe of his righteousnesse and vertue…Yea, make thou my linnen cloaths as white as snowe, and shining like the light’ (pp. 369-71). The point of the talk was to explore how we might get from one chamber to another: how representations of the room changed from a space of pious meditation to one that could be represented as a scene for debauchery, even if it was happening just off stage.

So the barest bones of the talk were the way sixteenth-century halls were ceiled over to provide chambers up above, and the effects this had on the specificity of space – the division of activities between rooms, the creation of rooms that were intended for sleeping and not much else, and the significance of ‘going upstairs’ at night time. And we looked at the development of closets and dressing rooms in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – the movement to entertaining in small spaces for more intimate sociabilities – comfortable and comforting rooms filled with women’s personally significant objects. The changing way women decorated chambers revealed a great deal about their ‘interior lives’. We also discussed who was allowed in; the permeability of rooms and houses. Watching early modern comfort zones shift in location and boundaries gave me back something of that shock of the new that you lose when you forget what happens before and after the period you work on.

unity5And the other thing that’s happened is that I’m now the DoRPE in the School of English at Kent or, marginally more attractively, the Director of Research and Public Engagement, which has led me to thinking about how we start conversations about the past with people outside our departments. The way Unity Arts ran this event was fascinating. The talk came after a series of songs from the period sung by costumed singers and a reading from Pepys’ Diary, all at the Geffrye Museum of the Home, where the audience could wander around period rooms before and afterwards. And the whole event was set against the full-sized recreation of a Restoration bed they’d produced, and in the context of the research they’d done on portraits and Restoration wedding documents in the local archive. This was an event with previous form – a culmination of other kinds of exploration – and that really came across. It gave them a range of different ways of getting at a central problem – what was the life of a Restoration wife like? – and what it offered its audience wasn’t a holistic package (a kind of living history where you are supposed to forget you’re in Hoxton in 2013) so much as a variety that kept changing your point of view. Have a look at this video of a previous piece of work, shown again at the Geffrye, for instance – it’s all about view point:

And speaking in this setting was naturally engaging, both for me and, I hope, for the audience. It couldn’t possibly be a passive event. Talking about place as part of an experience, rather than doing it cold in a lecture theatre, and seeing research as animated – as a performance of words – made a space for understanding domestic experience that was very different to what I’m used to. It made a lecture into a moment at which things might be coaxed into coming together. And it made demands on us all to imagine, and to think of the constraints on imagining too. That’s when things start to happen – when, in talking it through in an inspiring space with an audience who keep asking interesting questions, you start to see the evidence you work with differently. Way outside my academic comfort zone it felt to me as though this was a different kind of ‘located’ engagement. It would be interesting to know what others think…



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Covering the ground in early modern London: object biographies at LAARC

P1000475This late sixteenth-/ early seventeenth-century floor tile with a picture of a grasshopper on it was found on the site of Baynard’s Castle, Upper Thames Street. It is London-made tin-glazed earthenware, intricately painted in green, yellow, two shades of blue and mauve. It is one of the objects that a group of postgraduate students and early career researchers spent the day learning to look at in detail at LAARC – the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre – at the first of a series (watch this space) of AHRC-funded Skills Development workshops on the theme of ‘Methodologies for material culture’.

With the expert help of Alex Werner, Head of History Collections at the Museum of London, and Roy Stephenson, Head of the Museum’s Archaeological Collections and Archives, we tried our hands at constructing biographies of early modern urban things. P1000470This tile was made in Southwark and found at the site of the Royal Exchange when it was rebuilt in the nineteenth century – it has a quarter of a Tudor rose in the top left hand corner, completed as the pattern was repeated. Seeing the two tiles together, you begin to get a sense of London floors – of the complex, self-consciously showy and fashionable Renaissance patterns on which the city’s elite might have been walking around the turn of the century. There are tempting connections between the site of this tile and the image on the previous one too – can we read Thomas Gresham’s emblem in the half a grasshopper and put that together with the floor of the Exchange which he had built? What kind of a map of London pavements would that give us? The answer has to be ‘probably not’! But the kind of biographies these objects invite was the question the day set us: our instinct as historians seemed to be to try to use them as a series of stepping stones that, placed sequentially, generated a particular kind of narrative that was very focused on specific people and important actions.

P1000579In the final session of the day we were given groups of objects to talk about: part of the Museum of London’s signature shoe collection, a group of pewter from Nonsuch with crossbow bolt-holes in it, and these several brown boxes of pottery. They were found in Southwark, around the time of the great fire of London – at least a whole household’s worth of ceramics, if not more. Our conversations around them moved backwards and forwards from the form, style and function that we had been told to focus on to the reasons for their deposit. Had their owners beat a hasty path over the bridge, fleeing the City in the fire with their prized possessions, only to realise they would not be able to return quickly and therefore dumping these heavy objects with comparatively small intrinsic worth? Had a minor earthquake shattered all the pottery in the house, leaving only pewter, wood and silverware items intact? That desire to create a biography from external events that is not in dialogue with the material quality of the objects seemed almost irresistible. But given time and the experts’ eye we came back to ‘active looking’, to focusing on how these objects worked, both individually and as groups – how wide the charger actually was, why it had holes in the rim for hanging, what the effect of its lavish pattern was in relation to the Bellarmine jugs, for instance. These less pushy, less sensationalist narratives of things were unlikely to relate directly to London’s famous inhabitants or events; more likely to concentrate on the experience of walking through the decorated spaces of the early modern City.


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The House in Context – a European perspective


Recently back from a conference on ‘Das Haus im Kontext – in europaischer Perspektive’ at the Schloss Beuggen in Rheinfelden, organised by Joachim Eibach and Inken Schmidt-Voges on the very edge of the Rhine just outside Basel – a still point between an elbow bend in the river and a hydro-electric plant, largely inhabited by kingfishers and beavers. Within the thirteenth-century Schloss, representatives of several different European countries discussed their respective traditions of analysing and writing about the early modern house. We set out to answer the broad question ‘what is the household’, in our respective scholarly traditions, and how might we study it?

Philip Hahn from Tubingen opened the discussion up by suggesting we test the idea of the ‘open house’ across languages and cultures, and offered three types of ‘house’ prominent in German scholarship: the house as concept of order, as building and site of material culture, and as social space. Dionigi Albera from Aix-en-Provence identified three influential strands of research on Italy: household economies, ‘home’ as the study of such issues as intimacy and gender, and the kinship approach. I was arguing that research on the English house has not had much to say about the connections between its ‘material’ and ‘human’ aspects – that we have a very broad humanities-wide interest in domestic issues: in economic, social and demographic history, literature, art history, archaeology and architectural history, but that their findings are rarely brought together. Several approaches came up time and again, with some countries erring more on the side of demography, lifecycle study and property transfer and others concentrating on the extent to which the household organised life, work and transgression. Almost every paper mentioned the work of the Cambridge Group as being more or less helpful to their national traditions, and there were common experiences about the significance and the incompatibility of domestic theories and practices.

Other interesting issues which surfaced several times in later sessions were how historiographies deal with permanence and impermanence –the double meaning of ‘house’ for the elite and their relation to property, as opposed to the fraught nature of these questions for European Jews, for instance – and the possibility of tracing a history of neighbours and neighbourhood, and how that might be shaped by a sensory understanding – how did smell, or warmth, influence perception of the house from the inside and outside? In Hamburg, neighbourhood relations were important because of mutual visibility and audibility, but only children’s birthdays were celebrated with neighbours, not their parents’. In Sweden, they were looking at the work that women did between households and how it was organised, and in Switzerland at the way women’s professional activities grew out from but remained tied to the house. In Swedish Pomerania, inner city mobility was so high that 40% inhabitants moved at least once in 4 years:  living in one house from birth to death was not a common way of life. Those were some of the highlights for me.

It was a really focussed conference, and exciting to translate our shared convictions about how central domestic life is for understanding this period. And what a great setting – a conference on Das Haus watched over by a pair of storks perched on a high nest on top of the tower, planning their own spring household…

small storks

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Conference: Materialities of Urban Life in Early Modern Europe

screenshotWe’re organising a conference to bring together scholars working on the materiality of urban life, at the Institute of Historical Research in London, 17-19 April 2013. Six of us are involved – names below – from History, Literature, Art History, Archaeology and Museums backgrounds. Many of us were also a part of the very exciting ‘Everyday Objects’ conference, which led to an edited volume of the same name. We have come together again to organise this event because we wanted to open up debate about the particular qualities of public, private, commercial, domestic and civic material cultures to be found in towns across Europe.

So we welcome traditional academic papers and panels from the perspectives of economic and social history, archaeology, art history, museum and literary studies and beyond. We would also be interested in other kinds of presentation – for instance performances and visualisations – which give different kinds of access to the nature of early modern urban experience. We want to know more about European goods and spaces, the actions and emotions with which they were associated, the way they were traded and distributed, embodied experiences, the interactions between individuals and groups, gendered urban materiality, urban landscapes, the ways in which all of the above were influenced by non-European materials and practices, and the methods by which all of these various topics might be addressed.

More information about the conference will be posted here soon. In the mean time, do propose a 20 minute paper, or an hour and a half’s session: send an abstract of no more than 150 words to the conference secretary, Steph Appleton, or contact any of the organisers:

Professor David Gaimster, The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow:

Dr Tara Hamling, Department of History, University of Birmingham:

Professor Maria Hayward, Department of History, University of Southampton:

Dr Mark Merry, Centre for Metropolitan History, Institute of Historical Research,

Dr Catherine Richardson, Department of English, University of Kent:

Dr Glenn Richardson, School of Theology, Philosophy and History, St Mary’s University College:

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‘Piecing it out’: material culture in bits

We’ve launched The Household Account Book of Sir Thomas Puckering at long last! This wonderful document, which lists all Sir Thomas’s purchases for 1620 while he was at his home at The Priory in Warwick and while he was lodging in The Strand in London, has taken Mark Merry  and I something close to a decade to edit. It’s finally come out with the Dugdale Society.

A couple of years ago we were three days from submitting it when we came upon a new body of evidence – receipts for food and bills submitted by Puckering’s suppliers which the antiquarian William Dugdale had used as scrap paper for his Antiquities of Warwickshire. It was a large early modern paper jigsaw – hundreds of scraps of evidence with indexes written around and on the back of them – but putting it together allowed us to see a fuller picture of the nitty gritty of Puckering’s household’s daily life. The bill above turns out to be from Robert Lewis, his chamberlain – a corresponding entry in the account book reads ‘Paid, as appears in a bill of Ro: Lewis his of this date, for 3 elns of greene taffata to make a head-piece to my greene taffata bedd with the nett vallance, at 14s 8d the eln…44s’. Lewis buys the raw materials and then makes up or mends a good deal of the furnishings at The Priory.

But thinking about our painstaking work of tessellating tiny scraps of paper and the evidence they contain, it doesn’t provide a bad metaphor for our interest in the account book itself. Once we’d become familiar with it, we started to ‘see’ Puckering’s household in the amalgam of his various entries. It was a process of material assembly – watching furniture being planned and then put together from wood, a wide variety of nails, padding and then, finally, the valuable outer fabric that was its public face. And reading through the year, we watched the house change with the seasons: 1s 5d for ‘holly, yew and rosemary used in dressing up my house against Christmas’, or 7s ‘unto Dunckley the joiner for a wainscot frame (to be painted) to hide my turret chimney in summer’.

The launch party was late in the evening, after hours in Warwick County Record Office – document tables pushed back to the walls to make space. The WCRO is built on the site of Puckering’s Priory. A very small amount of the original house is still there, around the edges of the car park, but its impressive central ranges were shipped to the States in the 1920s, where they were reassembled in a different order to become Virginia House. So if we want to know about Puckering’s Priory, as with so much early modern material culture, we have to reconstruct it one small detail at a time, building it up – translating the textual into the material – piecing it out in the mind’s eye…

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Needlework and Realism: seventeenth-century water

Still reeling from the excitement of the second workshop of our network! We were aiming to examine the relationships between different types of textile object, and to think about how to analyse them as a group, rather than as individual items or types of item. So we spent the morning looking at a variety of Ashmolean textiles – the frog-shaped purse, many embroidered panels, a tapestry bed valance and a wonderful embroidered casket. We heard that many of these objects were not professionally made, despite their incredible intricacy, but were the work of skilled elite women in the seventeenth century, stitching at home and contributing to their domestic environment through their work.

We moved round these things slowly – ‘long looking’ – taking time to let our eyes wander around each object, gradually taking in the different elements, the different stitches, the textures and the colours. We learned something here about how long you could spend looking at these objects, and the pleasures there are in discovery over a period of time. Some elements of the design were raised – petals and leaves, collars and cuffs that might have trembled in the breeze, and padded flowers and fish. As we started to get our eye in we began to notice that certain elements cropped up again and again, presumably the type of things that the makers of these objects saw as challenges to their skills. The one that particularly fascinated me was water – everywhere you looked there were fountains and pools in fantastical elite gardens, there were lakes in the Garden of Eden and there was even the well in the story of Jacob’s bride. And in each case, a different way of trying to render the ephemeral shapes and patterns of the surface of the water.

In the afternoon we discussed what digital recreations of these objects might offer to our understanding of them. And Graeme Earl asked questions about the nature of the realism that was being aimed at here. Were these women trying to reproduce water that looked like water, or to stitch something whose striking colours and textures drew the eye into, rather than beyond itself? The precocious materiality of their work seemed to me to be the point – a celebration of pushing the boundaries of two dimensions, of making things real in their physical presence for the viewer, of intruding into the space of the room. These complex, detailed, self-conscious pieces draw the eye and the mind – working out how they function in the spaces for which they were designed is our next challenge…

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