We speak to Herefordshire-based artist and New Art West Midlands Alumni Lorna Brown about Eye Am She, her current project at National Trust property Berrington Hall. A response to the histories of the house and to ideas of colonialism, celebrity and the male gaze, her installation draws upon the central figure of Ann Bangham, a former resident of the house in the 18th century.
How did the commission from Berrington Hall arise?
The commission actually arose as a result of my appearance in New Art West Midlands 2017. A member of management staff responsible for visitor attractions saw my work and contacted me to discuss the possibility of a commission. They wanted a piece of female focused artwork that would tie in with the centenary of Suffrage.
How did your research begin and how did you determine that Ann Bangham, wife of London mayor Thomas Harley, and eighteen century resident of Berrington Hall, would be your focus?
Preliminary research began with information provided to me by members of staff at the property. To build on this I spent some time at the local records office, took advice from a historian and then conducted my own research from books. When first commissioned the request had been for a piece of work that discussed the stories of women of Berrington in general (through the ages). However, it was later decided by the property themselves that they would like me to focus on Ann Bangham in particular. The reason for this was that they had purchased a Court Mantua once owned by Ann, and they wished to build on a planned top floor exhibition that would use this dress as the focal point.
Can you share more about how Ann’s life and your work is connected to the phenomenon of celebrity?
Ann was born into a fairly wealthy Herefordshire family, a family who had successfully climbed the social ladder. They were based in Herefordshire but also had a home in London. Ann’s marriage to Thomas was a favourable social match but one that thrust her into the spotlight, particularly because Ann’s new husband was Mayor of London. On marrying Thomas Harley, Ann would have been required to move to London full time whilst also heading their country households. It was only in her later years that Thomas had Berrington built and I imagined this as a time when she may have been reflecting more on her life after time in London under the watchful eye of the public.
Celebrity as we know it today really began to evolve in the 18th century. London, with its developing consumer society, was one of a number of cities central to this development. And as print and journalism grew and developed, newspapers and their obituaries became increasingly popular, encouraging an increased public interest in the lives of others. Ann would have been a socialite of her time, attending court and even hosting the royals. So I was drawn to the thought that this was all happening for Ann at a time when the phenomenon of modern celebrity was really beginning to evolve.
Your eye portraits reference Georgian painted eye miniatures – jewelled paintings worn as tokens of love and mourning. How have you selected the sitters whose eyes appear on your enlarged versions?
Yes, I wanted to remain aesthetically true to the period whilst also discussing the gaze. I photographed people in Herefordshire and London but wasn’t particularly selective with the sitters as I wanted simply to reference the experience of being under the watch of others. I spent many months with my camera just asking people I came across in the street, in bars, in restaurants as well as friends and family if I could take their picture. I’m always so fascinated by the border between the active and the passive, and the thought that I was using my camera to gaze upon subjects who would in fact become the onlookers in the piece was curious. The only way in which I was slightly selective was that I did make a concerted effort to photograph a sufficient number of people of Black Caribbean and/or Black American heritage, for reasons that I will come on to.
The idea was that this was a room in which Ann was looking back on her life and looking at herself through the eyes of others as much as she was looking through her own eyes. I think with our increased use of social media we can all relate to this feeling, but I feel that it’s a feeling that women have a heightened awareness of.
This idea of Ann as watched is underpinned by the male gaze theory. Whilst thinking about the way Ann would have been viewed by other women and by herself as much as by men, I was thinking about the male gaze and the way in which we as women turn it back on ourselves and each other. And in particular the way in which in the 18th century (more so than today) everything a woman did was shaped by the societal expectations dictated by men. In giving the sense of Ann as the watched, she is also watching herself, in this room of reflection.
Can you share more about the importance of the flowers you have used within the installation?
Berrington have recently done a lot of research into their walled garden and pleasure grounds with an aim to preserving the gardens for future generations. Pleasure gardens were very popular in Georgian England and Ann would have spent a lot of time outdoors enjoying all the new flowers that were arriving in Britain at this time.
I felt that I wanted to bring some of the outdoors inside and in doing so I drew inspiration from the introduction of floriography to Britain in the Georgian period. Although we already had a few medieval traditions associated with flowers, it was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who in 1717 brought the Turkish version of the ‘Secret Language of Flowers’ to England. Her letters on this subject led to a later fascination with flower symbology and later translations were based on this. I used flowers popular in the Georgian garden (and those considered exotic in Georgian times) for their symbolic meanings.
Hollyhocks, popular in the 18th century and symbolic of fertility and fruitfulness, grow in abundance from the four poster bed in the centre of the room. Just as in the original ‘Persian Selam’ described by Montagu, the hollyhock still represents fertility and fruitfulness with its abundance of seeds that it casts out prolifically. The flowers grow from the bed in reference to Ann’s 8 children, her fertility and many years of childbearing. The flowers that grow from each corner of the room are a mixture of hollyhocks, tulips, lilies, orchids and pink carnations. All of which also have associations with Motherhood and fertility:
Lily – Rebirth and motherhood
Pink carnation – A mother’s love
Tulip – Fertility and abundance
Orchid – Fertility
And about the wall of “aspirations and interests”?
Wth regards to the wall of aspirations, this was a nod to the imagined Ann. Yes, she was the wife of a man of high society, a woman with a public image to maintain. Ann the mother, Ann the socialite, and Ann the woman who lived in the Age of Enlightenment. She was watched and looked to, but was she more than a party throwing wife and mother with a collection of beautiful dresses?
I wanted to step away from this mother/wife image slightly to entertain the notion of Ann as a more complex and three-dimensional character. Who was the Ann behind the mask? What were her aspirations? What were her regrets? What were her feelings? We do not know and so, we can only imagine. And so an imagined Ann. Yes the Ann who mourned the loss of her children, the Ann who kept up appearances under the watchful eye of society and the public. But also possibly, the intellectual Ann who secretly read early pre-suffragette feminist literature and dreamed of a career in science or medicine.
I was thinking about how women of this period were often well read and interested in such subjects, but societal structure didn’t allow them such freedom in putting their aspirations into practice. Also I thought about how feminism didn’t begin in the 19th century but much earlier and Georgian women such as Mary Wollstonecraft were instrumental in influencing the suffragettes.
So on the wall of aspirations and interests are glimpses of this hypothetical Ann, a woman who wanted more from life. A woman who, given the opportunity and without the obligations and societal constrains of her life, would perhaps have liked to devote her life to medicine. A potentially intelligent and strong woman whose strength was employed for the provision of support to her husband.
The wall features references to notable women of this period; Mary Wollstonecraft (English writer and philosopher), Marie-Louise Lachapelle (French midwife), Dorothea Erxleben (the first female medical doctor in Germany) and Anna Morandi Manzolini (renowned anatomist).
Can you talk more about how your work connects to and disrupts the colonial past of the house and the Georgian period? What does this mean within the context of an organisation like the National Trust?
Thomas Harley fulfilled many roles during his lifetime and through his connections to Drummonds Bank he had a number of profitable contracts, among these were contracts for remitting money to the West Indies, contracts which at this time inevitably assisted the infrastructure of slavery. This is not to suggest that Thomas was in any way a villain, it is however an inescapable fact that slavery helped to build a world economy and the wealth enjoyed throughout the British Empire was largely afforded (either directly or indirectly) as a result of Britain’s colonial expansion and imperial and economic supremacy.
The sugar so enjoyed by the wealthy of Georgian England was dependent on slavery and although by the late 1700s opinion was beginning to turn, Britain didn’t pass the Abolition of Slavery Act until 1833. Hundreds of British families received compensatory payouts of thousands of pounds (worth millions today) for the loss of their slaves.
Slavery is inextricably woven into Britain’s historical past and whilst this has been readily acknowledged in the more obvious large port cities such as Liverpool, I feel it important and healthy that the discussion around the legacies of slavery and colonialism continue, particularly in spaces of this period owned by the National Trust. I feel it important not for the apportioning of guilt or blame, but for ensuring that it is acknowledged nationwide as very much integral to our history, and to the economic power and privilege that we still enjoy today.
It was for these reasons that as an artist of mixed European and Black Caribbean Heritage, I felt unable to create a piece of art that responds to the lives of the privileged society of this period without at least a subtle element of acknowledgement and reclamation.
In doing so I took an area amidst the eyes that hang from the ceiling and filled it entirely with the eyes of people of Caribbean and Black American ancestry. These eyes sit immediately in front of the wall of Ann’s aspirations, surveying all that I imagined Ann may have liked to have done if given the chance. In placing them there my intention was that they would survey the entirety of the opulence of the room, whilst immediately surveying the detachment of privileged society of this time from the source of the luxury enjoyed. Whilst it may not be particularly noticeable, this subtle subversion of the colonial gaze is nonetheless there.
What are your aspirations for the work and for your practice in the future?
I’ve just recently joined a local arts collective and taken on a new studio. I look forward to new opportunities for creating in an inspirational environment with future group exhibitions to come. Long term, I hope for many more opportunities to exhibit and engage in the conversations that develop from that. And to just continue fulfilling my desire to examine, delve and create.