31st January – 19th April 2015
Cotton to Gold has been organised by Two Temple Place in partnership with Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Haworth Art Gallery in Accrington and Towneley Hall in Burnley. Displaying objects from the collections of these Lancashire museums, it is a diverse, and at times overwhelming, display of objects bought with the riches of Victorian and Edwardian industrialists.
Objects in the exhibition include illuminated manuscripts, altar triptychs, Japanese prints, Roman coins, taxidermy birds, Millais sketches and Tiffany glass work. The objects are organised alongside others like them. Ivory carvings alongside ivory carvings. A third folio edition of Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, alongside William Blake’s A Grove Poem. William Morris alongside Edward Burne-Jones. Therefore, not only are London visitors transported to the northern heights of Lancashire, by they also travel through various time periods and other geographical regions. There is the sense that when you walk into a room, you could see anything and everything.
Despite the thematic organisation of object by type, everything on display is also closely associated with the individuals who bought them. In each room there are text panels that tell the story of the individual industrialists, how they made their money and what they spent it on. Accompanied by photographs of many of these individuals, these texts develop the exhibition’s overarching narrative of male cotton entrepreneurs who used their industrial riches to purchase important cultural objects and embark on philanthropic projects.
This narrative inevitably leaves itself open for critique. Displayed in beautiful wooden panelled rooms (Two Temple Place built by William Waldorf Astor as his London residence in 1892), the objects are faultless, gleaming and eye catching. Individually they provoke wonder and collectively they create beautiful patterns and displays. But their aesthetic value glosses over the less aesthetically pleasing issues of labour rights, child protection and gender division that historians have spent so long regaining from the historical archive and demonstrating to be fundamental to the development of the Lancashire cotton mills during the Industrial Revolution.
It is therefore clear that these objects tell more stories that this exhibition allows.
Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious that in the tearoom. Here, small patches of material have been framed and added to the walls. Potentially unnoticed by many visitors, these fragments have been added to the exhibition from a fourth Lancashire collection: the Gawthorpe Textile Collection. Housed in Gawthorpe Hall, the collection of lace, embroidery and textiles from across Europe was amassed by Miss Rachel B Kay-Shuttleworth during the first half of the twentieth century. Collected for specifically educational purposes, Rachel envisaged her collection becoming a Craft House and intended it to inspire generations of women from Padiham. While many of the other objects collected by male industrialists in the exhibition did have implicitly educational purposes, Rachel’s textiles complicate the exhibition’s gendered bias, they introduce crafts into an otherwise ‘high’ art and design exhibition and confuse the class narrative implicitly weaved through the display.
Watched over by an imposing stuffed bird of pray, William Morris’s Kelmscott Press edition of The Well at the World’s End (1897) sits in a glass case in a corner of the exhibition. Set in a fictional medieval world, the book tells the story of Ralph of Upmeads, his mysterious lover, another maiden named Ursual and the Sage of Sweveham and the trials and tribulations they face on their journey to the well at the end of the world. Ultimately the story focuses on the good deeds these characters unwittingly performed for the poor and oppressed on their journey to the well. Beautifully printed and illustrated, both the content and the materiality of the book speak to Morris’s emphasis on craft, making and ennobling the worker.
In general, William would have disappointed with this exhibition. The worker has been written out of its narrative. But this is perhaps, what makes this exhibition interesting. Not only have the workers that made industrialists rich been glossed over, but the exhibition also focuses on the collectors of these items rather than their makers. While each object is treated as an object in its own right, the reason for its selection and display is always who collected it.
This is the story of collectors, not makers.
© Ruth Mason, 2015