Favourite quotes: from the artist Hans Heysen

I started this little Favourite Quotes series some time ago, with a specific purpose in mind, but it fell by the way-side in the busy-ness of life. However, I regularly come across statements that I’d love to document somewhere useful so that I don’t lose them – and so I am resurrecting this series with a broader ambit.

This new plan was inspired by my visit to the Hans and Nora Heysen: Two Generations of Australian Art Exhibition this week, at NGV Australia, Federation Square, in Melbourne. Their art is very accessible and a joy to see, but also offers much to think about. Hans Heysen (1877-1968) focused largely on landscapes. He particularly loved gums – woo hoo – and has been described, in fact, as an early conservationist. His daughter, Nora (1911-2003), focused more on still lifes and portraits. She was also Australia’s first woman war artist. Lisa (ANZLitLovers) posted recently on Nora. Both were significant Australian artists. Hans won our prestigious landscape prize, the Wynne Prize, nine times, and Nora won our top portrait prize, the Archibald.

However, my goal here is not to review the exhibition, but to share two statements made by Hans Heysen which I think can apply to all art – not just the visual arts.

Quote 1

… while as an artist I love Australia, art has no country, but is in essence cosmopolitan.

Droving into the light (Hans Heysen, 1914-21)

Much of Hans Heysen’s work seems quintessentially Australian in content but his technique – obvious when you look at his work – is strongly informed by 19th century artists and movements, by, for example, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Impressionists, the Romantics like Turner, and artists like Van Gogh. Anyhow, I like his argument that, in essence, art is bigger than “country”. The Exhibition argues that Heysen disavowed nationalism, which is not surprising given the tough time that he, as a German-born Australian, experienced during World War 1. The label for “Droving into the light” argues that “not so much nationalist as pantheist, Heysen’s landscapes do not refer merely to what it is to be Australian but rather to explore what it is to belong to nature in a more holistic sense.” So, for example, Heysen biographer Klepac says that Heysen was “inspired by the light and the landscape of Hahndorf and the Adelaide Hills, which he transformed into an Arcadian vision that can still haunt us with its sense of timeless beauty”.

I like these interpretations of his work, and would argue that taking a broader perspective is the aim of many creators, regardless of how specific their settings are.

Quote 2

I am trying only to paint as truthfully as I can, and that which my eyes see and perhaps what I unconsciously feel. Truth to Nature after all is the goal, but Truth interpreted through temperament.

Hans Heysen wrote this to his artist friend Lionel Lindsay in 1919. I like his clarification that while his aim is “Truth”, it can only be a truth that he sees and feels. I may be drawing a long bow – and perhaps even mixing up different meanings of “truth” – but it reminded me that although “truths” can be universal, they are also individually interpreted. Why else, I suppose, would we keep looking at art, reading literature, listening to music, and so on? It would be pretty boring, if not meaningless, if everyone expressed these “truths” the same way. Just compare Heyson’s Australian landscapes with those of other artists and we can quickly see how differently the “truth” of the landscape can be conveyed – one seeing it as Arcadian (idyllic), for example, and another as Gothic (terrifying.)

Anyhow, the aim of these posts is to share some interesting ideas, rather than become too bogged down in explication. Hopefully, you can see why I wanted to “keep” these quotes?

The meeting of art and literature, at the Singapore Art Museum

SAM ExteriorMr Gums and I have had a busy few months, with, unusually for us, two overseas trips in less than four months. Both were family-inspired: Canada in April-May to visit our daughter, and then last week Koh Samui to help Mr Gums’ sister and husband celebrate their 40th anniversary. We decided to spend a few days en route to Samui in Singapore. What an interesting place it is. Although, technically, a new country which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, it has a much longer history, dating back to the second century. What we know as “modern” Singapore, though, began when the British, via Sir Stamford Raffles, established a trading post on the island in 1819. We didn’t see anywhere near enough but we tasted its variety –  including my topic for this post, the Singapore Art Museum (SAM).

SAM is housed in a gracious old 19th century missionary school building – the St Joseph’s Institution run by La Salle Brothers.  The building was constructed in stages, from 1855 to completion in the early twentieth century. It was acquired for the museum in 1992. SAM describes itself as having “one of the world’s largest public collections of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian artworks, with a growing component in international contemporary art”.

The current major exhibition, which will run for a year, is Medium at Large: Shapeshifting materials and methods on contemporary art. SAM explains that it

explores the idea of medium in contemporary art, probing some of the most fundamental and pressing questions of art – its making, and also our experience, encounter and understanding of it.

It’s the sort of exhibition I enjoy – modern, confronting and/or provocative, with useful interpretive signage. Of course, I enjoy the famous, classic galleries like the Louvre or Prado, just as I like to read classic novels, but I also enjoy seeing what contemporary artists are doing and thinking. I loved the concept behind this exhibition. In our increasingly fluid, interactive, interdisciplinary world, a focus on how art is made and how re relate to it, seems very relevant.

The exhibition comprises 32 artworks and apparently draws mainly from the museum’s permanent collection, but it also “includes loans and commissions from Singaporean, Southeast Asia, and Asian artists”. We are seeing more Asian artists here in Australia, but it’s exciting to visit Asian galleries where we can see art and artists less familiar to western gallery-goers. And so, we saw two portraits made using live bullets on sandpaper (by Filipino artist Alvin Zafra), and a sculpture made with human hair (Dutch-born Indonesian artist Mella Jaarsma’s Shaggy). We saw works that play with medium and form, such as an oil painting overlaid with a video projection (Indian artist Ranbir Kaleka’s He was a good man), a distressingly mesmerising video of a woman dancing on butter captured also in still photographs (Indonesian artist Melati Suryodarmo’s Exegie – Butter Dance), and another video in which a taut rope springs and snaps through architectural spaces (Singaporean Chen Sai Hua Kuan’s Space Drawing 5). Our minds were challenged by a video installation called The Cloud of Unknowing (by another Singaporean Ho Tzu Nyen) in which various residents in an apartment complex experience some sort of epiphany or understanding of something mystical. Some of the works, including this last one, have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale.

RenatoOraro's Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403)

Renato Orara’s Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403)

But, since this is primarily a litblog, I’ll finish with two works that incorporate books. The first one is, in fact, the first work that confronted us in the exhibition, Filipino Renato Orara’s* Bookwork: NIV Compact Thinline Bible (page 403). It comprises a lamb cutlet, finely drawn in ballpoint pen on a page of the Bible, a page from Job. Since Job is primarily about how humans can comprehend why an all-powerful God lets good people suffer, the piece raises all sorts of questions about “the lamb of God”, about sacrifice. The label suggests other tensions too, such as between word and image, between open/public (when the book is open) and hidden/private (when the book is closed), and, through imposing what is essentially a chop on the Bible, between the sacred and profane. I would add another tension – that between wonder at the delicacy of the execution of the image and feeling “gross” from seeing a lump of fatty meat on the Bible. A surprising work that stays with you.

Part of Titarubi's Shadow of surrender (2013)

Part of Titarubi’s Shadow of surrender (2013)

The other work, Titarubi’s Shadow of surrender, comprises multiple components in a large space. I could not quite fit it all into my photo but it contains large, open, blank books on benches, with chairs, and with big charcoal drawings of trees on the walls. It was commissioned for the Indonesian pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. It’s a complex work, with additional layers of meaning contained in the knowledge that the wood used in the furniture comes from colonial-era railroad tracks. The pieces are burnt, which apparently references the charcoal the artist’s mother cooked with, but which also links to the charcoal tree drawings. And, of course, trees provide the paper and wood used for books and furniture, suggesting a cycle of life theme too. The label refers to the fact that the books are empty implying a “tabula rasa” and the idea that it is time to re-write history or re-learn lessons, and thus develop anew leaving past colonial constructs.  An article about the Biennale on Titarubi’s website says that in this work he links “sakti” (‘divine energy”) “to both education and the environment, to knowledge and the natural world”. Another powerful and emotive piece, as you can see.

SAM was our last “sight” in Singapore and rounded off our visit very nicely!

* While researching where Orara was from, I discovered an article about artists using ballpoint pens. It starts with: “Accessible and affordable, the ballpoint pen has become the medium of choice for artists to make obsessive abstractions, extreme drawings, and playful riffs on venerated ink traditions”.

Canada’s Group of Seven

You’ve seen me write about Canberra’s Seven Writers, a group of seven women who got together to share their writing and support each other. All of them published well-received books – novels, short stories, poetry. Well, I was amused – I’m easily amused – to discover  the other day as we explored the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) that Canada has a Group of Seven.

However, Canada’s Group of Seven – as you’ve probably guessed – is not a writers’ group but one of artists. It comprised seven men who had been painting for many years before they formed this group. They first exhibited together in 1920 at the Art Gallery of Toronto, now the AGO. According to signage at the Gallery, they believed that to develop a sense of nationhood, Canada needed to find its voice in art – and they saw this voice as coming through nature and landscape. The group operated – is that the best word? – until 1933, but, the Gallery says, their work “continues to influence national identity”.

The seven artists are men I’ve never heard of: Franklin Carmichael (1890–1945), Lawren Harris (1885–1970), A. Y. Jackson (1882–1972), Frank Johnston (1888–1949), Arthur Lismer (1885–1969), J. E. H. MacDonald (1873–1932), and Frederick Varley (1881–1969). Apparently the Seven did become bigger when A. J. Casson (1898–1992) joined in 1926, Edwin Holgate (1892–1977) in 1930, and LeMoine FitzGerald (1890–1956) in 1932. Mr Gums and I were particularly attracted to the stylised, almost abstract landscapes by Harris, though, really, we didn’t have enough time to explore all the artists in depth.

The Gallery has an impressive collection of their work, due largely to its major benefactor, the collector, Ken Thomson. Because we had limited time, though I’d happily go back to the gallery, we focused the second half of our visit on this collection, and some of the rooms near it. (In the first part of our visit, we checked out the special exhibition which featured Henry Moore and Francis Bacon.) Ken Thomson’s philosophy on collecting art was quoted on the walls:

If your heart is beating, you know it was made for you.

The hanging of the Ken Thomson Collection was interesting – and different to that in many other parts of the Gallery – in that the paintings were hung without individual labels. Instead, in each room there was a large introductory label and a spiral bound book with thumbnails of the works and the needed identification. I had mixed feelings about the approach: it enabled the works to be shown, rather as they would in a home, unadulterated by any immediate mediation, and yet in a gallery I do want to know what I’m seeing. I suspect, though, we are all different in how we want to interact with art. I have seen this sort of approach before – that is, not identifying the picture with a label next to it – in some of the galleries and art exhibits we visited in Japan, but in those places there tended to be very few works on the walls, sometimes just one big work on each wall.

Tom Thomson landscapes at AGO

Note the hanging of Tom Thomson landscapes at AGO

Interpretive sign re Group of Seven, AGO

Interpretive sign re Group of Seven, AGO

As I’m still travelling, I don’t have time to write too much more, but I wanted to mention the room that was devoted to displaying works by both the Group of Seven and artists contemporaneous with them. The latter were hung on sections of walls painted in a darker grey colour to identify them more easily. These non-Group of Seven works, some of which were by women like Emily Carr, expressed a more diverse, less romantic, perhaps, view of Canada. They included figurative works, which contrasts significantly with the Group of Seven’s pretty much exclusive focus on landscape. One that I particularly liked was the naive style “In the Nun’s Garden” (c. 1933) (see below) which, from a distance, gave the impression of penguins. It’s easy to see how their association with nuns works!

Works by Lilias Torrance Newton (top) and Sarah Robertson

Works by Lilias Torrance Newton (top) and Sarah Robertson, contemporaneous with the Group of Seven

Emily Carr, in fact, is one of the few artists I’d come across before, in my visit to the Canada’s northwest in 1991, where we saw her art at the Royal British Columbia Museum. She was particularly known for painting indigenous Canadians and their culture, though moved into “forest scenes”. She met the Group of Seven, and was apparently encouraged and supported by their “leader”, Lawren Harris. She was also a writer, which, really, is the main reason I know her – through her autobiographical book Klee Wyck.

Another artist associated with the group was Tom Thomson (1877–1917). He died young, before the group’s official formation, but his landscape paintings of the west belong very much to the group’s ethos. The introductory signage described his landscapes as “boldly expressive and passionate”. According to Wikipedia, group member and recognised leader Lawren Harris wrote in his essay “The Story of the Group of Seven” that Thomson was “a part of the movement before we pinned a label on it”. The room dedicated to Thomson’s painting was rather poignant.

One of the great things about travel is getting a sense of how a nation views itself. I think Australians find visiting Canada particularly interesting because we have quite a lot of similarities as well as, of course, our differences. This art exhibition, with its discussion of landscape and nationhood gave me another insight into a country which, like ours, has immense space and dramatic, defining landscapes.

Vale Jeffrey Smart

There is a logic for writing a brief post on the death of an artist on my litblog …

For those of you who haven’t heard, the Australian artist Jeffrey Smart died today in Italy (20 June in the Northern Hemisphere), at the age of 91. He painted in a style described as Precisionism – and I wish I could include a couple of images here to show you, but of course they are still in copyright. A Google Images search on his name will, though, quickly introduce you to his work. His subject matter was urban – stark, often focusing on the industrial. Warehouses, roads, factories, high-rises – with nothing natural to soften them. There are often figures, but while they are to scale they tend to be overwhelmed by what’s around them. The figures are rarely personalised. The paintings are clean, geometric, stark and often bright in colour. They feel surreal.

I would call him spare (not minimalist which is something different). And regular readers here know I like spare. By spare in this context, I mean his art looks simple; your eyes can’t get lost – there’s nowhere for them to go. The shadows, any details, are up-front, in your face. And yet, there’s complexity – the meaning isn’t clear and we are forced to ponder what we think he is saying. I find his work beautiful but disturbing.

Given his style, I didn’t find it surprising that in an interview on ABC TV’s Talking Heads a few years ago, he said that he liked T.S. Eliot:

I was interested in poetry anyway. And the images were not about daffodils and roses in the spring, it was about vacant lots and suburban houses, slummy corridors – ordinary, ordinary things, made into great poetry. He was a brilliant man.

On tonight’s ABC TV report of his death, the newsreader quoted Smart as saying that he couldn’t use words so he articulated his ideas in art.

Smart was apparently a neighbour and good friend of Australian author David Malouf who also lived in Italy. Smart painted Malouf’s portrait but it’s not like any portrait of a writer I’ve ever seen – though it’s recognizably Malouf. You can see it on the ABC’s website.

These are a few reasons for writing about Smart on a litblog – but there’s another. And that’s the book of short stories, Expressway, which comprises “invitation stories by Australian writers from a painting by Jeffrey Smart hosted by Helen Daniel”. The painting is Cahill Expressway (1962) (image at NGV). The book was published by Penguin in 1989 and I read it with my reading group in 1990, too long ago now for me to write a review but not so long ago that I’ve forgotten it.

The book was the brainchild of Australian editor Helen Daniel. She chose the painting, and invited over 40 writers to write a short story in response. She ended up with 29 pieces from Australia’s established and emerging writers of the time. They include writers I’ve reviewed here such as Elizabeth Jolley, Kate Grenville, Barbara Hanrahan, David Malouf, Gerald Murnane, and Louis Nowra; those I’ve read before such as Glenda Adams, Peter Goldsworthy, Rodney Hall, and Janette Turner Hospital; and some I’ve still to read like David Foster, David Ireland and Finola Moorhead. It’s a gorgeous, special book that I have kept by my bedside for years.

I shall conclude with some lines from the wicked first story in the collection, “Art is dangerous. Not so?” by Morris Lurie. It’s about an art class:

‘So could we talk about, say, perhaps, what that certain something is, under the symbol, under the metaphor. Estrangement, someone said. Yes. Very good. Modern estrangement. Fine. So shall we, um, nudge that concept a little? Prod it? A poke? Zero in? Anyone? Too dangerous? Come on. Let’s be dangerous. Art is dangerous. Not so? Hmm.’

Here’s to dangerous art – and the artists who create it. Vale Jeffrey Smart!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Patrick White and those Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock

A change of pace for this week’s Monday Musings to give you a bit of a rest after my few rather lengthy posts of late. Enjoy!

I have already mentioned Patrick White a few times this month. One was my reference to his calling himself a “painter manque” in my review of his debut novel, Happy Valley. Another was mentioning his willingness to stand up for issues important to him, in last week’s Monday Musings on Australian women poets. Today’s post takes up both these points … You see …

In 1973 the Australian Government bought Jackson Pollock‘s painting Blue Poles. With a price exceeding $1 million, the painting’s purchase could not be approved by the then director of National Gallery of Australia, James Mollison, but had to be signed off by the Government. It just so happened that this Government was the new Labor Government which had won power the previous December after 23 years of conservative rule. Australia was ripe for change – and for philosophical and intellectual debate if not downright conflict between the conservatives and the progressives. And so, with announcement of the purchase, all hell broke loose, so to speak. Here is where our “painter manque”, Patrick White, enters the picture.

Campaigns were mounted to prevent the acquisition. One of these was a petition which Patrick White was invited to sign by a Canberra resident. Now Patrick White, as those who know him would expect, wasn’t having any of it. Here are some words from his letter, which you can view in full on the Leski Auction Site (where it was advertised for auction in 2012):

I am not signing the petition because I think you are wrong. You are the kind of person any creative Australian has been fighting against as long as I can remember, the aggressive philistine, often in disguise, who has held us back.

After a couple more paragraphs, he concludes

I regret to say, Mrs English, you are the (perhaps) well-meaning, but destructive, Australian busy-body, we must continue fighting against in the arts.

Don’t you love those parentheses around “perhaps”? How very White!

Patrick White Terrace

Patrick White Terrace, National Library of Australia

Josephy Furphy and the Australian scrub

Section of Panel 7 of the 10-panel Federation tapestryLast weekend I ran across Joseph Furphy, whom I’ve mentioned before in my blog, in the strangest of places – on a tapestry in the Melbourne Museum. It’s not strange of course to find Furphy, one of Australia’s pioneer novelists, in the museum, but I was surprised to find him quoted on a tapestry. Except, of course, it was no ordinary tapestry. It was the Federation Tapestry which was designed and made by the Victorian Tapestry Workshop to commemorate the 2001 centenary of Australia’s federation.

The tapestry comprises 10 panels, with Furphy appearing in the 7th one titled “The Heidelberg School“. Its focus is “the creative outpouring of national sentiment in the last two decades of the nineteenth century”. At the bottom of the panel, in the centre, is a quote from Furphy, writing as Tom Collins in his best-known novel, Such is life. The quote comes from his description of the Riverina area of remote Victoria-New South Wales.

It’s not in our cities or townships, it is not in our agricultural or mining areas, that the Australian attains full consciousness of his own nationality; it is in places like this, and as clearly here as at the centre of the continent. To me the monotonous variety of this interminable scrub has a charm of its own; so grave, subdued, self-centred; so alien to the genial appeal of more winsome landscape, or the assertive grandeur of mountain and gorge.

I like the fact that the tapestry designers chose a quote like this to incorporate into their panel because, although it feels almost cliched to say, I believe it captures the paradoxical nature of Australia and Australians that still, I think, informs much of our cultural landscape.

A couple of paragraphs on, Furphy writes that:

For though history is a thing that never repeats itself–since no two historical propositions are alike–one perennial truth holds good, namely, that every social hardship or injustice may be traced back to the linked sins of aggression and submission, remote or proximate in point of time.

There’s an irony here (not to mention an unconscious prescience, to our 21st century eyes) because Furphy, like most of his day, was not thinking of “aggression and submission” in relation to Australia’s indigenous populations – in fact he saw Australia as “a virgin continent” that had been waiting “in serene loneliness” for things to happen – but in terms of working people and their struggles. Both issues (and others to do with “aggression and submission”) are important today …

One day I will have to read (all of) Such is life.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Martin Boyd, Writer or Potter?

Martin Boyd Pottery

Martin Boyd Pottery

Last week my reading group discussed Martin Boyd’s A difficult young man, which I read and reviewed a couple of years ago. This weekend, Mr Gums and I went, with another couple, to the Grand Opening and River Music Fair at Australian Pottery at Bemboka. Why do I mention this? Because, in another one of those synchronicities, pottery by Martin Boyd was on display in Australian Pottery’s exhibition which, this season, features commercial pottery of, primarily, the 1950s-1970s.

I had to buy a piece of course – but I was a little intrigued because while I knew some of the Boyds were potters, I hadn’t realised that Martin Boyd was. There, however, his name was – clear as day – on the bottom of the pot. Well, I was right to be a little intrigued because Martin Boyd was not a potter … but his nephew Guy was! As Judith, of Australian Pottery, wrote in her blog:

… Merric’s younger brother Martin (1893-1972) was a writer not a potter, but his name lives on in the Sydney-based Martin Boyd Pottery set up by [Merric’s son] Guy with partners Norma and Leonard Flegg in 1946. Guy was training as a sculptor at the East Sydney Technical College (ESTC) after the war and needed an interim source of income. He returned to Melbourne in 1951 but the Fleggs continued to operate the Martin Boyd Pottery as a successful venture until overseas imports put it out of business in 1963 (Dorothy Johnston, The Peoples’ Potteries, pp. 87-91).

So there you have it … nephew Guy Boyd set up a pottery. But, of course, this begs the question: Why did he call it Martin Boyd Pottery? Well, it’s a complicated business. Guy Boyd’s full name was Guy Martin à Beckett Boyd (and, in fact, Martin’s was Martin à Beckett Boyd). According to Kathryn Chisholm in the June 2007 issue of the Friends’ Magazine of National Museum of Australia, “the name was chosen from Guy Boyd’s middle name ‘Martin’ as he preferred to keep his first name for his sculptural work”. However, Chisholm continues, his uncle Martin Boyd was “never happy having his name also associated with pottery, as he found it embarrassing”. David, co-owner of Australian Pottery at Bemboka, told us that the official line is that Martin, who was overseas at the time of the pottery’s establishment, was “bemused” but that in truth his feelings were somewhat stronger. (I think it’s time I read Brenda Niall’s biographies Martin Boyd and The Boyds: A Family Biography.)

Martin Boyd Pottery ramekin

Martin Boyd Pottery ramekin

Anyhow, back to the pot I bought. I chose a ramekin, partly because it reminded me of my 1960s childhood and partly because it is a lovely little piece. As Judith wrote in her blog, ramekins were

… a mainstay of the Guy Boyd and AMB Potteries. This form was simple to throw and decorate. The handle also lends aplomb, particularly when incorporated seamlessly into the form and decoration. We haven’t been able to resist setting up a ramekin collecting sideline …

And, there is something about a ramekin, isn’t there? Ramekin is a word (and object) I grew up with but, until now, I’d never thought about the derivation of the word. So, I looked it up and this is what I found:

French Ramequin from Low German ramken, diminutive of cream, circa 1706. middle Dutch rammeken (cheese dish) dialect variant of rom (cream), similar to old English ream and German rahm. Ancient French cookbooks refer to ramekins as being garnished fried bread.

From here the word came to describe a small heatproof bowl, sometimes with a handle, used for a single serving of a hot dish. They were usually sold in sets of 4 or 6. (Mr Gums and I received a couple of ramekin sets as wedding gifts in the late 1970s). I will not, however, be putting my new ramekin in the oven … but next time reading group comes to my place, they will be served nuts in a bowl signed by Martin Boyd. Or not, as the case may be! But why spoil a story for the sake of the truth …

Australian Pottery at Bemboka

Looking out from Australian Pottery at Bemboka

Thanks Judith and David for a lovely day … and for inspiring this somewhat different Monday Musings.

Jennifer Forest, Jane Austen’s sewing box

…and so the current Jane Austen juggernaut rolls on. The latest that has come to my attention is Canberra writer Jennifer Forest’s book Jane Austen’s sewing box. Must admit that I was a little sceptical when I first heard of it, but I saw it, bought it, and was pretty impressed. It’s a nicely produced book and represents a genuine attempt to look at the “crafts” of Jane Austen’s time – as well as being a “how to” book.

Jane Austen Sewing Box, by Jennifer Forest, Book cover

Cover from http://www.jennifer-forest.com/sewing-box.php, using Fair Dealing (I think)

The first thing to note, said the author when she attended my Jane Austen group’s monthly meeting last weekend, is that these are not all simply “crafts”. Many are, in fact, women’s work. Women made clothes, including men’s shirts and cravats, bags and purses, bonnets and so on. There was, in fact, a clear divide between “decorative” work and “useful” work and most women, including Jane Austen herself, did both. In fact, Penny Gay, writing in Cambridge University Press’s Jane Austen in context wrote:

Most houses had several sitting-rooms, in one of which the ladies of the household would gather after breakfast to ‘work’. By this is meant needlework, an accomplishment which was both useful and artistic, and which was considered a necessity for women of all social classes. Jane Austen herself was a fine needlewoman… If visitors called, it was often considered more genteel to continue with one’s ‘fancywork’ rather than ‘plain’ shirt-making or mending.

Forest also talked a little about how Jane Austen uses knowledge and skill in this work as part of her characterisation. In Mansfield Park, for instance, the work of the Bertram sisters is deemed not good enough for display in the public rooms (“a faded footstool of Julia’s work, too ill-done for display in the drawing room”) of the house – a clear indication that these girls are not to be admired. On the contrary, Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey shows himself to be a solid young man and a loving brother by his knowledge of muslin. He could even be seen, many of us think, as the fore-runner of the SNAG (aka Sensitive New Age Guy)!

Forest introduced her talk with the quote that set her thinking about crafts in Jane Austen. It comes from the famous Netherfield scene in Pride and Prejudice in which Elizabeth Bennet, Mr Darcy, and Caroline and Charles Bingley discuss women’s accomplishments. The aways generous Charles Bingley believes all women are accomplished:

Yes, all of them I think. They all paint tables, cover screens and net purses.


Crewel embroidery (from Wikipedia using Creative Commons CC-BY-SA)

Forest went on to describe these three “accomplishments” and more, such as crewel work, tambour work, and knotting. She also brought along a “show and tell” of the objects she had made in the course of writing the book. There is nothing like seeing and touching a hand-made bonnet or a netted purse to understand just how these women spent so much of their time. I am so glad I was born in the time of labour-saving devices!

This might not be a book for everyone. It is not academic but is nicely researched; and it is gorgeously produced with lovely period illustrations. I do have a quibble though – one that is, to me, quite serious – and that is its index. Why have a Table of Contents listing for “Muff and Tippett” and then have an Index listing for the same. If you want to find out what a Tippett is, you will not find it under T. Try M instead. How silly is that? Overall, the index is idiosyncratic and needs to at least double its existing size to be truly useful. That said, even if, like me, you are unlikely to make the 18  items described, take a look. Its readable discussion of “the accomplishments” of the period nicely illuminates the context of the novels – and this can only enhance our enjoyment of them.

Jennifer Forest
Jane Austen’s sewing box: Craft projects and stories from Jane Austen’s novels
Miller’s Point: Murdoch Books, 2009
ISBN: 9781741963748

Stitching up the NGA

What a thrill! Today, as the result of blogger Ms Textual’s posts about her knitting for the National Gallery of Australia’s Knitta Project, I decided to pop over and check it out. I only planned to go for ten minutes or so, and who should I spy but Ms Textual herself. After a moment of shyness I decided to make myself known and we had a delightful chat while she waited for her transport to arrive. She is as friendly as she comes across on her blog and I am chuffed to have met in the flesh yet another cyber connection. Woo hoo!

Anyhow, here are some photos…I’m sure she’ll post some more interesting ones soon.

Wrapped planters at the lower entrance to the NGA

Wrapped planters at the lower entrance to the NGA

Wrapped poles outside the main entrance, taken from below

Wrapped poles outside the main entrance, taken from below

Ms Textual's gorgeous textured ochre and sky blue piece wrapped around a pole

Ms Textual's gorgeous textured ochre and sky blue piece wrapped around a pole

Another section of wrapped pole

Another section of wrapped pole

You get the picture? Good on the NGA for encouraging a sense of fun – and good on the knitters for rising to the challenge. I do love a touch of irreverence with my art every now and then – and this was just the right touch for a greyer than usual Canberra winter’s day. (Oh, and thanks to Lisa at ANZLitLovers for introducing me to Ms Textual through her blogroll.)