From Regal to the Everyday: Hidden Drawers to Common Grounds

Drawn to that which is unseen and overlooked, my curiosity was piqued by the Blackborne Lace ‘B collection’, a secondary group of items which unlike the main collection of exceptional quality and quantity, is made up principally of  lace of ordinary people. The Blackborne Lace Collection was gifted to The Bowes Museum in 2006 by descendants of A Blackborne & Co, master lace dealers in 19th century London. Its ‘B Collection’ seemed to counterbalance the garments of the Royal Collection with which I’d previously worked at Kensington Palace on the project, Hidden Drawers. From the regal to the everyday, from the top to bottom of society, it seemed a nice challenge! And with the B collection here there really was a challenge, how could drawing bring these lowly objects to light?

Lace bonnet from the B collection
Lace bonnet from the B collection

The first time Annabel, former Assistant Curator of Fashion & Textiles, opened the trunk, in it, layers of tissue, with ghostly shadows of artefacts pressed between the translucent sheets peers through.  I was struck by the connotations of archaeology, the stratigraphy of layers, gently uncovered bit by bit.

Drawing the lace
Drawing the lace

What at first seemed like a mass of similar objects, on closer inspection revealed their individuality. Given that these caps had never been catalogued individually, that’s what I set out to do in drawing, record their distinctive shapes and qualities. Like portraits of lost people, a shadow or trace of an absent person. In fact illuminated by light we might be reminded of brain scans.

Sarah Casey
Sarah Casey

The choice to display the work free unframed in space seemed particularly apt for this project because of a tension between the flatness of the stored garment and the 3dimensional quality of a worn garment.  One of the first things that Annabel told me about lace and its display is that it is so often pressed flat and pinned, like a specimen or insect. These associations further ‘kill’ the life of the caps – I wanted them to come to life! So here in these pressed sheets, the glowing images of the bonnets take on a three dimensionality again. Unframed and hanging there they also confront the viewer with a sense of vulnerability, a lightweight delicacy of the lace itself and the gentle light touch required to lift them out of storage to be viewed.

Glowing images of the bonnets
Glowing images of the bonnets

To find out more about my exhibition and drawings, please join me in the Jubilee Room on Monday 1st June at 2.15 for a free gallery talk.

By Sarah Casey, Artist

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