Six bonus extracts from the ‘Art and Stuff‘ podcast

Updated 9 April 2021

In each episode of Art Fund’s new podcast, actor Ben Miller discovers the hidden and personal stories behind one object from a UK museum collection, acquired with Art Fund support. Here, six guests explain what these objects mean to them.

Unknown artist, The Spanish Armada off the Coast of England (detail), c1600-05 © National Museums NI, Collection Ulster Museum

Artist Kate MccGwire on Album of 175 Watercolours of Birds by Sarah Stone

Sarah Stone, Plate 68, Shining thrush (detail), from Album of 175 Watercolours of Birds, 1788, Courtesy the Library and Archives, Natural History Museum, London

Natural History Museum, London

I’m a sculptor, and I work primarily with the feathers of native British birds. My work isn’t fluffy like a dreamcatcher; it is muscular and curvy and often monumental in style – imagine a slithering ball of snakes or androgynous bodies, entwined, maybe hugging, gripping or grasping each other.

I cover these forms with layers of intricately placed feathers. I see it as a three-dimensional representation of a state of mind, and I want to establish a sense of slight unease in the viewer. It’s important for me that people believe that this thing they’re seeing is real, so I examine the layering of feathers on a bird very carefully, and, having done lots of anatomical drawings, I place the feathers as if they were on the bird.

If we look at links between my work and Sarah Stone’s album of watercolours, I think there’s a certain keenness of observation that we both adopt. I know if I put a feather on to one of my sculptures and it’s slightly at the wrong angle, that is the thing you’ll see. I think with her work you would also see something jarring if it was not in place.

Remarkably, she never travelled; instead, she was drawing and painting specimens that had been brought from Australasia. Often, she didn’t really know what the birds looked like, because she only got the skins – and the taxidermist wouldn’t have seen the birds, either. What’s more, the colours of the beaks, claws and legs would often diminish during the journey, so birds that might have had bright-red legs have brown legs in her paintings; but the colour of the feathers would have remained intact, and this she was able to depict perfectly.

“Stone showed the birds mid-display, so she would have had to use her imagination” Kate MccGwire

Interestingly, she was showing the birds at the moment of display, so she would have had to do a certain amount of imagining. She would have seen what the feathers could do, but I think there’s still some artistic licence involved. There’s so much detail in her feathers – like the shining thrush, for example, in its moment of glory – it’s astounding.

I wonder what she’d make of my sculptures. I suppose the contrast between our work is that she was being paid to do a recording job, which she obviously loved and did with great skill; I’m in a different position, and I make work that taps into those things we already know, but subverts them in some way to make us feel something else, something uncomfortable. Hopefully, she would admire the attention to detail, the accuracy of where the feathers are laid, and she would take great joy in that.

I certainly admire her. It would have been very difficult to make a living as a female artist at the time. For her to have had her work as an illustrator elevated to the status of art at the Royal Academy was quite a thing. Some of the birds she depicted will be extinct now, but the colours and detail she captured survive beautifully.

Album of 175 Watercolours of Birds by Sarah Stone was acquired with Art Fund support in 1996.

Listen to the Sarah Stone's watercolour birds episode.

Curator Anne Stewart on The Spanish Armada off the Coast of England

Ulster Museum, Belfast

After the defeat of the Armada, in 1588, the wind changed and blew the Spanish fleet north, around the Scottish coast, then down towards Ireland, where many of the ships met their end in treacherous waters. One, the Girona, was wrecked off the coast of County Antrim. At the time, this change of winds was said to be proof God had been on England’s side.

In the 1960s, archaeologists found the Girona, and its cannons, jewellery, plates – all the objects that told the story of life on board – were brought to the Ulster Museum. Every child growing up in Northern Ireland knows about the Girona. We almost come to know Tudor history through the loss of the Armada.

Unknown artist, The Spanish Armada off the Coast of England, c1600-05 © National Museums NI, Collection Ulster Museum

But we know very little about this miniature, and that makes it all the more tantalising. It was likely made by a Netherlandish or Dutch artist – who signed it with the monogram VHE – for an English patron with Dutch sympathies or connections. In terms of stylistic dating, we put it at about 1600 to 1605, a period straddling the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I.

I believe it was made at the end of Elizabeth’s reign, around 1602, the year before her death. That summer, she went on a grand tour, ending at Oatlands Palace, where she received a great number of ambassadors. It was a period of celebration at court, and an obvious time for this sort of presentation miniature to have been made.

The repulsion of the Armada is one of the great moments in English history and it is, in a sense, the defining event of Elizabeth’s reign. However, it came at a time of great uncertainty for the queen. Just a year before, Elizabeth, after much agonising, had authorised the execution of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. Seen in Catholic Europe as the legitimate heir to the English crown, Mary had been the great threat to Elizabeth. The victory of the English fleet not only established Britain’s pre-eminence as a maritime power but solidified Elizabeth’s position as monarch.

“This remarkable miniature has a cinematic quality that is so modern for its time” Anne Stewart

What’s so exciting about this miniature is that it was made so soon after the events it depicts, when the mythology that grew out of them was still being formed. It is also in remarkable – almost pristine – condition. Painted in gouache and watercolour on vellum (a skin that absorbs and holds colour), and highlighted with gold, it’s like an illuminated manuscript.

It has an almost cinematic quality that is very modern for the time. There’s a real sense the artist wants to involve you in the action, and does so using tremendous detail. You can see the construction of the ships, the rigging, the fireships being sent into the midst of the Spanish fleet, and sailors reacting with fear and horror as they approach.

In many ways, it’s a piece of propaganda. The artist can’t help but paint the English ships larger, the flags of St George unfurling with bravura, and the Spanish ships slightly crowded together, their rigging perhaps already becoming tangled. We also have Elizabeth riding out to witness the Armada, which, in reality, she never saw. What it now gives us is an almost eyewitness account of its pomp and glory, before its defeat and destruction.

The Spanish Armada off the Coast of England was acquired with Art Fund support in 2019.

Listen to the Spanish Armada off the Coast of England episode.

Dr Freya Gowrley, co-author of Cut and Paste: 400 Years of Collage, on World of Cats by Kenneth Halliwell

Kenneth Halliwell, World of Cats, 1966 © Islington Museum

Islington Museum, London

Collage can be quite a subversive art form. Firstly, it is physically disruptive: it subverts a whole object into many new parts, it disrupts textual narratives – by cutting and pasting – and it’s often seen as destructive, a process of breaking and tearing things apart. It has also long been used by actors on the margins of history as a means of expressing themselves and their difference from others.

Kenneth Halliwell’s screen, World of Cats, occupies an interesting place in the history of collage. On the one hand, it’s a product of its moment – the 1960s – during which there was a new enthusiasm for collage. This was partly because of its disruptive nature, which fitted well with the revolutionary social movements of the day – free love, for example – that challenged the established order; but Pop art was also becoming extremely popular, and one of its key aspects is an engagement with the everyday.

On the other hand, Halliwell was engaging with a long tradition of making scrap screens that emerged as a trend in the Victorian period. It was very much a response to the huge amount of stuff that was suddenly available during the 19th century, but also a drive towards personalisation and making your domestic space reflect your character, your interests and your personality.

“The effect of the screen is startling and amusing – and only possible with collage” Dr Freya Gowrley

In World of Cats, Halliwell places images of Egyptian art and artefacts alongside often quite ridiculous or saccharine images of cats. So, for example, you might have a cat dressed up as a Nazi, which is obviously ludicrous, alongside a serious artefactual photograph of an Egyptian sculpture. That juxtaposition is important – it allows the artist to be playful and to disrupt art-historical narratives, which typically see Egyptian art, with its revered archaeological tradition of finding and valuing such work, as foundational for art history. Halliwell is also satirising the scraps you would have found in the Victorian period – many of which featured cats. The effect is startling and amusing – and only possible with collage.

If we view the screen in relation to the Islington bedsit – wallpapered with collage from floor to ceiling – that Halliwell shared with playwright Joe Orton, we can see how together they tried to disrupt art-historical hierarchies. A portrait of Vincent van Gogh, famous images of Elizabeth I, sculptures by Bellini – their home was a testament to key works from the long-standing tradition of art history. It’s interesting, then, to think about how these works were disentangled from the art-history books that held them and placed in this domestic context. Instead of being a simple domestic space, it’s a domestic space that’s lived in by two gay men – itself a disruption of heteronormative narratives of man and wife constituting a family – and so it makes sense that this non-nuclear-family home should be decorated in this visually disruptive and disorienting manner.

World of Cats is one of the only surviving large-scale collage works by Halliwell. It is a microcosmic version of the space, now lost, he shared with Orton, and, through it, we can see how Halliwell’s work fits within 1960s collage culture, Pop art and queer history.

World of Cats by Kenneth Halliwell was acquired with Art Fund support in 2017.

Listen to the World of Cats episode.

Artist Tam Joseph on his painting Spirit of the Carnival

Wolverhampton Art Gallery

I was born in 1947, in Roseau, the capital of Dominica, a small island in the Caribbean. I was eight when I arrived in Highbury, London. I spent a lot of time in the local library on Holloway Road and hanging around old museums. I more or less taught myself art history. I’m interested in painters like Rembrandt and Rubens and Frans Hals. I still have to get my National Gallery shot, my Wallace Collection shot, my British Museum shot.

I remember going to Notting Hill Carnival with my parents. It didn’t attract the numbers it does today – perhaps 100 people, not millions. I remember one laden truck and lots of West Indians following it, my cousin Freddie playing the drums – stuff like that. Notting Hill was an area with lots of Dominicans, Trinidadians, people with a carnival tradition. They just wanted to do something that reminded them of their cultural background.

You went into the streets, you caroused, you met your friends, family – you had a good time. But this sort of gathering was unknown in England – the closest thing to it was dancing round the maypole. The carnival never seemed to fit right with certain sections of British society. They saw it as a reflection of people from the African diaspora, from former colonies, coming to England and inserting something into, or imposing their will on, the culture. I use the term ‘the empire strikes back’, and they didn’t like that idea.

Tam Joseph, Spirit of the Carnival, 1983 © Tam Joseph

At the centre of Spirit of the Carnival is a figure, with a mask and outstretched arms, looking as if he’s doing some sort of exotic African form of kung fu; he’s surrounded by police officers, who look absolutely stunned – mouths agape – behind their shields, and a police dog is coming at him and growling.

When I painted it, I wasn’t angry with the police. In fact, I feel sorry for the police, because they’re only able to do what they’re told. The police in this country are not a law unto themselves. There’s an attitude, and they are the arm of that attitude. I was reacting to elements of the government who were using the police to stop something that was basically good – therapeutic – for the people. What I was trying to show with the figure was that the carnival has always managed to survive these attacks.

“There was little time between the idea and the execution – that gives it its purity” Tam Joseph

Somehow, despite all the works I’ve made – and I still never stop working – I’m always being called upon to talk about Spirit of the Carnival. On top of that, I get people asking me the kind of questions that they should be putting to politicians. I’m an artist; this is what I do.

With this painting, there was very little time between idea and execution – that’s what gives it its purity. If people want to get bogged down in the sociopolitical stuff, they can do, if they really must. But what I want them to do is get into seeing – to feel the exhilaration you get from an instant act of creation. With Rubens’ The Rape of the Sabine Women, you don’t go into the political aspects of it, do you? You look at the painting.

Spirit of the Carnival by Tam Joseph was acquired with Art Fund support in 2016.

Listen to the Spirit of the Carnival episode.

Lucinda Hawksley, author and Dickens descendant, on Portrait of Charles Dickens by Margaret Gillies

Margaret Gillies, the ‘lost’ portrait of Charles Dickens, 1843 © Philip Mould & Co Gallery

Charles Dickens Museum, London

When this portrait of Charles Dickens went on display at the Royal Academy in London, in 1844, it caused great excitement. The Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it depicted ‘the dust and mud of humanity about him, notwithstanding those eagle eyes’.

For so long, it was known as ‘the lost portrait’; by the time it returned to England, in 2018, it had been almost 175 years since it had been seen in public. It’s the kind of discovery that, if you put it into a novel, people would tell you it was too far-fetched.

It was painted by a remarkable woman, the Scottish artist Margaret Gillies. Like Dickens, Gillies was really into the idea of social change, particularly changing the way in which working-class women and children were living. She went down into the mines and made illustrations of them working in horrendous conditions, to make people aware of just how awful they were.

Fascinatingly, she painted the portrait while Dickens was writing A Christmas Carol, which was his desperate plea to people to do something about child poverty. So, when you look at this portrait, you get an idea of these two people, passionate about social reform, talking about their hands-on campaigning work all the while this beautiful image is being created.

“If this portrait’s discovery were in a novel, people would say it was too far-fetched” Lucinda Hawksley

Dickens was young at the time, just 31 years old. He had a lot of creativity buzzing through him, but he also had a terrible fear about his finances. We now know that A Christmas Carol would become this amazing success and change his career forever, but his publishers had very little confidence in his strange idea of a novella about Christmas – he even had to self-publish part of it. He was overdrawn at the bank and worried about how he was going to pay for his young family, something he was intensely scared about given his own insecure childhood, when his father ended up in a debtors’ prison. This particular image of Dickens is so different from all the standard images of him, as an older, bearded man; he’s just on the cusp of huge fame, and he’s got that hungry intensity about him.

The portrait was also engraved and used as an illustration in a book called The New Spirit of the Age, which was about people like Dickens, and Margaret Gillies herself, who were really trying to make a difference in the world. When you think about the first part of that quotation from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, about the dust and mud of humanity, you see she understood that Dickens’ writing showed Victorian London as it was. And this is one of the reasons people say Dickens remains popular today: he didn’t just concentrate on one aspect of society; he looked at people from all social classes and he truly understood what it was like to be a poor child, living by himself and working in a factory, what it was like to be hungry, to be scared on the streets. He didn’t just write about poverty; he’d lived it.

I think seeing Gillies’ portrait will give people a totally new insight into an author they think they know already. There is something that is extremely intense about looking eye to eye with Dickens in this painting, something I haven’t experienced with any other portrait of him.

Portrait of Charles Dickens by Margaret Gillies was acquired with Art Fund support in 2019.

Listen to the lost portrait of Charles Dickens episode.

Artist Ragnar Kjartansson on the Wynnstay Organ by Robert Adam

National Museum Cardiff

I work with film, performance, installation and all kinds of stuff from the jelly-bean bag of the 21st century. Music is often a strong component. I use it in a sculptural, painterly way – taking the narrative out and turning it into something still. When I saw the Wynnstay Organ, something went ding! – here was this badass, awesome, full-on rococo organ screaming out for something to be done with it. It was like looking at an empty stage in an old theatre and feeling like, ‘Oh, this needs a performance.’

Ragnar Kjartansson, The Sky in a Room, 2018, featuring Robert Adam’s Wynnstay Organ, 1773-75 © Ragnar Kjartansson, Courtesy the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik. Photo by Hugh Glendenning

The organ sits in the middle of this big room, hung with blue wallpaper and mostly 18th-century British paintings. It’s so theatrical and sculptural in its space. The idea that I had for the installation [co-commissioned by Artes Mundi and Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales and acquired for the museum with Art Fund support] was that the room would be emptied of all its paintings, and the organ would be left alone, and there would be someone playing, again and again, the song Il Cielo in Una Stanza, by Gino Paoli. The title means The Sky in a Room [the title of Kjartansson’s 2018 work, pictured], and it’s a gorgeous Italian pop song from 1960. I first heard it when I was in Venice in 2008. My Italian friends told me it was the national love song of Italy.

It is the only song I have come across that is about the fundamental aspect of visual art, which is the transformation of space. It contains the lines: ‘When I’m here with you, I don’t see these walls, I see endless woods. And when I’m here with you, this purple ceiling is just the sky.’ It changes the room into infinite woods and sky. The sound of a little harmonica becomes the sound of an organ. Everything is amplified.

“The organ has this warm, old, almost small sound that fits the human voice” Ragnar Kjartansson

I was very happy when I first heard the song played on the Wynnstay Organ. It has this warm, old, almost small sound that fits really well with the human voice. What happened was, as the singer sang towards the organ, it bounced back the voice; there was an echo or amplification from the instrument. It really became a tool for this song. We also turned off the lights in the room so there would only be light from the skylight. It was pretty dark in there. When you’re in a museum, you’re used to everything being lit up, so going into this room was a weirdly moving experience.

People reacted to the installation in different ways. Some people sat down and some wandered through; something went on in the heads of some people and nothing in others’. That experience belongs to the audience, and, with this piece, as with my pieces in general, I don’t want to force what experience people should have. I think that is the freedom of visual arts. I come from the theatre, where the experience is really manipulated – how you should feel, where you should cry, where you should laugh – and the wonder of this form, of sculptural performance, is that it’s really left open to interpretation.

The Wynnstay Organ by Robert Adam was acquired with Art Fund support in 1995.

Listen to the Wynnstay Organ episode.

Podcast transcripts edited by Paul McQueen.

Listen to all the episodes of ‘Art and Stuff’. Please check that objects are currently on display before visiting.

A version of this article first appeared in the spring 2021 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

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