Tricoteurs Occupy Bowes Museum
by Bill Hartley
Barnard Castle has an earlier claim to fame. It’s the home of the Bowes Museum, incongruously perched on a valley side in what looks like a huge French chateau. In the nineteenth century, local landowner John Bowes and his wife used their great wealth to amass a large collection of paintings, furniture and fine art. A significant amount of the Bowes wealth came from Durham coal mining royalties.
Exhibitions and events can be the lifeblood of a museum and the Bowes currently has two. It might be expected that this venerable institution would stage exhibitions which dovetail with its role as the repository of so many artistic treasures. These days though the Bowes is prepared to take in some peculiar lodgers. Perhaps in a building groaning with artistic treasures, many originally designed to fit the grandest rooms, there is a need to dispel any notion of elitism and ensure a connection with modern society. Imagine then entering one of the museum’s galleries, the walls adorned with 18th and 19th century pictures, many hung in massive gilt frames. In the midst of this, a collection of female mannequins have been placed, each wearing a denim jacket onto which have been sewn numerous identical patches. An awful realisation strikes the visitor. He must forget the quiet contemplation of artworks painted in an age when draughtsmanship was prized. Now he is confronted by an attempt to be relevant.
“Blimey!” describes itself as a women led art collective. They have been given floor space for their response to the Bowes’ 2019 exhibition ‘The Power and the Virtue’, which used Guido Reni’s painting ‘Death of Lucretia’ as its centrepiece. The aim of the “blimey!” Lucretia exhibition is to ‘spark conversation about the representation of women in our contemporary world’. This statement seems to have been sufficient for the Bowes and the Arts Council to nod it through. Actually “blimey!” may be lagging behind the museum itself in the relevance department. Highlighting a painting of a woman about to stab herself seems to have made the museum feel a little uncomfortable and the 2019 exhibition allowed in a body called ‘Us Too’ in order to make a statement about violence against women. How a painting depicting a Roman matron expunging her dishonour was meant to provide a link was never explained. This is a common shortcoming of such events; they always seem to assume that the general public can quickly attune to the ‘correct’ way of thinking and it tends to be even worse when a committee, sorry collective, is responsible. Anyway, the current exhibition takes the same painting for inspiration. Judging by the bewildered expressions of some visitors the link isn’t obvious, even after reading the notes which accompany the exhibition.
According to the notes, this is an immersive installation (you get to walk round it). It seems that ‘cloth particles symbolise a sense of community and utilise a counter culture embellishment that signifies identity personality and solidarity’. So that’s clear then. String together a few adjectives and hope the public will understand. To create this immersive artwork “blimey!” invited various women to sew patches (500 in total) onto denim jackets. Each patch being a depiction of the Lucretia painting; an exercise which ruined some perfectly good denim jackets. There is a film to be found on Youtube depicting the creation of this artwork. Were it not for the presence of the occasional woman in dungarees it might be a rather dated event organised by the Women’s Institute. Watching the film is a good way of passing time whilst waiting for paint to dry. The whole thing was done with absolute solemnity, which in a way is quite funny. In pursuit of this frankly baffling scheme whose aim seems to have been clear only to the artists, a group of women have been persuaded to sit round and sew on patches. On occasion, various middle aged males can be glimpsed hovering reverentially in the background.
These arts groups always seem to have links with kindred spirits and “blimey!” is no exception. The Contemporary Dance Project by Eliot Smith has also been involved and the result can be found in all its pointlessness once again, on Youtube. This is even funnier than the ladies who sew. In the film, a solitary male dancer cavorts around the mannequins. It’s the sort of thing which the Legz Akimbo theatre troupe brought to a wider audience in the TV comedy League of Gentlemen.
Next door another exhibition is taking place. Norman Cornish (1919-2014) was one of the ‘Pitmen Painters’, a group of miners from County Durham who made painting their pastime. They would have been the descendants of the men who helped provide the money for Bowes to build his chateau and fill it with art. Cornish left school at 14 and went to work underground. He was employed at the Dean and Chapter Colliery, known locally as the Butcher’s Shop, since for a time annual fatalities averaged six per year. One of the most striking pictures in the exhibition depicts the teenage Cornish driving a train of coal tubs underground, hauled by a pony. So close is he to the roof that Cornish had to squeeze head bowed, between the wagons. It is hard to imagine a more vivid image of this claustrophobic world.
Cornish also depicted life in his small town and didn’t neglect female subjects. The women in his pictures are shown undertaking domestic chores, caring for children, or taking their ease after a hard day’s work in homes with few labour saving devices. Some show a weariness with their lives, others a quiet dignity. These are women who sent their husbands and sons off each day to the colliery, whilst they maintained a home and hoped for their safe return. It’s a now a vanished world which once lay just over the hill from the Bowes Museum. If the women of the “blimey!” collective had troubled to step next door they might have been inspired to create something more understandable and relevant. The only patches that Cornish’s women sewed were on clothes that needed mending.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service