"Visitors have been busy suggesting names that could be embroidered (sampler style) onto the portraits I’m planning to make at Dale House. I was excited to find many names for me to collect and then was intrigued to find a comment posted among the nominations. The slip of paper with its simple two sentences spoke powerfully of a respect and passion for the portrayal of early Quakers in Coalbrookdale.
|A comment left by a visitor to Dale House|
I hope I’m right in taking it as a piece of guidance – please do not trivialise – rather than a criticism – you have trivialised - as hearing visitor fears for the project is a rare and useful thing. I also hope it will become apparent to this visitor and many others that I plan to do precisely the opposite of trivialising. By highlighting the lack of physical portraits I aim to show the inescapable importance of portraiture and, therefore, the strength of the early Coalbrookdale Quakers’ decisions not to be remembered in this way.
In modern language we might say we’re obsessed with appearance but back in 1854 the philosopher Thomas Carlyle was already arguing the search for a portrait in historical research had long been a “primary want”, adding that historians will: “search eagerly for a portrait, for all the reasonable portraits there are, and never rest till he has made out, if possible, what a man’s natural face was like. Often I have found a portrait superior in real instruction to half-a-dozen written biographies…”
By coincidence, just before discovering the visitor comment I found an excerpt from this Carlyle letter in a book of Quaker silhouettes, collected by the Ironbridge Gorge Museums Costume Project as a guide to Quaker clothing. Seeing August Edouart’s silhouettes for the first time I was astonished by their ability to capture personality and movement. The details omitted in the hand-cut method are more than compensated for in his style of grouping families, creating narratives and capturing figures in a point of motion (which light-needy photography at the time could not achieve).
I realise this needs to be a more significant visual reference for me than the oil paintings and early photographs that would be my usual calling place for material. Categorised by the book’s authors as a ‘folk art’ silhouette creation also sits better with the uneasy relationship with (self) representation explored by Quakers. As Anna Cox Brinton wrote: “Friends belonging to the first generation of Quakerism consistently refused to have their portraits drawn or painted. They preferred to be remembered by their deeds, preserved in their journals, in the meeting records or prefixed to early Quaker publications...". Despite all the evidence, context and writings about faith, such is the importance of portraiture that a legend in Coalbrookdale persists that from a certain angle a profile of Abraham Darby III can be seen in the ironwork beneath the iron bridge he created. I love what this reveals about our relationship to the bridge and the characters in its history, but I’m also wary of the unintended disrespect it implies. Although I am certain the myth that he cast a secret portrait of himself is untrue it feels harsh to denounce its believers, who see this modest-living man created a publicity statement of global impact. It was useful, egalitarian and fundraising, but undeniably also a big business promotion and in the Darby’s operations this allows for a minor contradiction as they united business and family, though trying to promote one and remain modest with the other.
In the museum collection at Rosehill House we see a number of portraits that could also confuse visitors being told early Quakers eschewed portraiture, but modesty remains apparent with silhouettes and miniatures evidently created as personal keepsakes rather than as public exhibits communicating status or wealth. The striking exception in the collection is the grand coat of arms (in tapestry and on dinnerware) favoured by Francis Darby (1783-1850), son of the iron bridge creator. This exception – as all exceptions – is exciting of course as it shows the importance and scope of the unexceptional, the very many generations who, as my anonymous visitor put it “chose to be ‘unknown’ physically”. I hope through the residency much more of the unknown can be highlighted, to show the important gaps, the reasons for them and how these fuel myths and characterisations."
Faye Claridge: Industry and the Artist residency, Ironbridge Gorge Museums, June-December 2015
Shifting Worlds: contemporary art and the Birthplace of Industry is a contemporary art programme produced in a partnership between Meadow Arts and the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, funded by Arts Council England.
All exhibited work and events take place at Coalbrookdale, the site of three of the ten exciting and varied museums that make up the Ironbridge Gorge Museums. The museums give a fascinating insight into the people, processes and landscape of the Industrial Revolution and its impact on the present day.