Walthamstow, Women and William Morris: Claire Twomey’s “Living Installation” in East London

I was fortunate to visit the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow (east London) this weekend to view a beautiful art installation by British ceramicist Claire Twomey before this temporary exhibition closed to the general public on 18 September 2016.

Detail from the contemporary ceramic art installation "Claire Twomey: Time Present and Time Past" (2016), nspired by the work of William Morris. Photo: Carol Dixon
Detail from the contemporary ceramic art installation “Claire Twomey: Time Present and Time Past” (2016), inspired by the work of William Morris. Photo: Carol Dixon
Photographic portrait of the artist, graphic designer, philanthropist and social justice campaigner William Morris. The original was taken in the 19th century.
Photographic portrait of the artist, graphic designer, philanthropist and social justice campaigner William Morris –  taken in 1857

The one-room installation – Claire Twomey: Time Present and Time Past (William Morris Gallery, 18 June – 18 September 2016) – was initially inspired by William Morris’s working drawing Chrysanthemum (1877) and took the form of a series of 150 ceramic tiles, each measuring 30 x 30 cm, placed on a large table covering the entire ground floor temporary exhibition gallery next to the museum’s café/restaurant

The enlargement and transformation of Morris’s 19th century floral design into a vast 21st century ceramic installation by Claire Twomey was a visual reflection of a poignant statement about temporality and the importance of tangible, inter-generational acts of cultural remembrance that William Morris wrote more than 120 years ago:

Design for Chrysanthemum (1877) by William Morris. This unfinished design is on display in Gallery 2 at the WMG (Walthamstow) and inspired Claire Twomey's 2016 installation. Photo: Carol Dixon
Design for Chrysanthemum (1877) by William Morris. This unfinished design is on display in Gallery 2 at the William Morris Gallery (Walthamstow) and inspired Claire Twomey’s 2016 installation. Photo: Carol Dixon

“The past is not dead, but is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make.”
William Morris (1893) – quotation taken from the preface to “Medieval Love,” by Bartholomew Anglicus

Rather than painting all the individual tiles independently, the ingenuity of Claire Twomey’s artistic intervention was to make the new installation an entirely collaborative process – from the commissioning of digital technicians and expert tile makers from Stoke-on-Trent in the Potteries to assist with the initial digital transfer techniques onto blank white tiles, right through to extending an open invitation to local artists to volunteer as “apprentices” to help paint each individual tile periodically throughout the duration of the exhibition (over c.100 days) using a combination of regular enamel paints with muted colour tones of sage green, ochre, rusts and greys, and also over-layering thin coats of 22-carat gold enamel paint to create a subtly intricate floral mosaic with a spectacular, shimmering surface lustre.

Two women artists volunteering as "apprentices" to support the completion of Twomey's installation (NB: volunteers' names were not disclosed). Photo: Carol Dixon
Local women volunteering as “apprentices” to help complete Twomey’s ceramic installation (NB: volunteers’ names were not disclosed). Photo: Carol Dixon

By the time I visited the exhibition during its closing weekend, this wonderful “living installation” was almost complete. Nevertheless, I still had the privilege of seeing two women artists from the Walthamstow area of east London at work together in the gallery for the duration of my review as they carefully applied gold enamel onto the surface of Twomey’s meticulously well-crafted tiles.

The fact that it was two women volunteering in the gallery over the weekend was itself highly significant and appropriate – especially because the artist has frequently referenced the long-standing historical contributions of (often un-sung, yet stalwart and resilient) crafts-women and female artists to the cultural, commercial, socio-political  and aesthetic heritage of British visual arts.

Stll from the video "Claire Twomey: Time Present and Time Past" (2016) shown on Level 1 of the William Morris Gallery
Still from the video “Claire Twomey: Time Present and Time Past” (2016) shown on Level 1 of the William Morris Gallery

A short video of Claire Twomey speaking about the genesis and development of her installation project  Time Present and Time Past” was available to view on the upper level of the William Morris Gallery. Through this film I was able to get a better sense of the artist’s strong aesthetic and political commitment to honouring the life and work of William Morris, but even more importantly still, her dedication towards remembering and celebrating the thousands upon thousands of talented women artists and artisans over the centuries whose contributions to British art have seldom been fully recognised and respected in formal, public ways.

Writing about the after-life of this artwork beyond its temporary display at William Morris Gallery, the curator Amy Dickson said:

“[A]t the end of the exhibition, the ceramic tiles will be dispersed through the Art Fund’s ‘Art Happens’ initiative, which has funded the exhibition, and the work itself – the ‘moment of creation’ – will exist only as a time-lapse film.”
      Amy Dickson (Curator, William Morris Gallery, 2016)

2016-09-16-12-14-07Perhaps it is fitting that  Time Present and Time Past” will continue to live on in this more ephemeral form as a time-lapse film to remind us that every action and endeavour in life is a fleeting instance that will be forgotten over time unless current and future generations have the foresight to choose to remember and actively archive our everyday and artistic lived experiences.

Carol Dixon pictured at the start of the permanent display inside William Morris Gallery (September 2016)

I feel very privileged to have the William Morris Gallery on my doorstep – just a short journey from my home in east London – to be able to return time and again to celebrate the life and work of William Morris (and other key members of the Arts and Crafts movement), as well as the legacies Morris’s circle of friends and like-minded arts activists have passed on to current contemporary British artists such as Claire Twomey. More importantly, however, this type of immersive, “living installation” is also part of Twomey’s growing art-political and art-historical commemoration to celebrate the many thousands of otherwise forgotten working-class women artists of east London (from all ethnic backgrounds over many centuries) whose un-named and previously under-valued achievements are being resurrected via this beautiful and subtle, yet powerful practice of innovative installation art.

Exhibition view of the assemblage “Fighting for a Cause” on permanent display at William Morris Gallery. Photo: Carol Dixon
FORTHCOMING EXHIBITIONS…
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Exhibition view of the ground floor permanent display at the William Morris Gallery. Photo: Carol Dixon (September, 2016)

The next temporary exhibition  opening at the William Morris Gallery is titled: “A WORLD TO WIN: POSTERS OF PROTEST AND REVOLUTION” (8 October 2016 – 15 January 2017). This exhibition presents a selection of posters documenting various agitations for political change by activists and rights organisations from around the world, spanning more than 100 years. In addition to the powerful imagery of this poster art, the exhibition will also show contextual narratives and political slogans that represent and articulate the political campaigns in focus – from the Suffragette movement of the 19th- and early 20th centuries, through to the Arab Spring in the 21st century.

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William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London. Photo: Carol Dixon (Sept. 2016)
SOURCES OF FURTHER INFORMATION:

“Art Happens” is the Art Fund’s crowd-funding platform. Further details are available online at https://www.artfund.org/get-involved/art-happens

Information about forthcoming exhibitions at William Morris Gallery are available online at http://www.wmgallery.org.uk

Claire Twomey’s website: http://www.claretwomey.com

Art Happens: Time Present and Time Past (2016) – a short film (2 mins. 16 seconds) produced by Northern Town providing background information about the conceptualisation and inception of Claire Twomey’s project at the William Morris Gallery. The film features commentary from the artist and also the museum’s senior curator, Carien Kremer.

You Tube link:
Art Happens: Time Present and Time Past

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Published by

Carol Dixon

Carol Ann Dixon is an education consultant and academic researcher interested in African and Caribbean diaspora histories and heritage, cultural geography, museology and contemporary visual art. Her PhD dissertation is titled "The 'othering' of Africa and its diasporas in Western museum practices" (University of Sheffield, UK).

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