The Nameless Grace 

The Holburne Museum, Bath, 2014

An installation inspired by The Holburne Museum’s collection.   Whilst working with the collection over the last year, I have developed  a particular interest in the three Holburne sisters, especially Mary Ann Barbara (1802-1882), the last of the Holburne family line. In her will, Miss Holburne ensured that the family’s collection and name were bequeathed in trust to create the Museum. I have been working with objects from the collection as well as wider research into the period. The installation touches on ideas surrounding the boundaries between fact and fiction as well as reflecting on and reanimating these women’s hidden and largely forgotten lives.

 

This is a co-commission with the Holburne Museum and ICIA, University of Bath.  Part two was exhibited in the opening season of the University of Bath’s new Centre for the Arts, Summer 2015.

It is hope by Gill Nicol

 

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

That sings the tune – without the words –

And never stops at all[1].

 

Artist Holly Davey has spent the past year revisiting a life: that of Mary Ann Barbara Holburne (1802 – 1882). The resulting artwork utilizes a mixture of photography, film and text to produce an exhibition that is both archive and narrative. Holly has creatively put herself in Mary Ann Barbara’s shoes; a difficult task as there is not a lot of information about her. Therefore, imagination has come into its own, as Holly seeks to pin down who Mary Ann Barbara actually was. What kind of life did she lead?  Creative? Thinking? Passive? Happy? How were women like her supposed to behave? Did she step outside the norm, the rules of the day that were so fixed and unyielding in their attitude to women, their sexuality, their femininity and their worth? Holly has used the (few) objects Mary Ann Barbara left behind: a scrap book, a locket, a watch, library card and an inventory of the objects (including her books) from the house which she only owned from 1874 to 1882. Finally (we can imagine), she is in control of her money, a space to think and read in – in control of her life.

 

What we can do as readers is understand in more detail the context in which her life was played out. Mary Ann Barbara lived in an unstable time in England; a moment when reform movements came out of the Industrial Revolution (such as the Reform Act of 1832 and 1867); that had created hundreds of jobs for lower-class women, bringing into question their role and their place in society. The Suffragette Movement began in 1866; we can only wonder what Mary Ann Barbara made of all that at the age of 64.

 

‘The Woman Question’, as it was known, was a debate that appeared in the middle of the 1850’s, and covered a range of issues that affected women such as voting rights, reproductive rights, bodily autonomy, property rights, legal rights and marriage. Debates went on in newspapers and intellectual gatherings asking questions such as What capabilities did women have? What was the ‘natural’ expression of femininity?[2]

 

We see this with the Holburnes, and which Holly Davey picks up on. Mary Ann Barbara is a lady. She and her two sisters lived at 10 Cavendish Crescent, Bath with their brother, Sir Thomas William Holburne (1793-1874).  Throughout the 1830s and 40s, it is recorded that she went out to balls and fancy dress parties. Due to their upper class status, she did not have a job, but like so many women of the age, ‘worked’ in other ways – by being a hostess, playing the piano, stitching, letter writing and reading (perhaps in preparation for being able to hold an interesting conversation). Her brother owned everything – her clothes, her books  - everything. He was able to travel widely, partaking of a number of Grand Tours,[3] and bringing back objects, paintings and books from his travels, which later form part of the collection based at the Holburne.

 

None of the family ever married. This can be explained by the conundrum of a lack of single eligible men, noted in an essay entitled Why Are Women Redundant?

[t]here were, in England and Wales, in 1851, 1,248,00 women in the prime of their life, i.e. between the ages of twenty and forty years, who were unmarried, out of a total number of rather less than 3,000,000.[4]

Holly has used stitching back in her studio, to aid her creative response, and this has resulted in a set of photographic works. In these stitched pieces, Holly has mirrored back to Mary Ann Barbara elements of a conversation across time. A conversation that picks up on some of the activity of the day, around the feminine and around control.  Holly has created an imaginary set of Grand Tours for Mary Ann Barbara. The end result is a delicate abstraction of a line, a gestural mark through space, picked out in red thread. She has then gone on to scan these stitched works to create photograms in different sizes, from intimate to large format.

 

Ironically, stitching also took on an element of power. On the one hand we can perceive the following from seeing a woman sewing: her eyes are down, head bent, subjugated, modest; bound up in a stereotype of the virgin, quietly stitching and therefore a sign of femininity. And yet at the same time, creating something new, absorbed in the task. Women also sewed in groups, bonding together, sharing the creative act, that can therefore be read as both a source of power and powerlessness[5]

 

Could it be any more different today? Where all can borrow, plagiarize, take from the Internet, and work in so many different ways as Holly has done, inspired by ideas and imagined journeys. One of the key objects in the exhibition is a small gold triangle, found by the artist within one of Mary Ann Barbara’s sketchbooks. This beautiful object has inspired a piece of text and a number of prints. The object has taken on almost a fetish-like quality for Holly; an imagined space for and of desire; and of hope.

 

The symbol of the triangle has a number of different meanings within myths and stories. The point-up triangle is said to represent male energy; point-down triangle, female energy.

 

The triangle was everywhere connected with the female trinity, and a frequent component of monograms of Goddesses[6]


Artist Judy Chicago’s famous iconic feminist work The Dinner Party (1974-79) represents 1,038 women in history—39 women are represented by place settings on a large triangular table, used by the artist as a symbol of equality.[7]

Holly Davey has also been collecting books. Using the Internet gives her access to buying ‘back’ Mary Ann Barbara’s original collection. On her death in 1882, this was sold; Holly is working her way through the inventory of 58 books, including History of the World (Turner), The tales of a bric a brac hunter and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which we know to be a radical novel to have on your shelves at this time. Others cover eclectic subjects such as medicine, peerage, poems, music and history. This re-established collection sits quietly on a shelf in the exhibition, and will be donated to the Holburne Museum after the show ends; mirroring Mary Ann Barbara’s gift of her brother’s collection to the museum in the original instance. This piece of work offers the audience a visible space to imagine her reading, in solitude, gaining knowledge and ideas to impart in conversation at those dinner parties.

 

The novel was another form of creativity for women. Jane Austen lived and wrote in Bath from 1801 to 1806, the time when Mary Ann was born. Charlotte Bronte wrote in the 1830’s, living at Haworth in Yorkshire, free to invest in romantic imaginings. In 1835, she became a teacher, in order to support the family’s financial situation. She hated this, seeing how much she longed for the space, be it grey and windy, that the moor had offered:

 

I felt as if I could have written gloriously – I longed to write…if I had had time to indulge it I felt that the vague sensations of the moment would have settled down into some narrative better at least than anything I ever produced before. But just then a Dolt came up with a lesson. I thought I should have vomited.[8]

 

Finally, before entering the exhibition, Holly has created a symbolic film portrait of Mary Ann Barbara. This video work, on a continual loop, sits among a set of traditional portraits of women from different families and eras. Holly’s intention was to imagine Mary Ann Barbara’s inner landscape; her frustration of not being allowed to travel. The image is of the endless sea, an image of turbulence, of beauty, always there.

 

Davey speaks of how obvious it is to her, that her whole response to the life of Mary Ann Barbara comes from her own internal struggle as a contemporary artist; and as an independent woman, ambitious, focused, not married and no children. And that this still has the potential to be a threat to many, both men and women.

 

Mary Ann Barbara was waiting for Holly Davey. There is a huge sense of historical readiness here; that this exploration of a woman, a sister, a spinster, was made available to an artist over 130 years later. There are important elements of being seen, of being made visible, of being given a voice, that whistle down the years of emancipation and those years of frustration that women surely were made mad by.

 

I will never know her, I can only feel the faint whisper of her voice, softly calling out through the objects she left behind. It is amazing to able to find and meet what’s left of her, to amplify her voice through this exhibition so that the audience can reflect on her importance and value as a member of the Holburne family.[9] 

 

 

 

[1] The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. R.W. Franklin, Harvard University Press, 1999, pg 140

[2] Women, Art and Society, Whitney Chadwick, Thames and Hudson, 1990, pg 166

[3] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Tour

[4] Why Are Women Redundant? William Rathbone Greg, Trübner, London, 1869.

[5] The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, Rosilda Parker, I B Taurus & Co, 1982, pg 11

[6] Barbara Walker, The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1983, pg 1016-17

[7] http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/home.php

[8] Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives, Brian Dillon, Penguin, 2010, p49

[9] Email dialogue with the artist 20 August 2014. The artist also points out that her affinity to Mary Ann Barbara is not mirrored by her marital status – Holly Davey is happily married to Mr Richard Robinson.

All images © Holly Davey