On Wednesday 14 March, Messums Wiltshire was delighted to welcome internationally renowned taxidermist Polly Morgan to speak on her work, life and inspiration in our thirteenth-century barn. A twenty-foot screen served as the backdrop for huge photographs of finished and in-progress creations. The visual result was certainly awesome and impressive. Taxidermy, stemming from the Greek ‘taxis’ meaning ‘order’ and ‘derma’ meaning ‘skin’ together mean the ‘arrangement of skin’.
Polly Morgan has always had an intimate experience of animals, from the very beginning of her life. Her family owned farmland in Oxfordshire which was inhabited by creatures as exotic as ostriches. It was not uncommon for sick goats to be nursed back to health in the family home. Morgan herself bred hamsters in her bedroom. When an animal died, her father would be determined to discover the mortal cause himself. Morgan remembers viewing her first ‘autopsy’ distinctively, watching as her father ‘nicked’ the goat’s stomach and being amazed at the presence of yet-undigested, intact grass. That grass looked the same internally and externally to a body resonated with the young Morgan in a way which would ultimately shape her life’s interests.
She moved to London to study English, fulfilling a life-long dream of relocating to a city. She settled in artistic Shoreditch – the stomping ground of the infamous yBas. Looking for taxidermy to decorate her home, Morgan realised it was a good deal cheaper to travel to Edinburgh for a day course in making a taxidermy bird than it was to buy one already ‘stuffed’. She booked her ticket and commenced her professional relationship with master taxidermist George Jamieson. Over the years she has built up a network of clients who supply her with animals which have met their maker due to natural causes or the fate of an unpreventable death. Morgan has previously said that she ‘hates the fact that death hangs over all of our lives’ and that she sees the aesthetic of the dead body – one without its soul – as a beautiful ornament. She admits to being squeamish but ‘only with smells’, which are produced by the ‘slipping’ or malting of the animal’s surface caused by bacteria. Maggots, frozen, are also a nasty part of the job.
Morgan has a strong sense of curiosity, seeing taxidermy as a mirror to a fascinating dissection in a biology lesson. It reveals the anatomical structure and sub-layers underneath a familiar body. The idea of the human self as an animal resonated acutely for Morgan during her pregnancy and experience of giving birth, though she believes she is probably more in tune with her biology than the average human. After returning from the Serengeti to England, she discovered her appendix had burst and she had also contracted gangrene. The experience of a segment of her body as rotten and dead influenced ‘Hide and Fight’ (2012), a taxidermy stag (pictured above) with bats nesting in its open stomach. This is one of her few autobiographical pieces and coincidentally is also one of her largest. She commented that big animals are very heavy and require more hands than she regularly has.
She first exhibited in Reconstruction #1(2006) where Vanessa Branson famously bought ‘Rest a Little on the Lap of Life’ (2006) a Surrealist-influenced piece of a rat lying in a champagne glass, underneath a dangling, decadent chandelier. Morgan surprisingly stated that this is not a narrative piece, but a reaction to spending time with animals and their intrinsic forms. Yet I would argue that a viewer could clearly read a tongue-in-cheek undertone to this work in particular and that it is all the more stronger for it. Unlike birds or other creatures, rats seem to take on the shape of the object they are placed within, here the rat is like a furry scoop of ice-cream. Yet Morgan is interested in semiotics, believing that all viewers can have an opinion on her pieces, even if it differs to her own.
Her more recent work is minimal and abstract. As such it takes animals further away from their biological and recognisable forms. Three examples: ‘Ins and Outcomes’ (2017), ‘2 North A’ and ‘3 East B’ (both 2016) can be viewed in Messums Wiltshire’s Long Gallery. They have a limited palette, inspired by the colour scheme of hospitals; so to bind the ‘body’ of work together as a series. Morgan decided to experiment after a period of dissatisfaction with her work. She did not recognise herself as the artist she was described as. She said it is ‘important to get bored of your own work before everyone else does’. Her inspiration arrived in the form of a snake serendipitously frozen into an impossible, Escher-like coil in one of her freezers: a beautiful, modernist sculpture. She loved the idea and executed it in a mad rush. Focusing on snakes was new and required new ways of working. She could no longer depend on feathers and fur to hide the bumps caused by wood-wool stuffing. Instead, she would fix the form of the snake in cling film, freeze the mould and then cast it in dense rubber. The time it takes to complete a snake depends, obviously, on its size. It could take at least three days, plus drying for several weeks, for a small species. The colour can then fade, so painting, varnishing and mounting on a plinth are the final stages. It can take weeks for a massive snake before drying.
At the beginning of her career she was the recipient of death threats. The recent renaissance of the practice in recent years, Morgan postulated, could be down to its rebrand as being more ethical. Taxidermy no longer needs to invoke or be the product of mass murder or hunting. Incredulously Morgan has even been asked to taxidermy a human being, an offer she graciously refused. Bizarrely it is not illegal in the UK, although Morgan admits that along with many ethical reasons she would not want to identify too strongly with a subject close to her own image. I would suggest that the increase of taxidermists could result from the rising ‘neo-Victorian’ movement. Victorian-inspired practices such as taxidermy, scrapbooking and collecting, even making jewellery from hair and artwork from animal skulls are being recast as ‘retro’ and thus all the rage. Perhaps in the internet age these Gothic pastimes offer us a more direct engagement with our own biology and mortality. In the 19th century, death was a daily threat, with the death of a loved one commonplace. A sense of supernatural horror and imminent extinction was grappled with in a more concrete way. Artists inspired by this ‘neo-Victorian’ movement in the Long Gallery arguably include Bouke de Vries ‘Still Life with Kingfisher’, 2017 as well as his two birdcages, Kate MccGwire’s ‘Sentient’ and ‘Sissure’ (Ommateum) (both 2016) and Alastair Mackie’s ‘Untitled’ (sphere) 2004. Interestingly, all of these pieces can be described as still-lives and/or still-deaths. ‘Nature morte’, the French expression for still life, works better as a literal translation.
Saturday 21 April 2018, 11am Bookings
Professor Simon Olding joins us in conversation with sculptor Tim Harrisson to discuss his work, practice and new solo exhibition ‘AS IT WAS IS NOW’ here at Messums Wiltshire. The pair are long-term colleagues and friends having known each other since Simon worked as museum director at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth. Simon commissioned Tim to make the sculpture ‘Horizon’ (pictured) for the museum’s garden which was completed in 1995 and has followed Tim’s exhibitions and developments ever since.
Tim Harrisson has a continued interest in minimalism, landscape and history. He works with the great variety of stone that the British Isles has to offer including locally quarried Chicksgrove limestone and Portland stone. His much anticipated second sculpture exhibition here at the Barn Gallery is complimented by two-dimensional works on view in the Long Gallery.
Harrisson was born in Essex in 1952 and studied at Hammersmith College of Art (1969-79), Norwich Art School (1970-73) and Byam Shaw School of Fine Art (1975). Harrisson was Sculptor in Residence at the Red House Museum, Christchurch. He has exhibited widely since 1981 and undertaken a number of important commissions. In 2013 the British Museum acquired a selection of his works on paper. Harrisson was elected to the Royal West of England Academy in 2013. He lives and works in Wiltshire.
Professor Simon Olding leads the MRes Crafts course and is Director of the Crafts Study Centre at UCA Farnham. He’s also Professor of Contemporary Crafts at UCA. Simon has held many senior roles in museums, galleries and art organisations since 1979.
Simon joined the University for the Creative Arts in the year 2002 as Director of the Crafts Study Centre, the university museum of modern craft. He joined the professoriate in 2004 as Professor of Modern Crafts. He leads the MRes Crafts degree and supports the theory and analysis unit for the MA Craft and Design students.
His previous career includes working as a specialist ceramics curator, as a museum director (Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Bournemouth) as well as periods in agency and advisory work (London Museums Officer and Assistant Director, Area Museums Service for South Eastern England) and as Director of Policy and Research for the Heritage Lottery Fund. After graduating from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, he received his PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 1980.
We are midway through our second Material: Earth exhibition, Myth, Material & Metamorphosis. This show crosses our two spaces, with ceramics, earthenware and porcelain in the barn and two-dimensional work as well as mixed-media sculpture in the Long Gallery.
Highlights in the barn certainly include Barnaby Barford’s sublime polar bear, standing at the life-like height of 8ft at the end of our medieval space. Early works of Grayson Perry’s, dating from 1984 lend a fresh way of viewing this contemporary British master and Kate Malone’s archetypical Whaddeston Big Mother Pumpkin surrounded by other vegetables such as Fennel and Light Artichoke transform quotidian, almost mundane objects into glittering, botanical portraits.
Claire Curneen’s 2.5m long Tending the Fires is an ambitious ode to the possibilities of porcelain as a material. It features martyred St Sebastians, stoic, outward looking torsos and the head of an owl bejewelled with gold-leaf eyes all entangled and pulled inescapably together under a blanket of Christ’s crown of thorns. At Messums Wiltshire we are most excited about Curneen’s artistic inclusion of The Fonthill Vase, a bluish-white Chinese porcelain dating from c.1300. Its namesake is the earliest documented Chinese porcelain object to have reached Europe at the early date of c.1338. The original vase takes its name from its fleeting existence in the collection of the eccentric William Beckford at Fonthill Abbey during the 1800s (only a few miles from our locality).
Other artists in the barn include Christie Brown, Katie Spragg, Sophie Woodrow, Bouke de Vries, Bertozzi and Casoni, Lena Peters, Catrin Howell, Sam Bakewell, Jessica Harrison, Philip Eglin, Kerry Jameson, Livia Marin, Carolein Smit, Malene Hartmann Rasmussen, James Webster, Claire Partington and Vivian van Blerk.
The work in the Long Gallery pertains to the theme of Metamorphosis, which as Ovid describes in his magnum opus Metamorphoses, is the fact that ‘everything changes, nothing perishes’. Three-dimensional, sculptural work includes Alastair Mackie’s Untitled (sphere) a work encased in glass and composed of an orb constructed from hundreds of mouse skulls, each having passed through and cleaned by the digestive tract of an owl.
Polly Morgan’s ethical taxidermy pieces invite us to rethink our position on this rather lost, Victorian art form whilst Bouke de Vries’ winged, Surrealism influenced birdcages pose questions relating to transition, change and anthropomorphism. Alexander the Great and The Source (after Ingres) both by Andy Warhol in the 1980s are surely crowning glories of the two-dimensional work in this room. Attention must be drawn also to neoclassical paintings: John William Waterhouse’s Narcissus and Merry Joseph Blondel’s masterpiece Sappho.
Other artists in the Long Gallery include Ann Carrington, Charlotte Cory, Wolfe von Lenkiewicz, Ori Gersht, Eric Gill, Aubrey Beardsley, Iain Andrews, El Gato Chimney, Simone Pellegrini, Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Wilfred de Glehn, Chris Riisager and Kate MccGwire.
Upcoming events – not to be missed – in our programme include the Clay Festival (30-31 March). The Clay Festival is a celebration of all things earth, taking this fundamental material as the starting point and centring it around the wheel of pottery. Talks, demonstrations and workshops for adults and children alike can be booked into and enjoyed, please see links below. This festival will be preceded by a talk by extraordinary taxidermist Polly Morgan on 14 March (last few tickets remaining).
Link to the exhibition: https://messumswiltshire.com/material-earth-ii-myths-and-metamorphoses/
Link to the Clay Festival: https://messumswiltshire.com/clay-festival/
Link to Polly Morgan’s talk: https://messumswiltshire.com/talk-taxidermy-artist-polly-morgan/
Messums Wiltshire is pleased to announce that Malene Hartmann Rasmussen, (b.1973) a
Danish artist who is currently showing in our second Material: Earth exhibition, has won a
coveted residency position at the V&A Museum in partnership with the Danish Art Foundation.
Rasmussen will begin her six months stay in the studio in April, situated in the museum’s
ceramic department. Over the course of this residency there will be a series of events and open
During her time at the V&A Rasmussen will respond to works by the 16 th century French potter
Bernard Palissy (c.1510-c.1589) who was famous for having struggled to imitate Chinese
porcelain for sixteen years. Rasmussen has said she admires ‘the eccentric and passionate
potter Barnard Palissy and somehow feel a kinship in our common fascination for plants,
insects, animals and ceramics. Palissy developed a life-cast technique of lifting moulds from
plants and dead animals and using the ceramic casts to create elaborate narrative scenes that
often thematically evolved around water and the pond. During my residency I wish to dive under
that water and see what grotesque creatures lurk beneath the surface and reveal the secrets
Rasmussen will also experiment with new methods of making using lost ceramic techniques as
she studies objects in the V&A’s collection and archives. The National Art Library will become
Rasmussen’s centre of historical and technical learning, surely inspiring her interpretation of
insects, animals and plants rendered theatrically in ceramics. These objects will then be
photographed and digitally reworked to form two-dimensional patterns and will be printed onto
paper, woven fabric or even ceramic tiles. This process will be in collaboration with her partner,
the photographer Sylvain Deleu.
Rasmussen lives and works in London.
Friday 30 – Saturday 31 March 2018 Bookings
Come to the opening night and the talks programme in the barn gallery with our Festival Talks Ticket. The opening night on Friday 30 March we are hosting a talk with Dr Antonia Boström the acting director of collections and research at the V&A.
On the Saturday of our Clay Festival, we will be having demonstrations, talks and audience interactive making sessions by the best potters and makers around, including Sandy Brown, Duncan Hooson and Margaret O’Rorke. We will have a live feed of the details of the demonstration blown up on a large screen. Whilst making the artists will speak about their careers, their artworks as well as their making and practice.
A lunchtime talk will include three of our artists from the current exhibition ‘Material Earth: Myth, Material & Metamorphosis’ artists Claire Curneen, Sam Bakewell and Malene Hartmann Rasmussen will each discuss their work for 15 minutes. The talk will be chaired by Annie Warburton, Creative Director of the Crafts Council.
A Festival Ticket allows access to all demos and the talks in the barn gallery. Complimentary tea, coffee and use of the Friends lounge above the pod is also included. All making workshops in the Long Gallery and the marquee should be booked separately.
The barn talks and events included are:
6-7pm TALK: with Professor Antonia Boström, from the V&A
10-11am TALK: ‘What on Earth is Clay?’ with Duncan Hooson
11:30-12:30pm TALK & DEMO: ‘China in Your Hands’ with Porcelain & Light Artist Margaret O’Rorke
1-1:45pm TALK: ‘3 x 15’ Chaired by Annie Warburton, Creative Director of The Crafts Council
2-3pm TALK & MAKING: ‘Spontaneity Performance’ with Sandy Brown
3:30-4:30pm PERFORMANCE: ‘Reinventing the Wheel’ with Steph Buttle & Duncan Hooson
Saturday 31 March, 1pm Bookings
Taking as its theme the popular format of a short 15 minute insight and talk, chaired by leading thinker Annie Warburton, Creative Director of The Crafts Council.
Join three of the leading artists Claire Curneen, Sam Bakewell and Malene Hartmann Rasmussen from our current exhibition for a talk about their work and practice followed by an interview with Annie Warburton.
Annie started her career in Dublin at the Crafts Council of Ireland and went on to work for a US publisher and launch a digital start up. Annie was CEO at ArtsMatrix and most recently Head of Partnerships at Creative Skillset, the creative industries’ skills council, working with the fashion, textiles, media and publishing industries. Annie read economics and philosophy at the University of Cambridge. She is a Fellow of the RSA and an Associate of Newnham College, Cambridge.
Claire Curneen is one of the UK’s foremost ceramic artists whose oeuvre references Catholic imagery and the early Italian renaissance. She uses porcelain, terracotta and black stoneware to create an exquisite textural finish, dribbling glaze and flashes of gold to accentuate their lavish qualities.
Sam Balewell explores how clay acts as a conduit between the physical truth of earth matter and bodily experience. It connects with the chthonic portion of the mind; an alien substance caught above ground between the dark birthplace and the darker home of the dead.
Malene Hartmann Rasmussen is a Danish artist living in London. She works with mixed media sculpture, making and arranging multiple components into complex narrative tableaux of visual excess. She tries to create a place beyond reality, echoing ancient myths from the Nordic Lands.
Saturday 31 March, 3:30pm Bookings
An event for all with open minds, busy hands and a desire to learn.
Artists, performers and lecturers from the Ceramics Department of Central St Martins art school, Duncan Hooson and Stephanie Buttle will be turning the conventions of the potter’s wheel upside down through a high-octane, public performance piece. Using their skills as wheel-throwers, they will produce large vessels which will then be ‘given over’ to the most unusual and surprisingly creative outcomes.
Taking the ‘finished’ pot as a starting point, Hooson and Buttle will involve the audience in reshaping these ‘vessels’, ruining the sanctity of their seemingly perfect forms. Hooson and Buttle will encourage the public to shape, add and push the wet pottery onto this surface, violating tradition by introducing an architectural component.
Buttle has described the process: ‘by taking the vessel using the potter’s wheel, not as a finished product but as a means of making, I can then transform this object into something else entirely’ she says. This ground-breaking, taboo-smashing mentality calls to mind Ai Weiwei’s 1995 Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, a photo-series dedicated to the shock factor of destroying an object art history holds dear. In a similar way, Hooson and Buttle’s performance will make viewers rethink the sacredness of the ‘finished’ vessel, recasting our expectations of objects defined by social traditions.
Duncan Hooson is committed to sharing his knowledge of all things ceramic. He Director of the the Ceramics Department at Morley College in London and lecturer in Ceramic Design at Central Saint Martins. He is also an author and co-director of Clayground Collective; a forum for projects made in clay. Hooson has exhibited work nationally and has been told he has ‘clay slip running through his veins’.
Stephanie Buttle is a maker and artist whose practice explores the possibilities of movement and performance within ceramic installation and smaller scale objects. Influenced by her theatrical backgrounds in dance, performance and filmmaking, Buttle is a ceramic tutor at Central Saint Martins and Morley College London.
Saturday 31 March, 2pm Bookings
Renowned ceramicist and champion of the positivity of making with the hand, Sandy Brown leads a talk and a hands on making event for as many as can join for one hour. Learn about how her work and ideas took early form before taking part yourself. As Sandy herself says “Creativity is a transformational experience; quite possibly, likely, you will change…” – Come prepared!!!!!
Sandy Brown was trained in the art of making ceramics at the Daisei Pottery in Mashiko, Japan. The recipient of Art Council funding, and chosen as Britain’s artist in residence in Australia by the British Council for 1988, Brown has been an important international artist for many years, whose works feature regularly in exhibitions all over the world. Brown’s art is represented by pieces in major public institutions, including the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Ulster Museum, Belfast; Aberdeen Museum & Art Gallery; the World Ceramic Centre, South Korea and the Museum for Applied Art in Frankfurt.
Saturday 31 March, 11:30am Bookings
The translucency of fine high-fired porcelain has led Margaret O’Rorke to throw forms which give light. These ideas stem from the nature of the material, forms that can grow from the potter’s wheel, the process of firing and a sense of adventure with light and space. O’Rorke will be demonstrating one of the porcelain forms attached to her beautiful chandelier on display in our medieval barn, using a hand-thrown process on a potter’s wheel.
O’Rorke’s first training was as a painter at the Chelsea School of Art, before taking up pottery at Camberwell. Her fulltime career started later in life, working with translucent porcelain. O’Rorke researches and develops porcelain lights that can be industrially produced for domestic and large scale commercial interiors, whilst continuing to produce her individual studio works. O’Rorke lives and works in Oxford
Saturday 31 March, 10am Bookings
Start the Messums Wiltshire Clay Festival with a talk by Duncan Hooson on what actually is clay, what it can be turned into and how to do it! Duncan heads the Ceramics Department at Morley College London and lectures BA Ceramic Design at Central Saint Martins.
To understand the making process it is essential to first understand the material. For example, do you know what clay is actually made of? Or that in being part of making up m’ is one of the oldest building materials on earth. It was also used to create some of the first figurative sculpture.
Today clay is used for making pottery, both utilitarian and decorative, and construction products, such as bricks, wall and floor tiles. Different types of clay, when used with different minerals and firing conditions, are used to produce earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain.
Duncan is most well-known for his large scale thrown ceramics, producing both sculptural forms and functional ware. He also works in mixed media and is an advocate of cross-arts collaboration. He works to private commission and in the public realm, healthcare, museums, libraries and media. He is an author and co-director of Clayground Collective. Duncan has exhibited work nationally and has been told he has ‘clay slip running through his veins’.