Upstart Crow

Sonia Overall is currently the Resident Armchair Artist at The Beaney in Canterbury.

One of the chief attractions of the armchair artist opportunity for me was meeting previous residents Jill Holder and Bob Lamoon. Their oversized homage to the rook in the red coat, exhibited in the Front Room, continues to haunt me.

The original rook is perched in the Colour & Camouflage collection. Here he is surrounded by monochrome birds: a black cough, pygmy cormorant, common scoter and a dull, dun-coloured blackbird. Even the nearby Australian pygmy goose is a study in black, white and grey: the green sheen of wing feather, hinting at the glamour of abalone shell, turned modestly to the wall. By contrast, the neighbours in the next cabinet are an explosion in emerald, cobalt and acid yellow: toucan, quetzal, macaw, blue rollers with bright bead eyes. These birds display the mineral depth of their plumage beside lumps of lapis, azurite, malachite and jade.


The rook is a bird of one colour dressed in another: borrowed plumage, an upstart crow beautified with our feathers, or rather, dressed by us in an apron of cloth. There’s a common theme here: one object dancing to the tune of another, more glamorous, companion, taking on name and aspect. The ‘potato stone with red agate’ is raised above humble tuber-lookalikes with its cross-section of ruby flesh. The bland beige ‘potstone’ takes on chips and streaks of terracotta. The rook’s red coat may have marked it out, but this proved its downfall: wounded and tended to by children; dressed and released; rejected for its otherness by the avian community; shot by a famer as an easy target.


So where does this take me? I notice red splashes everywhere. Incidental reds in gallery furnishings: fire extinguishers, sofa, explorer signs. A visitor’s scarlet lipstick and a child’s wet raincoat. Reds saturate the collections: James Beaney’s burgundy velvet, wool squares on a Sudanese tunic, garnet glaze on an Emperor’s porcelain vase. Symbolic reds: cloth gathered around the knights about to spill Beckett’s blood. Sun-shot clouds above a Canterbury angel. Solomon in regal judgement. The walls of the Materials and Masters room are a rich salon red. Peter Firmin’s slatey prints are off-set by bright red sugar paper. The cakes in the café are displayed on a toffee-apple-red counter.  But I keep going back to the rook, his borrowed finery now reduced to a tatty rust-coloured tabard; the red claws and hooked beak of the black cough, now missing a glass eye; the zebra piping on the great northern diver’s neck.

The rook brings to mind stories of befriending birds. Another damaged rook was lucky enough to be nursed by a friend of mine who called him Corvus and took him out for walks in a basket. As children, my brother and I looked after a crow with a broken wing, keeping it away from cats in a cold-frame at the bottom of the garden. Growing up on a farm, my father raised various abandoned creatures. One was an injured jackdaw – Jack – who he raised to maturity. The inside of Jack’s mouth had been damaged, giving him a distinctive call. Every year the jackdaw would come to visit, sitting on the same branch of a favourite tree on the border of field and cottages, calling to my father in his trademark tones.

While these birds suffer our tenderness, they remain wild, and I wonder if something of that wildness intensifies them, gives us impressions of them in stronger colours. Fur and feather fade on taxidermy specimens, the red of fox and squirrel turning russet-brown and sand. But it isn’t just time that does this: these cased animals have become objects for our scrutiny. They lack the vibrancy of animation. When I recall encounters with wild creatures they are brighter and larger than their stuffed companions. A fox crossing the road late at night, lit by streetlamps. Another, strawberry-and-cream in strong sunlight, spotted from a motorway, dancing in an open field. A squirrel hurtling across forest paths; a sudden stampede of red deer. The same could be said of the rook, close at hand, turning leaf litter in search of food: oil-slick of feathers, hugeness of grey knifed beak, mercury-quick eyes and rolling gait. No added colours necessary.


Introducing… Stories in the Dark

In the 17th Century a device was invented to transform the projection of light into incredible shows which took people’s breath away. This device was the magic lantern.

For many people it was the first time they saw projected moving images – what a spectacle it must have been!

Aware of their enchanting effect, these intricate machines were often used by magicians and conjurers to create spellbinding tales of ghosts and spirits in the darkness of the projection room.

The magic lantern’s relatively simple mechanism, a direct ancestor of the motion picture projector, enables us to understand how moving images work and creates a sense of wonder, taking us far away from the incomprehensibility and cryptic nature of our digital age.

Opening in The Beaney’s Special Exhibitions Room this Saturday, ‘Stories in the Dark’ will use film, projection and sound to create work inspired by these Victorian magic lanterns and their original slides.

The exhibition is a co-commission between The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge and Whitstable Biennale, with curated work by Ben Judd and nine specially selected artists.

Artists will use the magic lanterns and items from The Beaney’s unique collections to stimulate and inspire visitors with new and contemporary artworks.

Introducing the artists…


Ben Judd

Curator and established London artist, his performances and videos examine his relationship to specific individuals and groups in the search for an unreachable and idealised state of community.

Jordan Baseman

With his ‘Disambiguation’, a 35mm slide projection of an arrow that appears on the gallery wall intermittently, the artist gives shape to our desire to look and to discover.

Adam Chodzko

Whitstable artist, Adam Chodzko stuns us with images of dust ‘explosions’  in his Ask The Dust; in his second work Mask Filter Arc he then combines the Beaney’s Venus Flower Basket with two magic lantern slides, creating a lantern whose intense flashes of light remind us of the process of inspiration and expiration, ugliness and beauty.

Benedict Drew

Using two 35mm projectors and a rotating disc Benedict Drew takes us back to pre-cinema optical techniques that create the illusion of image moving –  the analogue equivalent to the digital GIF.

Louisa Fairclough

The Bristol artist’s handmade and expanded 16 mm film Magical Ideation (2016) explores the Magic Lantern Show’s properties of light and voice through the artisan process of early cinema; a looped and rhythmic incantation that draws on the experience of living in the mind’s eye.

Dryden Goodwin

Based on a series of drawings produced on traditional 3 ¼ inch slides of head studies of his mother, 13 X Christine (2016) includes the showcase of a different slide each week, creating a slow motion animation over the course of the exhibition.

Haroon Mirza

In his Radio Shacked Up (2012), a vintage projector has been flipped vertically and hung on a wall. Inside the machine a combination of LED lights and a vintage analogue radio create an ominous rhythmic hum, which can be heard through the radio’s speaker.

Linsay Seers

In her We Could Never Have Seen it Comin(2016) a projector is used in the form of anamorphosis to place imagery undistorted onto the curved surface of a reflective object, thus transforming the object into a mirror that remembers and replays a time past.

Guy Sherwin

Guy Sherwin’s new work Moon LED Revolution (2016) consists of images of the moon and sun projected from an adapted slide projector onto a rotating paper screen, creating movement on its shifting planar surface. Sherwin’s film works often use serial forms and live elements, and engage with light, time and sound as fundamentals to cinema.


Don’t miss this unique celebration of early cinema as artists bring vintage machines and technology bang up to date.

Stories in the Dark: Contemporary responses to the magic lantern

Saturday 19 March to Sunday 19 June 2016

Special Exhibitions Room and Various Galleries, The Beaney

The Whitstable Biennale festival 2016 will run 4-12 June. See for more information. The exhibition is also part of the programme of the University of Kent’s International Festival of Projections, 18-20 March 2016.


Artists images [left to right]: Guy Sherwin, Adam Chodzko, Dryden Goodwin

Secret messages and hidden text

Sonia Overall is currently the Resident Armchair Artist at The Beaney in Canterbury. 

The loudest message I receive from the Beaney Collection when I visit is: LOOK CLOSER.

As a writer I am always playing with words and tuning in to text, so it’s no surprise that I’ve started to notice covert writing in the Beaney displays. My visits have become a detective process as I follow the trail of secret messages, hidden in plain sight.

Considering the careful curation of the cabinets, designed to keep labelling to a minimum, there is plenty of text to be found on and around some of the objects. There are the faded museum labels and stickers of course, thinned to transparency in places, now aesthetic curios in their own right. Dense calligraphy in sepia and Delft-blue. Elegant printed block caps.  There are memorial inscriptions, engraved dedications, embossed makers’ marks. Instructions and ingredients. Letters scraped and carved into Roman clay and stone. Artists’ marginalia too: notes on sketches, designations and titles on painted estates and portraits.


Then there is teasing text. Glimpses of lists and longer stories. A miniature notebook with mother-of-pearl cover, pages fanned to reveal the word Shoes in tiny pencilled script. What shoes? To be bought or worn? We can read about the giant trout landed at Fordwich, presented to Henry Lee in 1672. But the sign-writer is more interested in Henry Lee’s parliamentary career than in the trout. Where did this colossal fish end up – in Canterbury, Hindon, or back in the river?

A penknife boldly asserts itself as CURTIS’S IMPROVED. What it has improved upon remains unsaid.

Stained-glass fragments bring together an eclectic company: Lena Lang, van Valclenissen and Aristotle. Between them, snatches of Latin and Dutch, half-messages broken in the telling and lost in translation.


Most intriguing of all is the recycled text, the letters that should not be there. In the Materials and Masters room, amongst the glass objects, is a collection of painted Lantern Slides, ‘projected large by shining a light through the slides using an early form of projector’. The slides show hot air balloons, caricatures with bulbous noses, dancing dogs and duelling witches. But along the edges, between glass shelf and painted slide, printed words emerge.

ways on the Last and West Sides of the said R

Some of the text is upside down, some reflected, backwards. Much of it is obscured, worn away or smudged by handling.

the       present            buildings          and yards       of British Merchants at home

Peering closely, it becomes apparent that the text has nothing to do with the slides. There are snatches of legalese

the said former Act

said Justices

Someone has taken a tract, or a legal document, or perhaps a section of political newspaper, and chopped it up for a more appealing use. It this simply evidence of an innocent crafter’s upcycling? Or is there a message here, pointing to us across time, mocking the hot air and battling wits of the legal system?


Look twice at the cabinet text you find. What happens if you interrogate these lines, question the veracity of those labels?

With a little omission, a piece of Native Cloth from South Sea Islands could have been woven by the indigenous peoples of Sheerness. (See if you can find it).

That Stone Curlew looks pretty realistic.

In the cabinet of curiosities, a twig provides PROTECTIVE RESEMBLANCE.

An ancient green bottle proudly proclaims itself PROPERTY OF THE ROYAL MUSE.

There is a lump of London Clay – from Beltinge. It looks suspiciously like glass.


And what about that jar of desert sand? That’s what the label says, at least. Underneath, the words PRESTON SALTS strive to reveal themselves…

May The Toys Be With You Exhibition Interior 6

10 mind-blowing facts about one of the most successful movie merchandise lines EVER produced!

“I have a bad feeling about this” was definitely not something George Lucas said when he negotiated a salary reduction to direct Star Wars in order to retain a 100% profit on the merchandise rights.

In fact, this proved to be one of the most lucrative decisions in movie merchandise history!

Through this deal George was wagering on his belief in the popularity of Star Wars, however, it is difficult to imagine even he knew what a global phenomenon it would become…


The largest toy manufacturer in the US (The Mego Corporation), bluntly rejected the right to produce Star Wars toys as they considered the movie to be a “Sci-fi B movie” and therefore of little value or consequence.


In May 1977, when Star Wars opened in the USA, not a single Star Wars toy had been produced.


Instead, a redeemable gift certificate was created that entitled children to four Star Wars action figures, to be sent out in the New Year. 500,000 of these ‘Early Bird Certificates’ were sold at $7.99 (£5.67) each.


In the first year alone 42 million star Wars toys were sold.


From 1977 – 1985 an estimated 300 million Star Wars action figures were sold across the globe, becoming the must have playthings for an entire generation.


Star Wars merchandise has earnt more than the movies themselves. The amendment young George Lucas made to his contract back in the Seventies turned out to be perhaps the most brilliant business move in the history of Hollywood!


The income generated from the sales of merchandise is estimated to be an incredible $22.5 billion (£16.6 Billion) in revenue.


In 2015 a pristine unopened packet of 7 action figures from the Empire Strikes Back fetched $32,500 (£23,000) at auction.


A poll of 2,000 people found that 5% of people still owned Star Wars toys that could be of value.


Prior to the 2015 release of The Force Awakens the value of Star Wars toys increased by 30%

The question is do you have any Star wars toys tucked away in a box in your attic?

Currently on display at the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge is one of the UK’s finest collections of Vintage Star Wars Toys and original Cinema Posters. Including a rare piece of cinema history; a concept poster from the first Star Wars film designed Tom Beauvais (fans can purchase a limited edition print signed by Tom Beauvais).

LAST CHANCE TO SEE May The Toys Be With You in the Beaney’s Special Exhibitions Room.

Exhibitions closes Sunday 6 March 2016

Visitors are asked to make a Pay What You Can donation to support future exhibitions


Collecting Rooms – BOOK HERE

Saturday 5 March, 11am
The Learning Lab, The Beaney
Free, Advanced admission or drop in on the day (Limited Spaces)

Talk by Dr Sam Vale – Senior Lecturer in Photography at Canterbury Christ Church University

Artist Sam Vale discusses his creative practice, which explores a number of different private spaces and the collections that fill them. Working with interviews, photography and moving image, Vale gathers his subjects’ personal accounts and re-presents them, producing artworks that aim to reveal the distinctive stories hidden in private collections. Sam’s film ‘Behind the Scenes’ is the ‘May the Toys Be With You’ exhibition.

Drama in the dolls’ house

Sonia Overall is currently the Resident Armchair Artist at The Beaney in Canterbury. 

Today I am drawn to the display of dolls houses and furniture in the Materials and Masters room. The bottom shelf of the cabinet is packed with household items, a bric-a-brac array of plates, serving dishes, cups, glasses, jugs, pots and pans and even butter presses. With its muddle of period items – Toby jugs, neo-classical amphora, painted plate and printed tobacco tin – it’s a diminutive flea market, a junk shop warehouse. But this is the world below stairs. The shelf above is all calm, order and middle-class serenity. Or is it?

dining room

While I study these scenes, a small girl and her father play with the toy dolls’ house in the centre of the room. The father tells the dolls a story as the girl tucks them into their beds. Bye bye says the girl when play is over, closing the front of the house. All sleeping. Before they leave the father opens a side window and they peer in, checking that all is still.


Do they think they may catch the dolls carrying on without them, getting out of bed and switching on the lights, breaking the rules of play?

What if these little figures, made in our own image, continued their lives when we weren’t looking?

Such thoughts are the stuff of numerous narratives, the essence of Toy Story, of dystopic automata tales (The Sandman, Pygmalion, Metropolis), of horror movies inhabited by blank-faced Victorian dolls and self-animated puppets. But when we stop acting like Olympian gods, working our ideas and frustrations out on malleable others, and let the dolls get on with it, we begin to treat the figures of play like characters in fictions. Just as children invest stuffed bears and Barbie dolls with complex personalities and private narrative worlds, so writers create their own protagonists and settings. And when a writer is in the thick of a story and forced to lay it aside, when a reader deep in a novel must put the book away, a subtle fear creeps in. It feels as if those characters are carrying on without us.  We must get back to the story quickly, in case we miss anything.

If this is true, then when we open the door of the dolls’ house we could be interrupting something. We could be happening upon another story, and glimpsing a narrative we have had no hand in creating.

Look carefully at those shelves in the dolls’ house display. Above the clutter of pewter and pottery is the world of the drawing room. This is a space for quiet leisure. A man reclines on the chaise longue, resting after a day’s work. At his feet, a rack of newspapers.  A harp, baby grand and lute for this evening’s entertainment. A sewing machine and typewriter for discreet, creative industry. There are rich rugs on the floor, fine dressers, books, comfortable chairs, even a camera to capture family gatherings. It’s grand, but cosy. There are signs of wealth, of travel. Look closer. Anything make you feel uncomfortable? That birdcage looks like a pagoda. Are those figures on the mantelpiece an echo of slavery? The bear rug is still showing its teeth. That carved elephant looks like ivory. Somebody must have shot a stag to get those antlers.

IMG_20160210_101745608 1

Look at the man. Is he resting peacefully, or is he troubled? He has flopped onto the couch in a state of exhaustion. He is still wearing his shoes and clutching his hat. He hasn’t unbuttoned his jacket.  No one has greeted him and taken his things. He stares at the ceiling in dismay, or disbelief. Or is he waiting for the analyst to come, so he can pour out the anxieties and guilt that are the price of his bourgeois lifestyle? There are two books on the floor in the far corner. Either he hasn’t noticed, or he threw them there.

Upstairs, the dining room table is set for a meal. There are six chairs, though only four places have been laid. But the sideboard door is open – perhaps the maid has been called away before she could finish. Perhaps the housekeeper has just heard that there will be guests this evening, and two extra chairs have been brought in. Certainly, whatever scene was playing out, it was interrupted. That carpet sweeper needs to go back in the scullery for a start. And the dustpan and brush. If you peer into the room with your eyes at floor level, you’ll spot the dropped glassware. What was so urgent that it hasn’t been picked up? What news was devastating enough to cause this accident and then abandon it? Are the glasses somehow connected to those discarded books?

detail of dining room

While the lady of the house rests her feet on a stool, the nurse tucks baby into the cradle and the outdoor staff see to watering the plants, a veiled woman leans drunkenly in the kitchen, swooning away from the heat of the stove. Two bridesmaids stand to attention in the parlour, their tea untouched. Upstairs, the young mistress sits in the bath. With her shoes on.

Madness? Murder? Impending suicide?

Something terrible is playing out in this domestic idyll.

No wonder the master has collapsed onto that couch.


Are you looking for a special (and FREE) way to woo your sweetheart this Valentine’s day?

Why not try a romantic stroll around the Beaney

We have put together a handy guide for you to memorise, so while you gander around the galleries you can impress them with these amorous highlights…

Venus Flower Basket

Venus Flower Basket 1

Find me in: Materials & Masters Room, Upstairs

Did you know this curious-looking object was given as a wedding gift in traditional Asian cultures?

What you can see is actually the skeleton of a deep ocean sea sponge, made from a complex lattice of silica (aka glass). The reason it’s given as a wedding gift is down to the two little shrimp that make it their home. The male and female shrimp settle in and clean the basket. In return, the sponge provides food, trapping it in its tissues releasing waste into its body. The couple live out their entire lives inside the sponge, and traditional Japanese cultures took this to represent the sentiment “till death do us part”.

The Venus Flower Basket would be given in its dry, dead state to the newlyweds as a gift. The couple would then display it as a symbol of their eternal love.

‘Kitty Fisher’ by Nathaniel Hone

Find me in: People & Places Room, Upstairs

Lucy Locket lost her pocket

Kitty Fisher found it

Not a penny was there in it,

Only ribbon ’round it.

It is most likely you have heard this children’s ditty before, but did you know that it was about a lady so infamous for having an abundance of love affairs, that she was immortalised forever in a number of portraits – one of which now hangs in The Beaney.

Kitty Fisher was an 18th century courtesan, famous for her beauty, wit, and daring horsemanship.

Born Catherine Marie Fischer (1741-1767), she started out life as a milliner (hat maker) before deciding that the courtesan life held much more promise of wealth and popularity. Well known for her expensive taste in jewellery and gowns, Kitty sat for many portraits during her lifetime, including several which are now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.

When she was not eating thousand guinea bank notes with bread and butter for everyone’s amusement, Kitty was having several public affairs. This supposedly included a rejected boyfriend, or the ‘pocket’, of barmaid Lucy Locket, causing rather a lot of trouble. Her somewhat predatory nature is hinted at in this particular painting by the wolf-like cat sitting beside her, expressive of her rapacious attitude towards men.

Although she eventually settled down and married MP John Norris in 1766, there was no happily-ever-after for poor Kitty, as she died of smallpox four short months into the marriage.

‘It was the time of roses’ by David Murray (1914)

Find me in: People & Places Room, Upstairs

One of the most popular paintings in the Beaney’s collection is actually inspired by a 20th century love poem.

Artist David Murray used a line from Thomas Hood’s ‘Time of Roses’ for the basis of his work, which, quite fittingly for Valentine’s Day, depicts fields of blossoming roses.

It was not in the Winter

 Our loving lot was cast;

It was the time of roses—

We pluck’d them as we pass’d!

That churlish season never frown’d

On early lovers yet:

O no—the world was newly crown’d

  With flowers when first we met!

‘Twas twilight, and I bade you go,

But still you held me fast;

It was the time of roses—

We pluck’d them as we pass’d!


Likened to Constable, the artist Sir David Murray RA (1849 – 1933) was a Royal Academician and prolific Scottish landscape painter. Having studied at the Glasgow School of Art, he moved to London in 1882 where he was an immediate success.

This romantic late impressionist-style piece depicts the view from Forty Acres Rose Garden, St Dunstan’s, Canterbury.

Lekythos Vase

Find me in: People & Places Room, Upstairs

The Trojan Wars began as a result of the ultimate love affair. When Helen, ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’, took Paris of Troy for a lover, the Greeks commenced a ten-year war over her retrieval.

Agamemnon, painted here on this lekythos vase, was the king of Mycenae and the brother of Menelaus, Helen’s jilted husband. He was positioned as the acting commander of the united Greek armed forces fighting in the Trojan War.

Whilst at war, Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, took a lover called Aegisthus. In a twist of irony, Agamemnon retuned from the battle unscathed, only to be murdered by his wife’s lover upon his return.

Greek lekythos vases were used during the burial process to store oil to anoint unmarried men or alternatively used as an offering to the gods of the underworld.

Written by Emma Peters, Marketing Volunteer, Canterbury Museums & Galleries

This Beaney is open 10am to 5pm on Valentines Day. 

Find out more here

Pancakes and the Past

Today is Pancake Day. It is a day in which four basic ingredients – eggs, flour, salt and milk – find expression in a glorious combination that accompanies celebrations all over the world. But Shrove Tuesday, also known as ‘Fat Tuesday’ in continental Europe, is more than simply gorging on carbs. It is, in fact, a Christian tradition which marks the beginning of the 40 days of fasting and rigour of Lent.


Ironically, before becoming the day of excess and gluttony that we know today, this was a day of penitence, repentance and fasting; the name Shrove comes from ‘shriving’, which refers to the act of cleansing one’s soul through confession and absolution before the beginning of Lent.

This ancient tradition can be traced back over 1000 years to the Anglo-Saxons. Called to confession by a ringing bell (which, in modern times, came to be called the ‘Pancake Bell’), they were ‘shriven’ through confession and spent the run up to lent in penitence. A monk in the Anglo-Saxon Ecclesiastical Institutes says:

“In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him.”

In the Middle Ages this tradition evolved to include the consumption of the foods that were forbidden during Lent. Gradually the last day before the beginning of Lent became a day of indulgence and joyous celebrations, which led to the creation of one of the most loved recipes –pancakes.  Shrove Tuesday was morphing into Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras.


A depiction of Lent celebrations: Battle of Carnival and Lent Hieronymus Bosch (c1450-1516) Source

Eggs, milk and fat were among the most common ingredients in British households and since they had to be consumed before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the fasting period, pancakes became the common way to do so.

The pancake craze did not limit itself to people’s tables, but made its way to the streets! It began in the town of Olney in 1445. One woman, still making pancakes when she heard the church bells ring with their call to worship, ran to church with her apron still on and frying pan in hand. This led to the introduction of pancake races, in which local housewives raced to the call of the Church bell, flipping pancakes as they went.


Nowadays, pancake races are popular all over the UK and are an expression of our excitement for the simple, yet irresistible dish that marks our Shrove Tuesday tradition.

Want to know more about the ancestors who gave us Shrove Tuesday? The Beaney has a great collection of finds from Anglo-Saxon Kent!

Written by Patrizia, Marketing Volunteer, Canterbury Museums & Galleries