Sonia Overall

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.

potatostone

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.

potstone

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.

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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.

shoesscript

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.

stainedglass

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?

lanternslidetext

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.

jarofsand

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…

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.

Why?

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.

Grave games and serious play

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

I’m a frequent visitor of the Beaney collections, often notebook in hand. On my first residency visit, I returned to some items that have caused me to pause, ponder and want to scribble: three small Anglo-Saxon gaming counters.

Objects associated with gaming can often be appreciated as aesthetic items. They can also be interesting for their social function or historical context. What fascinates me about these unprepossessing stone lumps is that they were meaningful enough for someone to take them to the afterlife. They were meant for play, and play imbued them with significance. Who did they belong to? Were they just customary grave goods, a common pastime to occupy you after death? Or were they the prized possessions of a Taefl-playing champion, someone who beat all-comers over a few beakers in the evening, and never left home without them?

Circular stone objects, probably used in a game.  5th-8th Century AD

AngloSaxongamingcounters

After thinking and writing about the Taefl counters, I went in search of more gaming paraphernalia. There’s plenty to be found: backgammon dice nibbled at the edges through use; ivory piquet markers decorated with tiny insects; a pied bone gaming bead; a tortoiseshell case for carrying cards. These are all fascinating, but I was searching for something more, a tactile connection, and I found it in the three Egyptian glass counters in the Materials room.

Egyptian buttons or counters and money weight

Egptianglasscounters

Are they game pieces? Are they buttons? Which is the money weight? It didn’t really matter. Here were three more circular objects that may have been made for gaming. Pressed into palms and chinked together in play. Lost-and-found counters connecting us across centuries.

So much for threes. These counters of glass and stone may have been meaningful, but they were not necessarily precious. Some gaming pieces seem too good to use: too crafted, too intricate, too valuable. The mother-of-pearl counters in the Animal display case – each one painstakingly etched with geometric patterns, some showing central designs – bear no sign of play at all. Were they ever used? Who owned them? Did they serve some ceremonial function, like the canteen of cutlery or wedding crystal that never touches a lip? And who made them?

Red lacquered and gilded box with mother-of-pearl counters

motherofpearlgamingcounters

All this thought of play and value inevitably led me into the temporary exhibition of Star Wars toys (my third visit so far). Here is a strange – and perhaps essentially contemporary – relationship between mass-produced toys (intended for play) and valuable collectibles (to be looked at, not touched). If I am interested in ancient gaming counters because they have been invested in through play, and so have accumulated meaning, how do I feel about all those sealed toy boxes?  Somehow, taking the toy out of the box, using an object for its intended purpose, devalues it. Is that right? Is that really how we should think about playthings?

The more an object is played with, the more it comes to mean – but in this case, the less it is worth. The value of the used object declines with each handling: the value of the untouched item increases.

Troubled by this, I found myself pouring over collectors’ terminology:

  • mint on card
  • playworn
  • beater
  • MISB (mint in sealed box)
  • NRFB (never removed from box)

This code speaks of the nature of collecting: a collector removes the object from use and puts it on the shelf. And the shelf is where it finds its meaning, because it is preserved, held away from the knocks and chips of everyday life, and in a way, reverenced.

Why is a NRFB Luke Skywalker more valuable than a figure that has passed through many hands and given people pleasure? A figure that has battle scars and chocolate stains and may have soaked up a little brake-oil that time you used your cousin’s bicycle wheel as a cross-section of the Death Star?

The way we value – or treasure – objects is what keeps me coming back. Objects on pedestals, to be contemplated rather than touched. Objects to be moved around and used as tools for thought, play or memory. Objects that bridge distance and time. The Star Wars figures are interesting because multiples of the same object – mass-produced items, starting off as materially and monetarily identical – can become any of these things. MISB Luke is loved because 30 years on, he is still in his box. Beater Luke is loved because he has been played with for 30 years. What matters is that both objects have been invested in by us.

Which is what this residency is all about.