History Centre Heroes: Dawn French

Some of the best Christmas television in recent years has been provided by today’s History Centre Hero. Who can forget the Vicar Of Dibley Christmas specials – particularly the last one in 2006 when the character of Geraldine Granger finally fell in love and got married?

A photograph of Dawn French as Geraldine Granger in the Vicar of Dibley


Dawn French has had a long career as a nationally renowned comedian, mostly in TV but also in film and theatre, writing and performing sketch shows with Jennifer Saunders and other major comedians of the alternative comedy scene.

But her one role most likely to be discussed by future historians is that of Geraldine Granger in the BBC comedy sitcom ‘The Vicar of Dibley’ which ran from 1994-2007.  Two years after women were first allowed to become priests in the Church of England, this award winning series made her into a sort of patron saint for professional women.

It had a huge impact on getting them generally accepted in the last of the traditional professions, and if sexist attitudes at work continued, perhaps she at least made it easier for women to laugh it off; watching from the sofa Geraldine’s troubles with an array of characters in a fictional Oxfordshire village.

Dawn French was born in Holyhead in Wales in 1957.  Her parents were from Plymouth, and though they moved often as her father was in the RAF, she stayed in the city during term time at St Dunstan’s Abbey School (now merged with Plymouth College) on North Road West.

A photograph of comedienne Dawn French

When she was eighteen her talent for public speaking was spotted by local MP Michael Foot during a debating competition.  He nominated her for a scholarship to spend a year in the USA at an independent school in New York, a period she drew upon in her novel According to Yes (2015).

At the Central School of Speech and Drama in London she was training to be a drama teacher when she met Jennifer Saunders, a comedian with a similar mission to upset chauvinist stereotypes, and began to work on the double act that was so successful as ‘French and Saunders’ (1897-2007). This series of sketches and spoofs on popular culture was given one of the highest budgets in BBC history. Jennifer Saunders’ highly popular sitcom ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ was based on one of their sketches.


A photograph of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders

After publishing her autobiography Dear Fatty in 2007, Dawn French’s work has concentrated more on her own life experiences.  She has written two other novels, and recently toured with her first solo show, ‘Thirty Million Minutes’, when she described how she has spent ‘her whole life vigorously attempting to be a fully functioning female human.’  She now lives in Fowey, Cornwall, and in March 2015 became the first Chancellor of Falmouth University.

Her 2011 best-selling debut novel A Tiny Bit Marvellous is currently being turned into a series for ITV.

In the meantime, you can catch her in a very different role at the end of the festive period when her new four-part drama ‘Delicious’ premieres on Sky1 on 30 December.

A photograph of Dawn French in Sky1's 'Delicious'

Written by Rosemary Babichev.


Decant Day, 12 October 2016: Our Clare Twomey commission comes down

by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer

The decant of the Museum and Art Gallery’s former public spaces is moving at pace and some of our most iconic works are now being packed up ready for safe storage.

One of the first is ‘Plymouth Porcelain: A New Collection’ by Clare Twomey which has been decanted over the last couple of weeks.

We worked with Clare on this commission in 2011-12. She is a British artist who primarily works with clay in large-scale installations, sculpture and site-specific works. Over the past 10 years she has exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate, Crafts Council, Museum of Modern Art Kyoto Japan, the Eden Project and the Royal Academy of Arts. Working on the project with her was a fantastic opportunity for us to collaborate with a really well-established artist and the staff involved learnt a lot.

The work broke new ground when it was made as it was the first time Clare had created a permanent piece for a Museum. Prior to this many of her major installations had been designed to disappear, break or perish in the course of their exhibition period.

Clare Twomey Collage
Clockwise from top: Trophy by Clare Twomey at the V&A Museum, 2006: one of the objects selected for our commission and its new porcelain version in Clare’s studio, 2011; ‘Plymouth Porcelain: A New Collection for Plymouth’ by Clare Twomey installed in our Atrium Gallery, 2012; Clare looking at an object brought in to one of our casting days, 2011.

Since February 2012, visitors have been able to view ‘Plymouth Porcelain: A New Collection’ above the doors of our China Connection gallery. The artwork has 33 suspended cases each of which contain a white porcelain object cast from objects suggested by the people of Plymouth – including a coffee pot that my granddad brought home from Singapore in the 1950s where he’d been serving with the RAF!

The work was inspired by our Plymouth Porcelain collection – the largest public collection of its kind from the first factory that ever produced hard-paste porcelain in England.

William Cookworthy of Kingsbridge, Devon discovered China clay in Cornwall in 1748 and obtained a patent for the manufacture of porcelain twenty years later. His Plymouth factory started in 1768 and ran for two years, producing a wide range of domestic and decorative items. We believe it stood where the site of the current ‘China House’ pub is on Sutton Harbour.

Packing collage for Clare Twomey's commission (1)

Packing collage for Clare Twomey's commission (2)
Taking down Clare Twomey’s work involved two members of our front of house team, our art curator, two volunteers and our scissor lift!

Decanting such an important artwork is no quick or easy feat and the process involved three members of staff plus Rosemary and Chris – two of our brilliant volunteers.

The suspended boxes were carefully taken down one at a time – access to them was provided by our trusty scissor lift. The porcelain object was safely removed from the box. Both items were then carried to a packing area where they could be wrapped and documented ready to be transported to our offsite store.

Here’s a short piece of timelapse footage showing part of the decant:

In total it took the team four hours to take down the boxes and move them and the porcelain items to the packing area.

It’s since taken a further four days to do all the packing and documentation.

Volunteer collage for decanting Clare Twomey's commission (1)

Volunteer collage for decanting Clare Twomey's commission (2)
Once all the boxes were down, all the porcelain objects were taken out and carefully packed and documented. The boxes were safely wrapped too.

All 33 boxes have been packed in protective bubble wrap and pallet wrapped. The individual ceramic items have also been safely wrapped and packed into 3 large containers.

Part of the commission safely packed and ready to be moved to our offsite store.
Part of the commission safely packed and ready to be moved to our offsite store.

It will be strange not to see this beautiful work on display for a while, but there are lots of other ways in which we’ll be highlighting our important Plymouth Porcelain collection to people while the development of the History Centre is taking place. More information about these will be published really soon in the news and what’s on sections of our website and in future Decant Day blog posts.

We’ll leave you with this short clip of the final box being taken down:

‘Plymouth Porcelain: A New Collection’ was made possible thanks to New Expressions 2, which was supported by MLA Renaissance South West and the National Lottery through Grants for the Arts to enable regional museums to commission new work and join forces with contemporary artists.

Mystery items from our Farley’s collection

Our Social History curator has been working on a collection that relates to the Farley’s factory which was in Plymouth. She has been unable to identify what these objects are, so we’d like to hear from anyone that can help. They look as though they would be used to carry out a fairly specific job so we hope someone might remember using these at work!

If you can help, please add a comment below or get in touch at museum@plymouth.gov.uk.

Can you identify this Plymouth school?

It’s back to school for many, so we thought this topic would be a good one to jog some memories!

Not one, but two photographs this time. They were catalogued consecutively, which means they are likely to be the same school – but you can never be too sure!

Our volunteer Madeleine had a look at these two photographs but she couldn’t identify the school, and neither can we.  If anyone was lucky enough (or unlucky depending on the weather!) to remember using this outdoor swimming pool, we’d love to hear from you.

The photographs are from the City Engineers collection, which covers the post-war redevelopment of the city centre as well as new suburbs. Unfortunately no date was recorded with these items, but we would guess they were taken in the early 1960’s. We’re sure there are some ex-pupils of this school who can enlighten us!

All this work helps towards plans for our redevelopment – you can head over to the Love Our Past news section to find out the latest on the developments.

Plymouth Seafront – can you date this photo?

Plymouth Seafront
© Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage)

We continue our series of photo mysteries with this rather lovely photograph of Plymouth seafront.

It looks like the crowds are out making the most of the weather – though there don’t appear to be many in the sea, so perhaps it was too early for that!

We don’t have a date for this particular photograph so would be pleased if anyone can help. Things we have noted which could help with the dating are:

  • Smeaton’s Tower has stripes
  • The Pier is in the background (though we aren’t sure if this is before or after it was damaged)
  • There appears to be a slide from the top of the Tinside Lido structure

Any suggestions welcome…..

All this work helps towards plans for our redevelopment – you can head over to the Love Our Past news section to find out the latest on the developments.

First mystery solved… Devonport Mechanics Insitute

© Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage)
© Plymouth City Council (Arts & Heritage)

This photograph caused some interest in our office last week! It was catalogued as the interior of Devonport Guildhall, but our volunteer Madeleine was not convinced! Quite a bit of detective work followed, looking into various suggestions including whether it could have been Devonport Library. The racking and filing didn’t look like it was part of a library though.

Our Curator of City and Maritime Heritage, Nigel Overton, then suggested to try the Mechanics Institute, which sounded like a good lead. Although there are many references to this building online, it wasn’t until after searching on the Plymouth & West Devon Record Office catalogue, we got a match that we could positively identify! Here, it is listed as “a black and white photograph of interior of Devonport Library, showing main hall with gallery”. We do think though, that our copy may be from the time that it was used as the Motor Tax office which closed around 1976.

The record is now listed as ‘Photograph showing the interior of the Mechanics Institute, Duke Street, Devonport, Plymouth, possibly when it was used as the Motor Taxation Office.’ We have the date as c1950, but if you can give a more accurate date it would be welcome!

All this work helps towards plans for our redevelopment – you can head over to the Love Our Past news section to find out the latest on the developments.