Decant Day, 31 May 2017: Collections Roundup

by Jo Clarke, Marketing and Communications Officer

It’s been another busy few weeks for our Collections staff so I thought I’d round up a handful of the things they’ve been working on in this post.

Plymouth – From Destruction to Construction
We recently opened an exhibition at the Council House called ‘Plymouth – From Destruction to Construction’. The exhibition has been coordinated by two of our Learning Development Officers and looks at the impact of the Blitz on Plymouth and the ambitious plan that was devised to rebuild the city afterwards.

Our Curator of Decorative Art has organised some objects from our art collection to be included in the displays including a jug, cup, teapot, bottle and ceremonial trowel. The first four of these were all smoke and heat damaged in the Blitz. The jug even has another object fused to its inside from the impact. You can see them on show in the exhibition throughout the year.

Heat damaged object from Plymouth City Council's Arts and Heritage Service's collection
An image showing the inside of the jug
Photograph of the Blitz exhibition at the Council House Plymouth, May 2017
The objects on display in the exhibition

Objects from the collections across the History Centre partnership were also recently used in the research and development of a brand new series of theatrical walking tours. Our ‘Ropewalks’ explore the history of the Barbican area and have been developed in partnership with the Barbican Theatre and writer Jon Nash. The team who devised the project and script have drawn on research conducted with the Museum and Art Gallery, the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre and the South West Film and Television Archive.

Members of the team have been blogging regularly about the work they’ve been doing and you can find links to all their posts here. Tickets for performances in June and August are now on sale. Those that have taken place throughout May have had brilliant feedback from audiences.

Photograph of the cast members of Ropewalks, Plymouth - May 2017
Our ‘Ropewalks’ performers have really impressed audiences so far

Staff Away Day
Staff from most of the History Centre partners, including some of our Curators and Archivists, recently took part in an Away Day at Mount Edgcumbe.

Although there are lots of meetings taking place for the History Centre all the time it’s really rare that we all get the chance to spend the day together away from our offices. The event was an opportunity for us to discuss and share ideas about the kind of organisation we will become in the future, as well as work with people we don’t often collaborate with. One exercise where we worked in small groups of six to brainstorm ideas for exhibitions and then feed them back to everyone else was a real highlight and produced some really interesting results.

Our staff Away Day was a good opportunity for everyone to share ideas

Forward Planning
For the first time ever I officially heard the words ‘Recant Programme’ in a meeting a couple of weeks ago! It only seems like yesterday that we were planning how we were going to empty the Museum and Art Gallery so building and construction work could take place. Now, our Collections staff are already starting to think about what they’ll need to do to move everything back in 2019 – as well as bring the collections from the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, South West Film and Television Archive and South West Image Bank onto site. More on this in future posts!

……….and finally
One of the most major pieces of work that our Curators and Archivists have been involved in over the last few months is the development of the designs for the new galleries that will feature in the History Centre. As I highlighted in a previous post back in March, it’s a huge piece of work.

More progress has been made on this over the last couple of months and a series of workshops have been held with Event Communications who are leading on the gallery design.

Each workshop has focused on a particular gallery, has lasted for 2-3 hours and involved management and education staff too. The sessions have been fairly intense at times as people challenge each other to ensure we end up with the very best design – but it’s a process which has also strengthened our collective vision for the project.

We should be receiving some updated visuals from Event in the next couple of weeks and we’re really looking forward to sharing them with everyone. Watch this space!


History Centre Heroes: Trevor Francis

The first ever footballer in the UK, and almost in the world, worth a million pounds came from Plymouth.

In 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister; a 25 year old Trevor Francis joined Nottingham Forrest for a record one million pound transfer fee plus fifteen percent due to the Football League.

Photograph of Trevor Francis in 1979

On the day it was announced Francis posed for the press photo in suit and tie, while the manager who decided to offer this unheard of sum swaggered in a red leather jacket, playing down the deal by claiming he was just off to a gruelling duel on the squash courts.  It was the start of the great economic shifts of the 1980s, unleashing the power of money.

Now the value millions of people gave to football could be turned into cash, and a talented young player with experience in the first division was a key asset the top clubs competed for with increasingly extravagant prices, counting on making even more money from people’s desire to see their club win.

Francis was born in Plymouth in 1954, and attended Plymouth Public Secondary School for boys on Coburg Street, in a building now part of the university.  Playing locally in the junior league he showed such promise he was selected to join Birmingham City as an apprentice in 1969 aged only fifteen.

Two years later, he is said to have drawn ten thousand extra spectators to see him play with Birmingham against Bolton Wanderers.  They were not disappointed.  Only sixteen minutes into the match he scored his first goal, another mid-game, a third twelve minutes before the end, and an amazing fourth goal seven minutes after, injuring himself in the process.  He limped off the field to a standing ovation.  This was an extraordinary feat to have accomplished before his seventeenth birthday.

Photograph of Trevor Francis scoring a goal

He went on to help Birmingham move up into the first division in 1972, and played in FA cup semi finals in the same year and in 1975.  Always the fans’ darling, he was considered a maverick genius; fast thinking – his deft footwork famous for making goals out of nothing.

During the year before the record breaking transfer fee Francis had become an international player, beating Luxembourg in a qualifier for the World Cup and going on tour with the England team to South Africa. Unsurprisingly the top clubs in the UK now wanted him on side and would pay whatever needed.

Playing with Nottingham until 1981, he went on to Manchester City, Queens Park Rangers and finally Sheffield Wednesday.  He retired from professional football in 1994, but continued as a manager and worked for twenty-one years commentating on Sky TV.

Photograph of Trveor Francis 2014

Trevor Francis is remembered most in football for that magic figure.  The average house in 1979 cost just £18,000 – property speculation was to come later. He links Plymouth permanently with a landmark event in sporting history.

Written by Rosemary Babichev.

History Centre Heroes: James Joseph Judge

“Your books are as usual the best we have had. You are a genius at picking them out but then you are a genius at many things.”
Excerpt from a letter from Nancy Astor to James Joseph Judge, 1 January 1926

Hailing from Dublin, Ireland, James Joseph Judge (1869-1954), or JJJ to his friends, had a close personal friendship with the Astors. He is not as widely known as he deserves to be, but he certainly did a lot for Plymouth.

Judge came to Plymouth in the early 1900s. He was the editor of the Western Evening Herald newspaper until 1921, and assistant editor of the Western Independent until 1946.

Judge was also heavily involved in social work and was a tireless supporter of social causes. He was the founder of the Plymouth Civic Guild of Help, later the Plymouth Council of Social Service. He was also the ‘corner-stone’ of Nancy Astor’s Virginia House Settlement (VHS). Formally opened in December 1925 in a series of buildings on Looe Street near The Barbican, the VHS offered local people facilities for training, employment, entertainment and socialising.

There was a meeting room, gymnasium, billiard room, music room and a dance hall.  Smaller rooms hosted cooking, carpentry, dressmaking and singing classes. Writing classes were held in a library. Over 1,000 people were members and it was hugely popular with many clubs and societies including a mothers’ club, youth club, men’s club, soccer team and boxing club.

Judge also helped establish a number of day nurseries in the city, worked with people who had been crippled and those who had suffered from tuberculosis.

The Plymouth and West Devon Record Office holds the J. J. Judge papers. This archive is packed with documents linking him to Nancy Astor who affectionately referred to him as ‘Judie Judge‘. He was a regular visitor at Cliveden, the Astor family home. As a result, he became close to all Nancy’s family as well as some of her others friends including George Bernard Shaw and T. E. Lawrence.

A photograph of James Joseph Judge and Joyce Grenfell.
There are very few known photographs of James Joseph Judge. This image shows him with Nancy Astor’s niece, the actress and comedienne Joyce Grenfell. You can see an inscription from Joyce to him underneath the photo.

In the archive there are many letters thanking him for birthday and Christmas presents, encouraging him to visit or discussing different projects.

Many of Nancy’s letters are typewritten with extra messages or jokes scribbled at the bottom for him.

When he died at the age of 85 many of the Astor family paid tribute to him and the work he had done. He was described as a ‘saintly personality’ with an ‘inner goodness’ who had done much for Plymouth.

Nancy said that she found it hard to write about him and that he had provided her and her husband Waldorf with the guidance they had needed when they had first arrived in the city. “Plymouth has lost a great citizen,” she said, “and we of the Astor family have lost one of our most beloved members.”

Decant Day, 26 October 2016: A Passion for Porcelain

by Emily Goddard, Volunteer on the ‘Passion for Porcelain’ exhibition project

I joined the ‘Passion for Porcelain’ project in early July 2015, having been given the opportunity to undertake a work placement project as the final module of my MA in Heritage Management at Bath Spa University.

I decided to do this in place of a thesis to get more practical experience in the heritage sector. The chance to get involved with ‘Passion for Porcelain’ at Wheal Martyn was one that I was immediately very enthusiastic about. It meant being able to work in a museum environment and learn new skills. It was a fantastic opportunity that I didn’t want to miss out on.

When I began my research, I didn’t know much about porcelain or china clay, apart from the fact that the china clay industry was huge in Cornwall, William Cookworthy was the first to discover it and china clay is an ingredient in the porcelain paste. Luckily, I had a lot of guidance from Jo Moore, the Curator and Collections Coordinator at Wheal Martyn about the storylines and themes that needed to be explored. I was also given a lot of information from Alison Cooper, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery’s former Curator of Decorative Art, about the loan items from Plymouth.

Emily packing some of the porcelain objects in preparation for the 'Passion for Porcelain' install.
Emily packing some of the porcelain objects in preparation for the ‘Passion for Porcelain’ install.
A Plymouth Porcelain lioness nestled for packing.
A Plymouth Porcelain lioness nestled for packing.

I really enjoyed learning new things about porcelain itself, and the European discovery of how to make it. During my research, I was not only able to learn about the processes involved and how they related to the china clay industry in Cornwall, but also the history of various porcelain manufacturers and the wares they produced.

I was lucky enough to not only gain more knowledge about the subject, but also have practical experience of working with these items. I first met Lottie Clark, Curator of Art at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery in August, when she delivered the first set of loan items to Wheal Martyn. I was pleased and excited to have the opportunity to unpack these items and condition check them, seeing how collection items can be protected during transportation in situations such as this, and how different museums use and write condition reports.

Lottie was kind enough to offer me the opportunity to visit Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery to help pack and transport the remaining loan items. By this point the museum had closed to the public. I was able to see some of the decant and even be part of it, which was really exciting! I was also able to learn more new techniques for handling and packing the objects, and see even more of Plymouth’s ceramic collection.

Lottie Clark and Emily packing at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.
Lottie Clark and Emily packing at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.

The final week of installation was very hectic, but very rewarding for everyone – especially when the exhibition opened for a private view on Thursday 20 October. I learnt many things about display cases, including the fact that many of them are designed to look pretty but are not practical or easy to assemble! When everything came together, the exhibition looked really professional and better than I could have hoped for!

The 'Passion for Porcelain' private view at Wheal Martyn on 20 October 2016.
The ‘Passion for Porcelain’ private view.

Overall, my experience of working with both Wheal Martyn and Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery has been an overwhelmingly a positive one. I have learned so much about exhibitions and collections and have been given many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had elsewhere.

‘Passion for Porcelain’ has been a wonderful project to be a part of, and has hopefully forged strong links between Plymouth and Wheal Martyn. It means Wheal Martyn have a new temporary exhibition with many beautiful items from Plymouth’s collection, widening audiences and giving visitors a new experience. It means Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery can display a significant part of their decorative art collection while their building is closed for redevelopment.

‘Passion for Porcelain’ is on display now and is free to view. Visit the Wheal Martyn website for details of opening days and times.

See more images from the private view at Wheal Martyn here.

History Centre Heroes: William Cookworthy

We’re continuing our small series of porcelain-related articles by highlighting William Cookworthy in this ‘History Centre Heroes’ post.

He was born in Kingsbridge, Devon in 1705 and was a chemist by trade. He trained in London before setting up a Pharmacy in Notte Street, Plymouth.

As a Quaker he would always welcome guests into his house and some of his most famous visitors included Captain Cook and John Smeaton.

William Cookworthy, 1780 by Jon Opie © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)
William Cookworthy, 1780 by Jon Opie © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

Cookworthy was a man of many interests and was involved in a range of business ventures – one of which was the search for China Clay.

It was a quest that would see him discover it in 1748,  explore and eventually master the difficult process of using it to manufacture hard-paste porcelain, apply for and receive a patent to produce it in 1768 and establish the first factory in England to make it. The factory ran from 1768-1770 in the Coxside area of Sutton Harbour, Plymouth.

A memorial to Cookworthy at Tregonning Hill, Cornwall where he first discovered China Clay
A memorial to Cookworthy at Tregonning Hill, Cornwall – the place where he first discovered China Clay in 1748

Our Plymouth Porcelain collection is the largest public collection of its kind from this factory.

In total, we hold 483 pieces. 352 of these are domestic wares that range from cups, bowls, jugs and dishes to inkwells, vases and tea, coffee and chocolate pots.

The collection also includes 131 pieces of decorative ware – mainly ornaments in the form of animals and figurines.

The Four Continents - ornamental figures produced by the Plymouth Porcelain factory
The Four Continents – ornamental figures produced by the Plymouth Porcelain factory

Due to its significance, our curatorial team have researched and documented the collection over the years and have created a number of useful online resources.

  • Find out more about William Cookworthy and his search for China Clay here.
  • Find out about some of the key pieces in our Plymouth Porcelain collection here.
  • Read our recent post about the decant of our Clare Twomey commission which was inspired by the Plymouth Porcelain collection here.

Highlights from our Plymouth Porcelain collection can be seen on display in the ‘A Passion for Porcelain’ exhibition at Wheal Martyn China Clay Heritage Centre, near St Austell from 21 October until June 2017. Find out more about Wheal Martyn here.

History Centre Heroes: Samuel Phelps

Plymouth has a great reputation for theatre – but did you know this is something that dates back centuries?

Samuel Phelps was born on 13 February 1804 in Plymouth Dock (now Devonport) and initially worked in newspaper offices. Shortly after marrying in 1826 he accepted a theatrical post.

Dock-born Samuel Phelps had a long career in 1800s theatre, and enjoyed success as both an actor and a theatre manager.
Dock-born Samuel Phelps had a long career in 1800s theatre, and enjoyed success as both an actor and a theatre manager.

He spent a few years ‘cutting his teeth’ in provincial theatre. He then made his first London appearance on 28 August 1837. He played the character of Shylock in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at the Haymarket Theatre. After a short season there, he spent six years performing at Covent Garden, the Haymarket and Drury Lane.

In May 1844 he became co-lessee of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. He took on the role of Theatrical Manager. A man called Thomas Greenwood dealt with the business side of things and Mary Amelia Warner became the leading lady.

Phelps would stay in his Theatrical Manager’s position for 20 years. During that time he raised Sadler’s Wells to an important position, revolutionised the production of Shakespeare’s plays and appeared in many varied roles himself.

Under his direction, 34 of Shakespeare’s plays were presented at the theatre. As a director it’s been said that his handling of Shakespearean plays had a great educational effect both on the public and on the players. He published an annotated edition of Shakespeare’s plays in two volumes from 1852–54.

An illustration of Samuel Phelps in the role of Macbeth on the Sadler's Well stage, 1850 © Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College.
An illustration of Samuel Phelps in the role of Macbeth on the Sadler’s Well stage, 1850 © Ella Strong Denison Library, Scripps College.

In 1861 Thomas Greenwood retired from the partnership and Phelps, unable to cope with the business management side of things on top of his existing commitments, retired the following year.

He continued to act regularly for the next 15 years however and achieved considerable success. His last appearance was in 1878 as Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.

Phelps was described by one critic as ‘a sound and capable actor‘. He had a preference for tragedy but was most successful in comedic roles that called for dry humour.

This particular portrait from our permanent art collection captures him in the role of Hamlet. This famous tragedy was written at some point between 1599 and 1602 and is set in the Kingdom of Denmark. It’s Shakespeare’s longest play and is ranked among the most powerful and influential tragedies in English literature.

Samuel Phelps (1804-1878) as Hamlet, painted by Nicholas Joseph Crowley (1819–1857) © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)
Samuel Phelps (1804-1878) as Hamlet, painted by Nicholas Joseph Crowley (1819–1857) c.1835-40 © Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

Hamlet was Phelps’ most frequently played role. This portrait was painted by a Dublin-born artist called Nicholas Joseph Crowley. We believe he painted it at some point between 1835-40 – possibly just after Crowley arrived in London to work and fairly soon after Phelps undertook his first leading role as Shylock at the Haymarket.

Phelps passed away on 6 November 1878 in Essex at the age of 74. He left Plymouth to find the fame and fortune he was destined for. Despite this, we will always be able to lay claim to the fact that we were the birthplace of one of the 1800s’ most famous actors and theatre managers.

A plaque dedicated to Samuel Phelps to mark his former home at 8 Canonbury Square, London.
A plaque dedicated to Samuel Phelps to mark his former home at 8 Canonbury Square, London.

History Centre Heroes: Gilbert and George

The Plymouth Art Weekender takes place at the end of this week (23 to 25 September 2016) and the History Centre will feature an exciting programme of contemporary visual art, so we’re using this week’s blog post to highlight a contemporary artist who hails from Plymouth.

George Passmore was born in Plymouth on 8 January 1942. Today he is best known as one half of Gilbert and George. Together with Gilbert Proesch (b. 17 September 1943 in Italy) he is famous for his distinctive and highly formal appearance and manner and brightly coloured graphic-style photo-based artworks.

Artists Make Faces 2013
We were lucky enough to be able to feature a work by Gilbert and George (the yellow and black work on the left of this image) in our 2013 ‘Artists Make Faces’ exhibition. ‘Exhausted’ (1980) came to us on loan from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Both men studied art in their formative years – George at Dartington College of Art and the Oxford School of Art. They first met on 25 September 1967 while studying sculpture at Saint Martin’s School of Art. They claim they came together because George was the only person who could understand Gilbert’s rather poorly-spoken English at the time. In a 2002 interview with the Daily Telegraph, they said: “it was love at first sight”.

Since 1969 they have lived in the Spitalfields area of East London – a location that has inspired much of their work. According to George: “Nothing happens in the world that doesn’t happen in the East End.”

Their early work centered around performance and the work that initially established their reputation was created while they were still students. ‘The Singing Sculpture’ was first performed at the Nigel Greenwood Gallery in 1969-1970. Gilbert and George covered their heads and hands in multi-coloured metalised powders and stood on a table while they sang and moved to a recording of Flanagan and Allen’s song “Underneath the Arches”. Sometimes they did this for a day at a time. The suits they wore for the performance became a sort of uniform for them.

Gilbert and George then went on to experiment with video, photography and drawing. In the early 1970s they started producing black-and-white photographic assemblages. In the late 1970s they began to develop gridlike photo combinations. During the early 1980s, they began to add a range of bright colors to their photographs, creating a more stylised and cartoonlike appearance.

The largest series of works created by them is known as the ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ in which the Union Jack and Gilbert and George are the two dominant images – appearing contorted, abstracted, and sometimes complete. The entire series is set in the East End of London as indicated by flags, maps, street signs, graffiti, brickwork and foliage that can be found in the area. The works have been described as ‘among their most iconic and violent’.

Gilbert and George (George is on the left) at a 2009 press conference in Berlin to discuss a solo exhibition of their "Jack Freak Pictures".
Gilbert and George (George is on the left) at a 2009 press conference in Berlin to discuss a solo exhibition of their “Jack Freak Pictures”.

At times they have received criticism, particularly for what people perceive as them glamourising some of the ‘rougher types’ of London’s East End. Some of their work has also attracted media attention because of the inclusion of nudity, depictions of sexual acts and bodily fluids. Some of the titles of their works have also courted controversy: “Naked Shit Pictures” (1994) and “Sonofagod Pictures” (2005).

However, they have also received much acclaim with extensive solo exhibitions in the UK, USA, France, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Austria, Denmark, Russia and China; numerous Honorary Doctorates from academic institutions including Plymouth University; and awards such as the Special International Award, the South Bank Award and the Lorenzo il Magnifico Award. In 1986 they won the Turner Prize which is widely considered to be the UK’s most prestigious contemporary art award. In 2005 they represented the UK at prestigious international art exhibition, the Venice Biennale.

Gilbert and George
The Plymouth University graduation ceremony in 2013 where Honorary Doctorates were presented to Gilbert and George. Image from Culture24 © Alan Stewart.

By placing themselves into their work Gilbert and George are not only the creators of their art but the art themselves. By using images mainly gathered from around their home their work has captured many different facets of the human experience: humour, emotion, rural and urban, sex, religion and patriotism. The works they’ve produced are an important part of Britain’s post-second world war conceptual art.