Category Archives: Feminism

Pictures at an Exhibition 2

Part Two: as a Chinese jar

So, a bit more about 12 Henrietta Street and why I called this post Pictures from an Exhibition. Two weeks after shooting there I was back to see an exhibition called ‘as a Chinese jar’ by a young artist Roisin Power Hackett. The title comes from a line of a poem by TS Eliot, Burnt Norton.

“Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.”

On her website Power Hackett says “These lines speak of the patterns on a Chinese jar and how they repeatedly seem to move, despite being fixed motifs. This can be taken as an example of the rhythms and energy in life and the world”.

TS Eliot photographed by Cecil Beaton

TS Eliot photographed by Cecil Beaton 1956

Further: ”In her paintings and performance Róisín questions peoples’ relationships with their surroundings, depicting an abundance of intricately patterned wallpapers or rugs and blurring the edges between the person, their clothes and their environment…

She portrays historical characters, both real and fictitious, as well as her peers. Her characters blend into their backgrounds, absorbed and influenced by their respective societal norms, they either almost disappear or fight to be seen and heard”.


‘Similitude – A Portrait of Emma’, oil on wallpaper

Similitude – A Portrait of Emma, oil on wallpaper

“In ‘as a Chinese jar’, Róisín focuses on the power relations between the genders as well as between the rich and the poor. Her work highlights how women are regularly oppressed, pressured into submission and made to fade into the wallpaper”.


As a Chinese jar, oil on wallpaper

As a Chinese jar, oil on wallpaper

This would suggest to me a visual equivalent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s claustrophobic feminist gothic The Yellow Wallpaper.


The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman


The Red Room – actually more a madder rose if you want to be precise – is high-ceilinged and was slanted with sunlight.

In the centre of the room red wool hung from two chains attached to the ceiling, and attached to the wool were red booklets of Power Hackett’s poetry and a green label that said “Read Me”.


Read Me

Read Me


The artist was sitting in a corner of the room, partially covered by a repeat pattern fabric that also wallpapered one wall from dado rail to floor.

Most of the paintings are oil on wallpaper, although the wallpaper isn’t always apparent. Many were very lovely. Ironically, however, they work better as decorative pieces than as polemic. I’ll admit I didn’t see the performance part of the exhibition (Unless the artist’s monosyllabic presence was performance?) so perhaps I don’t have the full story, but I got no sense of struggle or silenced voices from the works.


Similitude – A Portrait of Shawnagh, oil on wallpaper

Similitude – A Portrait of Shawnagh, oil on wallpaper


The more contemporary portaits in particular seemed almost jolly, as if everything is fine now and the feminists have won.

Should this matter? Is it not enough to see lovely paintings in a lovely room? Well, given that Power Hackett’s intentions are so noble, yes it does matter.

Roisin Power Hackett is a very promising artist, and here is a highly resonant way in to women’s lives past and present.

Are women complicit in their own silencing? Where do domestic or private interiors fit in to all this? Are they the female voice given form or the method by which we gild our own cages?

I’d be really eager to see her develop her themes; to go really deep and let her paintings howl. In the words of TS Eliot again: “So the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing”.

I wish I didn't know that this is a painting of Anna Karenina from the 2012 film directed by Joe Wright

I wish I didn’t know that this is a painting of Anna Karenina from the 2012 film directed by Joe Wright

12 Henrietta Street was open to the public as part of the Open House weekend.


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Filed under Art, Fabric, Feminism, Wallpaper

>The Subversive Stitch by Rozsika Parker

I only read recently of the death of Rozsika Parker, and having intended to review The Subversive Stitch for months am finally galvanized into doing so.In a glowing obituary in The Guardian Ruthie Petrie describes Parker as

“A feminist, art historian, psychotherapist and writer. In all her work is a stitching-together of the themes that occupied her: women’s struggle for recognition within the art establishment; a challenging of the division between fine art and the decorative arts; the tensions, sometimes productive, sometimes destructive, in women’s creative work.”

The Subversive Stitch was first published in 1984, and was revised and re-issued to coincide with the V&A’s Quilt exhibition (see below). This revision has incorporated a new introduction which covers, briefly, the work of Louise Bourgeois, Tracey Emin – of whom Parker clearly does not approve – and others.

It is, without doubt, a Feminist History and with all due respect to the Sisters, it is within this framework that I find it flawed.

Parker is brilliant on the particularly bonkers brand of misogyny peddled by the Church. For instance, during the Middle Ages St. Margaret was one of the most popular of all the saints and martyrs as the patron saint of childbirth. She was thrown into a dungeon for refusing to denounce Christianity and was swallowed by the devil in the form of a dragon. She escaped because her crucifix caused the dragon’s belly to explode. Having inspired 5,000 pagans to convert she was beheaded. Her last request to God was that pregnant women who prayed to her should be granted an easy birth and a healthy child.

St. Margaret gets medieval on a dragon's ass. It's a metaphor for childbirth. (Detail of a panel from a burse held in the V&A Museum, made in England 1320-40)

St. Margaret gets medieval on a dragon’s ass. It’s a metaphor for childbirth. (Detail of a panel from a burse held in the V&A Museum, made in England 1320-40)


 However, because God has cursed women to bring forth their children in pain (Genesis 3:16) the depiction of any intercession, whether by midwives or by patron saints was prohibited. An interesting anomaly developed where a sanitized version of St. Margaret’s story existed in writing, while embroiderers continued to decorate priests’ chasubles with the kick-ass Margaret they and other uneducated churchgoers knew.

By the mid-nineteenth century – during the Victorians’ Gothic revival – St. Margaret had been diluted into an unrecognisably meek version of herself.

St Margaret & the Dragon, having mellowed with age

St Margaret & the Dragon, having mellowed with age

Parker also describes the evolution of embroidery from Guild-protected professional work to work that was done at home, for love or out of duty rather than for money. This change occurred during the Renaissance when, as is the case now, it was a luxury to have a stay-at-home wife. And if she could produce luscious bedding, curtains, wall hangings et cetera, then so much the better:

“Embroidery combined the humility of needlework with rich stitchery. It connoted opulence and obedience. It ensured that women spent long hours at home, retired in private, yet it made a public statement about the household’s position and economic standing”

She explores the changing fashions in embroidery from representations of biblical or mythological scenes in the Middle Ages; to the Elizabethan riot of flora and fauna; through Seventeenth Century samplers which emphasised the technical skill of the seamstress rather than the breadth of their imagination, and on via the Industrial Revolution, when pastoral scenes were at their most popular and biblical scenes saw a revival.

There is a fascinating story to be told about and through embroidery. The problem I have with the book is that it is Feminism first, and history second. Parker has grouped her chapters thematically so just as you’re getting to grips with womens’ position in Guilds (sometimes in charge, sometimes not), she will introduce some example of paternalistic Victorian perfidy. Usually she refers back to her original point, but it can be at least a chapter before she does so. Often too in this later expanding on a stridently made original point the facts reveal a far more ambiguous truth.

This combined with a justifiable anger has affected her ability to marshal the facts.

More paternalistic Victorian perfidy! Typical!

More paternalistic Victorian perfidy! Typical!

A simple narrative history would allow her readers to come to their own conclusions – namely that history (or rather herstory) sucked – without feeling we were on the receiving end of a rant.

I feel guilty criticising The Subversive Stitch because Roszika Parker has passed on, and I was taught not to speak ill of the dead. Also her generation of feminists really made my lot look good  a difference in this world.

The Subversive Stitch is an important but ultimately difficult read. One perhaps for the academics and gender studies crowd rather than the practitioners (no offence).

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Filed under Embroidery, Feminism, History, Reading