Wednesday, 31 March 2010

An invitation to dinner

As you might guess from the title, 'Place Setting' is essentially a project about dining. The theme is particularly apt, as the only original remaining fragments of Orleans House are the stables and the beautiful 18th century octagonal dining room, which now adjoins the 1960's gallery space. All the rest of the house was pulled down in the 1920's by a balast merchant, who bought the site with an eye on the gravel pits underneath it! Demolition was already under way, when the banqueting room - thankfully situated at the far end of the site from the wrecking balls - was bought in the nick of time by Nellie Ionides, a wealthy neighbour. She used to host her own dinner parties in the banqueting room, with all the food processed from her kitchen in the neighbouring house.

In 'Place Setting', a six metre dining table runs down the length of the gallery. The table is set for a guest list spanning four centuries along the banks of the Thames. Arisocrats and architects are seated alongside cooks and nursemaids. Place settings are cut into the stitched damask table top, with plates worked in quilling to reflect the ceilings above. I found the beautiful images above on the internet whilst planning the pitch for the commission.

As part of the project, I have been running a series of workshops with my friend Keirion. This is one of the kids in the kitchen at Ham House. Dissapointingly the pastry is salt dough, filled with uncooked black-eyed beans!

Saturday, 27 March 2010


Over the last couple of weeks, I have been looking at damask patterns to work into the piece. At Strawberry Hill, Walpole's original crimson glazed worsted damask is being re-woven for the restoration, and will be hung as pannelling on the walls of the long gallery.

Although this wallpaper in the 'blue bedchamber' is actually from the late 19th century, and not at all authentic to the house, I really like the deep gloomy colours and the gold highlights. It will of course all be stripped away in the restoration.

The ceiling in the blue bedchamber still has the original guilding from Walpole's time - it's a beautiful deep red-gold, and a very lovely simple repeat pattern. There's something of a feel of bamboo trellis about it I think. Although it had a grand bed in it, the room was not really used as a bedroom - more of a show room. The working bedrooms were all on the floor above.

This is the pattern I have designed for my piece. It is based on a number of different damasks, and has been simplified so that the pattern shows up even when stitched at quite a big scale.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Hidden Stories

Historic archives are a central theme in 'Place Setting'. I want to explore the idea of hidden narratives, and forgotten stories.

I have been looking at archive imagery. I'm fascinated by the way that the outside of the archive files are so regular and anonymous, whilst inside are perhaps hidden tails of dramas, scandals and, perhaps most interesting, the minute detail of day to day lives over the centuries.

For 'Place Setting', I am going to be working onto and into this theme quite literally, cutting and stitching into my own archive of historic narratives. At the moment I have a huge wall of archive files towering over the studio. It's very exciting to begin to anticipate the scope and scale of the final installation.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010


One of the most extraordinary things about both Orleans House and Strawberry Hill are the exquisite ceilings. In Orleans House the ceiling of the beautiful octagonal banqueting room, designed by James Gibbs in the early 18th century, is worked in plaster. The craftsmanship was so fine that Gibbs had to employ Swiss stuccatori Guiseppe Artari and Giovanni Bagutti as there were no local plasterers up to the job.

The later 18th century ceiling of the long gallery at Strawberry Hill is worked in papier mache. It was modelled on the ceiling of Henry VII's chapel at Westminster Abbey, and is a gloroius confection in cream and gold. The other-worldliness of the detail was even more pronounced for me as I was lucky enough to visit the house during its restoration. From under the shadows of the scaffolding, tip-toeing along the bare joists, with the rain pouring outside, the work took on an altogether ethereal quality.

I have been doing some research into table settings and banqueting customs in the 17th and 18th centuries. During the Stuart period there was an extraordinary vogue for sugarwork or pastillage. Huge elaborate sculptures and vignettes were created as centrepieces for banquets, demonstrating the wealth of the household at a time when sugar was an extremely valuable commodity.
The food historian Ivan Day has re-created several of these pastillage sculptures, working the sugar in the minutest detail. These are some of the images form his website

The combination of sugarwork, plasterwork and papier mache has got me thinking about paper quilling. It's a very simple technique and gives the most ornate curls and swirls. I have been playing around with it in the studio for a day or two, making up different shapes and patterns.