The Corner Cabinet – Domestic Bliss

Welcome to this latest Collection Musing for GoMA’s At Home series. The focus a set of objects in the exhibition Domestic Bliss from Glasgow Museums’ social history collection. Objects not necessarily seen in an art gallery but included here to open up conversations about the domestic space, Empire, Glasgow, trade and the transatlantic slave trade. The intention is that this cabinet of objects will develop through the addition of some further objects from the collection but the objects already on display have influenced two works for Domestic Bliss commissioned from the artists Camara Taylor and Mandy McIntosh.

The first object I want to focus on which is the earthenware Wedgwood teapot (pictured below). Its exact date is unknown; but transfer printing onto ceramics developed in the 1750’s which gave a more economic and accurate mass produced desirable object for consumers so it is from the 2nd half of the 18th century.

Wedgwood teapot (late 1700’s) in store at GMRC

The design on the side of the teapot we can see is The Tea Party by Robert Hancock from a book of patterns/designs first published in the late 1750’s in London. A popular design it was used by Wedgwood on teapots, but also other objects connected with tea consumption like a tea caddy in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It was also used by other companies as well.

It shows a well-dressed couple siting at a table with various paraphernalia for drinking tea -eg: sugar bowl, milk jug. The lady is stirring her tea delicately with a spoon and a dog is sat at her feet. They are attended by a young black male servant (assumed to be an enslaved young boy) who pours hot water from a kettle into a teapot.

The reverse side (unseen in the docuemtation we have access to at the moment) shows a pastoral scene with a seated shepherd tending some of his flock. While this can refer to the gentile scenes of the countryside, in the context of trade it can also speak to the importance of the wool trade to the economy as exemplified by the woolsack which is still in use today as the the seat of the Lord Speaker in the House of Lords. It is a large square cushion of wool covered in red cloth and is stuffed with wool brought from around the Commonwealth. The tradition of the Woolsack dates back to the reign of Edward III when the wool trade was one of the most important parts of the economy. Thus for political reasons a seat stuffed with wool was a very important symbol of the wealth of the country. With a 21 Century lens on history we can understand that the importance of sheep and wool to the economy continued so much so that the late 1700’s (when this teapot was in circulation) Scotland saw the development of larger scale sheep farming by landlords across the country, with devastating consequences for the poorer class particularly in the Highlands through the Clearances.

So on the one hand this mass produced, more affordable object – this is an earthenware tea pot which means that it would have been more affordable for those on a more modest income, rather than a more unique elite one made out of porcelain or china – can be seen by it’s owner to celebrate the pleasures of tea drinking alongside another landscape scene of pastoral wealth. However today, the teapot’s subject matter also evokes the links between the trade routes bringing tea and sugar into the UK with the exploitative mechanisms of slavery that produces these goods alongside the deeply entrenched racist legacies of Empire and Commonwealth.

This Tea Party image reminds us that, many black people were present in Britain as Domestic Servants in the 18c and estimates range from at least 10,000 Africans were living in 18th century England/ UK – with around 100 known to be here in Scotland. Objectified by their affluent owners they were often seen as status symbols who offered ‘exotic associations’ like the new beverage, tea or the sugar that sweetened it. So we can think of the image functions to an aspiring merchant class – if you buy this product you will join a more cultured class far removed from the slave conditions that created the tea and the sugar at that table. This image ignores the slavery that so much of British wealth was being derived from at that time in the mid-late 1700’s. As the abolitionist movement grew, people were asked to boycott the sugar that sweetened the tea and Josiah Wedgwood himself produced the token with the image of a kneeling enslaved man in chains and those famous words ‘AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER’ around the rim. However this image can also be questioned as portrays the enslaved person as begging for help and without agency or resistance. Even abolitionist images are part of the race and white supremacy issues that continue today.

This continued separation and amnesia from slavery and uncomfortable histories that created the city’s wealth can be seen to continue into the Empire Exhibitions and how countries from across the Empire were presented in regions with produce or cultural artefacts for spectacle and view of the exotic other for the British public visiting them. Some souvenirs from the 1938 Empire Exhibition held at Bellahouston Park are in this cabinet including another teapot – this time made out of metal. There is also the Glasgow Miles Better mug from the 1980’s campaign to re-invigorate or re-invent Glasgow, but in light of what we know abut Glasgow, the rich merchants and city centre whose wealth is founded on slavery – are we?

The final object is the Shish Mahal ash tray, donated by the restaurant to the collection. It speaks of a time when you could smoke while eating out and the table layout in restaurants included ash trays as a matter of course. It also speaks of migration and long history of the south asian community in Glasgow and of course it speaks to the Tobacco industry which a lot of this city’s wealth was founded on – the Tobacco Lords of Glasgow in the 18th century were comparable to the oil barons of today and GoMA now stands on the site of one of those Tobacco Lords – William Cunninghame of Lainshaw.

This brings me on to the recent commission from the Glasgow based artist Camara Taylor, who wanted to make a new work in response to Domestic Bliss and the history of this building. They are interested in the abolitionist movement but from the perspective of those that defended slavery – of which there were many notable voices from history. These included James Boswell, known for his biography of Samuel Johnson, but also wrote No Abolition of Slavery – or the Universal Empire of Love – A Poem. The work they proposed and we are delighted is now coming into the collection following an award from the National Fund for Acquisitions is Empire of Love. Empire of Love is a series of Zippo® lighters which they have had engraved with text from poem.

The engraved texts include the following excepts:

licentious joy!
your false philanthropy calls
Let’s justify the Planters’ ways
Love’s strong empire must remain
anti-colonial ire / ensnaring and deceitful veil
No Abolition of Slavery

Within objects in Glasgow Museums’ collection there are works that reference the abolitionists, their writing and campaigns; such as the Jack Knox painting ‘Glasgow Fair’. Much has been made of Scotland’s role in abolition, however Taylor was interested in influential Scottish writers who were supportive of slavery as a way of opening up conversations about the connections between Glasgow and the Caribbean. By inserting a literal ‘incendiary device’ – a Zippo® lighter – into Domestic Bliss to talk about economy, the triangular slave trade, Glasgow and tobacco – with this exhibition is housed in a building on the site of a former house of a Tobacco Lord – then it has the power to open up a conversation on all of these erased histories in Glasgow.

We plan to install Empire of Love when GoMA reopens later this year and look forward a discussion event currently titled, Lip Service, that Camara Taylor is planning with Francis Dosoo, a Glasgow based Scottish-Ghanian artist and producer.

The other commission in relation to this cabinet is the commission originally with Mandy McIntosh. The work “FEGS URNY MUGS” is a collectively authored artwork led by Mandy McIntosh working with a Ferguslie based group of women makers called The Feegie Needlers. Mandy has worked extensively with this group on projects including PROCESSIONS 2018 and Tannahill Threads.

Inspired by the work of a local woman who taught herself how to wrap graphics onto mugs and sell them for charity, this social sculpture collates a number of locally generated graphic designs which respond to the existing GLASGOW’S MILES BETTER mug in the Glasgow Museums’ collection.When Mandy and met to discussion the commission early on she was excited by the Glasgow Miles Better mug, recalling the appearance of the re-generational graphic with Mr. Happy across Glasgow in the early 80s. Even at that time she was struck by how perfect it was as a graphic and but also imperfect as a cultural missive, it was. It featured Mr.Happy in bright yellow and in her memory appeared on a disused railway bridge on the approach to Springburn, which at the time was suffering decimation with the intrusion of a new bypass.

Ferguslie Park has also been the subject of multiple regenerations, often with external consultants or creative inputs to improve the area and McIntosh felt that their experience resonated with her thinking around her experience of Glasgow’s Miles Better. Mandy worked with the Feegie Needlers to develop a set of designs that they felt represented Ferguslie from their perspectives. A set of the mugs is displayed in the exhibition and the work has come into the collection both as a sculptural piece, but also as set of mugs for the decorative art collection. We had the first talk for the exhibition Domestic Bliss with the Feegie Needlers and Mandy in April last year which raised a number of questions around culture, entitlement, class and democracy. A further set of these mugs has been produced and is with GoMA for community discussions to provoking around regeneration, commerce and social class.

FEGS URNY MUGS (2019) Mandy McIntosh and the Feegie Needlers, courtesy the artists & photo Ruth Clark

For the At Home Curator Talk this month there is a short film about these objects and commissions and for a longer introduction to Domestic Bliss there is a short film from an earlier At Home: Talks post.

Devine, T.M. The Scottish Clearances: A Distory of the Dispossessed, 1600 – 1900.
How Glasgow Flourished – Glasgow Museums blog
Legacies of Slavery and Empire in Glasgow Museums’ collections blog

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