...the diamonds of the dust heap


The title for this exhibit came from the following text from “Virginia Woolf” by Alexandra Harris.


“She tried to include those things that didn’t seem important but which with hindsight, might turn out to be ‘the diamonds of the dust heap’. This was closely connected in the development of her fictional writing, where she was feeling for the significance of unremarkable things, knowing that emotion accrues in places you might not at first suspect.”


In the 1930s Stanley Spencer used a pushchair to transport his art materials around Cookham; John Piper and John Betjeman travelled throughout southern England recording the landscape and the architecture; Graham Greene, Daphne du Maurier, George Orwell, J.B.Priestley, Evelyn Waugh and Virginia Woolf peopled their writing with English characters; and designers Edward Bawden, Harry Beck, Eric Gill, Eric Ravilious and the publisher Allen Lane all made a significant mark on the culture of this country.


All this and much more was the subject of a talk given by Alexandra Harris in 2010 at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature, about her book Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper. Many of the signs and symbols around us, which we take for granted, were designed in the decade before the Second World War. English artists and writers were keen to record what they saw around them, eschewing modern art trends from Europe. This is what I wanted to celebrate in my work in the exhibition “Making a Point!”


The pushchair in my exhibit was wrapped with a panel of dry stone walls from different parts of the country which made reference to the travels undertaken by John Betjamen and various artists who recorded the geography and architecture of some of the English counties during the 1930s.


Surrounding this was “My Book of Ordinary Objects” with its pages spilling out revealing everyday household items, inspired by a newspaper cutting showing Stanley Spencer sketching on a roll of Izal toilet tissue, the men shipbuilding on the Clyde.


In the seat of the push chair was a pop-up book, “The Lady’s Companion by Abigail Bonne”, which had four pages. The first had the Underground symbol as a pop-up because in 1933 Harry Beck based the new map of the London Underground on the circuit diagrams which he drew every day. Beck said, “It occurred to me it might be possible to tidy it up by straightening the lines.” The second, Afternoon Tea, has a design based on Rebecca Crompton’s panel “England” and shows a pop-up cup and saucer and cakes. The cup and saucer were based on Eric Ravilious’s tea cup and saucer, called “Afternoon Tea”, first produced in 1936. Ravilious’s design shows the symbols of homely tidiness which he loved to evoke and was among many which Ravilious designed for Wedgwood. The third page gave the names of authors who were published by Penguin in that decade, arranged amongst dancing penguins. Allen Lane, the genius behind Penguin books, said in 1935, “We believed in the existence in this country of a vast reading public for intelligent books at a low price and staked everything on it!” The final page portrayed a lighthouse based on Virginia Woolf’s book of that name and showed the importance of the coastline in Britain’s history.


The music “Dives and Lazarus” composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1938 for the British Pavilion at the World Trade Fair in New York, played from time to time during the exhibition.


Susan Canfield




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