As a small child I remember watching Mary Poppins (the film) on a shiny new VHS, whilst completely unaware of the book(s) upon which the story was based. Only more recently has the name P.L.Travers entered my consciousness, along with the fascinating accounts of her disagreements with Walt Disney, which are now the focus of a new film: Saving Mr Banks.
Emma Thompson is the star of this particular outing. As P.L. Travers she is assertive, insulting and razor sharp in her dealings with Walt Disney, whilst also managing to convey a subtle vulnerability. Whether or not this is an accurate portrayal of the Mary Poppins author, is difficult to ascertain, but Thompson makes Travers a funny and commanding presence; a character who arguably carries the film.
The real P.L Travers already had my admiration from the start – her willingness to stand up to Disney – according to some, a ruthless mogul and control freak (portrayed in a predictably sympathetic manner by Tom Hanks) – was inspiring for a woman in the early 1960s, and I join her in loathing the animated sequence in the Mary Poppins film (although I still enjoy the majority of the story). Also as an artist, I empathise with her strong sense of duty to the story and its characters – to have a treasured creation transformed into an object of hatred is a terrible thing, I would imagine.
Indeed, Travers reportedly hated the film, and I was relieved, to an extent that the makers of the film (overseen by, of all organisations, the Disney corporation) kept this in the story, albeit toned down (from what I have read). However, the portrayal of Walt was at odds with some of the articles I’ve come across, which suggest a much darker personality than Tom Hanks cultivated. Even when he tries to exclude Travers from the premiere of the Poppins film, it feels difficult to get angry at the sugar-coated Walt we are presented with throughout the film.
The overly sentimental inclinations of Disney (as a man and as a business empire) were the main reasons behind Travers’ reluctance to hand over the rights to her book, and these inclinations potentially risk determining Travers’ own legacy. Fortunately Emma Thompson does an admirable job of celebrating the late author, although whether said author would approve is another matter. I’m not sure what she’d make of the attempts to dramatise her early life – for me these parts hindered the rest of the film, nor, no doubt, would she necessarily approve of the favourable depiction of Disney himself.
Which leads me to ask, what right does anyone have to determine the legacy of a person no longer alive to speak for themselves? Biographies, films, museums and so on all play powerful roles in shaping how present day audiences think about historical figures – real AND fictional. Just as Travers fought valiantly to defend the honour of Mary Poppins, her own legacy is now in question.
Several weeks ago an installation at the V&A Museum was recommended to me. An invitation to explore the fictitious home of an aging architect seemed like an intriguing premise for an exhibition, and this week I made the trip down to London to find out more.
Above: A sign outside the museum advertises the installation as a new ‘residential development’ (source)
The architect in question is septuagenarian Norman Swann, a fictional character evoked by a series of rooms (and accompanying ‘possessions’- some taken from the V&A Museum collection) by artist duo Elmgreen & Dragset. Although Norman and his home are pure fabrication, visiting the installation feels somewhat intrusive - the viewer becomes a voyeuristic explorer who sits on Norman’s chairs, reads his books and touches his personal belongings. They can’t, however, take photographs or enter with a bag larger than a small purse.
Above: View of the apartment (source)
Indeed, home is a private place; consequently the public availability of someone’s home (albeit a fictional one) in the V&A, exposes tensions between the interior world of the individual and the external self. The idea of reconstructing the home of a person is no new feat for museums – only days ago I was entering the re-imagined home of the Brontë family in Haworth, Yorkshire - although the idea of doing it for someone still alive (fictional or otherwise) perhaps heightens the discomfort of the experience. Or at least it did for me.
Norman wasn’t an easy person to warm to. His collection of antique books, valuable art and expensive furniture suggested privilege and cultural snobbery. Evidence of close or meaningful human relationships seemed lacking. Or at least those were my first impressions, having read little about the installation prior to attending. The neat arrangements of fading photographs suggested a past more vibrant and engaging than the present, and the various references to a schoolboy Norman implied a wistful vulnerability, further compounded by the unmade bed and carefully folded pyjamas.
Above: Schoolboy portrait and model in the fireplace (source)
Below: Unmade bed with folded pyjamas and slippers (source) According to the exhibition blurb, which I read upon returning from London, the flat and its contents represent Norman’s family heirlooms, to be sold due to bankruptcy. A former teacher of architecture at the University of Cambridge, Norman is a man who fell short of expectations, and failed to achieve his dreams as an architect. Much of this was hinted at in the installation, and there was an interesting parallel in the contrast between the artful arrangements of pictures and objects within the apartment, and the pathetic quality said items assumed when packed into cardboard boxes elsewhere. Norman’s home evoked a juxtaposition between the grandeur and glory that might have been, and the fall from grace that his bankruptcy represented.
Above: Framed prints (source)
Below: Boxed up possessions (source)
The apartment and possessions depicted a crumbling empire which Norman seems virtually powerless to rebuild, as an old man within a rapidly changing world. I was reminded in this instance of Grayson Perry’s In The Best Possible Taste (and the accompanying tapestries). Perry depicted an upper class struggling to survive amidst a new breed of brash entrepreneurs and bolshy celebrities. Norman represents the genteel class of old – self-entitled and thus bewildered by their recent decline in money and status. The prospective buyer of his apartment (a former student and ‘celebrity’ architect) reflects the new.
This too is mirrored in the marginalisation of older people in society more generally.
Above: Grayson Perry depicts the fall of the traditional upper classes in his tapestry (source)
Below: The soon-to-be owner of Norman’s apartment, represented by a shiny new kitchen (source)
The execution of the concept is clever, and a number of narratives emerge from the installation – questions about age, property, class, even sexuality etc are raised. The evidence of habitation is mostly subtle (e.g. cigarette butts, tea-stained cups and dimpled cushions), and the fake leak is a witty touch. Above: Cigarette butts and stained cup (source)
However, there was something rather cold and clinical about the installation - a feeling that made it difficult for me to sympathise with Norman, even after gaining a glimpse into his life and home, and witnessing his impending ruin. There was the sense of an elderly man who clung desperately to the ideals of an earlier age; to the promise of his privileged upbringing and superior tastes in art and culture.
As a former student of the university Norman taught at, I saw in (my imagining of) him some of my ex-tutors - people who had made me feel inferior; ashamed of my northern accent and relative lack of cultural sophistication in a world still to some extent dominated by posh Southerners and ex-public schoolboys. Even now, when I visit London, I marvel at how relatively untouched by recession the city appears when compared to Manchester (where I live) or indeed any other Northern city - in light of this, the plight of a failed aristocrat selling his expensive London home seems somewhat less compelling.
On the other hand, it is easy to make judgements, and invoke stereotypes, based on possessions, without acknowledging the complexity of their owner, and perhaps this is another point illustrated by the installation. There are aspects of the apartment I’ve not mentioned, and perhaps not explored fully enough, such as the site specificity of the installation and the background of the project (and artists). It can sometimes be difficult to reconcile emotional and intellectual responses to a piece of art, and this particular installation presented me with such a dilemma. In this sense Norman is not so much a person as an idea, who is constructed not via his possessions or his fictional home, but via the consumption of these manifestations by outsiders.
*Please note, the experiences at the University of Cambridge I describe are not definitive of either the university or my studentship whilst there - only a handful of the tutors I knew fitted the above description , and this was according to my own perceptions/feelings at this time. Furthermore, I am not claiming that Southern England has not been touched by recession, but am simply describing an impression I get when visiting particular parts of Central London.
**All images of the exhibition are from the V&A website - I didn’t break the rules and take my own photographs, which would not have been as slick as the official ones anyway.
There were many more failed experiments.
Fishing wire, tiny pegs and wonky pictures. Plus additional props.
Above: The Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth
The Brontë Parsonage Museum is located in the former home of the Brontë sisters - Charlotte, Emily and Ann - the now famous writers who created classic nineteenth-century novels such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall respectively. It contains a vast collection of images, documents and artifacts, all of which are used to reconstruct the lives of the family for visitors.
Above: A portrait of the sisters together, painted by their brother Bramwell (source)
Charlotte Cory is an artist, writer and photographer, who has altered images from the Brontë collection. A selection of her work is now on display at the Mercer Gallery, and a number of pieces are also ‘exhibited’ within the Brontë museum itself.
Above: Example of one of the works in the museum (source)
Following a delightful tour of the museum, I discovered a raging debate in the comments book upstairs. Not the sort of thing one would expect to find in a place like this. It was fantastic to see visitors not only engaging with the museum and the art works, but arguing passionately about archive material and how it should and shouldn’t be used.
Above: Another example of Cory’s work from the exhibition/museum (source)
As you can see, Charlotte Cory’s interaction with the Brontë images is somewhat unnerving. Her transplanting of animal heads onto human bodies is at times disturbing, at others humorous. Her portraits mimic the style and subject matter of genuine artifacts, and the images decorate chairs and cushions. They sit somewhat uneasily with the more conventional Brontë exhibits and create an alternative history - a new narration of the space and its famous residents.
In an art gallery one might expect this sort of work, but its presence in the museum represented to some, a violation. An abomination. One visitor describes its inclusion as ruining the experience. Others express their dissatisfaction more diplomatically, accusing the work of being too intrusive and not in keeping with the museum. Cory’s website describes the work as a museum within a museum, and the museum refers to the installation as follows:
The exhibition is an imaginative, witty and informative exploration of the Brontës and the history of early photography, drawing on the Victorian craze for collecting cartes des visite – portraits once produced in their millions and now discarded. Using twenty-first century techniques, Cory creates colourful new characters for these long forgotten figures, which are at the same time poignantly reminiscent of Victorian taxidermy; animals collected and preserved for posterity in their glory, and now extinct.
Cory’s work is certainly daring. The Brontës are British icons, and people flock from around the world to experience their ‘legacy’. These same people evidently have very strong ideas about how this ‘legacy’ should be presented and preserved. The current installation challenges this. The works don’t appeal to me aesthetically, and I find their presence in the museum overwhelming at times. However, their strength lies in questioning what archive materials mean; what a museum is and the authority of artifacts more generally.
Perhaps Charlotte Cory’s work is so unsettling because it demonstrates how easily archive material can be meddled with - a simple change or mistake can transform the meaning of the item concerned. Even the museum is not a true representation of the Brontë family, no matter how much it strives for authenticity. How are we to know how the Brontës really lived?
Furthermore, nobody truly knows how the Brontës would have wanted to be remembered, or how they would feel about their private possessions appearing on public display, curated and viewed by people they had never met.They might have enjoyed Charlotte Cory’s art work. Or they may have hated it.
The installation at the Brontë Parsonage Museum doesn’t just raise questions about the Brontë legacy, but it also highlights issues faced by museums and archives everywhere. Whilst the past can be re-imagined, it can never be genuinely re-experienced. With the passage of time, any claims to historical accuracy become increasingly tenuous, compounded by the selective nature of what is left behind, and those who choose to interpret it.
Prints produced by the plate. Black ink on newsprint.