Isabella Whitworth

probably more than natural and synthetic dyes, wax, resists, and history

Installations, pasties and Turkey red


I’ve found a link between art installations and our family’s Pasty Evaluation Test. We live in the South West, the traditional home of the pasty. Most local bakers produce pasties and whole businesses are devoted to their making, including one of our favourites, The Original Pasty House in Tavistock. What is the Pasty Evaluation Test? Taste and healthy ingredients are part of it, but the initial stage is to check how many bites it takes before you achieve something other than pastry-coated air.

It’s the same with installations. I’ve seen many that beckon appealingly but prove increasingly unrewarding and wearisome post-first-bite. I don’t want to pre-read screeds of explanation telling me what to think, so if an installation doesn’t communicate after a decent period of interaction, then for me it’s a non-starter. 

I remember some good ones such as Jaume Plensa’s gongs at The Baltic in 2002. (Note: YouTube link shows them at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park where they seem arranged in a different way). They glowed in changing light and there was a timeless, temple-like quality to the space where silence and sound defined each other. People sounded the gongs with great intensity and contemplated powerful reverberations. Others seemed embarrassed to hit the gongs, as if they needed permission. A further cohort transformed into delighted children, shattering reverence with indiscriminate boing-ing and restaging the experience as wicked fun. It ended up as much about watching people as listening to gongs.

Not quite on the same scale, but I did enjoy two installations at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen this week. The first was Tina Hill’s Excavating Babel, a striking, tall spiral of over 2000 once-discarded books set in dust on a dark plinth. The books had been stripped of their covers, and thus identity, revealing a structure of sections and linen stitches, showing that books are, or can be, sewn together.  Created with books set uniformly with spines outwards, the inner spiral could be entered. It enclosed, isolated and insulated the visitor with a dense paper barrier. One was aware of millions of pages of muffling, unknown stuff.  What was this no-longer-needed information? There were interesting supporting notes to read, which afterwards I did. But Excavating Babel worked on several  levels without explanation, and thus passed the equivalent of the Pasty Evaluation Test.  You can see more about it on Tina’s own site here. Excavating Babel is part of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen exhibition Narrative Remains and you can see it until 23 March.

In the Riverside Gallery, also at the Devon Guild, is another exhibition called Love, Loss and Laundry.  This can be seen until March 16th. Through stitch and fabric Jacqui Parkinson commemorates the lives of destitute women and girls who worked in Devon House, Bovey Tracey. Devon House was run by Anglican nuns of the Clew Sisterhood – the notes record that they were largely a kindly organisation.  The refuge they offered allowed some girls, at least, to obtain respectable jobs in service and even to marry and have families of their own.

Women and girls were mostly occupied with laundry and sewing. Dirty sheets were washed, torn clothing darned, linen patched. But many inmates of Devon House lived or were buried unnamed. If it were not for the 1911 census records, their lives might have left no trace.  Anne Liebermann’s embroidered linen squares record some of these lives in the delicate red cross-stitching of their names from the census. Jacqui has sewn these onto squares of an old bedspread where layers of old fabrics can be seen. The squares resemble the padded fabric the girls would have used to hold an iron and the names are haunting and moving.

I have just enjoyed reading ‘Colouring the Nation’, a book about the Turkey red industry which set up along the Clyde and Vale of Leven in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. One of the fabrics in the installation (the one on the right, above, with the fan) looked very like a Turkey red or Turkey red derived pattern, and the dates fit.

Thanks to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen and the artists involved in the two exhibitions for permitting photography of their work.


Colouring the Nation: The Turkey Red Printed Cotton Industry in Scotland c1840-1940

by Stana Nenadic and Sally Tuckett. Published by National Museums Scotland

From Amazon here

There is an associated website which is well worth a visit for its text and searchable images. There are 501 available to see from the full 40,000 contained in the pattern books now held by National Museums Scotland.

3 thoughts on “Installations, pasties and Turkey red

  1. I like your association of pasties and installations. On the former, I can tell you that the pasties from The Cornish Chough bakery at Padstow fullfill all your criteria. Only this week I had a fantastic Steak and Cornish Blue cheese stuffed full installation.

    Generally I have to say I’m ambivalent to the point of suspicious about many of the ‘art’ installations I’ve suffered. To accommodate these surely there must be a new category in the humanities between art and craft. For me Art (with a capital A) is Fine Art – rarified territory to which many aspire but few gain entry. It is an accolade to be called an artist and therefore it’s an accolade if what you do is deemed Art.

    Not those Isabella you are describing, but too many installations for me have the smack of student gee-whizzery: a fun idea dreamed up in the pub. While galleries are seduced into supporting these, more and more Installers will sniff the chance of fame and fortune without the need to learn a craft let alone consider the big issues affecting humanity. If they are worth doing let’s at least demand some craft as shown by some of the workers you describe.

  2. Thanks, Richard. I’ve just mouth-watered my way through The Cornish Chough Bakery’s website and amazed to see they also do mail order! Next time we’re in Padstow we’ll be sure to put their pasties to the Installation Evaluation Test. Or should we meet in a pub and dream up a ‘pasty installation’ somewhere?

    Seriously, I think much ‘gallery’ work lacks craft, observational and technical skill etc. Maybe it’s easier to get away with it in an installation?

  3. Don’t be fooled by the Bakery’s logo – it looks nothing like a Chough.! But, yes, your second suggestion would fit the bill very ably. Just name the time and place.! How about commissioning Mr Hirst to do a huge semi-eviscerated pasty to float about Padstow Harbour?

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