Two of my recent artworks have been purchased by museums this year. I started my professional career working in museums, after doing a Masters Degree in Museum Studies. Museums are still my favourite places to spend time, particularly in textile and social history collections. I left my museum career aged 30 in 2005 to pursue my ambition to make a living out of textiles. Over the subsequent 14 years, I have worked in partnership with museums and heritage collections many times and still get a thrill of excitement when I discover new objects, collections, personal and community stories and buildings. I have created commissions using archive materials for Harefield Hospital Centenary Quilt, made textile collections inspired by my own family history and used antique textiles to tell the stories of how we do and don’t treasure historic clothing in my Garment Ghosts series. Museums and heritage suffuse my work, they are inseparable to who I am as a person and as an artist. Having work in museum collections, to be preserved forever and accessible to researchers and historians and textile enthusiasts is a real honour.
Memorial Sampler: Gawthorpe Textiles Collection
I am particularly delighted that Memorial Sampler has been purchased for the Gawthorpe Textiles Collection. I have spent time at Gawthorpe doing research in their collections several times and exhibiting there in 2018 was a highlight of my professional artist career. The Memorial Sampler is a deeply emotional piece of work, gathering the names of loved ones who have died. I started with a couple of my own and then asked on social media for contributions. I added these to the piece during the exhibition when I worked in the gallery on Meet The Artist days. I also asked for contributions from visitors to the exhibition over the 3 months it was on show, and after the exhibition I slowly stitched in all of those names too, adding up to over 100 personal memories. It has been an honour to be trusted with these precious memories and to be able to bring together all those lost loved ones. It seems fitting that this piece will be preserved in the collections which inspired it.
Criminal Quilts, Repeat Offender; The Brampton Museum
Criminal Quilts is a textile and heritage project created by me in partnership with Staffordshire Record Office. The project is centred around the stories of women photographed in Stafford Prison 1877-1916. Our research project gathered together over 500 mugshot photographs of women and I created a series of textiles inspired by the stories. This project grew out of an earlier commission for Shire Hall Gallery which has also been purchased by Staffordshire County Council museum collection.
Repeat Offender is a screen-printed textile piece, printed on vintage cloth, created with the support of University of Wolverhampton Textiles and Fashion team. Purchased by Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council for the collections of The Brampton Museum, Staffordshire. This piece is part of Criminal Quilts and was purchased for this collection because the woman featured, Agnes Herrity was from Newcastle-under-Lyme. Agnes quickly became one of the stars of the Criminal Quilts project, as she features several times in the prison mugshots.
This quilt is made from screen printed cloth using an image created from this 1897 photograph of Agnes Herrity. She was photographed (on release from prison) five times between 1897 and 1910. She lived in Newcastle-Under-Lyme. Agnes clearly had a hard life, living in slum housing and making a meagre living. She was convicted regularly of drunkenness, theft and assault. I have used screen printing because it uses photographic process which reflects the historic photographs. The use of repeating images refers to Agnes’ repeated prison sentences. Screen printed by hand on modern linen, antique printed cotton, vintage cotton and new cotton hand printed with marbling design taken from the endpapers of one of the prison albums. It is backed with an old shawl, reminiscent of those seen in many of the photographs.
Criminal Quilts exhibition returns to Staffordshire from 25th May – 7th July at The Brampton Museum and Art Gallery, Newcastle-under-Lyme. The museum is free entry and is open Monday to Saturday – 10am to 5.30pm, Sunday – 2pm to 5.30pm, Bank Holidays 2pm – 5.30pm.
I will be giving a talk and tour at the museum on Wednesday 3rd July at 2pm.
This exhibition also includes the original criminal Quilts miniature pieces made for Staffordshire Arts and Museums service plus the new Prison Apron shown below.
Criminal Quilts – Ruth Singer. Photo by Ashley Brown
Criminal Quilts – Ruth Singer. Photo by Ashley Brown
I’m delighted to be one of the Keynote speakers at this years’ Staffordshire History Day on Saturday 11th May.
I’ll be talking about the research behind my Criminal Quilts project in detail and sharing some of the many intriguing and troubling stories we unearthed during the research.
In between archive visits I have begun working on a sketchbook to gather my thoughts and ideas for the new work I intended to make for the Criminal Quilts exhibitions starting in summer 2018 – which is suddenly really quite soon!
I’ve created a sketchbook for sharing with people when I do talks about the project and during archive workshops starting in January. It is very much a working sketchbook; a gathering of ideas, inspiration, notes, thoughts, colours, textures and details but it is also intended to be shared, used and probably included in exhibitions so I have taken care to make it look really nice!
I’m working in a large format spiral bound sketchbook with brown kraft paper pages which is robust, easy to display, has capacity for expansion and the colour fits with the project. As I discussed in a previous post, I am finding the photo albums themselves very inspiring – the layers of papers, the damaged leather bindings and the marbled endpapers which feel like a little incongruous in their luxurious feel.
I’m also working on colour palettes to bring through the work, much of it inspired by sepia photos, cyanotype prints and my early pieces taking colours from the Shire Hall court buildings themselves and most recently I have been working on ways of creatively interpreting the data which the research is uncovering. My next post will explore the growing data collection in more detail.
You can keep up to date with the project on Twitter @criminalquilts or on my personal Instagram feed (which also includes a lot more besides!)
During November I went through all eight photograph albums from Stafford Prison to record all the women featured in the photographs. The photographs begin in 1877 and continue until early 1916. The style of photography changes dramatically during this period as does the clothing worn by the women. The first set of images 1877-81 are all pasted alongside a written record giving details of each individual and a little information on their crime, trial and other convictions. The women are shown sitting down with their hands in their laps or enveloped in a large shawl. Many of the women in this album are photographed wearing a medallion with their prison number. Apart from the prison number medallion, these images look more like informal portraits than any of the later images. There about 100 records of women in this album. All the later albums just have photographs with a name, prison number and date of photography with no further details.
The album covering 1883-1887 contains the images which I used as inspiration for my previous Criminal Quilts, focussing on the hands, which in these photos are placed on the chest. It seems that hands were included prominently in prison photographs for a few years as hands, particularly damaged or missing fingers, could act as identifying features. This album has 12 photos per page including about 130 women in total.
The 1893-1896 album shows a change in the way prisoners were photographed. The early photos are taken face on but with a side mirror intended to capture the woman’s profile, though this is fairly unclear in most of the images. Their hands are still shown but by the end of the period this album covers a new style of photography has taken over with a profile image alongside the facing front photo, without hands. These photos, although less intriguing and personal than the ones with hands, still show clothing, and particularly hats with great clarity. These are black and white rather than sepia so also show a change in photographic technology. In most of the later (side on) images, women are shown without their hats and many are wearing prison uniform as shown below (arrow showing on her shoulder in the profile image).
Two albums cover 1897-99 and only contain 21 photographs of women. Why there are so few remains to be discovered as I do more research. These images are similar in style to the previous album although most of them are wearing hats.
Moving into the early 20th century the style of profile and face on images continues and the wearing of hats varies. In the last album 1911-1916, the hats are so impressive and stylish it is easy to be distracted by them and forget these are prison photos. A number of women are wearing similar outfits of gingham apron and mid-colour shirt with white collar and checked neckerchief which is surely prison uniform. A few older women are still wearing a Victorian bonnet rather than the modern large brimmed hat.
In all there are around 500 photographs of women in this collection of albums. I had initially intended just to focus on the earlier, Victorian-period albums where the hands are shown but I have decided to extend the research to all the women in these albums right up to 1916 as they are so intriguing and fascinating. A handful of women also appear across a number of albums and add depth to the stories I am aiming to tell with this project.
In the next post I will be showing the other side of the project – my own creative work developing alongside the research. You can follow the project research on Twitter @criminalquilts where new blog posts and snippets about the project will be shared.
The photographs which have formed the source material for Criminal Quilts are held in bound albums in Staffordshire Record Office. The albums are part of a large collection of archives from Stafford Prison and I’ve been working my way through each one in the last couple of weeks. The images I am working with date from 1878-1915.
As well as the intriguing photographs of women, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the albums themselves. They are large bound books with hundreds of pages. Some have damaged spines showing the binding. Some covers are badly damaged too, showing layers of leather and board.
The albums have marbled endpapers and indexed pages, buckled pages and damaged corners. The materiality and weight of these albums adds another dimension to the stories of the women whose images are contained within.
I am hoping to bring in the physicality of the albums into the new work in make as the project develops, in the form of artist-made books with hand printed and stitched pages.
You are invited to join me at Staffordshire Record Office for the launch of a new phase of my project Criminal Quilts on Friday 8th September. Find out more, see artwork from 2012-2015 and explore the original archive photos.