Tag Archives: relics

The Wildgoose Memorial Library

On Saturday Jane Wildgoose will be speaking about the role of hair jewellery in the ‘language’ of Victorian mourning. Here the artist, writer, broadcaster and consultant takes a moment to talk about her fascinating personal collection.

The Wildgoose Memorial Library © Jane Wildgoose

The Wildgoose Memorial Library is “a place where the heart remembers; where tender connections are made with forgotten feelings; and where the emotive power of the lost rituals of death is explored and interpreted by Jane’s sensitivity and unerring eye for the compelling.”

Roger Bowdler, World of Interiors (Nov. 2006)

The Wildgoose Memorial Library (WML) is an ongoing collection of reference material that informs Jane Wildgoose’s practice as an artist and writer. A constantly evolving work in progress, and a place for meditation and consultation on universal themes of life and death, the WML began as an informal collection of objects and books relating to Wildgoose’s  enduring fascination with the interest of the dead to the living, and a research resource for her work as a designer for theatre and film.

Setting the scene for 'On One Lost Hair' for BBC Radio 4 at The Wildgoose Memorial Library © Jane Wildgoose

In 2003 the collection took on a more formal aspect when it became the consultation basis for the BBC Radio 4 documentary On One Lost Hair – a meditation on a wisp of hair from the head of Horatio Nelson, bought on eBay, co-devised with producers Gregory Whitehead and Neil McCarthy. Encouraged by critical  acclaim for the programme, and a NESTA Dream Time Fellowship to develop her role as Keeper of the WML, Wildgoose has gone on to establish a multi-faceted approach to collecting that offers perspectives on a broad range of associated values – ranging from the historical, aesthetic and sociological, to the emotional and instinctive – while embracing an acquisitions policy that places emphasis on the capacity of an object to resonate with the viewer’s imagination through its appeal to the senses.

The Wildgoose Memorial Library (WML) has a digital home at www.janewildgoose.co.uk devised and designed in collaboration with Harry Willis Fleming. Elsewhere, the WML makes regular appearances ‘on location’ as Wildgoose presents her collection to the public in a variety of settings, which have included: the 1930s marble and wood-panelled municipal splendour of Hornsey Town Hall in North London; the white space of the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, Portland, USA, and – on a foggy midwinter night – the candlelit, vaulted cellars of Copped Hall, a magnificent derelict eighteenth-century mansion in Epping Forest. Back at home in the WML, Wildgoose hosts consultations by appointment with interested members of the public; she also uses the unique setting she has created as a forum and reference resource for collaborative work and for debate, as well as the backdrop for digital photographs informed by her research into Victorian studio portraiture and seventeenth-century vanitas paintings. She is currently investigating the potential for a permanent and more public-facing home for the WML – part artist’s studio, part reliquary, part research centre – which she envisages being built from reclaimed materials, overlooking the sea.

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Charles Dickens and Mary Hogarth

Claire’s interest in the materials of mourning springs from a broader concern with the tensions between the Victorian ‘celebration of death’ and a burgeoning consumer culture, particularly in the works of Charles Dickens. Here she focuses upon Dickens’s relationship with the objects and spaces associated with his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth, following her tragic death in 1837.

Dickens often satirised tangible forms of mourning, such as crape dresses and hatbands. In Great Expectations, the clerk Wemmick emphasises the financial value of his collection of ostentatious mourning jewellery by designating it ‘portable property’. Yet Dickens was more ambivalent about personal mementos. When Mary Hogarth died in his arms, aged just seventeen, the author was traumatised. In grieving for Mary he was comforted by wearing a ring he took from her dead hand and a locket she had given to him. At the same time he sought to detach himself from this reliance on materiality. In a heartfelt letter of condolence to William Bradbury on the death of his child, Dickens described how:

“I have never connected her idea with the grave in which she lies. I look upon it as I sometimes do upon the clothes she used to wear. They will moulder away in their secret places, as her earthly form will in the ground, but I have long since learnt to separate her from all this litter of dust and ashes, and to picture her to myself with every well-remembered grace and beauty heightened by the light of Heaven and the power of that Merciful Being who would never try our earthly affections so severely but to make their objects happy, and lead our thoughts to follow them.”

– 3 March 1839

Here the memory of Mary is separated from her remains, both material and physical. Dickens suggests that the most satisfying form of remembrance is to combine the memory of an individual’s appearance and attributes with an imaginative projection of their enhancement in the afterlife. While the associations evoked by material relics allow the mourner to look backwards, the only true comfort is a fusion of memory and imagination that opens a future perspective. Yet the continuing presence of the dead girl’s dresses within Dickens’s home suggests that an attachment to the materiality of relics is not as easily overcome in practice as it is in writing. Why is the tangibility of mourning so important, even when it seems irrational to the bereaved? Do things have a power of consolation that speech and language lack?

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