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Aaron Williamson: 'The Eavesdropper' - disability arts online
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Blog 6: More voices from the archive / 13 September 2012

Detail from 'One of the family' by Frederick Cotman showing unidentified browny-red object on the table.

Detail from 'One of the family' by Frederick Cotman.

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One of the bulkier Walker Art Gallery archives – a set of three stuffed folders – relate to that evergreen favourite painting ‘One of the Family’ (Frederick Cotman, 1880), discussed in my previous posting. For the General Public this one’s got the lot: bucolic rapture featuring a friendly old horse, kiddies, granny and a rather flirty-looking yummy mummy. (Is that Eve’s apple she is tempting Dobbin with while hubby skulks in the shadows? Is everything, um, as it should be?) The critics at the time hated it: ‘obtrusive and vulgar’ from The Times being one of the kindest cuts, but I could barely pause to laugh at this before getting onto the ‘Enquiries’ folder, drool already frosted at the corner of my lips. 

I wasn’t disappointed. There’s much to choose from, but my favourite ‘Enquiries’ about this painting all relate to a curious small red object lying on the family table. On balance, someone writes in every twenty years or so with an Enquiry on the subject, and here is one from 1992: ‘I have a query that has been driving my wife and myself spare over the years and that is to identify for us the reddish brown object on the table which I would place at one o’clock from the bread knife and at ten o’clock from the drink in front of the little boy. . . we will look forward to hearing from you in the hope that I can get some sleep at night!’ The Assistant Curator’s reply is a bit thin: ‘probably a child’s toy’, but the Enquirer is transported into a rhapsody of gratefulness that could have got him into the painting itself as one of those forelock-tugging lickspittles that are nowadays celebrated in Victorian bonnet-drama TV: ‘it is quite frankly hard for me to suitably express our gratitude for the trouble you took over our letter. . . your kindness that my wife and I shall long remember. . . ’ And so forth, at some length. I dunno. I think the mysterious ‘red object’ is a Dobbin-bound carrot myself.

Elsewhere I found a lengthy exchange on the authenticity of the dogs depicted in the pet-painting by Richard Ansdell, ‘Two King Charles Spaniels and their Pups’ (1842). Apparently they aren’t. From 1976: ‘the dogs shown in the paintings are NOT King Charles Spaniels. . . they are much more like Springer Spaniels.’ The Keeper was inclined to take an early bath: ‘I did not think they looked like King Charles Spaniels myself because of the muzzles, but somewhere along the line the mistaken title has crept in.’ Despite this Enquirer’s glorious victory in the pedant’s art if you visit the WAG today then the title of this painting remains unchanged, although the doggies do look a bit ill-at-ease as though ashamed to have been fingered as low canine-imposters punching above their breed.

So in this way a day’s trawl through the WAG’s archive passes in a moment. I plan to listen to many more such voices from the archives over the coming weeks and indeed the methodology of this approach (‘nosiness’ essentially), fits the bill for being an eavesdropping of sorts. To end on, there’s a sad correspondence on the circumstances surrounding the death of William Davis  (the Liverpool landscapist; ploughed fields and so on). The artist died after a fatal attack ‘brought on by seeing two of his pictures badly hung’ [in a Gallery]. ‘During the fits of delirium he raved about the treatment he’d received’, and then he pegged out dead.

I’m just hoping, wondering whether this tragic endnote might spark off its own ‘Enquiry’ to the WAG: ‘Dear Sir, please could you settle an argument between my neighbour and I as to just which of Davis’ paintings were so badly hung as to cause his untimely death?’

Aaron Williamson’s book: ‘Performance/ Video/ Collaboration’ documenting his work between 2000-08, and an accompanying DVD ‘Quick Clips and Short Cuts’ are available through the Unbound on-line bookshop.