Can a display exist without objects? (One of the big philosophical questions of our time). I think not. So with the cases clean, loan objects condition checked and labels installed, we were ready to embark on the most exciting part of the process: installing the objects!
This involved lots of trips back and forth from the store room to the gallery with trolley-loads of jugs, cups, saucers, plates, bowls, tiles and dishes of all sizes. Working to the layouts that Rebecca Wallis created for the show, we started to install the objects case-by-case, making sure every plate and tile were sitting comfortably on their mount for the year to come.
Blue-and-white printed ceramics have been decorated and used in many different ways, so to reflect this the display is divided into 5 themes. They are:
- Life and times
- Beyond Willow
- Around the globe
- Human landscapes
- Flora and fauna
We tried to complete a theme at a time, or at least get all the objects into the case and leave the tweaking for later. If you have assumed that the role of a curator is just to move objects around a shelf saying ‘left a bit, right a bit’ all day, then I hate to admit you are not completely wrong. Making sure all the objects are well-spaced, relate to each other in the right way, match the labels, are properly visible and displayed in the best way possible, actually requires a lot of skill, practice and patience! Although in reality this object shuffling is only a tiny part of what we do day-to-day. At least one of the benefits of doing a blue-and-white show is that we didn’t have to think about any potential clash of colours…
Taking a step back from the display cases, we faced three more challenging installations.
The first was ‘Two Corners- Doubled’ by Martin Smith, which needed our Technical Services team to fix a wooden shelf cabinet onto the wall. However the trickiest aspect was putting the plates – the main feature of the work- in exactly the right positions. Printed with subtly different geometric designs, each plate had to be at the correct angle for the piece to work as a whole. Thankfully the artist Martin Smith, Head of Ceramics and Glass at the Royal College of Art, came to help with the installation and made sure they were all perfectly angled. Now complete, the work is visually striking, and provides a crisp contrast to many of the more heavily-patterned objects in the display.
The second challenge was to install ‘Tree after Spode’ by Paul Scott, a whopper of a tile panel inspired by trees found in Spode printed landscape designs, such as the Willow pattern. Again we employed our trusty Tech team of Jesse and Tony – who with their strength and skill helped the tree grow up beautifully from the ground.
The third, and most nerve-wracking task, was installing Phoebe Cummings’ ‘After the Death of the Bear’. The piece – a delicate and seemingly deserted three-dimensional landscape, was made during Phoebe’s time as the V&A ceramic artist in residence in 2010. It was inspired by the 19th century ‘Death of the Bear’ plate from the Spode factory in Stoke-on-Trent, and is made entirely from unfired clay. This makes the work unique (and one of the few objects in the display which isn’t actually blue and white) but also genuinely terrifying. The firing process hardens, strengthens, and sets the clay’s shape, so unfired clay is incredibly fragile and any movement could easily cause it to fall apart. Although this impermanence was deliberate in Phoebe’s work, we nevertheless prayed it would survive the journey into gallery 146, as it had to be in the show! So with steady hands, in possibly the most tense object move I have ever witnessed, Senior Curator Alun Graves masterfully moved the artwork into the case. Now locked up safely, we can all relax. (Until next year, when we’ll have to move it out again; but let’s not think about that now).
With these challenges overcome and a few more days of tweaking the object positions, the display was done. Even if you think a display can exist without objects, I am glad this one doesn’t, because they look spectacular. Our blue-and-white world has finally come to life for everyone to enjoy. It is a great opportunity to see a wonderful array of objects, historic and contemporary, including one which might not be around for very long…! The show opens this Saturday 31st January and is on until January next year (2016) so there is plenty of time to come and visit.
Special thanks go to the curator of the display Rebecca Wallis, as well as Phil, Keith, Jesse and Tony, who all helped to put the show together in its final stages.