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Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Nelson and Brontë

Earlier this year, Cornelia Parker - see Sunday's posting - made a proposal to the Greater London Authority which has since been lost in bureaucratic processes. Here it is, reproduced from an appendix in the catalogue for Brontëan Abstracts:

Nelson and Brontë - A Hair’s Breadth of History

A proposal to the Greater London Authority by Cornelia Parker

I want to propose a tiny enhancement to Nelson’s Column, adding a little more body to his hair by inserting real strands of the famous Brontë sisters’ hair into the fabric of his. Doing so would link the two iconic names in a literal and physical way, infusing the monument’s structure with an authentic bodily relic. It would in effect, combine the Romantic female with the Alpha male, the modest with the heroic and DNA with sculpted stone. Nelson could share with the Brontës, more than a name*, a parsonage childhood, the loss of a mother at an early age and bravery in the face of death. Together they could share a vista.

Although they lived a sheltered life in a Yorkshire parsonage, remaining incognito behind their male pseudonyms, the Brontë sisters’ novels became famous in their day, their heroes and heroines, like Nelson, capturing the popular imagination. Nelson’s column was built 1839 - 1852, their literature was written within the same time frame. Charlotte and Anne would have witnessed the construction first hand when they visited the National Gallery on a rare trip to London to see their publishers in 1848.

Now, the column is covered in scaffolding once again, this time for restoration to take place. It seems a unique chance in its history for that history not to be set in stone, but to be tweaked, albeit in a microscopic way.

May 2006


* The Brontës were great admirers of Nelson and they owed their names to his exploits.

Bronte is a town and commune of Sicily (in the province of Catania, Italy), slightly northwest of Mount Etna, on the side of the valley of the Simeto river. In 1799, King Ferdinand III of Sicily created Bronte as a Duchy, and rewarded Horatio Nelson (who had large land holdings in the area), with the title of Duke, because of his naval victory against the French. As well as being made a Duke, Nelson was given Castello Nelson, which at the time was the remains of a Benedictine Monastery. Today it is a local tourist attraction in Bronte. This allowed Nelson to sign himself ‘Nelson and Bronte’.

Just a year after Nelson had been granted his new title, Patrick Brunty, recently arrived in England from his native Ireland, changed his name to Brontë. It is generally accepted by Brontë scholars that the name change was due to Patrick’s admiration for the Admiral and a desire to recreate himself, to rise above the class into which he was born by severing links with his Irish peasant origin. The use of the diaeresis was to make sure that the name was pronounced in a more-or-less Italian way by the people around him**. He registered as an undergraduate at St John’s College, Cambridge in 1802 in the name of Patrick Brontë. His daughters would go on to make the name even more famous in their own right.

Patrick, and later the whole Brontë family, had a fascination for military leaders of their recent past. Wellington and Napoleon both appear in various guises in the juvenilia of the Brontë family and Nelson was the subject of a poem by Branwell in 1841.

** Thanks to Pietro Vazzola from Venice for this reminder.

Sunday, 17 September 2006

Myths and their generation

Pictured - Cornelia Parker with Phyllis Cheney, Friday 15 September 2006

As the evening light fades in the Parsonage garden the eyes of fifty or so people, there for the official opening of the Cornelia Parker exhibition Brontëan Abstracts, are focused on the open front door.

Backlit from within, a number of speakers stand one by one on the threshold to address the audience, beginning with the person whose idea it was to invite the artist in to do all this, deputy director of the museum Andrew McCarthy. Praise and thanks are duly distributed.

We are told that most of the people involved with the project are able to be here with us today. The two psychics - Henrietta Llewelyn Davies and Coral Temple - who led a séance here a few weeks ago to see who, or what, they could make contact with are not present. “But they are here in spirit,” adds Cornelia, smiling. The Radical Brontes Festival has now started, officially.

Before BBC Culture Show presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon declares the exhibition to be properly open, he apologises for the fact that he has not prepared anything for us(“I’ve only just had my personal preview”), then gives us what is almost a full item-by-item commentary, working from memory and a little blue notebook. Impressive! The usual rook chorus gets louder and louder.

We queue to go in, and we talk (I am with my daughter Daria) with Phyllis Cheney, who at ninety is amazing - extremely articulate and perceptive. A veteran member of the Brontë Society living in Plymouth, and a frequent visitor to Haworth, she has voiced her well-researched claims to be Branwell’s great-granddaughter before, most notably in a 1996 issue of Brontë Society Transactions. “You’ll see me on a television screen inside later on,” she promises.

In the downstairs rooms, the quiet voices of the two psychics are coming out of little speakers on the floor. We find it hard to make much conventional sense out of them: occasional words and phrases can be registered. These are fragments of sound and meaning - appropriate for the occasion. The effect would be different if the crowd in the house was smaller.

Cornelia Parker’s additions, or rather enhancements, are in neat, unobtrusive frames on walls, objects connected with the Brontës seen afresh. Anne Brontë’s needle is the fallen mast of a tall ship on a bed of tangled rigging, a darn in her stocking a barred window, her stained handkerchief a record, we imagine, of when she once coughed blood into it. It might be of doubtful provenance, but what matter? This exhibition is about myths and their generation.

Emily’s hair is an underwater plant, thin fronds waving in a tropical sea, her burnt comb a series of stalagtites, her ink-splattered blotting paper worthy of display next to a Jackson Pollock, perhaps.

We talk about the blown-up deletions from the original manuscript of Jane Eyre, semantic exercises trapped under glass. Why vex rather than annoy, why conceived rather than imagined, why no sleep rather than no rest?

A grey image of Charlotte’s pen nib is nearby, transformed by the magnification, a monumental slab of split stone, a menhir.

We browse the catalogue to dip into an interview by Andrew McCarthy. Cornelia is asked “Did you want to add to the mythology or try and strip it away?” She replies:

It’s a mythology I am very captivated by, the same as everyone else. The mythology is created by people’s imaginations and what I’d like to do is find a new space within it, a new way of looking at it, by returning to the source. By taking the objects that the Brontës owned, or actual physical traces like locks of their hair, and examining these very closely to try to see something that they might not even have witnessed themselves.

We reach the television screen to watch Phyllis reading her Transactions article and talking with husband Arthur. Her great grandmother, Mary Ann Judson (b 1839) was, she is convinced, the illegitimate child of Branwell Brontë and Martha Judson. She stands beside us to watch it again. “Some people believe it, some don’t of course,” she says. I tell her that she has convinced me. “I know that Tom Winnifrith, who made a study of Branwell, is scornful, because he told me so, but I am not so sure about what Brian Wilks thinks.”

Downstairs in the shop, where there is a wine reception, I talk with the artist, mentioning that a number of people have claimed that Branwell was an ancestor over the years. “Yes,” she says, “but not all of them have the same credibility. I sensed that Phyllis was special as soon as I knew about her. I’m like a Geiger Counter!”

Richard Wilcocks

Thursday, 7 September 2006

Note the date

The new four-part Jane Eyre begins on Sunday 24 September at 9pm on BBC ONE.

The production has its own page in Wikipedia, which will no doubt be expanded shortly:

Wednesday, 6 September 2006

Festival Launch at Parsonage

The Parsonage is making final preparations for the launch of Cornelia Parker’s new exhibition Brontëan Abstracts on Friday 15 September 2006 at 7 pm. The exhibition will be officially opened by Andrew Graham-Dixon, art historian and presenter of BBC2’s Culture Show.

The launch, which will be attended by Cornelia Parker, kicks off the Radical Brontës series of events which will see various artists, authors and actors interpret the Brontë family and their novels in different and creative ways throughout September.

Running with this theme, Cornelia’s exhibition, which is on from 16 September to 31 December 2006, will be displayed throughout the rooms of the house alongside original artefacts to encourage new ways of looking at the museum’s collection and at contemporary art. It aims to celebrate the connections between creativity, past and present, and to reflect the ways in which the Brontës’ lives and works have continued to inspire writers and artists across three centuries.

Cornelia worked with the Parsonage throughout 2005/06, the results of which are a collection of stunning exhibition pieces which include twenty five works based on items from the museum's collection. These include scanned and electron microscopic images of Brontë artefacts, including images of Anne Brontë’s hair and Charlotte Brontë’s feather pen. Also on display will be images of amendments to the original manuscripts of Jane Eyre, held in the British Library.

In addition there are sound installations in certain rooms which document a visit made by two psychics to the Parsonage, and a video recording of Brontë Society member Phyllis Cheney who claims descent from Branwell Brontë.

Over the years the Parsonage has been the inspiration behind many events and exhibitions which interpret the Brontë family and their novels in a new and dynamic way. The Brontë Society, which was founded in 1893 and is the oldest literary society in the world, has welcomed contemporary interpretations of the Brontë family and hopes new exhibitions and events will appeal to younger audiences.

Richard Wilcocks, Chairman of the Brontë Society says:

“For many years the Brontë Parsonage Museum and the Brontë Society have worked hard to appeal in new and different ways to today’s audience. In recent years the Museum has brought the lives of the Brontës to life using new technology such as video projections on the façade of the Parsonage and contemporary artwork by world renowned artists using electron microscopes.

“The new and improved educational workshops also hope to bring the joy of literature and poetry alive for children of all origins. The Brontë Society is delighted that the Radical Brontës series of events, part of the Illuminate festival, has proven popular with so many visitors both at home and abroad”.

With a new Brontë film due out in 2007 starring Brokeback Mountain star Michelle Williams and the serialisation of a new TV production of Jane Eyre in the pipeline, interest in the Brontë family has never been stronger and the Museum is seeking to ensure that visitors to the original home of the Brontë family provides an authentic and realistic glimpse of life in the 1800s.

The Parsonage is famous throughout the world as the Brontës’ home and the place where great novels such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were written. The house is now displayed as a ‘period home’, with the Brontës’ furniture, domestic objects, artworks and personal belongings set out to give an impression of the house in their own time.

The Parsonage’s Contemporary Arts Programme, which has Professor Germaine Greer as its Honorary Patron, will include visual arts, theatre, music, poetry, talks and workshops involving visiting authors, and more. Look at the Brontë website for more detailed information:

This post is from a recent news release from Diane Benn.


The Cornelia Parker Exhibition was made possible with support from Illuminate, The Esmee Fairburn Foundation and The Henry Moore Foundation. The Illuminate festival is a programme of arts and cultural events taking place in the five Yorkshire cities of Bradford, Hull, Leeds, Sheffield and York from October 2005 to October 2006 and has been funded by the DCMS. The Brontë Parsonage Museum will be contributing to the festival with the start of a week long programme of Brontë events from Saturday 16 September 2006 to Sunday 24 September 2006.

Cornelia Parker Biography

Cornelia Parker was born in Cheshire in 1956 and lives and works in London. She studied at Gloucestershire College of Art and Design, Wolverhampton Polytechnic and at Reading University. She is best known for a number of large-scale installations including Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), and The Maybe (1995), a collaboration with actress Tilda Swinton, who appeared sleeping inside a vitrine at the Serpentine Gallery. In tandem with large projects like these she has also made an ongoing series of smaller works entitled Avoided Object, working in collaboration with numerous institutions including HM Customs & Excise, The Royal Armouries and Madame Tussauds.

In 1997 she was awarded a residency at ArtPace in San Antonio, Texas and was shortlisted for the Turner Prize, Tate Gallery, London. In 1998 she had major solo exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery, London, and Deitch Projects, New York. A retrospective of her work was held at the ICA Boston in 2000. In 2001, the Galeria de Arte Moderne in Turin presented a major one-person show, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London commissioned a permanent installation for the British Galleries. Recent group exhibitions include The Tate Triennale, Tate Britain 2003 and The Disembodied Spirit, Bowdoin Museum of Art, USA. She has works in the Tate Collection and in numerous public and private collections in Europe and the USA. She is represented by Frith Street Gallery, London.