click on main image to link to main blog

Friday 6 November 2015


Les Bicknell l.bicknell@nua.ac.uk Norwich University of the Arts
smocking, folding, classification, archives, practice

smocking is evil? was created and employed as a framework, a creative thinking space to enable reflection on the concept of folded space within objects held in three archives. The project’s focus was to explore practically and theoretically how the physical engagement with objects can both inform and reinforce a relationship to the territory of bookmaking, whilst enlightening and extending an art practice to include a range of traditional textile skills. Working in partnership with The Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) Suffolk, Costume and Textile Study Centre Norwich, Suffolk County Council Archives with support from Arts Council England and Norwich University of the Arts (NUA).
The project developed from an idea initiated from observing a painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Vittore Carpaccio, culminating with a body of work exhibited in three archives alongside objects from the collections that had informed the making of the new pieces. Areas covered include; the journey of the project, entry points for researching archives, identifying the correct research path to follow, the idea of taxonomy as a tool for understanding, and how the physical properties of material can be theorised to support the creation of meaningful work.
Conclusions include moments of revelation on my own practice, how textual theory, physical handling and practical making can inform each other and the implications of the lessons learnt for a teaching practice. 

‘The act of archiving introduces meaning, order, boundaries, coherence and reason into what is disparate and confused, contingent and without contours’. 
Alphen (2008).

This paper will examine the creative process behind an arts research project from the initial idea developed from observing a painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Vittore Carpaccio to new work exhibited in three archives alongside objects from the collections.

The project’s title ‘smocking is evil?’ was used as a tool to develop a body of work. It became a framework that supported the development of a paradigm, a world within which a maker can inhabit; to think and make. This space becomes a place of sanctuary, a refuge where ideas are projected and envisaged. But its liminal walls offer a permeable playground for the imagination, where ideas can be developed and tested within their own parameters but informed by the research undertaken in the field, a place where tentative thoughts are translated into questions.

The idea of creating a virtual space to inhabit has its parallels in the use of the mnemonic device, a learning technique that aids information retention as outlined in The Art of Memory.

‘The first step was to imprint on the memory a series of loci or places. The commonest, though not the only, type of mnemonic place system used was the architectural type. The clearest description of the process is that given by Quintilian. In order to form a series of places in memory, he says, a building is to be remembered, as spacious and varied a one as possible, the forecourt, the living room, bedrooms, and parlours, not omitting statues and other ornaments with which the rooms are decorated. Quintilian says one may consider the ideas within the speech to be remembered anchored in imagination on the places which have been memorised in the building. This done, as soon as the memory of the facts requires to be revived, these places are visited in turn and the various deposits demanded of their custodians revealed. We have to think of the ancient orator as moving in imagination through his memory building whilst he is making his speech, drawing from the memorised places the images he has placed on them.’ Yates (1966)

The question is smocking evil? was developed from an encounter in the Gallerie dell'Accademia  in Venice with the painting ‘The Ambassadors Return to the English Court’ a ‘history painting’ by the Italian Renaissance artist Vittore Carpaccio. The work portrays the ambassadors of Brittany being received in an open pavilion. The initial point of research came from studying a figure in the foreground of this painting that was facing the Ambassador thus displaying his back to the viewer. He wears a garment heavily folded and is holding a note behind his back, hidden from the Ambassadors from Brittany. (Figure 1: Vittore Carpaccio The Ambassadors Return to the English Court)

A connection was surmised between the possible character trait of the individual and the wearing of a cloth that is structured. This initial idea of associating garment and cloth construction with character traits was supported by a rush of known connections.
Deleuzeian thought on the idea of the hidden and of revelation through the process of creating folds informs us that to pleat is to reduce, to diminish, and to withdraw. Unfolding is to increase, to grow to gain volume. A dialogue is set up between the inside and outside, dark and the light, the negative and the positive but nothing is fixed, the work appears to be in a constant flow from the outside to the inside and back again. Deleuze (1993).

Textiles have functioned within the venn diagram of artistic, economic and political activity and the idea of researching the busy hands that created the smocking on the smock resonated, was this subjugation through craft?

Fry defines the traditional textile technique of smocking as an embroidery technique undertaken by gathering and fixing cloth in regularly spaced tucks which provides flexibility and form within a garment. The word smock, derived from a farmer’s work shirt is a modern spelling of an Old English word ‘smocc’ a verb meaning to gather fabric into un-pressed pleats by sewing in a honeycomb pattern. Fry (1946) eventually the word was used to refer to both the sewing technique and the garments it produced.

The conflation or mash-up of these thoughts presented possible developments or new perspectives on what appeared to be well rehearsed topics.

When attempting to establish our understanding of the smock, its narrative, it became important to understand the potential of the smock as a symbol. The Museum of East Anglian Life in Stowmarket has a smock given by a local amateur dramatics society after it had been used as a prop/costume within their productions. (Figure 2: photograph of a smock from Museum of East Anglian Life STMEA:20137)
It was used as a visual shortcut, a cipher to signal and label an individual who is deemed to be rural and therefore foolish. This was supported by the textual narrative that came with the object and the physical evidence of theatrical 'make up' around the collar.

On the 13th June 1851 the London Times reported on the visit to the great exhibition by over 800 agricultural labourers and country folk wearing their smartest smock-frocks. The commentaries tone implied that the rustics were seen as other and unlike anything that could have been produced from any part of England, although they behaved themselves to the satisfaction of the organisers who had expected vandalism from these strangers. This report demonstrates the separation of town and country and the wearing of the smock being a marker of that difference. Marshall (1980) (Figure 3: Image from The London Times 13th June 1851)

The demise of the smock as a marker corresponds with and is an indicator of the Industrial Revolution. The loose garment became impractical and dangerous to wear in the newly mechanised fields cluttered with machinery with its moving parts. The wearing of the smock was abandoned as it brought with it a fear of ridicule for the wearers as individuals moved from rural to urban locations.

This practical garment for agricultural labourers later became a symbol of earthiness worn by bohemian crafts people of the Aesthetic movement. Adopted by the friends of Oscar Wilde and William Morris who himself promoted the smock as a protest against the man-made of the machine age. Morris was taken to the Great Exhibition by his mother but refused to enter on the grounds that he would find nothing but ‘meretricious rubbish’. Marshall (1980) (Figure 4: Image of William Morris from Marshall, Beverly. 1980. Smocks and Smocking. Van Nostrand Rheinhold)

The intention of the research project was to explore the fold within objects in three collections and this would inform the making of a body of new work. This work was in turn to be exhibited and the practical aspects, the making, the development of skills were to be disseminated through a number of workshops and illustrated talks. But an entry point was needed to begin to access the collections.

head gear – hats and scarves­ – overalls – lots of pockets – trousers – construction of clothes – over clothes – garments that protect the clothes – boots – with connecting/joining elements – packets – paper/plastic – folded or constructed that contained things (seeds) (food), images (photographs) of farmers – rural workers /amateur dramatics – bellows – accordions – leather work – saddles – objects that fold out (get larger) (telescopic) – objects that are fixed in an obvious way (patched and folded)­ – printed matter – books – manuals – catalogues – swatches – display packs (with folded structures) (fold outs – additions – binding) (use of unusual materials).

This chaotic initial list of initial interests sent to The Museum of East Anglian Life is reminiscent of the taxonomical list used by The Argentinean author Jose Luis Borges when illustrating the problematic nature of scientific classification when he described a classification system in a 1942 essay The Analytical Language of John Wilkins from an ancient Chinese Encyclopaedia, the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.

‘animals are divided into: those that belong to the Emperor, embalmed ones, those that are trained, suckling pigs, stray dogs, those that tremble as if they were mad, those that are included in this classification, Mermaids, those drawn with a very fine camel's hair brush, innumerable ones, fabulous ones, others, those that have just broken the flower vase and those that at a distance resemble flies’. Borges (1942)

With all early stages of a project every thought has the potential to be a starting point for a thread of research. To retain an open dialogue the thread would not be Arianne’s Hernu (2013) due to its all encompassing deductive methodology. The time scale of the project alongside the sheer scope and numbers of objects held within the collections and archives meant that trial-and-error would provide a more efficient strategy to determine the choices needed when deciding on what to view. A heuristic process was adopted. It was this intuitive process which led the focus of the project from smocking to encompass layering and pleating.

The project included a search for appropriate classification taxonomy to both understand the work created post-rationally through reflection and also enable and support the development of work, reflection in action. The numerous strands of research developed connections; which led through the collections and created a range of categories which included smocking, folding, joining, fixing, and fixings. An idea subconsciously informed by considering Serra’s verb list of 1967. Friedman (2013). Eventually I recognised that the objects I was drawn to inhabited a similar set of factors. They each contained an element of layering which meant that a part of the object was hidden, thus they required manipulation to reveal all their parts.

The process of categorization in which ideas and objects are recognised, differentiated, and understood, is a tool to lead and direct research activity, enabling connections to be uncovered that are not initially obvious to either the seasoned archive user or the novice. Categorization implies that objects are grouped into categories with a collective purpose. This perceived purpose is not always one which is shared by the searcher of the collection and the developer of the criteria which formed the categories. Ideally, a category illuminates a particular relationship between subjects or objects of knowledge. Artists often follow a course of lateral thinking, connecting seemingly unconnected aspects of objects or subjects to create artworks , the viewing and theorising of which presents new perspectives or in some instances a paradigm shift, see the work of Duchamp (1989).

There are many categorization theories and techniques that can be used to support investigation, the potential rules of engagement, acting as a jumping off point. providing pathways or boundaries for developing decisions about choice and provide direction around investigative structures.

When does a bend become a fold?
The practical aspects of categorisation have their own inherent flaws when considering the individual narratives of each object. How can the description on the label attached to the object encompass the context of each viewing? To be able to truly distinguish one object from another, to acknowledge their inherent differences each object would have to have a unique set of labels or tags to be able to distinguish it from any other object. Eventually there would be so many categories and sub-divisions of categories that there would be, in effect an extensive textural copy of the object, creating an immense pre-linnaeu world of polynomical phrases. The acknowledgment that objects are accessed through textual descriptions sometimes delivers a lack of trust in the objects themselves. This reminded me of On Exactitude in Science, the Borges short story.

‘In that empire, the craft of cartography attained such perfection that the map of a single province covered the space of an entire city and the map of the empire itself an entire province. In the course of time, these extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a map of the empire that was of the same scale as the empire and that coincided with it point for point. The following generations, less attentive to the study of cartography, came to judge a map of such magnitude cumbersome and quite useless and it was abandoned to the rigours of sun and rain. In the western deserts, tattered fragments of the map are still to be found sheltering an occasional beast or beggar; in all the land, no other relic is left of the discipline of geography’. Borges (1942)

Typology in its oldest set of meanings derives from a critical explanation or interpretation of the Biblical, where a person, event, or thing in the Old Testament is seen to prefigure a type of person, event, or thing in the New Testament. This sense of the old providing a clue to the forms of new things is a way to consider how Pitt Rivers thought about typology. Rivers popularized a concept that had become central to the work of natural sciences. His interest in Evolution and connection to Darwin is evident. The idea of the evolution of objects as portrayed in Plate III, On the Evolution of Culture, 1875. It illustrates a process of visual connectedness that identifies potential next steps. The process of deduction is primarily visual and therefore provides a readymade and familiar way of proceeding for the visual artist. (Figure 5: Image of Plate III, Drawings of clubs, boomerangs, shields and spears moving from simple forms to complex in a radiating pattern from Pitt-Rivers (1875). On the Evolution of Culture Rethinking Pitt-Rivers Pitt-Rivers Publications Plates)

Rethinking categorisation can be used as an alternative way of accessing collections and archives, making one's own links between objects as a methodology to redirect or relocate a projects research reference points into unfamiliar territory. Instead of considering items thematically, we might perhaps catalogue them according to the frequency with which they were used. So perhaps the appointment diary an artist always kept in a jacket pocket would belong to one series and the official award certificate they barely looked at would belong to another. McNally (2013). Although in a conventional archive catalogue, both these items would come under the heading 'personal items'.

Every object has an infinite number of stories attached to it and each personal truth illustrates multiple connections. This accumulation of knowledge maps our relationship to what and how we value the objects around us. How we catalogue the items within collections has its own history. The move from science based hierarchical thinking around the construction and reading of collections towards a more individual contextual understanding appears to have coincided with the breaking down of social barriers and the rise of valuing the individual in society. Fonda (1966)

The reference point for engaging with an object has the potential to change with the intention behind each individual viewing. Every object in each collection has many narratives; each one delivers the viewer new contexts and presents new possible functions. It could be argued that an object’s functionality is something that is constructed in the mind through collective use and understanding. If the functionality of an object can change in the mind each action or activity, changes our perception of and relationship to the object. (Figure 6: image of filing cabinet at the Museum of East Anglian Life).

Does this in some way physically change the object? Is it possible to actually alter an object by rethinking it? This connects to ideas around transubstantiation, the perceived transformation that takes place during the sacrament of Holy Communion. The act of partaking in consuming the body and blood of Christ through eating a wafer and drinking wine. This idea of belief as a transformative process has its parallels in the art world, specifically Oak tree a work by Michael Craig Martin.

‘I considered that in An Oak Tree I had deconstructed the work of art in such a way as to reveal its single basic and essential element, belief that is the confident faith of the artist in his capacity to speak and the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what he has to say. In other words belief underlies our whole experience of art: it accounts for why some people are artists and others are not, why some people dismiss works of art others highly praise, and why something we know to be great does not always move us’. Craig-Martin (2001)

When physically spending time in the presence of the objects in the collections meaningful links flow, reflection through interaction becomes a form of meditated conversation. I am in sympathy with the statement ‘I love things, I love stuff, I love the stories that we tell through material culture’. Dion / Warholian (2011). But the seemingly never ending testimony of names, places, and dates detailing a tranche of human activity challenges this position. Sitting in Suffolk Record Office subsumed within the legal world of deeds and the documentation of exchanges between people of property and finance one becomes overwhelmed by the weight of responsibility to the material, the evidence of human mortality envelopes you.

Through the editing process’s of sieving and focusing locating the narrative of the project is challenging as there is so much individual activity in the form of names long forgotten that there is little space to find one’s own story.  So much stuff, an almost endless tide of human presence that the previous owners of the belongings I hold are ever present. The objects surfaces embellished and burnished by repeated handling. Their making touch imposes itself on my soul, their presence embedded within the objects.

The objects I have handled have a palimpsest quality; the record of their history reappears on the surface like the traces of old texts to be read, a memory of use, cumulative palimpsests. I am reminded of a work by Giuseppe Penone 1968, Alpi Marittime – Continuerà a crescere tranne che in quel punto (Maritime Alps – It will continue to grow except at this point) he created a steel cast of a hand gripping the stem of a sapling so that the sculpture slowly became absorbed as the tree grew. Whitechapel (2012) (Figure 7: image of a blacksmith’s work book at Suffolk Archives and Giuseppe Penone’s artwork Alpi Marittime – Continuerà a crescere tranne che in quel punto (Maritime Alps – It will continue to grow except at this point) of 1968).

Sensory perception is the driving force that informs his practice, evidence, memory and history revealed by traces are central to his process, making invisible forces and energies visible. The objects I have handled leave their own mark on me much like the impressions left by the memories located within the imagined houses of Roman orators.

The seemingly unlimited decision making process that is making art can be supported by rules. These enable one to focus present options and support creative decision making. Within this project links to the idea of the hidden within the fold supported decisions about material choice. Political and aesthetic factors are embedded within this selection. There are also issues of quality and value around working materials that in turn connect to the perceived position of the smock in society. Working with materials is a hands-on dialogue.

In turn the thinking behind my making has been informed by the use of utility papers and materials that are usually found within garments, providing a functional, hidden use. Examples would be within the lining of clothes, as backing within bookbinding or used within the conservation/storage of objects.  But had I fallen into the ‘trap’ of becoming ‘fascinated with what might seem to the outsider to be the esoteric props of the archivist's trade: the white cotton gloves, the cushion........?’ Lane (2013)

The tracing, glassine and baking papers have a physical quality that hides or knocks back anything that is behind it, creating a sense of the hidden but when unfolded reveals and celebrates the function of the fold by showing the layers of the material used. This revelatory moment, the realisation that I had to work with these materials came from handling an example of shadow ribbon at the Costume and Textile collection in Norwich within a fabric manipulation handling box. (Figure 8: image of shadow ribbon at the Costume and Textile collection in Norwich, 2014). I worked with lining fabric using a combination of traditional book binding techniques and gathering stitches taken from smocking, next using a heat press to transfer sublimation dye onto the fabric whilst it is still bound. The piece is unpicked to reveal the folds and the trace of what once was. When looking at the final piece the process is revealed and rebuilt in the mind, it is unpicked its history unfolds. The pieces are a hybrid of sculpture and process neither one nor the other but a middle point alluding to both. (Figure 9: image of my work, a hybrid of sculpture and process, 2014).

I recognise that my work and practice has concepts of order and control at its core. Extensive use of the book as a vehicle of expression is an indicator of this. The inherent qualities of materials one works with are apparent, understood and embedded within every decision. Within this project the use of fabric has forced me to release a degree of control in the working process, in essence paper and card ‘move’ less. At times the fabric felt alien under the hand and too open to possibilities.

Is there a connection between the lines in the ploughed field and the detail in the smocking on the smocks worn by the people ploughing the field? (Figure 10: image of smock from Costume and Textile collection in Norwich and image of ploughing the field from Museum of East Anglian Life, 2014).
Many questions were raised as a result of this line of enquiry. What is the effect of the environment on creativity? Did they consciously recreate the world they inhabited within the clothes they wore? Is it inevitable that humans create patterns or seek to find pattern and so order? Which was arrived at first? I am reminded of the moment, after relocating from an urban to a rural area. The realisation that within the sculptural books I was creating I was constructing visual references, macro and micro to the landscape around me; ploughed fields, horizon lines and the gills of mushrooms. Was this subconscious or did I as a maker become aware of the motif and its meaning because I was searching for it? Inevitably the exploration of a research path presents numerous strands and the constraints of time leave many questions awaiting examination.

To collect a sequence of objects is, for a moment at least, to have imposed some sense of order on a universe that doesn’t have any......an attempt to defy the threat of mortality.....Objects are the way in which we measure out the passing of our lives. They are what we use to define ourselves, to signal who we are, and who we are not. Deyan (2008)


Alphen, Ernst van. (2008) Archival Obsessions and Obsessive Archives. What is Research in the Visual Arts? Yale University Press. 

Borges, Jose Luis. (1942) The Analytical Language of John Wilkins from an ancient Chinese Encyclopaedia, the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.

Craig-Martin Michael. (2001) Michael Craig-Martin: Landscapes, exhibition catalogue, Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, [pp.19-20]
Deleuze, Gilles. (1993) “The Fold-Leibniz and the Baroque: The Pleats of Matter.” Architectural Design Profile No.102:

Duchamp, Marcel. Sanouillet, Michel. Peterson, Elmer. (1989) The Writings of Marcel Duchamp. Da Capo Press.

Fonda, P. Heavenly Blues, The Wild Angels. (1966).

Friedman, Samantha. (2015) http://moma.org/. (Accessed 12/04/2015).

Fry, Gladys Windsor. 1946. Embroidery and Needlework. Pitman & Sons Ltd.

Lane, Victoria. (2013) The Artist in the Archive. All this stuff. Archiving the Artist. p89.

​Marshall, Beverly. (1980) Smocks and Smocking. Van Nostrand Rheinhold.

Marshall, Beverly. (1980) Smocks and Smocking. Van Nostrand Rheinhold.

McNally, Anna. (2013) All that stuff organising records of creative processes. All this stuff. Archiving the Artist. Libri. p103.

Pitt-Rivers. (1875) On the Evolution of Culture Rethinking Pitt-Rivers Pitt-Rivers Publications Plates​Plate III, Drawings of clubs, boomerangs, shields and spears moving from simple forms to complex in a radiating pattern. http://england.prm.ox.ac.uk/image-admin/d/2419-2/Primitive%20Warfare%20pl%20III%20small.jpg  (Accessed 10/03/2015).


Sudjic, Deyan. (2008) The Language of Things. p21

Yates, A Frances. (1966) The Art of Memory. University of Chicago Press p3


Figure 1: Vittore Carpaccio The Ambassadors Return to the English Court.

 Figure 2: my image of a smock from Museum of East Anglian Life STMEA:20137.

 Figure 3: 13th June 1851 the London Times http://www.istockphoto.com/.

 Figure 4: William Morris. Marshall, Beverly. 1980. Smocks and Smocking. Van Nostrand Rheinhold.

 Figure 5: Pitt-Rivers (1875). On the Evolution of Culture Rethinking Pitt-Rivers Pitt-Rivers Publications Plates, Plate III, Drawings of clubs, boomerangs, shields and spears moving from simple forms to complex in a radiating pattern. http://england.prm.ox.ac.uk.

 Figure 6: image of filing at the Museum of East Anglian Life.

 Figure 7: image of blacksmith work book at Suffolk Archives and Giuseppe Penone.

 Figure 8: image of shadow ribbon at the Costume and Textile collection in Norwich.

 Figure 9: image of my work hybrid of sculpture and process.

Figure 10: image of smock from Costume and Textile collection in Norwich and image of ploughing the field from Museum of East Anglian Life.

Wednesday 18 December 2013


the latest copy of BEYOND the NUA alumni magazine has a nice page detailing the unpicking and rebinding pop up exhibition in the exhibition. I will post the link when its up.

Friday 8 November 2013


The lovely people over at Turn The Page have been really supportive of the pop-up show at NUA Gallery. http://www.pinterest.com/turnthepage2014/phone-images-of-les-bicknells-pop-up-exhibition/ they have me as featured artist which is really nice.

It should be a good fair this year with the selectors bringing an authority to the proceedings. http://turnthepage.org.uk/page5.htm

Friday 1 November 2013


The show is down. Just 40 mins from the first unpicking to leaving an empty gallery and closing the door behind me. The latest exhibition for unpicking and rebinding in the gallery attached to Norwich University of the Arts was a great success and some more. 472 people visited the space in one day and there were some wonderful comments and conversations had. The visibility within the University was good for the textile course and within a wider context the many links that I have made within the organisations witnin the city of Norwich.  There are many new starting points to chase up. The final talk to the post graduate students outlined the project focusing on how to build a project and the many pitfalls associated with that.

Some images from the hang - 

Thursday 31 October 2013


The show is up at Norwich Gallery. The work was hung in 4 hours and looks good. Its interesting to see the work within the white walls of a gallery after the domestic space, if rather grand of Abbotts Hall at the Museum of East Anglian Life or the municipal functionality and clutter of the record offices and museums the work has been shown in. I was reminded of the exhibition and subsequent article written by Susan Vogel called Vogel’s net where the same objects were presented within different situations or contexts, art gallery, museum, diorama. With each viewing the context overwhelmed the objects and the viewers reading of them was framed by the environment. 
The private view was really busy with many positive and supportive comments. It was really nice to see so many friendly faces – thank you to all of you who turned up, your support was greatly appreciated.  

I set up a situation where work was exchanged for a recommendation – the work in question was a set of prints that I have shown in 4 places and felt that I had learnt all I need from them – they will be going to good homes and I will follow up the recommendations and be enriched by them, everybody wins.

Wednesday 23 October 2013


the show in the library at NUA looks good and provides a number of links between the library (books) and the project (sketch books). http://nucalibrary.tumblr.com/post/64767366270/les-bicknell-lecturer-in-ba-textiles-at-nua-is