The following text formed the basis of a talk I gave in Southend on 13 August 2011 in response to ‘Public Hanging’ by Morag Keil – see

The five headings indicate the location at which each part of the talk was given.

1. Public Hanging, High Street/ Pier Hill

I’ve been asked by the gallery to talk about Morag’s work here in Southend in the context of my ongoing research into the women associated with the Vorticists. My aim is to bring together three elements; the work Public Hanging, Southend-on-Sea and Vorticism.

Southend is the site for the talk. More specifically, we will walk through the area of Clifftown. Clifftown’s own development fits neatly within the time span of my research, covering the period from the late eighteenth century through to the present day. I hope then that Clifftown can be both the actual and possible site for much of what I’ll say.

Preparing for anything such as this I am taken in the grip of the desire for sense – that it is necessary to produce a neat and coherent narrative to provide and to identify an intellectual, if not actual link between this work, Public Hanging and the activities of a group of female painters associated with the Vorticist movement at the beginning of the twentieth century.

This search for coherence inevitably leads to feeling very frustrated because I’m aware these things can not and really should not be so simple nor contrived, that categorisation and order are strategies, usually declared for someone’s own advantage. But coherence certainly feels ‘natural’ even when we’re aware that we construct it. I want, rather naively, for there to be some sense of association; that somehow an existing relationship between practices separated by a century would leap out at me.

The initial piece of research that I carried out and which forms the basis of this talk took the historical erasure of the four women associated with the Vorticist movement – that is Jessica Dismorr, Kate Lechmere, Helen Saunders and Dorothy Shakespear  – as its subject. What initially motivated the study was the desire to identify an art history in to which I felt I could fit. I felt most strongly about this in respect of the critical and theoretical aspect of my education whilst at college. Despite the critical revision that had begun in the 1960s and 70s, a majority of it coming from feminist theorists and artists, this did not feature prominently in the syllabus. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I was salvaged from this situation and introduced to the Vorticist women in an excellent essay by Jane Beckett and Deborah Cherry called Reconceptualizing Vorticism: Women, Modernity, Modernism from the book Blast: Vorticism 1914 – 1918, edited by Paul Edwards.

The Vorticists were a group of artists and writers that came together briefly, in London in 1914. While they are often remembered as a group brought together and dominated by the leadership of one man, Percy Wyndham Lewis, the Vorticists actually constituted a group of individuals, most already well established artists or writers who, like Jessica Dismorr, had contributed to other artistic movements such as Fauvism and the Rhythm group in France. Each brought their own ideas and practices to the embracing and communication of ‘the modern’, which was at the heart of the Vorticist cause.

Their manifesto was printed in the journal Blast and it was a vitriolic and knowingly contradictory statement – often both Blasting and Blessing the same things: England, its audience, tutors at the Slade College of Art, all in an attempt to disrupt and undermine the history that preceded them and to place emphasis on the complexity of the present. It appears from their manifesto that they wanted no single view or position on anything – the multi-surface and perspective views that filled much of the abstract work produced by the group illustrated their intellectual approach to the modern world – that is, as they write in the manifesto to always ‘discharge ourselves on both sides’[i].

So, in their rejection of a kind of historical lineage in art, the appeal of this group is, for me, very strong. However the very neatening processes of history they tried to throw off quickly consumed them and after the group’s demise during the First World War the female members of the group were removed to the background and the true complexity and diversity of the group was lost for much of the twentieth century.

To return to my own personal, perhaps fruitless search for coherence here – there are, by my interpretation, some related themes in the works especially those related to the urban environment and how we understand it, to which I’ll come to shortly.

But it was, as the work perhaps sought to do, as I turned my attention more fully to the place, the wider situation in which the work is exhibited that I gained the impetus to see the practices – that is those of the women Vorticists and Morag’s contemporary practice – not as distant, separate points on a long, unbroken line but as points in a malleable kind of mass. Despite my attempts to think of a better analogy the one I have is that of an ever-expanding kind of ball pool. Once I thought of it, I’m afraid it stuck. But there we have it, the ball pool; everything is stable until someone jumps in. Each ball as a single event, from your birth, to 9/11, to the construction of this shopping centre and so on. And someone’s always jumping in – be it the theory of evolution, psychoanalysis, feminism – so nothing thankfully is stable for very long.

The reason that Southend made me think of this is that to put it simply the histories of Southend reveal to some extent a town that until the surrounding area gained County Status in 1914 it was very much at the mercy of external events. I’m not a historian so I’m completely aware that I’ve just scratched the surface but the more I do read, the more there is a sense of the town now trying to salvage an identity from the larger narratives of progress and development – the growth and domination of nearby London, the railways, the sea, two World Wars, the growth of tourism, are all things that overshadowed Southend but are also the events or influences that would pull Southend into focus throughout history, into a contemporary relevance. And that process will continue over time.

I have read often of a feeling of dissatisfaction at the recorded history of Southend, that it does not accurately represent the evolution and importance of the town. And it is such situations or emotions that really interest me – that while the history we have available to us is perhaps unsatisfactory we still find ourselves clinging to it inexplicably for the small sense of security it does give. Alliance with the larger narratives does provide a sense of unity but they can ultimately lead to a feeling of displacement and alienation (for communities and for individuals) because so much has been written out or simply forgotten.

2. Bowling Green, Alexandra Road

The history of the involvement of women in modern art in Britain is a similar such case. The writing out of women from art history is not, to state the obvious, a new problem for us to address but it is one that endures with ongoing challenges to the symbolic power[ii] established by the traditional concept of Modernism and what constitutes a Modern work of art. The practices of women at the turn of the twentieth century often had a strong emotional or religious element or incorporated methods dismissed as craft or decoration (the banners and posters of Mary Lowndes (English, graphic artist, stained-glass artist, member of the Suffragettes) for example), the latter characteristics earning such works the label ‘impure’[iii].  It is the intellectual snobbery and academic embarrassment toward such practices, both at the time they were active and in their historical re-evaluation, that led to women’s practices to being dismissed as irrelevant or not ‘Modernist’. It is always the disadvantage that the ‘events of the past’ must be judged by the prevailing attitudes not only of its own time and also by those of the time (or times) from which it is ‘rediscovered’. By this I mean that some historians look back at art made by women and find it unacceptable or claim it not to be art because it does not fit with what they want to find or what they think they ought to find.

This perhaps is a case in point – If we go slightly further back into history to such an invisible practice (one which would have occurred here in Southend) we will find many female artists throughout Britain and Europe. Amongst the middle and upper classes the practice of producing albums of small paintings in watercolour, depicting the events of everyday life was an extremely popular pastime from the end of eighteenth century through to the early years of the twentieth century. They would probably be best described as a kind of visual diary and would typically include small paintings and sketches that would document events, people, their homes and travel. Like a diary, they were usually only looked at within the home by the artist and maybe the immediate family. This practice emerged during a period where leisure time was becoming more available and acceptable in certain sections of society and so enabled it to become a defining and widely practiced aspect of femininity. However, despite this ‘acceptance’ it would still only be perceived as a pastime to ward off boredom and rarely as essential as domestic or charitable work[iv].

Collectively such works offer a genuinely feminine perspective of the period and must, in their depiction of social relations and customs, have contributed to the construction of an understanding of the feminine experience and the communication of that experience for the artists themselves and it did so in a completely different pictorial language than was used in the dominant art of the time. Small, ephemeral and delicate it didn’t strive for a public audience at the point of it’s making – the reception would be familiar, if it had any reception at all.

So in light of this, we should acknowledge that the names of the four women Vorticists represent a larger number of artists, many of whose names we will never know, whose work we will never see but that I am confident to assert existed. To accept this I think we must think about art practice differently over time, that it has and will differ from the professionalised occupation it can be today and the clichéd isolated genius of the past. Forms of art can and do exist unrecorded and undocumented, it can exist just at a moment in time, never to be physically seen again. What may persist are the intellectual effects of that work, the immediate discussion and thought that goes on there and then in its production and in its brief life – the regarding of things that goes on everyday almost without notice but that shape our understanding of the world and our position in it.

The existence of hand made albums by women such as Mary Ellen Best, Marianne North and even Queen Victoria amongst many others reveal that there was a distinctly different form of visual practice that can be traced over a period of approx 150 years, that was radically different from the ‘mainstream’, that it was largely carried out by women and that it passed by almost unseen. However the effect of this practice on changing attitudes towards women, which would explode dramatically in the early years of the twentieth century, must I think be acknowledged as it brought about a high level of self-reflection in the artist and on their own position in society.

3. Prittlewell Square

Despite the extreme visibility of a work displayed publicly, in and on the streets I think such works share a particular aspect with the privately produced and consumed artwork – that is in their reception. Reception of either work is not saved for an elite group, the ‘effect’ of this work leaves the art world and is not wholly controlled by formal criticism be that from the art press or in a gallery scene or art market. It is just sort of out there, benignly in the world, attracting what attention it can get, sometimes pitifully little, sometimes aggressive, sometimes politely receptive. Now this is not to say that they escape a formal artistic criticism from members of the public, or from critics or whoever maybe has some specific knowledge about art. But I do have this sense that in both cases they instigate a response that is more intimate and self-reflective, on one hand for the artist – with the albums, and on the other for the viewer or passer-by of the public artwork.  And this is because interpretation of the work is largely uninterrupted by readings implied or suggested by an institution. I think both manage to have an effect that is certainly less tangible and even in their absence there is something residual of the artwork’s attempt at communication, and of the collective experience of the artwork within a community.

To think specifically now back to Morag’s work here in Southend, and to think about its visibility, that the images are backlit adds an extra element of almost aggressive visibility to the piece, adding further emphasis to what is expressed in the images of the application of the contact lens; that vision here is regarded as a primary means to knowledge. The work is potentially visible at all times even in darkness because of the backlighting. This relentlessness is what seems aggressive. It asks that we look more, look better, look always. The images aim to exist beyond the constraints of natural vision, echoing the reason for the application of the lens to the eye.

But once the light has gone out we are in the dark, our loss of sight might also mean the loss of our own defined subjectivity – ‘how will I know the world now?’ I might ask in the dark. Perhaps the piece demonstrates an anxiety about the limits of vision, the limits of knowledge, that to see again and to see differently requires additional material, new technologies. The eye in these pictures seems eager, perhaps bulging out for the lens?

However, the scene is also quite horrible and with an unfamiliar face it feels too intrusive, giving the impression that the lens is being forced upon the eye, that this is now about increased efficiency of the eye rather than a kind of altruistic assistance for failing vision.  Now it demands that we see more, see better, see always.

Simultaneously the images appear familiar, almost mundane – these efforts toward improvement are part of everyday routines, so much so that we perhaps no longer even acknowledge such apparatus as alien. Not now that they are soft and contoured, protecting the eye as much as enhancing it.

So now our vision is enhanced what does it mean for those things we maybe overlooked before? What does the detail tell us? Does it make things more clear or is it disrupting what we thought we already knew? Or is there nothing previously unseen there at all just a desire to see things differently? Is vision just the metaphor here? I recently found this line in my notebook comparing the ‘archive – surveillance, too much for anyone to see everything’. I wrote this down after I had been reading a leaflet about the British Library in which I was sitting at the time. In the leaflet it boasted that there were 14 million items in the collection. I remember what I was thinking and it wasn’t just an awe inspired pondering on the vast quantities of information in the library’s vaults and the impossible task of the historian. Though, that is a reasonable concern. I was thinking that where there is an excess of information it forces a focusing that allies seeing with not seeing, that we must filter something out in order simply to manage, maybe in a process of refinement and simplification, maybe in a process of social ordering and control.

4. Queen Victoria Statue, Clifton Terrace

Here we might find ourselves in the grip of, or overwhelmed by information and rapid technological growth. During the industrialised age we find also that culture will be dominated by ideas of embracing, rejecting and coping with technology, with progress and with rapid change.  And the thing we seem to battle with most is the boundary between what we believe to be natural and what we call technology – that is that it is most often perceived as being something separate from or alien to us.

For the Vorticists this relationship was positive, to be embraced enthusiastically. It was a position from where they could find exhilaration in the new, in dynamism, progress, the modern world and perhaps a liberation from the restraints of the natural. Their manifesto sees England united in embracing this as an ‘industrial island machine, pyramidal Workshop.’ [v]

The manifesto also celebrates those that fought against nature – most famously, the hairdresser, of whom they exclaim:


He attacks Mother Nature for a small fee.

Hourly he ploughs heads for sixpence,

Scours chins and lips for threepence.

He makes systematic mercenary war on this


He trims aimless and retrograde growths



100 years on we are perhaps more ambivalent about the relationship, a feeling I think is expressed by Public Hanging. The relationship is now so entangled that our evolution has for sometime been simultaneous with that of technology. So inevitably our relationship with it has become emotional and intellectual. In some ways I think we seek relationships with it in the same way we do with people – objects become sites of emotional projection or are themselves invested with fundamental worth.

When I first saw Public Hanging I was keen to look again at some writings done by Jessica Dismorr. Alongside her painting and illustration work she was an accomplished writer and poet. The writing of hers that is included in the first issue of Blast is about her experiencing London alone on foot, sometimes at night. The communication of this experience aside, the action itself was unusual for the times.

The writings are all short concise pieces that reveal something of her approach to painting and her relationship to the physical, urban environment. She speaks of feeling ‘the emotion of related shapes’ of the moonlit buildings and how she seeks the ‘profoundest teachings of the inanimate.’ These statements express an ‘involvement’ with the city, an involvement that is not only emotional and intellectual but also active and in some ways reciprocal.

This kind of engagement with the built environment at this point in the opening decades of the twentieth century, is I think of great critical importance. Before the invention of television and subsequently the internet, the built environment was the primary site in which the majority of people experienced the physicality of industrial and technological change – this was especially true of women, who prior to WWI were excluded from the direct contact with large scale industry that men would have had through their work.

If we consider this tramping alone around towns and cities, perhaps with welcome feelings of risk and danger and transgression and also as a fundamental and liberating experience for women, then the legacy of this ‘relationship’ is undeniably important and complex in the course of it’s evolution.

5. Royal Terrace, above The Shrubbery

So, this will be my final stop. This area here is The Shrubbery and it used to be the private gardens for the houses here on the Royal Terrace and for the residents of the hotel there on the corner. It wasn’t for the general public though they did eventually start to sell tickets for admission to the Shrubbery in around 1880. It’s an odd piece of land really – a little bit lost in its prime location here on the seafront. Now it is open to all but as an attraction, I don’t think it is particularly high on anyone’s list anymore.

But when I first came here to Southend to see Morag’s work, I did walk down here to these gardens straight afterwards and wondered along the paths. As I did so I thought about a film I saw some time ago but had been thinking about just a few days before – it’s called Glimpse of the Garden by American filmmaker Marie Menken and was made in 1957. It is an apparently simple film of a garden, only five minutes long and with a soundtrack of a bird singing that seems always too loud and piercing. In the five minutes of film the garden is seen both fleetingly and in close-up detail – there is just a dizzying, intense focus on this garden.

I don’t think it is wholly relevant for me to go into the complexity of Marie Menken’s films combined with her life in mid-twentieth century New York right now. But for me she is an interesting example, firstly as perhaps a mid-point in the evolution of our continued entanglement with the mechanical.

Writer David Berridge makes two very succinct statements about Menken in his review of a symposium dedicated to Menken which took place at Tate Modern in 2008 – firstly, that the films communicate an ‘interest in production that fuses the hand-made, organic and mechanical’ and secondly and rather beautifully ‘Menken engaged with the medium of film as entwined in nature’.[vii] It is such uses of language that neatly and almost flippantly convey how integral these relationships have been to both the formulation of ideas and in the visual expression of those ideas.

Secondly and more importantly it is perhaps best to return to my search for coherence, for another point in a new narrative perhaps, with which I started. I’ll acknowledge that Menken’s film fits nicely into my construction. Her films were not taken too seriously at the time as they appeared to contrast greatly with the heavily symbolic and serious films that were the dominant works of the time – most of which were actually made by good friends of hers or by people that she had worked with. Maya Deren and Andy Warhol are two such prominent examples.

At the time of it’s making it must have appeared easy to dismiss this film, to label it playful and frivolous. Even the subject of the film, the garden, is seemingly unchallenging. But with the movement of her body and the camera there is a sense that there is an attempt to relay actual, personal experience through direct experience – a sensation granted more vividly by the camera and that she edited the film directly in the camera.

Glimpse of the Garden, along with her other films, point again to those practices that run separate from the mainstream, from a position outside. It is such a position, on the periphery, on the edges, maybe even a long, long way from the periphery, which grants the practice and the works not only a sort of radical freedom but also a powerful and disruptive role in our understanding of art, of history and the places and communities in which they evolve.


[i] Wyndham Lewis, P. (Ed), Blast,  No. 1, London: John Lane, 1914

[ii] Elliott, B. & Wallace, J. Women Artists and Writers: Modernist (Im)positionings. London: Routledge, 1994

[iii] Betterton, R. Women artists, modernity and suffrage cultures in Britain and Germany 1890 – 1920 in Deepwell, K. Women Artists and Modernism. Manchester University Press, 1998

[iv] See Secluded Vision: Images of Feminine Experience in Nineteenth-Century Europe by Anne Higonnet in Broude, N. & Garrard,  M.D (eds), The Expanding Discourse. Feminism and Art History. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press. 1992

[v] Wyndham Lewis, P. (Ed), Blast,  No. 1, London: John Lane, 1914

[vi] Ibid.

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