A British Family in India 1876 – 1947
Exhibition at Hot Numbers, Dales Brewery, Gwydir Street, Cambridge CB1 2LJ
Victoria Smith: Felted landscapes, etchings and vitrines
Oliver Smith: Photographic prints
Bay Lees: Fired glass paintings
I was so inspired by the Particular Places exhibition in Canterbury last year that I wanted to extend my work and have a more personal show in Cambridge. My co- exhibitors are Oliver Smith, showing some of his finely textured black and white photos, taken with an Olympus OM1, and Bay Lees with fired painting on glass.
The Foreign Bodies of the title refers to the presence of the British in India. Along with many others, my family lived abroad as planters, business men, civil servants and missionaries, not only in India but also the Far East and Africa. This is a fairly common part of many people’s backgrounds, yet, it seems to me, is only now beginning to be acknowledged and explored.
I began my research by browsing my great aunt’s photo albums. I found a tiny black and white photo of her wedding breakfast table, taken in 1911, and a newspaper cutting describing the event in extraordinary detail, including a guest list and details of all the presents. This set off a train of thought about our relationship to objects and how they can represent home, especially in a foreign country. Most of these particular gifts were items of silver – tea services, silver salvers, toast racks, pickle forks, entre dishes – ordered from England, perhaps from Mappin and Webb, shipped out to India and then carefully wrapped and shipped back again when the family left in 1947. These were expensive things at the time, much valued by those that received them. It is interesting that their original purpose is no longer relevant to us – how many people use silver sugar tongs now – yet many of us have similar treasures passed down to us, which we polish every now and then and use for special occasions. All of the original items have been lost, sold or stolen and I have made these exhibits from similar objects from the same period, borrowed from friends and family.
The vitrines explore the absence of these objects, with the tissue paper carapaces set against old photographs. They have an inherently ephemeral quality. The tissue paper refers to careful wrapping when sailing home and also to the fineness and delicacy of the silver itself, which would have needed polishing regularly.
The monotypes are dry point etchings, printed on a nineteenth century Kimber press. They suggest Victorian catalogue entries, as well as the silver display tables, side boards and dressing tables that we might remember from our grandmothers’ houses.
The felted landscapes also have a strong sense of absence. Many acres of these lands were cleared by my ancestors and planted with coffee, tea, cardomom, teak and rubber, forming estates which are still in production today. They altered the landscape and made it productive, and for three generations it was their home, their livelihood and their passion. I can clearly see the ghosts of my great grandparents, grandparents, father, aunts and uncles standing in these distant landscapes, looking out over these views so familiar to them.
My family had made India their home for so long that the separation caused by Independence in 1947 had a profound effect and was, indeed, traumatic. “Coming home” to England, to a cold, impoverished post-war country was a deeply depressing experience for them and many other ex-colonials. Britain wasn’t home, didn’t feel like home and many of them found it hard to adapt. Whereas they had been running huge estates in the tropical climate of India, they now were living in chilly Cheltenham and Frinton on Sea, in a new Britain they didn’t understand. They had become foreign bodies in their own country.
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
I am a designer, artist and hands-on maker. I am sister to Bay Lees and married to Oliver Smith. I trained as an architect at the University of Cambridge and my practice crosses many scales and disciplines. I am currently experimenting with pure merino fibre and other materials, such as tissue paper, as a fine art medium. The art works are delicate, tactile and evocative.
I have exhibited in Cambridge, London and Kent and my work is in private collections at home and abroad.
I am an artist and teacher living near Faversham, Kent. I studied illustration at Maidstone College of Art and I have taught art at Ashford School for many years.
Most of my current work is produced using fine art printmaking techniques and my current interest is in fired glass using ancient processes involving lead pigments and silver nitrate. My work has a narrative quality, expressing a personal response to time and place and each viewer will interpret it according to their own experiences and interests.
I have participated in many exhibitions in Kent and my work is in private collections in the UK, USA ,Canada and India.
I am an architect and director of 5th Studio, an architecture and urban-design practice with studios in Cambridge, London and Oxford.
These photos were taken during our stay on the Browne family tea and coffee estates in South India. Whereas most of these aim to carefully record the juxtaposition of jungle and estate planting, the images of the festival in the local village are just lucky snaps.
The photographs were taken on my Olympus OM1 using Ilford FP4 film and printed by Bob Wiskin at ECOne Labs in Kings Cross.