“We shall collaborate in building up museums of sound, smell, foods, clothes, domestic objects, advertisements, newspapers, etc.”
BOLTON–Mass Observation was founded in 1937 by two socialist graduates of Cambridge University, poet Charles Madge and the so-called barefoot anthropologist Tom Harrisson, as a radical anthropological and social research experiment. The group sought to study and record the idiosyncrasies and minutiae of everyday people in Britain. Their first project The Mantlepiece Directives sent out stringers far and wide to document and collect what everyday people had on their mantelpieces.
“Its founders aimed to create a new kind of realism in response to the economic and political conditions leading up to World War II, aiming to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ through artistic means and by collecting anecdotal evidence from people’s everyday lives and experiences. The Archive, currently held at the University of Sussex, consists of extensive written accounts of daily life, ephemera and photographs, while other works now form part of national museum collections.”Photographers Gallery
Unimpressed, a critic wrote that the project was “scientifically, about as valuable as a chimpanzee tea party at a zoo” with core debate considering the group’s research methodologies specifically the demographic representativeness of the sample group. Even so, as argued in this 2013 History Workshop Journal article, others posited the group’s approach provides unique insight and access to the complexities of the messy everyday life of the times.
Richard Slee’s exhibition at Bolton Museum echoes Mass Observation’s mantlepiece project. It was a match made in tchotchke heaven. The new and never-before-seen body of work, Mantelpiece Observations (12 September 2020 – 3 January 2021), comprises ceramic renderings inspired by the anthropological objects first documented by Mass Observation in the 1930’s.
Richard Slee’s work has long been concerned with the unusual significance of certain domestic objects. Often, he will begin with something ordinary – a mantel clock, a pair of pottery dogs, a Toby jug – and by changing it in some way will invest it with new interest. Sometimes the objects he creates look familiar, though often altered in scale, while others look distinctly peculiar. For this exhibition, he has taken words and phrases that appear in the 1937 mantelpiece reports and transformed them into new ceramic pieces.Bolton Museum
In the undertaking, Slee–one of Britain’s most important contemporary ceramic artists–explores the concept of “meaningful objects” and questions personal and national identity, history and taste, through his surreal transformations of ordinary domestic objects, the museum writes.
Slee’s works are presented alongside 18 photographs by Humphrey Spender (1910 – 2005), former lead photographer on Mass Observation’s study of Bolton and Blackpool. Spender was dispatched to record the locals going about their business with his Leica–skills Spender unknowingly developed while serving as a war photographer in the Royal Army Service Corp during World War II. There, he often captured the lives of soldiers in their down time yielding candid and even tender moments. Spender eventually abandoned photography for painting and textile design teaching at the Royal College of Art until his retirement. The 900 images Spender took for the Mass Observation project are held in the collections of Bolton Museum. Slee’s selection highlights the surreal side of Spender’s northern photographs.
Video Tour of the Exhibition:
Richard Slee in conversation with Sonia Solicari:
In the studio: working on the Mantlepiece ceramics
The show along with its public programs is brought to the public in collaboration by Bolton Museum, the Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex, and the Museum of the Home, London, and is supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.