Phyllis Palmer Gallery La Trobe University Gallery
‘Sorry my house is such a mess’ extends Catherine Pilgrim’s Mrs Larritt Series to build an exhibition ‘lab’ in the Phyllis Palmer Gallery. Echoing a domestic space steeped in history Catherine builds an environment in which to contemplate both presence and absence, care and control. Catherine brings the viewer a space to contemplate the comforts of home and yet the constraints of our history telling. The artist will be working on her meticulous drawings within the gallery including a direct wall drawing. Update – due to Covid19 Lockdowns the intended wall drawing has been produced on paper in the artist’s home studio and pinned to the gallery wall.
This show has been such a strange but ultimately good experience. Covid19 has meant the original dates shifted by about a year. When we finally did get the work up lockdowns meant the studio component didn’t really happen… and visitation is a complex proposal when we are needing to be aware of our movements - either by decree or choice. With about half the population of Australia currently in lockdowns (and many of us feeling the potential threat of lockdown) it seems somehow wrong to encourage people to get out to see the work in person.
And yet the experience of ‘dropping in’ to an art school environment has reminded me of the great pleasure of being surrounded by students and staff. This is a space where the majority of the audience are in the rich cocoon of their own creative development. It has been a great pleasure to visit.
The exhibition is proudly presented under the umbrella of the ‘Care Project’ https://www.careprojectnetwork.com/ and thus it is especially appropriate that I have been nurtured by the brief but lovely experience of being back in the ‘fold’ of an art school.
Care is central to many themes of the work – care as ‘women’s work’ during the Victorian era and now. Care for country as understood by Indigenous peoples and especially how I manage to convey that as a white fella. Care as paying attention – both to the issues of the day (including re-examining history) and the attention required in making the work.
At the core of it all, care for authenticity and integrity which seems particularly important in our current pandemic saturated world. May all stay safe and well as you care for yourselves and each other. x
'Who has ever rambled in the Australian bush without gathering a handful of pretty little wild flowers?... Many ladies, I am sure, would devote much of their leisure to the healthy exercise of a daily walk, coupled with the instructive and elevating pursuit of studying our native plants and forming them into a collection."
From the Ladies Almanac, Melbourne 1858 p32 and quoted in 'Collecting Ladies: Ferdinand Von Mueller and Women Botanical Artists' Penny Olsen 2013
Women like Mrs Larritt of the 1850's were encouraged to take an interest in flowers, yet it is unlikely these women appreciated the importance of the edible and medicinal plants. The 'forming them into a collection' is so retrospectively awful... our Western culture still likes to makes sense by organising things into structures yet much can be gained through allowing time to be more 'abstract' in my humble opinion.
Image 'Bulbine Lily on Shelbourne' Stone lithograph layered with reproduction map by Richard Larritt 1856 (SLV)
I have had a very unusual year - I've had some health issues to manage which I'm pleased to say are now resolved. I have needed some time out though, and I have given myself permission to have a break from the studio.
It has been rewarding to rest, to read broadly and to give the house and kids a bit more focus. Oh and to watch all of 'Mozart in the Jungle' which was great!
And now as I prepare to present Mrs Larritt works again it is weird and satisfying to feel refreshed.
'Mrs Larritt' the second iteration will be presented at fortyfivedowstairs (Flinders Lane, Melbourne) Tuesday 29th October to Saturday 9th November 2019.
It will be an absolute pleasure to present these works again... along with a few new pieces. Taking the work to the city seems highly appropriate as that is where Maggie and RIchard went next. To Melbourne.
I am hoping to research Maggie's time after Richard died in 2020. It will be such a pleasure to delve further into this fascinating story where a woman managed to educate at least one of her daughters to matriculation level at a time when this wasn't considered important for girls.
I write this post from the final day of the exhibition at Dudley House. It has been a truly fabulous experience to install and share this work.
I am pleased to report the opening was a huge success with an estimated 90-100 people in attendance listening to Jo Porter's opening address. Over the whole ten days of the exhibition the reception of the work has been terrific with multitudes of lovely comments left by visitors. People have commented that they found the work 'beautiful' 'delicate' 'ethereal' and 'exquisite'. Many many thanks to all those people that have supported this work - and especially to Creative Victoria with the Regional Centre for Culture Local Makers Grant as well as Rodney Carter CEO of the Dja Dja Wurrung Corporation.
As I drive between the studio and the gallery this week I have been thinking about the genesis of the work I'm finalising and installing, and the challenging process I went through to get here. It has seemed especially difficult. I think this is because I felt a huge moral responsibility to pay tribute to a woman who was essentially failed by the social circumstances of her time. And also to recognise the nature of what was actually going on in the Surveyor's Office in 1859 when Mrs Larritt lived there as a new bride and mother.
The Victorian notion of the morally pure woman who stays at home and creates a place of respite for her husband assumes that the man lives long enough to support her. Mrs Larritt (Maggie) was widowed only eleven years after she was married and left with five young children. The social expectation of the 'Angel in the House' didn't help Maggie manage. She went on to become the Post Mistress at Footscray Post Office and later at Oakleigh Post Office and forged her own path.
I hope the work I have made is a fitting tribute to Maggie. She is heroic in my eyes. And yet history doesn't celebrate her. At the start of my research local historians told me I wouldn't find much about her. And I didn't. She wasn't considered important. People have asked me 'What did she do?'. And the truth is she did what many people do - she managed and cared for her family (and at times in difficult circumstances). As a carer for her family and then later as both carer and breadwinner, she persevered.
The other (broader and essential) huge challenge in this show is properly acknowledging that Richard Larritt's Surveying of Bendigo was a major part of the Colonisation of the area - and colonisation had horrific consequences for the local Dja Dja Wurrung people. I need to signal that Maggie's white fella world didn't appreciate the culture of the Dja Dja Wurrung. Hers was singular cultural view. The optimism of her early married life in the building we now call Dudley House was only one part of a much bigger multilayered and complex story. It was a single perspective.
I am grateful for the input of various local Indigenous people in the making and presenting of this work.
Image 'Single Point Perspective Murnong' 2018 Coloured pencil and graphite on Arches Satine 56 x 38 cm
The gallery area at Dudley House consists of two rooms, one main room and one smaller one. It is my intention to have all the work in the second smaller room be one colour - a blue that is closest to Ultramarine Blue. I decided to do this as an indication of the mono-cultural view of the new immigrants of the colonial era and there are several reasons for my choice of hue.
Firstly this colour is one of the many variations of blue used in willow and other china patterns of the mid Victorian era which I'm considering with this work. The blue is domestically ubiquitous. Secondly, this blue is based on the stone lapiz lazuli which was once considered as valuable as gold - which reminds us that values change over time and across cultures. And thirdly, this blue is often used as a colour to suggest purity, such as with images of the Virgin Mary in Renaissance painting. During the Victorian era women were expected to be morally pure. (See early post re the poem 'The Angel in the House'.)
The blue has become something I am increasingly enjoying working with. Before this project I would have assumed I would get bored with one colour but instead I am finding it continues to feed my interests. And so long as it motivates me I will continue to explore.
'Mrs Larritt in Upside-down Country' will run from Friday 16th to Sunday 25th November with and official launch with guest speaker Jo Porter (Co-Producer, Regional Centre for Culture 2018) on Saturday 17th November.
The world which I aim to celebrate and explore in 'Mrs Larritt in Upsidedown Country' is one where the caring role that was expected of a woman such as Maggie is central. White colonial history remembers significant events, the white men that drove them and until relatively recently assumes women weren't around much. (Thankfully this has been addressed at least in part by recent publications such as Claire Wright's 'Lost Rebels of Eureka')
During the Victorian era and Maggie's married life (1858 to her husband's death in 1869) European women were expected to be morally pure and create a home life that was untainted by the quite separate men's world of work outside the home.* This moral purity is exemplified by the poem 'Angel in the House' written by Coventry Patmore and much later discussed by Virginia Woolf in her essay 'Killing the Angel in the House'. (See Patmore's poem here https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/coventry-patmores-poem-the-angel-in-the-house And Woolf's writing here http://www.wheelersburg.net/Downloads/Woolf.pdf )
The making and managing of the domestic sphere, the daily work of caring for family and the material culture of the home are things that have been, and often remain, underrated. Care as a foundational element of domestic activity and the traditionally female caring professions often remains undervalued.
For the exhibition 'Mrs Larritt in Upside-down Country' I am particularly interested in Maggie as a young Scottish migrant woman whose role was to care for her husband who was mapping the town. Theirs was a singularly European cultural view yet he was organising the streetscape which became the Australian City of Bendigo. This streetscape grew around colonial gold mining - the mining that turned the Dja Dja Wurrung Country upside-down.
Maggie Larritt’s caring role has been mostly forgotten, and thankfully the Dja Dja Wurrung remain proud.
It has been my great honour to learn more of the Dja Dja Wurrung through the research for this exhibition, and to draw some of the indigenous plants significant to the traditional owners. I hope I am able to continue to learn more in the future. As a white fella I am humbled by the depths of the ancient and living culture of the Dja Dja Wurrung.
It is also an honour to spend time remembering a woman whose everyday reality has been considered unremarkable - yet many small domestic things can add up to an awful lot.
The exhibition ‘Mrs Larritt in Upside-Down Country’ will open at Dudley House on Saturday 17th November at 5 – 7pm.
NB It is assumed Maggie viewed the Indigenous flowers as decorative unaware of or disinterested in their edible roots.
* In the exhibition I am considering Maggie's early married life, yet it is interesting that these Victorian ideals ultimately failed Maggie as her husband died and Maggie later found employment as a Post-Mistress.)
Visual artist, drawing advocate, and mother of two red headed teenage boys.
Most recent solo exhibition 'Mrs Larritt' at 45 Downstairs, Melbourne opened Tuesday 29th October 2019 current to Saturday 9th November 2019. This was the second iteration of an earlier site specific exhibition 'Mrs Larritt in Upside Down Country' at Dudley House Bendigo which opened Saturday 17th November 2018