‘If lockdown has taught us one thing worth remembering in 2020, it is how much we have missed eating and drinking with friends and family. To enjoy being human is to share food, drink and the exchange of conversation across a table, not a zoom screen. To listen to another is what it is to be a good human.’
I wrote that in 2020. It is also human to forget. Already the idea that we had that time when we couldn’t see each other for dinner or a cup of tea is vanishing into the mists. This is why some don’t seem to care about Downing Street parties. I suppose they have already forgotten that to speak to someone in the street 2 metres apart – was a rare treat. Meanwhile, I was spending my time meditating and embroidering my moth holes… I wrote about it here.
I was in Delphi, Greece when Lockdown happened, visiting the ancient Greek site the Temple to Apollo. We knew it was going to happen but not when. We had bought our tickets months before and faced with grey, cold, damp, uncertain times in Britain It was a Mediterranean dream, empty of people, full of flowers, spring sunshine and an azure blue sea. I wandered around the ruins, did a ritual at the spring on the side of an empty road with a single police car monitoring our movements, I knew about Pythia and wishes. Suddenly the museums were closed, along with the restaurants and the gallery in Athens where we – the artist Wilma and I – were supposed to be in a mixed show. We ate takeaway meals in our bedroom from supermarkets. We swam in freezing water to stop getting ill. We flew back early in time for Lockdown in Britain.
I had a revelation the way you do, whilst at the Temple of Apollo, where the High Priestess, Pythia, foresaw and proclaimed. Why has nobody heard of Pythia? Pythia was a position rather than a person, but these High Priestesses held the most powerful position of any woman in the Ancient World. Leaders would ask for their sage advice and they gave the answers from a state of trance, therefore it wasn’t a women’s word it was Apollo speaking through her! Pythia wrote 147 Maxims for humans to abide by, carved into the stones around the temple.
I have been collecting Motto ware on and off for 15 years. It has a particular home-made quality. In fact, the potteries that started up in the late 1800s making souvenirs for holidaymakers, employed mostly women who made these dark terracotta plates around Torquay and Devon. They are beautifully crafted, each one individual, but all with a set of designs that are interpreted by each painter slightly differently. What interested me were the mottos. Quaint sayings in local dialect etched in but weren’t it time more people knew about Pythia’s maxims?
Britain is becoming an Island once again post Brexit. I wanted to recreate a dinner party that was about being on this small island and how we have treated women as less than equal. Pythia was one of these forgotten women in Ancient Greece. Her maxims were taken on by Socrates and Aristotle, founders of Western Philosophy, as their own and then adopted by all the main religions; male religions.
All of us need reminding that women have been part of the conversation since the beginning, not since the 20th Century. Politicians have put laws in place to restrict women, historians have wiped them out of history, then they have been replaced by men. On talking to Mandee Gage, a ceramic artist, about collaborating on the possibility of making 147 pieces for @147womendinnerparty at Vout-o-Renees, my club and gallery, she reminded me of Judy Chicago’s historic piece that I remembered seeing in Edinburgh on tour in the early 80. It happens to be 50 years since it was first conceived. Unlike Chicago’s dinner party, our tablecloth is hand-painted, there is no embroidery and only Mandee Gage and myself have been involved in the creation. Each piece whether a plate or cup, candlestick holder, vase or jug is traditionally painted not always with the motto ware designs of cottages, trees, sailing boats. Simple design but reinterpreted by us to suit the woman each piece is dedicated to. The mottos are also very different; they have been replaced by the Pythia’s maxims.
From top to bottom – Jaqueline Gold, Julian of Norwich, Angela Burdett Coutts, Yvonne Connolly.
@147womendinnerparty is on a smaller physical scale than Chicago’s dinner table, but no less important as we celebrate not 39 women but 147 Women who have made Britain what it is. Not all will have been forgotten by everyone, some may well be famous like JK Rowling, but Storm Jameson in the 40s was as well-known in her time and is no longer in print, or Dodie Smith whose creation lives on in ‘101 Dalmatian’s’, but nobody knows her name. If you are in their field, you might know their name, but they are not publicly acknowledged or necessarily attached to the important work they achieved during their lifetime. They might not have all been born on this small island but they have settled here and adopted our land, at a time when freedom of movement didn’t solely rely on how wealthy you were to enter a country, The 18ft dining table is laid out with each of the 147 pieces dedicated to each woman and their portrait is on the wall with a small biography on what they remarkably achieved. From Pythia to suffragettes to the eco-warriors of today, to queens and Nobel prize winners, inventors and lawyers, scientists, philosophers and artists.
Thus, this installation raises the dead and begins another conversation about men and women, feminism and power, creativity and achievement, the lost and found. By making these pieces we remember how the original unnamed potters and painters have been lost, how Britain was a place of slavery for so long and many of the rich and powerful thought nothing of it, and how the trend still continues as companies refuse to acknowledge the creativity of their individual employees, much as the Torquay and Devon potteries used to behave. Those names have been lost but with the miracle of the internet, we can all find women who should be better remembered. It doesn’t always have to be Shakespeare and Marlow when there is Aphra Benn and Mary Montague! The things in our home don’t have to be mass produced, we make choices to forget or remember but being conscious and acting consciously is our daily choice. Celebrating women is the very essence of this show.
Teapot to Mary Wollstonecraft.
It has been a long two years and simultaneously, it has whizzed by. A thought became an idea, this then became a reality once I’d spoken to Mandee and we began making. As I researched and talked to other women including Danielle Neary, it also became a podcast @Shadowspies where forgotten women and their stories were brought into the light. It is hard to get your head around, whatever gender you are, how subjugated women have been for hundreds of years and how many times women have been denied the credit they deserve for the work they do, whether that be as Bletchley Park code breakers, spies, scientists or mothers and carers. I guess we just don’t want to think about who bares the responsibility for the lack of parity. I hope children will see this exhibition and think, things have changed because of what we, as single humans do to make the difference, to make it better for others as well as ourselves, wherever we have come from. In political speech – because Its the Right Thing To Do!
A book accompanies the exhibition which includes images and biogs. All pieces are for sale prices from £40 to £250 includes a book. voutorenees.com
Emily Williamson and Moina Mathers
@147WomenDinnerParty -An installation in 147 pieces by Sophie Parkin & Mandee Gage
Showing At –
The Stash Gallery@Vout-O-Reenees, London 10.2.22 – 26.2.22.
The Beecroft Art Gallery, Southend 6.3.22 – 28.3.22
Broomhill Estate Sculpture Park + Gallery 8.4.22 – 2.5.22