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Jacob Rees-Mogg stole my sketchbook: William Morris, and how I became a conceptual artist

Updated: Jul 19, 2022

While travelling home from my studio earlier in the week, I became absorbed in a Twitter thread on the supposed benefits of Brexit. I believe this was based on something published in the Daily Express in response to Jacob Rees-Mogg's call to the people, in his role as Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency (honestly a real job title) for ideas of the red tape they wanted to see cut as a result of Brexit, and had listed the removal of the limit of the power consumption of vacuum cleaners as the number two benefit. I could not, even in the interests of academic inquiry, bring myself to look at the Express article to verify this, but just continued to scroll in horror through the Twitter thread. I was so absorbed in contemplating the utter senselessness of this that I only, just in time noticed that the bus was about to reach my stop. In a rush I jumped up to exit the bus leaving behind, as I discovered later, one of my bags that contained my coffee flask, an empty food tub and, most annoyingly, a sketchbook.

I'll return to the sketchbook and vacuum cleaners, but the loss of my coffee flask took me back to the beginning of my formal studies in art. I had just enrolled on the Foundation Diploma in Art and Design at Working Men's College in Camden and on the second week of the course I was travelling into college to begin what was termed the carousel, a three-week period of trying out each of the pathways of Fine Art, Applied Art and Visual Communication. It rained more heavily that morning that I can ever remember being outside in. I was drenched by the time I made it from my house to the bus stop and the inside of my boots were so full of water that my feet felt entirely submerged. It was in this sodden and sorry state that I rode the bus and squelched my way up to the Fine Art studio - the Ruskin Drawing Room. My mood was not improved by the discovery, on arriving at the studio, that my coffee flask was no longer in my coat pocket.

The brief we were set for the trial period of Fine Art was to make something from a found object. We were to take the morning to explore our surroundings, find something and make work from it. I was not enthused by the idea of finding an object to order, I just wanted to find my lost coffee flask. I gently steamed in the studio until I felt dry enough to navigate the streets of Camden on my quest. Nae luck! The flask was nowhere to be found so I just wandered up Bayham Street where my bus had stopped, along Pratt Street, through St Martin's Garden (created from land acquired in 1802 as an additional burial ground for St Martin-in-the-Fields church on Trafalgar Square), along Georgiana Street and across the Regent's Canal to the Constitution pub which would close in 2020 and has not yet, in 2022, reopened. On the bridge crossing the canal there was a round mirror on which someone had scratched a smiley face. It was not clear whether the mirror was placed there to extend visibility at a curve in the road and someone had added to it a smiley face, or if it was mounted pre-formed as a piece of street art. I photographed myself reflected in the mirror and continued my dérive descending a set of steps beside the pub to the towpath of the canal that I had just crossed. I followed the towpath to St Pancras Basin and what is now known as Gas Holder Park, a luxury property development built not on the site of former gas holders, but on part of the Great Northern railway goods depot. The gasworks was on the opposite side of the canal and the gasometer frame that stands in the development was reconstructed to, I suppose, add character to the location. I crossed the new Somers Town Bridge and returned to the Working Men's College via St Pancras Church Yard with no coffee flask and no found object.

I first became aware of the Working Men's College, now just WM College, when I was researching places that ran daytime adult education classes in history of art and art practice, having quit my 30 plus year career in the information technology industry. Its location worked for me and its courses appeared to be less expensive than those run at other popular central London based colleges. I signed up for classes in art history, a class called Drawing and Painting in the Studio and Beyond, and another called What is Modern Art. On a trip with the art history class we visited the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. I was aware of Morris as designer and formative figure of the Arts and Crafts movement with a strong social conscience, but knew little about his writing, or the extent of his radicalism and campaigning for social change; this short visit exposed some of this and I was keen to learn more.

An opportunity came up to volunteer at the gallery. I applied and started working as a front of house volunteer one day a week. This was enormous fun, but I'm not sure I learned a great deal more about Morris. Instead, I learned about visitors: ones who were studying Morris's designs and were making special trips to the gallery, in many cases from outside the UK, and in one case there on a day-trip from Sweden; people who lived locally and had never before been inside the gallery; others who used to live locally and were returning for the first time in many years who told stories of wandering into the grounds during the war to steal fruit; local artists of the generation that were at the Walthamstow School of Art with Peter Blake and Ian Dury; and those that just wanted to shop and visit the cafe. I used to come home from each shift with a story for my wife about who I had chatted to that day. Which for someone who is as big an introvert as me, is quite a thing. But I was also learning about myself and the joy I got from listening to other people's stories.

The Working Men's College was established in 1854, located initially in Red Lion Square, before moving to Great Ormond street in 1857 and then to its current building in Crowndale Road in 1905. John Ruskin an early supporter and council member of the college would visit William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones in their home in Red Lion Square when he was on his way to teach there. Morris himself gave lectures at the college between 1881 and 1884, the first of these was on pattern designing, but subsequent ones were on the subject 'Socialism'.

I had returned from my 'finding an object' walk with nothing other than a sense of despondency, a selfie, some photographs of cormorants drying their wings at the side of the canal, and others of posh property. My reflection captured in the smiley mirror became my object and over the next day and a half I went on to develop it in a number of ways, including a faux stained glass light box. I should have just left the work as the photograph, Philip went looking for his coffee flask, but found only himself." I was on the slippery slope to conceptualism. In my last, and least favourite part of the Carousel, Visual Communication I revisited the lost coffee flask and created a poster which when looked at more recently in my blog on free writing, I titled it what it was, First World Problems.

That coffee flask was gone for good, but my wife bought me another as a present, the one that I've just lost, along with a sketchbook and a plastic food tub. I've filled in a Transport For London lost property form and I really hope they will be found. I'm particularly keen to recover the sketchbook as it records the last 5 months of activity on my fine art MA. Activity from which I hoped to develop an exhibition piece for a show at the beginning of July. And this perhaps gets to the nub of this blog: What was in the sketchbook that would shape my work for the upcoming show, and through the process of writing can I recollect sufficiently what was there to create something, or should I just make up stuff that might have been in it?

Fortunately the sketchbook is not the only source of record, I've written one previous blog on the work and a fair amount of my documentation is digital, both audio and visual. My blog A Week of Research describes some research I undertook for a walk I was planning following a route described by William Morris in his novel New From Nowhere. In my earlier writing I did not explain, as I have above, how I came to be interested in Morris through working in the William Morris Gallery, and that that had come about through my attendance at classes at the Working Men's College.

It was also through attending classes at the college that I started to make and use concertina sketchbooks. This was part of the first session of the Drawing and Painting in the Studio and Beyond class, where starting with a sheet of A1 cartridge paper you fold tear, and fold to create either an A4 or A5 sketchbook.. One of the things I love about these sketchbooks is that I could keep adding to them by taping on a few more sheets of paper making them ideal for ever expanding project ideas. After initially using A4 sketchbooks, I began to use smaller A5 ones as these were more portable and I could carry one with me most of the time, and even lose them. I'm not sure though if someone finding my lost sketchbook will recognise it as that; there are not many sketches in the traditional sense of quickly rendered drawings or paintings... it is mainly just text.

The text is messy and disjointed. Often just one or two words here and there on a page; ideas that have been discarded for now, ideas that are being carried forward, to-do lists, thoughts for other projects to be picked up at a later stage and some reflection. In the absence of my laptop on one occasion I filled several pages with free writing about my practice as I tried to formulate a revised artist's statement. A few months ago, I listened to an episode of the BBC Radio 4 Only Artists conversations with artist Katie Paterson and novelist David Mitchell, where David Mitchell talked about the mound of things one has read, heard, seen and experienced as a compost heap from which one draws nutrients. The sketchbook is a large part of the mulch which forms my compost heap. It also reflects what I was thinking at a point in time and I'm worried that buried within it all is some seed, some now forgotten thought that would grow and bloom into my work for the show. The text is also my contextualisation... I just cannot remember names, and written here will be gems of names of artists whose work I must explore. They almost certainly would have guided my next steps.

In the middle, or end, pages (depending on whether you consider it as a single sided or double sided booklet) of the lost sketchbook are two printed maps of London which fold out both horizontally and vertically. Both maps cover an area of London between Hammersmith and Bloomsbury that encompasses the route described by Morris that his traveller in News From Nowhere takes between where he wakes up by the River Thames and what had been the British Museum. One is a scan of a section of the Geographia London A1 Street Plan, a fold-out map that I bought in the late 1980s when I was first finding my way in London. I loved the map as it set out London from west to east Ealing to Dagenham and north to south Tottenham to Croydon. The map could be folded out to expose all of west London on one side and east London on the other; such a contrast to the AtoZ that I and millions of others used which subdivided the metropolis into small rectangles. I've not thought of this before, but it is a very egalitarian division that simply arranges London left to right and from top to bottom, unlike the Plan de Paris, the first booklet type city map that I owned which quite logically, but also hierarchically divides the city by arrondissement 1 to 20 and there could be no doubt if you were on an unfashionable page of the map... I stayed in the 11th in a recent trip to Paris, full of buzz for quite a few years now, but not a well thumbed tab on anybody's plan when I bought it in 1984.

I used my Geographia fold out London map for my sketchbook as it is the one in my head when I visualise journeys through and across London and having it in my sketchbook would help orient me both temporally and spatially within my London.

The other map in my sketchbook was a composite of 1890s large scale ordnance survey maps. For this I had taken screen shots of 18 incredibly detailed maps available online at National Library of Scotland and painstakingly pieced them together in photoshop. This map represented the London landscape and the journey between Hammersmith and Bloomsbury with which Morris would have been familiar at the time of writing News From Nowhere. On this map I plotted places from Morris's present that no longer existed in Nowhere, but still exist in our London: Ugly suspension bridge (Hammersmith Bridge), nondescript ugly copulaed building (The National Gallery), ugly bronze images (statues in Trafalgar Square) and ugly church (St Martin-in-the-Fields, whose burial ground in Camden I had wandered through in search of a previous lost coffee flask). I also plotted those that existed in both Morris's London and Nowhere: Kensington Gardens, Westminster Abbey, The Houses of Parliament (a dung market in Nowhere) and the British Museum. I added other sights of the utopian future and present-day meeting points to create a fold out leaflet map for my walk. I still have this version digitally, but all the hand-written annotations, suggestions of what I might do, or answers to research questions, are now lost.

It is fortunate that I scanned a couple of pages to be part of a dossier of my work as these may be the only developmental drawing made in the entire book. One was for a pipe that I made as a prop for my News From Nowhere walk and the other was the briefest of plans for a work I installed as part of an exhibition at the Filet Gallery in Hoxton. The pipe was one of two props I made for the walk. The other was, I suppose, more sustenance than prop and was an apricot, walnut and rye sourdough loaf to be consumed as we approached Trafalgar Square, inspired by Morris's travellers experience in News From Nowhere, "We presently came to a large open space, sloping somewhat toward the south, the sunny site of which had been taken advantage of for planting an orchard, mainly, as I could see, of apricot- trees... "

The pipe was there to signify the removal of capitalism, and also the principles of hand making and re-use. It refers to a particular incident in the book where Morris's traveller acquires a new beautifully carved pipe and tobacco for which he does not have to pay and when he objects that the pipe is too grand for him and that he fears that he might lose it, he is told "What will it matter if you do? Somebody is sure to find it, and he will use it, and you can get another". Ah, if only that were true today... somebody may well be having the use of my lost coffee flasks, but if I want another I, or in the case of the earlier lost flask, my wife, have to stump up the cash. I no longer have the pipe either as during the walk I gave it away to one of my fellow walkers... but then that was the whole point of it.

The walk took place on 20th of March, delayed for a week due to Covid, and 14 of us walked some, or all of the route between Hammersmith and Bloomsbury. One of the party took photographs and another recorded conversations with each of us about Morris, the role of art in people lives and any object we had brought along that we had made ourselves, repaired, or were reusing. These included pesto muffins - more sustenance, a copper tankard, a repaired jacket, a vintage blouse from a period closer to Morris's time than today, handmade jewellery and a description of repurposing document storage into a potato planter. One of the party had "made" a tune to accompany one of William Morris's socialist chants, the very appropriate Message of the March Wind, which we attempted to sing to their violin accompaniment on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields before being ejected for disrupting a service that was taking place within. The documentation of the walk is now all digital. The photographs, originally taken using 35mm side film, have now all been scanned and the recordings have been organised and transcribed. But my ideas of how I could represent these at an exhibition are lost for the moment and my memory is struggling to recall what I may have written. My capacity for creative new thought is subdued through lack of coffee.

From the loss of my sketchbook and coffee flask, I return to the thief Rees-Mogg, I know I can't really blame him for the loss of my sketchbook, or my coffee cup, but I can blame him (among others) for the theft of my country's dignity and its standing in the world where he and his chums sow division over nonsense like the right to a more powerful vacuum cleaner. I'm reminded of an item I saw described in the Barbican's How We Live Now exhibition about the feminist design co-operative Matrix. This was the Gross Domestic Product (GDP); a fictional prototype of a vacuum cleaner designed by the Edit architecture and design collective that could only be used by three people working co-operatively. This was created to highlight the, often solo, unrecognised domestic labour, that is the unseen part of our economic system and suggest that working collectively is a more efficient and rewarding form of labour. While clearly an impractical device, surely our time is better spent imagining and realising better futures that worrying whether or not we can have 1800 watts of suction power. I like to think that William Morris would be with me on that.

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