Museum Crush talks to artist Laura Ford about the objects that inspired her in the collection of Brighton Museum for her new artwork opening there as part of HOUSE Biennial
Laura Ford’s work is unsettling, often anthropomorphic, sometimes weird and very frequently funny. Periodically it is to be found responding to historic settings, where the London based sculptor has become renowned for her strange, dreamlike narratives and for her ability to unsettle and amuse in equal measure.
At Blackwell Arts and Crafts House in the Lakes she created a series of sculptures that included a series of weeping children set across the grounds in corners, crevices and woodlands whilst her Armour Boys – a creepy collection of collapsed and forlorn boys in medieval armour – have greeted visitors to galleries and locations across the UK and Europe.
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For her latest venture she is heading to Brighton as part of the HOUSE Biennial with a new series of works called The King’s Appetite, inspired by the collection of Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, where she has found rich seam of stories and historical narratives – including the caricatures by the likes of James Gillray and George Cruikshank satirising aspects of the life of the Prince Regent (later to become King George IV).
The resulting tableaux, which will occupy one of the Museum’s upper galleries and make an intervention next to a collection, includes a giant giraffe, like the one the Prince Regent kept towards the end of his life, and a ‘man baby’ ceramic sculpture, inspired by the Royal himself.
“I was terribly excited by the Pavilion first of all,” admits Ford when first approached to do the commission as a respone to HOUSE Biennial theme of ‘Excess’, “but then I started going round Brighton Museum and there are particular objects that do really appeal.”
One of the first collections to catch her eye was the Willett Collection of Popular Pottery, a thematic assemblage of eighteenth century domestic ceramic ware illustrating British popular history, collected by one of the museum’s founding fathers, Henry Willett.
“It’s right up my street,” says Ford, “I’ve been a huge fan of Staffordshire pottery from a very early age because I love the way it tells stories.”
Featuring everything from politics and crime to sport and religion, Willet’s collection is bursting with stories. Most of the ceramic objects he collected spent much of their domestic life sat on mantelpieces and it’s probably true to say that for all the mystery in her work, quite a lot of the Laura Ford tropes come from the English mantelpiece.
“When I was a kid there wasn’t that much art around, but there were ornaments on the mantelpiece,” she says, “so in a way they were the kind of things I looked at, and I suppose I had fancies about them and deconstructed them or whatever…”
So even though it’s not readily apparent, she says there’s a strong sense of the domestic lurking inside Ford’s work; whether it be fabrics, ceramics or even the bronze it is fashioned from.
Ford grew up in a fairground family and her childhood was spent touring Wales and the West Country before settling at the seaside, and the sights and sounds of the fairground are also an enduring influence on her work.
“I worked on the bingo for a long time,” she says, “there were loads of objects on the bingo; cheap figurative things. They had a story and a sense of grandness, but of course they weren’t grand at all.”
Given this grounding, the museum’s collection of bizarre masks from the 1930s Les Ballets production also caught Ford’s eye, but it is the influence of the collection of Regency cartoons and caricatures that will be seen most readily in the finished artwork.
“Throughout the day we were looking at the museum stuff, but on the way to having a cup of tea we stopped by all these political cartoons, just outside the tea room, and that’s what really captured my imagination,” she says.
“Around that time, it was the American elections and there were all these amazing political cartoons with Trump and Bannon, so I suppose I was becoming fascinated with the cartoons. There were particular ones that struck me as being interesting – like the giraffe.
The story of George IV and his giraffe is one of many tales of excess that abound around George IV. It was given to him by the Pasha of Egypt in 1827 as a diplomatic gift and lived in George IV’s menagerie at Windsor, where for the last two years of his life he became a virtual recluse crippled by gout and obesity.
“I’ve made lots of giraffes before,” says Ford, “but there was something about George IV having a giraffe that’s come all the way from Africa as a baby and him showing it off for a couple of years until it died. It is something fantastic, incredibly cruel yet slightly naïve as well.
“It’s interesting what came over, it would have been artefacts from Egyptian tombs, it would have been slaves, it would have been exotic animals so there is that certain kind of horror of it really.”
The story of the Regent’s divorce and protracted wrangle with his estranged Queen, Caroline, also appealed to Ford, in particular the way the political cartoonists of the era referenced the green bags of money that came to symbolise the divorce settlement.
“I loved the green bags stuffed full of venom against each other,” she says. “In all of these political cartoons there’s also the sense of judgement on George, but he was like a child. He was often depicted like a spoilt child.”
Ford’s ‘man baby’ sculpture depicts George in a crib, “like some of the cribs that are in the Willett Collection but looking more like a pie as well,” she says. “I do have an ambivalence towards him. Obviously he was this terrible, spoilt imperialist figure but he was also fabulously creative in terms of architecture and in terms of a lot of his projects.
“I suppose it’s a bit like when you go round Roman villas, there’s all this wonderful stuff but you know it was built by slaves. There’s all this weird ambivalence as well and you think about the art world and who are we making art works for, and all those sorts of things. Those are the kinds of things I’m thinking about.”
The King’s Appetite is at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery from September 30 – November 5 2017.
HOUSE Biennial happens across Brighton from September 30 to November 5 2017. See housebiennial.art/ for more.
Laura Ford will be in conversation with curator Alexandre Loske at Brighton Museum on September 30 2017.
Brighton Museum and Art Gallery
Brighton & Hove, East Sussex
Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, with its rich and diverse collections, creates a vibrant cultural centre in and around the Royal Pavilion estate in the heart of the city of Brighton & Hove. Dynamic and innovative galleries provide greatly improved access to the Museum's nationally and locally important collections. Objects…