Cloth & Memory {2} : Mutable Frame of Reference

Mutable Frame of Reference : inside viewMaxine Bristow’s work ‘Mutable Frame of Reference – Installation – Material’, in the Cloth & Memory {2} exhibition in the Spinning Room at Salt’s 1853 Mill, is conceptually challenging. This post gives a personal but historically contexted reading of the installation that acknowledges the fluid frames, mutability and associative resonances of the work. Through these readings and the memories that the structural frameworks and curtaining evoke, the post settles, unsettlingly, on ideas of ‘warded’ space. From there it moves on to an account of an incident in the early 1860s when the ‘Lancashire Cotton Famine’ was near its peak and then comes back by way of the worsted trade to Bowling Dyeworks, the industrial model village of Ripley Ville and Salts Mill.

This is the second in a series of four posts on the Cloth & Memory {2} exhibition. A previous post has reviewed 6 other exhibits adding a commentary, in the form of supplements, that make connections between the exhibits and worsted dyeing, Bowling Dyeworks and Bradford’s ‘other’ industrial model village; Ripley Ville.

Theoretical underpinning

A future post ‘Colour Supplement’ engages with the theoretical positions that inform Maxine Bristow’s work (see Cloth & Memory {2}, page 38) and within their context uses the idea of ‘the supplement’ to critique Bradford’s understanding of its Victorian history and what this means for its heritage offer. This post revolves around and then enters into the exhibit to settle, unsettlingly on the idea of warded space. This is an idea that connects to the theory of a  ‘surveillance and a carceral society’ , associated with Michel Foucault and his account of structural (epistemic} changes in the relations between state, society and the individual in the early 19th century.

Cloth & Memory {2} : Mutable Frame of Reference

Occupying a central space in the Spinning Room of Salts 1853 Mill in Saltaire, Maxine Bristow’s work ‘Mutable Frame of Reference – Installation – Material’ is designed to be conceptually challenging.  It is one of 23 exhibits in the Cloth & Memory {2} exhibition that runs for its final week until Sunday, November 3rd.

View of whole installation : Mutable Frame of Reference

Image : copyright R L Walker 2013

At a distance, in spite of its central location, the tonal values of the cloths and the runs of matt metal rails allow an assimilation of the installation to the space of the Spinning Room. Approached, incongruities appear. The ‘Scandinavian’ blond-wood, the bent-wood components and smaller dimensions of the railings suggest technologies and a modern structure from the late 1950s or 1960s, certainly from a period that came after the hundred years when the Mill was in its prime.

There is something else. In a room constructed and used in an age wedded to utility, few components, sub assemblies or assemblages suggest a use outside of the installation. The four arched openings, for example, do not function as gateways. One (see above, bottom left corner) has a long dowel with a turned disc across the threshold. Another restricts access or egress with a show of curtaining of a length, at a height and that curtains off such a small space as to confound ideas for its use. All the arches are barred in some way.

At this or an earlier point you may wander away or may have wandered away from the installation to look at another exhibit (see ‘uncanny’ below).

Curtaining and Assemblage

Seeking meaning

Two larger objects in fabric suggest a mattress and blankets, other components (above left) could be bibs or aprons made to unusual dimensions, One object, in the same assemblage and shown below in the image to the right, might be an ill-made washing dolly. That long dowel and disc referred to earlier could be a plunger. On the basis of these partial readings of the installation it is almost possible to see the whole as comprised of creatively (dis)organised internal and exterior domestic spaces.

But then there is the component on the floor in the assemblage, shown above left, that looks like a drive belt – from a steam driven shaft? And that ‘plunger’ could be interpreted as a wheel on a long axle, or is it a very sketchy representation of a piston? Then, differently, looked at from one side there is something about the proportions of the installation that momentarily suggests what? – stabling and a curtained off stall with horse blankets?

In line with Maxine Bristow’s intentions it is only possible to get a few elements to cohere to one interpretation. It is not possible for a whole assemblage or tableau. Disruptive elements occur – some more disruptive than others. The head-rest/chair back and the other upholstered faux-leather elements (see above right) like totems atop frail square posts are almost as indecipherable as the white object, below left.

Close-up assemblage and components

Mutable frame of reference

The mutability of the installation, its components, assemblages and sub-assemblages derives from qualities, traces of reality the familiar and unfamiliar in their making and placing which change according to how you frame your thinking, or how, in coming to them your thinking is pre-framed. In addition while you look at them shifts in attention, perception, or fleeting memories may mean these qualities are re-framed and re-framed again in your encounter with the work.

According to these subjective framings – and from within limited registers of demotic or received English – some words that may come to mind are; weird, puzzling, archetypal, imagined, symbolic, surreal, uncanny or, getting closer to the mutability of the exhibit and its tableaux, polyvalent, or polysemic.

Framing subjective attachment and a historical continuity

What follows is an attempt, against this flux of mutability, to settle, unsettlingly, on a continuity. This connects one subjective reading of the installation, personal memories, a canonical and a set text, a passage from a book about the Lancashire Cotton Famine and the building of Saltaire and Ripley Ville.

Warded space

At various moments in multiple encounters with the exhibit the neutral blond-wood, the bent wood frames, the very colour of the fabric and faux-leather began to suggest an institutional space – the furniture of waiting rooms, the curtaining round a patient’s bed, the bed-side chair. At moments these become a particular chair, the swish of curtaining round a bed, a ward associated with birth, others, more recent, with life-saving surgery, Walking round the installation, one interrupted line of vision, on the diagonal, offered perhaps imperfectly the opportunity to re-presented this illusion/delusion. In a deliberated transgressive act, I stepped inside the installation; to its interior space. Seeking the view of someone lying down on a bed I squatted, somewhat precariously, in this inner curtained area and pointed my camera.

Mutable Frame of Reference : inside view

One of three images taken along the diagonal from within the installation ‘Mutable Frame of Reference’ by Maxine Bristow.   image copyright R L Walker 2013

By this time the idea of a curtained space within a hospital ward had become so strong that when processing the photograph, the kimonos of Yatsuko Fujino’s exhibit, ‘Cloud  Piece1 : Fate – Piece2 : Cipher – Piece3 : Garden’ in the distance (exhibit 8) became associated with fellow patients’ cotton printed nightdresses on a mixed surgical ward and their wrapping, ties and sash with tie-at-the-back surgical gowns. (The final post in this series, based around Cloth & Memory, revisits the image above with a surprising explanation.)

This strongly evoked memory of warded spaces and the re-creation of one such space within the installation led to recollected conversations with ward sisters and joyful and traumatic incidents on wards. There was also an explosion of thoughts related to;

  • words (wardens, warder, ward of court, cell, surveillance, schooling (horse/child)),
  • a canonical text, ‘Discipline and Punish’ read more than a decade earlier and an elective text ‘Reconstructing Local History’ from a study module eight years ago.
  • and further more recent readings

Within the last of these was the memory of a passage in a book, ‘The Hungry Mills : the story of the Lancashire cotton famine 1861-1865’ by Norman Longmate  (pub. 1978) . It concerns an incident one evening at a school in Stockport in December 1862. Clothing items collected by the famine ‘Relief Committee’ are to be distributed to the needy. The distribution is scheduled to start at six o’clock …

warded space

The account, abridged by Longmate, is by a Mrs Ellen Barlee, from a booklet ‘ A Visit to Lancashire in December 1862′ published the following year ”’. Mrs Barlee was from London. The passage appears in ‘The Hungry Mills’ (p 153)

Surveillance and a Carceral Society

In Mrs Barlee’s phrase ‘four small class rooms or cells warded off’, there is the easy subsumption of a schoolroom to the carceral model.  The more ambiguous one of ‘having a gallery round it’ suggests a capcity for freer circulation and perhaps an uninterrupted view of proceedings (surveillance). Her approval of the room, as ‘admirably suited for the purpose’ extends the carceral model to another purpose; an orderly relief over more than four hours of the distress amongst families and individuals amongst ‘the full five hundred’ in the crowd  ‘who beset the place’.

Mrs Barlee’s account is about an active process of warding off. It identifies those who are warded and the activities and objects that need securing or restricting or for other reasons warding off. It concerns also the rules, roles and behaviours of those in the warded space. This is a particular description of social control. The attributes I have drawn attention to were however, spread through the design, administration and regulation of behaviours across a whole range of Victorian institutions; the hated workhouses or Bastilles, the Victorian asylums and madhouses, hospitals, schools, prisons, the manufactories and Mills. On this reading of the epistemic changes in the 19th century, the orthagonal grid of the industrial model villages of Bradford (Saltaire and Ripleyville) can also be seen as mimicking the serried array of tents of an army camp, with houses/tents in appropriate places for people of the different ranks or social classes. (1)

In the empty space of the Spinning Room now, the notion of warded industrial spaces is more difficult to maintain. The low partitioned recessed in the rooms walls mark the Victorian arrangements of machine and workers, workers and machines, while the name and role of the Spinning Room’s Overlookers, responsible for workers discipline, revivify it as a place of surveillance.

Lancashire Cotton and Yorkshire Worsted : Famine and Feast

In the Victorian world of Worstedopolis in the run-up to when Bradford’s other industrial model village was conceived, this post shows that what was bad for Lancashire was good for Yorkshire, the Worsted District and the worsted trade -at least in the short run. An indication of the likely impact of the cotton famine of the early 1860s on Salts Mill or Bowling Dyeworks or Bradford’s worsted trade can be found here.  Counter-intuitively but then the clue is the name ‘Lancashire Cotton Famine’, most of the famine’s negative impacts were confined to that county. What was bad for Lancashire trade and nearly disastrous for Mill workers and their families was better for Yorkshire. The Yorkshire trade continued to grow and prosper during the 1861-1865 cotton famine period. This immediately precedes when the industrial model village of Ripley Ville was planned and building work started (November 1866 to summer 1867).

At the same time the organisation of the Relief effort to alleviate the Lanacashire workers distress must have re-inforced or renewed employers sense of duty to others(2) while softening attitudes to assistance or of deference in independent workers. In the West Riding of Yorkshire in this receptive climate and through the uninterrupted increase in their fortunes, a worsted manufacturer like Titus Salt may have been better able to continue his ambitious paternalistic project, while a dye-master like Henry Wm Ripley could initiate a project of a politico-philanthropic or neo-paternalistic kind.

One aspect of the political context under which Ripley Ville was built also flowed from the Lancashire Cotton Famine. The disciplined behaviours of the Lancashire workers influenced the decision by Wm Gladstone to move to a position where he favoured extension of the vote to such working men.  The extension of the franchise to an upper slice of working men was enacted by Parliament in 1867 and some of the men taking on a house in Messrs Ripleys Working Mens Dwellings may have enjoyed the right to vote for the first time in the election of the following year

Truck and wheel

And finally another look at that long piece of dowel with the turned disc at one end – this time alongside an image of a truck that can be found on the first floor of Salts Mill, used as a display unit for books. The truck has the brake on and the axle isn’t visible but does it make an otherwise puzzling component in Bristow’s exhibit wheel enough?

Salts Mill frames a reference


(1)       The argument is made by Jackson et al in ‘Saltaire the Making of a Model Town’ that such a class based hierarchy of housing did not exist in Saltaire.  I find their case unproven. They present Census data, which reflects the operation of the mid-Victorian rental market and household income or accumulated wealth at one particular point in time, as negating the differing sizes of a house’s internal and external spaces and their arrangement, or the more generous arrangements for window and doors and the superior embellishment of facades. Inhabitants of the houses in the 1860s could recognise these markers in a hierarchy, just as inhabitants or visitors can recognise them now. Mid-Victorian inhabitants, who were arguably much more class-conscious would read these and know the class and status hierarchy – just as they would know households that managed to rent something above or below either the class, or social  standing commonly ascribed to them by others or the household’s self-description.

(2)     Norman Longmate (1978, p 190) quotes a long complaint, from the radical paper ‘The Bee Hive’, that includes the claim that ‘the temptation amongst [Lancashire] manufacturers on these Relief Committees to avenge themselves on their workmen for old grievances and trade disputes is very great and is not often resisted.’


Barlee E, 1863, A Visit to Lancashire in December 1862

Best G, 1985, Mid-Victorian Britain 1851-1875, Fontana Press, Hammersmith (particularly final section, The Social Order of Mid-Victorian Britain)

Foucault M, Sheridan A (trans), 1991, Discipline and Punish, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth

Jackson et al, 2010, Saltaire the Making of a Model Town, Spire Books, Reading.

Longmate N, 1978, The Hungry Mills : the story of the Lancashire cotton famine 1861-1865, Maurice Temple Smith, London.

Millar L (ed),  2013, Cloth & Memory {2}, Salts Estates, Saltaire.

Oldfield P (ed), 2012, Photography, Cloth and Memory, Belle Vue Press.

Sheeran G, Sheeran Y, 1999, Reconstructing Local History, The Local Historian, November Issue, pp 257-262

last updated 2014/02/01


One response

  1. CitraGran Cibubur | Reply

    Reblogged this on CitraGran Cibubur.

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