Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Isabella, a detective story told in an installation for schools and galleries

As a result of the research grant from the Arts Council of Wales, I am looking for expressions of interest from galleries, museums, schools, libraries,  communities, festivals or anywhere else, in hosting the installation 'Isabella and the String of Beads'.

Here's the background: 

In the 1890s there were four sisters, who, like many other girls of their day, were brought up to sew fine seams and prepare for marriage to a suitable man.

But the oldest, Isabella, grew restless and fought her way into studying medicine.
She had just qualified as a doctor when war came in 1914.
Leaving home, she travelled many miles and to mend wounded men instead of garments.

Unravelling the tale of what happened as she travelled has been like a detective story. She left no personal papers or diaries. Only her medical instruments and a string of beads tell of her war experience, but the words of others give clues as to how she might have thought and reacted, words both from writings of the time and from interviews with living women whose lives parallel Isabella’s in unexpected ways. 

Isabella’s story will be told through a clue-filled installation that aims to give the viewer some of the delight of detection and discovery that the research has provided. 

Alongside her original instruments, her story will be revealed through a life-sized replica of her uniform, a freshly-constructed sampler, a dissected 1910 anatomy text book, short films and lighting effects.

Isabella's story represents the story of many feisty women, so to make it accessible to a range of people, there will also be a portable version of the installation that can visit schools, libraries and community venues. Workshops will also be available to enhance engagement.

Please contact me via the contact form for further details and discussion.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Isabella visits Made in Spring

Made in Spring is a one day arts festival in Roath, Cardiff; a warm-up act for the big Made in Roath festival that has taken place each October for the last few years.

Yesterday, Isabella and the String of Beads had a stall there:

Passers-by were invited to decorate one bead each. They then threaded their bead onto a communal strand of 'DNA' to commemorate the legacy of women such as Isabella who went against the flow of their times to alter what is colloquially known as the DNA of our culture. 

People drew, wrote, stitched and stuck until there were 44 beads on the strand and it was ready to be twisted into double helix of 'DNA'.

Friday, 26 April 2013


Courtesy of the Arts Council, I've been able to come up to London and see what I can find in the many archives, museums and galleries here. I've been looking for anything that will inspire presentation and help me to get into the spirit and aesthetic of the period.

Here are some highlights:

The Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green had magic lanterns, a popular entertainment when Isabella was a girl. There was no TV and films were only in embryonic form by the time she was a teenager. There were no laptops or computer games, and for a girl, no Facebook, only posting letters and wiring telegrams. No plastic, so toys and games would have been made of wood, card, paper or metal.

In Tate Britain there was a 1900 portrait of a young Edwardian lady by Sir William Orpen.

It helps me, because it is hard to work out what colours clothes and rooms would have been from black and white photos.

The contrast with his war painting of 1918 shows something of the change people would have had to cope with.

From 1914, Edward Reginald Frampton painted the anguish of a young French couple as the young man went off to war:

A visit to the Army Medical Services Museum in Keogh Barracks gave me a lot of information about the way the army has cared for the wounded over the centuries. I hadn't realised such care had a very long history.

The Hunterian Museum had some powerful images of war wounds, as well as Joseph Lister's dissecting kit, which was almost identical to Isabella's. The Foundling Museum told poignant stories of children whom their mothers had had to abandon.

In the Wellcome Collection there was a magnificently gruesome installation about the potential use of insects as food.

I was unexpectedly moved by the Souzou exhibtion of Japanese Outsider Art

Satoshi Murita's embroidery on a blanket took my eye and reminded me of the sheer physicality of the sickness Isabella would have had to face. Blankets, sheets, bandages, smells, disinfectants, pus......

In their Medicine Now exhibition, a range of artists had created installations that explored different aspects of modern medicine. 

Cultural DNA

The difference between these artistically directed pieces and the historical and precisely accurate displays in the previous museums I'd visited was palpable. Each have their place, and that is one of the choices I will need to make in relating Isabella's story.

One artist had had a necklace created from the sequencing of his DNA. That linked in well with two of the concepts at the back of my mind in doing this project - legacy, and beads. 

What consequences did Isabella's actions have for future generations? The knowledge that geneticists call a particular electron-microscopic view of DNA 'beads on a string' still haunts me. In the broader sense, what legacy did the deeds of feisty women of Isabella's generation leave for us, how did they change our conceptual DNA and inculcate the thinking of our culture? Was it all beneficial?

Monday, 22 April 2013


Isabella came from Edinburgh, so I wanted to find Scots who'd be interested in the tale, and I needed to collect photos of the places where she had been. The Arts Council Grant enabled me visit the city.

Fiona Herbert  is a Scottish Storyteller, experienced in telling stories of all sorts - traditional tales, historic stories and even fictions fresh off the keyboards of her creative writing classes. When she heard Isabella's story, she agreed to help me. I'm going to need Scottish voices.

Isabella loved gardens, so she is likely to have seen this beech hedge in the Royal Botanic gardens, which is over a century old, but how big would it have been then? The archive of the RBG has boxes and boxes of old photos and gave some unexpected insights into what she would have seen.

I said in my last post that stitching is part of my plan of how to tell Isabella's story, and I met up with Mairi Brown,who runs sewing classes as well as making the most amazing corsets and more. 

Someone who can shape a garment and decorate it so skilfully as well as running stitching classes in Edinburgh would be a great help Thankfully, Mairi agreed to be that person.

Next, I met Catriona Reynolds and recorded the story of her Great-Aunt, Norah Neilson Gray, who painted this picture of the wounded at Royaumont, a hospital run by the Scottish Women's Hospital Movement.

Following Alyson Fielding's recommendation, I met Peggy Hughes and Claire Stewart from Electric Bookshop.

They proved to have massive expertise in the world of books, literature, literacy and poetry as well as their concern with the potential digital future of stories and sparked a power house of ideas.

Sally Booth used painting and poems to tell the stories of Shetland islanders to the Scottish Parliament building. A completely different mode of storytelling, and a real treat to see inside the building.

Lothian Health Services Archive provided useful images, the National Library of Scotland useful books, the Central Library useful printing facilities and other anonymous supporters made it a very productive week.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Detective story

I have spent over 2 years uncovering the story of Isabella, a young Edinburgh woman who served as a doctor during the First World War. I have made many failed attempts to write it down in book format, but at last these few weeks of Arts Council of Wales sponsorship have inspired a way forward, and, despite my indecisive and prevaricating nature, I’ve come up with a way of telling Isabella’s story that I think will work, and I hope will be fun for people to explore.

I set myself some parameters: 

It had to connect with ordinary people, not just gallery going artists, people like the ladies from the over 50s exercise class who grumbled when my show at The Gate in 2005 came down.

It had to be portable, so it could visit a space for a short time - a school, library, community group, gallery, museum. 

It had to involve the voices of real twenty-first century people.

It had to involve stitching. Isabella was brought up to sew a fine seam and ended up stitching men.

It had to allow other people to take part, making it a celebration of womanly achievement, not merely the story of one woman.

It had to convey the sense of excitement that I’ve experienced while doing the research to uncover the story.

As a story, it had to create the opportunity for people to talk, tell their own stories and respond.

So my version of Isabella’s story will be multi-media, including textiles, artist’s books, audio, photography and what might loosely be called film.

To give away any more would spoil the ending, but I’m looking for:

artists who might be interested to chat or collaborate
Scots who might read voiceovers
groups or classes who might like to play a small part
places that might like to show the work

I’ll be in Edinburgh 15-18th April, and London 22nd - 26th. The rest of the time I’m in South Wales. Anyone out there? Get in touch.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

So many stories, so many ways

Did tales begin by the fire, connecting with poetry, rhythm and song? Did people act them out, impersonate the characters with their voices and their beings? Did the listeners quietly listen, or did they heckle, sing along, divert the tale? Did it matter what the story was, and who was telling it?

With painting, and writing, stories could be told without a storyteller; they could be digested on their own. Stories no longer had to be a communal event.

When print came along, stories could travel far and wide. They grew lives of their own, and as literacy grew, more people could interpret the squiggles on the page and recount the tales to themselves and others. And people in different places encountered the same tales and found common ground.

With photography came film, and television, and .... Youtube.....

I'm getting fanciful now.

But since there are so many ways of telling stories, I've been taking advantage of this research grant to meet people who choose different media to tell their stories. Why should one medium work better than another? Are some stories better suited to one medium rather than another? What are the limitations and advantages of different storytelling modes: Live theatre vs film? Book vs film vs oral storytelling? And where do new, digital modes of storytelling fit in, and are there limits to what they can achieve?

But maybe all that comes later - why tell a story in the first place? What do story recipients gain from a story? Different environments produce different responsiveness, effects, results. How does that feed into the decision to tell a story one way or another?

Has the advent of the internet and social media changed the way stories are received? Is the traditional model of a linear narrative less relevant in an age when people have been accustomed to continual commentary through Twitter and other social networking sites? Are there ways of telling stories which allow the story recipient more control, more interaction? How many people want that sort of experience, or will it always be nice and relaxing to sit down with a good book/film and receive a good story?

All stories are not designed for all audiences - who would be interested in Isabella, and how do these changes affect the way her story deserves to be told?

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Styles of the times

I'm looking into the style of images in the Edwardian period and the War - what ticked people's boxes, what were their skills? What resources did they have to hand?

Embroidered postcards during the war mainly featured flowers, flags and medals with the odd animal thrown in for luck.

Occasionally quite funky, symbolic text appears:

Soldiers would not have been able to make these, even with time on their hands waiting in trenches or hospitals.

But there's an album online of images scanned from a book kept by one of the women who graduated with Isabella, Celia McNeill. 
It's full of drawings, paintings and poems done by the wounded men she was treating. 

The standard of the painting varies:

as does the literacy level of the men:

But it amazes me that they possessed any of the skills to draw or paint. It challenges my stereotype of men in the war as much as Isabella does with her doctoring.

Friday, 29 March 2013

The problem of the missing papers

I've been pondering Isabella's story for months and have kept coming up against a dilemma - she left no diaries or letters. Her only texts are a few words on the back of a couple of post cards.

If you read it carefully, you'll see that she signs herself 'B', which brings me to another source about her - people who knew her. But very few of those remain. One of them told me off the other day, "You must stop calling her Isabella," she scolded, "She was never called that. It was always Belle or Isabel." To which I had to reply, "That's precisely why I call her that. If I get it wrong it doesn't matter."

It's getting it wrong that I've been afraid of. A good story needs a strong character. Without her own voice from personal papers or people who knew her, I have to invent the dialogue, reactions to events, motivations. It's a question of looking at the documentation I have discovered and saying, "Who do you think she was?" I may have posted about that before - it's a question that has haunted me for the last couple of years.

But a set of facts/choices/actions do not reveal the character of the woman who went through them. Amongst a group of people working in the same job in the same place, there will be diverse motivations, diverse personalities and diverse skills.  I can look at my research and invent all sorts of different scenarios. And I don't want to impose my ideas onto her story. That would be fiction. Let alone that it would be impossible to write dialogue in a Scottish accent.

But hearing Alan Bennett being interviewed on the radio the other day helped.

The interviewer asked him if his parents had liked the way they were portrayed in his work, and followed up by asking him if he liked the way he himself was portrayed when people acted him in the plays he himself had written.

The answer didn't matter, what mattered was that it made me realise that, like with photos, people are quite likely not to like or recognise the way they are portrayed. Each person is so multi-layered and many faceted that a single portrayal cannot encompass the whole. 

Let alone that people are mutable. Their minds and thinking shift and alter, even within short spaces of time. Think about decision making - how hard it can be to work out what to do, let alone why, and how the 'why' can depend on the person we are telling. "Oh, I wouldn't tell her that, but really...." It even alters with how honest or not we are with ourselves. With time, particular versions of stories we tell about our experiences develop, 'truth' becomes fixed, a sort of authorised version. But Isabella told no-one about her experiences; she chose not to make any version public. Susan Sontag is quoted as saying:

‘Beware,’ wrote Susan Sontag in her notebook in 1961, ‘of anything that you hear yourself saying often.’

I doubt if Isabella could ever have been happy with the picture it might have been possible to build up from any papers she had left behind. It makes me ponder the difference between an 'authorised' biographies, and one that is not. I read a biography of Gertrude Bell recently. It was littered with quotes from her letters and diaries. They gave an accurate picture of where she went, and when, but how accurate were the expressions of motivation and the more mutable aspects of a person that build up that indefinable thing, character? Maybe she changed her mind after penning the words. They can only reflect what she felt at the moment the ink trailed onto the page. 

Coming up with an accurate portrayal of a character seems a big task, doomed to failure. To quote some lines from 'The Sound of Music':

How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?
How do you keep a wave upon the sand?

I can only tell my version of the story, and recognise that someone else would see it differently, tell it differently. Which is very liberating.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Fact, fiction and interpretation

Accuracy has been bugging me a lot with respect to the telling of Isabella's story. How can I link the facts together to tell the story without allowing error to creep in? But sticking solely to the 'facts' results in a turgid list, losing the essence of whatever story there is.

Katherine Angel expressed the dilemma beautifully in an article in Aeon magazine:

I want to understand the past — the past of others, and of myself: what has shaped us, why we feel and think and do the things we do. But I don’t want to fossilise it, to preserve it in aspic. I don’t want to tell a solid, stolid story. And the reason I don’t want to do that is because it’s a way of killing the past, immobilising it: pinning its arms down, and saying, ‘I understand you now. Don’t move. Don’t you dare elude me again.’

But I do want to understand, and to tell a story even if that story is never closed, never complete, never conclusive. The writing of history — whether that of past epochs, people, events, or that of ourselves — has been profoundly challenged in recent decades. Access to the past is woefully indirect and unreliable, goes the argument. The evidence we have is incomplete and our own investments — theoretical, political, personal — shape what we find in it.

That excavatory urge vies in me with something else: a feeling that there is something absurd and impossible about attempting to know — definitively, once and for all, truthfully — about the past, any past, even if that search must always be pursued. There is no control experiment; we have nothing against which to test our speculations. All we have is our own life, our own singularity. And in both realms — in things outside ourselves, and in things within — all we have are hypotheses, some good, and some less so. Which is, I think, perfectly fine.

Simultaneously, I came across two instances of 'facts' which were less than 100% accurate. 

My first find was on a website documenting the CVs of the women who went out to Malta with the army in 1916. Isabella is listed, as she should be.  Stenhouse Isabella

I was excited to discover that she had been awarded the Wellcome Medal, (gold medal), in the History of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh graduation ceremony. I knew she had won one prize. Had she won two?

A spot of internet research and careful sifting through the hundreds of files on my computer told me what had happened. The published list of prize winners was not tabulated, it ran straight from one line to the next. Did the name of the prize come first, or the name of the graduate who had won it? The website creator had read the list one way, and given Isabella a prize for History of Medicine. I read the list the other way, and awarded her the Dorothy Gilfillan Prize for most distinguished woman medical student. Thankfully for my confidence in my research, a second source corroborated my reading of the list rather than the website's interpretation, but for posterity, the information on the website will be regarded as true, and Isabella has won a new prize with no effort, but been deprived of her true trophy.

My second discovery concerned an error from a century ago. A letter described her as 'Sister Isobel Stenhouse' instead of 'Dr. Isabella Stenhouse'. The context of the letter confirmed other things I knew about her, and the name error seemed like a mistake that anyone could make when meeting face to face. The writer would have met her socially in France, but simply hearing her name didn't tell him how it was spelt. He would have sensed that she had greater authority than the other women, so concluded that she was a senior nurse, not imagining she could be a doctor. The sort of mistake that happens every day.

Those ideas combine to release me into attempting to convey Isabella's story vividly, seeking its essence without losing its truth. Has accuracy several meanings?

Now what about that picture at the top? How do you interpret that? 

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Arts Council of Wales

Thanks to the Arts Council of Wales, Isabella is on the march again.

They have awarded a research grant to develop a mode of telling her story. Watch this space as the research progresses.