Need some cultural fodder to wash down your virtuous, if largely inedible, home-packed quinoa and cobb nut salad with? How about you take a bite of some Georgian debauchery, sink your nashers into an appetizing magic lantern show or maybe a dirty weekend will tantalise your tastebuds?
Recently the Royal Pavilion and Museums have launched the Bite-Size Museum, a series of free, short, informal lunch time talks (both midweek and on Saturdays) with curators who know their onions on a diverse range of sweetmeats from the collections.
I attended the debut outing on Mr Willetts Popular Pottery, which largely covered select drinking items on a broad theme of Pleasure and Vice in the Georgian era.
Curator Cecilia Kendall unveiled some choice ceramics including a puzzle jug, which had been devilishly designed to provide committed drinkers with more of a challenge, since its rim is dotted with a series of holes, which makes drinking from it a serious exercise in studied hand-eye coordination, and of course the more you drink from it, the harder the task inevitably becomes. We shall have to take her word for this though, as for obvious and eminently sensible conversation reasons we were not at liberty to give the jug a roadtest!
Also on display was a drinking flask cleverly hewn to resemble a potato (though some visitors commented that it also looked like a kidney, appropriately enough) to enable field workers to indulge in a sly tipple while they tilled on the lord’s land, alongside a mug with a cheeky wee 3D frog cast into the bottom, which made me wonder if any were also made with newts?
I’ll be honest and say that Toby Jugs, what with their unfortunate likeness to Adrian Chiles, have never been much to my taste and, for me, ceramics in general tend to call to mind adverts for Franklin Mint collectibles in thinly printed issues of the Reader’s Digest. But there are some knowingly quirky contemporary examples of the former in this collection and it was genuinely interesting to learn about the broad significance of ceramics as items of cultural commentary and social history. After all they reflect the changing tastes of the middle classes at a time when the items which took pride of place on your mantlepiece said a lot about you.
Some items chew on surprisingly dark subject matter too. One items tells the story of the Red Barn Murder of 1827 in Polstead, Suffolk, where the murdered body of mole catcher’s daughter Marie Marten was found and attributed to Wiliam Conder, the father of her second child. Conder was eventually tried and hanged, his execution resulting in the rather grim byproduct of pieces of his skin being sold as souvenirs.
My personal favourites in this gallery though are actually a recent addition of ‘fracking pots’, made by artist Carol McQuire in collaboration with the Museum Mentors Group. Fracking is becoming one of the huge political issues of our times, with Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas leading the charge against fracking in the Brighton area at the 2013 Balcombe Protest.
You can see the artist at work in a short video produced for the Beyond the Mantelpiece display in the gallery. There’s something deeply poignant and effective about watching her painstakingly perforate a beautiful, fragile, vaguely Earth-shaped pot with hundreds of holes, particularly since (puzzle jugs aside) of course pots are generally designed to be solid items, proving that even relatively genteel arts and craft forms can still pack a confrontational punch. (I hope to do some work with this group soon, but you can learn more about the Museum Mentors in this post.)
Whatever your tastes, these bite size sessions provide the perfect amuse bouche for the bigger feast that make up the museum’s collections. Being under an hour (actually this particular one was only around 25 minutes) they’re entirely feasible to squeeze into a lunch hour, giving just the tonic to break up your day with a quick, fun learning fix. You can get up close to the items, (very useful when perusing such a vast collection as Willetts’), take pictures outside of the display case and quiz the curators on their provenance. And all for free, with no need to pre-book — just wander into the gallery on the day.
Upcoming talks include a Valentine’s Special with Maria Foy and Amanda Scales on Brighton’s pedigree as a destination for a dirty weekend, Aubrey Beardsley’s time at Brighton Grammar School with Collections Assistant Alexia Lazou on March 14, and Biba, and Barbara and Brighton, a peek into the iconic sixties fashion brand Biba and its founder Barbara Hulanicki’s Brighton links, with Costume Curator Martin Pel, on 17 February.
Jools Stone, Blogger in Residence
- View our upcoming programme of Bite-Size Museum talks
- Learn more about the Beyond the Mantelpiece exhibition
- Learn more about our Decorative Art collection