WRITER AND COLLECTOR POLLY DEVLIN ARRANGES THINGS NOT BY COLLECTION BUT BY CONNECTION AND AESTHETIC. IN THIS FIRST ESSAY IN HER NEW SERIES FOR THE GLOSS, SHE DESCRIBES A TABLE IN HER BATHROOM, ITS OBJECTS AND ORNAMENTS REFLECTING ASPECTS OF HER OWN PERSONAL AND SOCIAL HISTORY …
When my children were small and I had a lot to remember – although not, it seems, as much as I have to remember now – or, put it like this I forget more, I devised a felicitous solution to rearranging the art of forgetting. Thirty years ago, (how can this be?) I hied to Michael Conlon’s shop in Clanbrassil Street. He was/is one of the best dealers in Dublin, and certainly the most laconic. “Don’t go scratching any surfaces with your handbag.” Michael’s furniture was no longer scratchable; shabby chic isn’t in it; it was often deeply distressed and scored, but the point is that the furniture he finds with his fine eye has seen better days and will again. There I found a rope woven from heavy blue and red wool, a good five inches thick, over eight feet long, once used to toll a church bell in a belfry. At night when I had something important to remember the next morning – who I was, feed my children, get them to the dentist – I would lay the rope outside my bedroom door so that it was either trip up or remember. I did both.
So, the remembering rope became for a while a sort of joke and then an institution and it has become for me, so many years later, a synecdoche, a symbol of the ways and means of my life. It is both an image and real; invisibly woven into it are the appointments and events of the last 30 years and my mind and memory can climb up and down it with speed and exactitude and agility although I may well forget what I, only this minute, came into this room to look for.
Until relatively recently I looked to the past for consolation, and led a life which was for a lot of the time engaged with collecting, mostly old things, a life that seemed to need the vast and authenticating accumulation of objects and anything else I could lay hands on to confirm myself into being. Yet I looked so confident. Odd, that dichotomy – yet so true of many women, each acquisition seemed like restitution and protection to me, to fill the void. The void seemed bottomless. Philip Larkin, as he lay sleepless at four in the morning, saw what lay ahead, saw what’s really always there – the reality of his own death, total emptiness for ever. “This is a special way of being afraid, no trick dispels. Religion used to try, that vast moth-eaten musical brocade.” Quite. Irish religion also put the fear of God in me, the exact opposite of what it should have done.
Until relatively recently I looked to the past for consolation, and led a life which was for a lot of the time engaged with collecting, mostly old things …
My collecting was also, without wanting to stray into pretentious, moi? A way of recreating what we, the aboriginal Irish lost through the takeover and plunder of colonisation, dispossessed for ever of the legacies other sections of society took for granted. Single-handedly I set about reversing this disgrace and spent forever tracking down any old Irish vernacular stuff I could find: tinkered jugs, old spongeware bowls and mugs, Coalisland crocks, súgán chairs, earthenware, patchwork quilts, settles, butter pats.
So the rope, besides being an intricate arrangement of fabric and colour and a rather touching relic, is a metaphysical list and a retrieval object. The use of arrangements helps to balance the teetering demands of daily life. A schedule is the obvious arrangement but a timetable can also be a cage and I rise up and leave obligations behind and guiltily spend time finding and putting lovely things in decorative order.
I grew up in an untidy house – there were so many of us and so little help and my mother, a teacher, was out at school most of the day and so now here I am obsessively tidy and living in a composed house full of things important to me that give me pleasure and all sort of connected by passion, yearning, need, want, search and voyages and all speaking to each other through proper arrangement and not a speck of dust anywhere.
The better your eye, the better the arrangement. It doesn’t take much wit and insight to put forward feasible theories about infantilism, or dolls-house syndrome, about imposing control, about keeping chaos at bay. All true. But we can come back to all those. Or not. The fact is I am an addict.
The rope, when it was not being used, was kept wound in an Aztec-looking blue and red coil under a demi-lune table in my bathroom. The collection on that particular table was gathered over many years, in Ireland, in England, in France, in Spain, in Georgia, in India, in Japan, the US, everywhere and anywhere, always I lugged something back. Never souvenirs – either works of art or things or which had had a useful life in their country but which were now redundant. They are art to me. So this table is a little landscape and deep-bore line into my past voyages and personal history; it also displays a precise history of places at an artisanal domestic level – social history and the ways of earlier lives. (BTW I had a patient, grown-up husband who believed in travelling light throughout his life. Obvs I was the necessary ballast.)
It doesn’t take much wit and insight to put forward feasible theories about infantilism, or dolls-house syndrome, about imposing control, about keeping chaos at bay.
When during the night I got up to go the bathroom I didn’t switch on a light and no matter how careful I was I would occasionally bump against the table and the things on it would rock. I could have moved it but it was an elaborate and talismanic arrangement and anyway I always forgot. Why didn’t I use the Remembering Rope? My husband inherited this particular table from his great-great uncle Sir Charles Mansfield Clarke who, although the favourite doctor to Queen Adelaide, will forever be associated with the scandal of the supposed pregnancy of Lady Flora Hastings, one of Queen Victoria’s unmarried ladies-in-waiting. As her stomach swelled so her reputation sank, the salacious court gossip stoked by a vicious piece of work called Lady Portman. Lady Flora was a modest and inhibited woman, probably a virgin and had to undergo painful, humiliating physical examinations.
An extraordinary document called “A Voice from The Grave of Lady Flora Hastings to her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen” received widespread publication after her death. (Never was there a less gracious woman than rotund, squat, mean, priggish Victoria who lapped the gossip up.) Part of the sensational document reads, “But it was not a mere medical consultation that Lady Portman required in your Majesty’s name – no, it was a medical “examination” of a nature the most indelicate and shocking – here the heart sickens … The “examination” to use words of Lady Flora, was “most Rigid”. The barbarous and indelicate investigation took place in the presence of Sir Charles Mansfield Clarke, Sir James Clark, Lady Flora’s accuser Lady Portman and her own maid … the whole demeanour of Sir Charles Clarke during the painful and humiliating scene was characterised by kindness, the conduct of Sir James Clark as well as that of Lady Portman was unnecessarily abrupt, unfeeling and indelicate … shameful barbarous.” So good avuncular credit there.
On the table is a gilt-stamped, leather-bound locked box which looks like a book and contains letters relating to a dinner given for the same Sir Charles in May 1851 by the members of his profession. To open the book-box and inhale the whiff of ancient paper and ink and to read the flowery and formal sentiments expressed in the many letters is to be back in his time and to realise that he was loved and revered.
Near it are two figures – a ceramic sculpture of Mary, Queen of Scots holding an open bible, with real lace flouncing out from under the hem of her farthingale and a Honiton lace veil held in place by a little Victorian diamanté hair comb, and near her a strange somewhat spooky doll-like figure of a maiden made of wax and muslin. I think she is maybe Mexican, with smooth long black hair, her skin lemon-coloured with age, her hands clasped beseechingly. Her dress of frayed speckled muslin is now a pale grey where it once was crisply white. She has the look of something once prayed to, a votive statue but with a hint of voodoo, and she stands on a rackety carved wood stand or corbel held up by the carved heads of putti with freckles made of woodworm holes.
A piece of cut crystal is tucked between her hands and when I knock the table it sometimes tumbles down. In the morning if I can’t find it, I know my little Irish dog, Plug, has carried it off. I got her from an antique dealer in Limerick who had taken her away from her mother when she was only two weeks old; when I took her from him she crawled up to my neck, nibbled and sucked and began to sob like a baby. Her eyes were open but covered in a milky film and when I put her down she fell down and crawled backwards. She was set permanently in reverse gear for three weeks. When he had taken her away from her mother he had put her in a cold shed all night, to harden her up. It did not work; she is timid and anxious except when she is attached to me by a lead or at my feet with her nose pressed against my ankle. Passersby must think she is shackled to my leg.
The ceramic statue of Queen Mary was made by me, the second and last piece of pottery I ever did. I have always been fascinated by this unhappy Queen; certain details linger. The red wine showing through the transparency of her white neck as she drank, her little dog hiding under her skirts as she died, and most horrifying and romantic of all, how the first blade of the axe did not cut through her neck clearly so that between one blow and another she was heard to mutter Sweet Jesus. What used to fascinate me, outside of the shiver of horror that any person of sensibility must feel at the brutality of chopping someone’s head off, is what an executioner thought about killing a Queen. Perhaps one pretty bent neck is much like another to a killer. When little Lady Jane Grey was led to the scaffold she tied a kerchief around her eyes and said obediently, still trying to please to the very end, “Where is it? What shall I do?” To be continued.
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