Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, novelist, broadcaster and critic Sarah Dunant and award winning writer Ali Smith were invited to respond to the Fitzwilliam’s Treasured Possessions exhibition by writing a new piece of work inspired by an object from the show. These were first heard at a gala reading held at the Fitzwilliam Museum on Thursday 3 September 2015 and their works are reproduced here.
An audio recording of the event (split into two parts), Writing Lives and Treasured Possessions, can be listened to below:
Object T.142-1938 Oval Map Sampler © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Sampler, needles, threads,
though the world’s inside my head, stitch a man instead.
Men go far and wide
not daughters, not wives.
Hussif. So I hum
as I sew, sew, thimble-numb;
all fingers and thumbs.
I pick out NORTHERN
in letters, tack the Ocean.
It is handwoven-
but guess from me this:
in my mind, the wild waves whist
where my green silks twist.
Scotland is foreign.
My maid has its peaty tongue
in her cheek- brae, burn, -
its different breath;
greets for the land of her birth;
sups not soup but broth.
I dream from this place:
eye of a needle, through, pass,
camel… first to France,
where love is l’amour
and I love you je t’adore.
Thus, I could love more.
O-P-E. It is not far.
Toe of Italy
kicking little Sicily…
I’d sip Chianti…
Snip. A litany-
Hungary, Turkey, Black Sea,
I will teach my girl
to learn this map of the world-
my darling, my pearl-
Russia and Poland,
Spain, sewn by her mother’s hand
within a garland.
This female grammar,
passed down, subtle as rumour,
soft as a murmur.
There is wise ASIA,
ladies, and wild AFRICA
Sew. I leave my mark,
like the maid or the monarch.
Call it woman’s work.
Carol Ann Duffy
A Hussif (or Housewife) was a sewing roll filled with thread, needles, pins, thimbles and scissors.
C.61-1927 Maiolica Floor Tile © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Today she is attracted by the clavichord, one of the finest to be had anywhere in Italy. She picks out a tune on its ivory keys, each note as clean and delicate as the chime of a tiny bell. She considers the placing of a Roman agate vase, turning it a little to the left to catch the light better, then cups a hand under the chin of a Greek philosopher, staring for a while into his blank stone eyes. When she has had her fill, she climbs the stairs from the barrel-vaulted room of wonders to her study above to begin the Sisyphean task of her daily correspondence. The paintings and tiled floor sing out with colour as, with a sigh, she settles her considerable rump into the padded wooden chair. These days, Isabella d’Este is grown almost as large as her collection.
She disguises it with cunning fashion. This is a woman who enters a room carrying her own stage set: a halo of fat pearls around a turban draws the eye away from her double chins, midnight blue velvet skirts with gold embroidered symbols of musical notation, so striking, so original that who has time to notice the circumference of her waist? Her posture helps. While other women age like walking question marks, Isabella stands tall. It is a trick learned early. Though her sister was prettier, she was always the clever, confident one; at the age of six she reciting Virgil’s Eclogues in Latin and playing to win on the chessboard. Her eye developed early too. The walls of Ferrara’s palaces glow with frescoed life and family legend has it that when she first saw the great bronze statue of Niccolò 111 on his prancing horse, she threw up her childish hands and declared:
‘Grandfather looks frozen, but the horse is alive. Oh, I would like one of my own.’
And thus a renaissance collector was born. All that was lacking was a palace of her own to fill. It was waiting for her in Mantova.
Her study window looks out over a landscape of water; lake and rivers that surround the town. At sixteen, she stepped off her marriage barge into the arms of Francesco Gonzaga, eight years older, swarthy and pop-eyed, with execrable Latin and little obvious appreciation of art. But the two of them had been promised since childhood and years of familiarity had watered seeds of affection into life. She glances down at the tiles under her feet, and the image of the hunting dog with its golden lead unfurling like a flying banner beckons, ready to pull her into a spiral of memory. Not now. He is barely ten months dead, eaten up by the pox contracted from some army camp whore and her tears will not bring him back to life. Even if she should wish it.
She had always known he would stray. It was what husbands did. Though he seemed to do it more than most. Ladies-in-waiting: how aptly they are named. Of course they loved their mistress, but refusal was not an option. When it grew too hot she might dispatch one to a convent for a while, but mostly she looked the other way. He would be off soon enough leading an army and she had her own business to attend to.
Collecting. If his obsessions were women and war, then hers were beauty and ownership. There had never been a better time. The world was in love with antiquity and marvels from imperial Rome were being dug up everywhere. She learned the business fast. A stone head of Plato came up for sale: he had a chipped nose filled in with wax and a chunk of his ear missing, but at 15 ducats, in an inflating market, it was a steal. Soon she had a network of agents across Italy sniffing out bargains. And when she couldn’t afford the best pieces - there were cardinals and bankers out there with bottomless pockets - she commissioned her own smaller, bronze copies, a delight in themselves she discovered, for there was a delicacy of detail to be had in the right casting, every curve and tensed muscle singing out as sweet as flesh itself.
By the time news reached her that her husband was appearing at tournaments abroad with his mistress as his official consort, she had admirers of her own. Platonic, yes, but passionate nevertheless. Writers, poets, musicians, composers… Mantova was now a hive of culture with Isabella as the queen bee. The air was rich with flattery and dedications. Where else in Italy did one find a woman of such erudition, taste and appetite? Especially appetite. The hospitality of a growing court demanded the best chiefs and adventurous recipes. She was too clever not to recognise her own weaknesses early.
‘I am essentially of a greedy, impatient nature,’ she wrote to one of her agents, ‘so I hold those things most precious that I can obtain the soonest’, the crumbs of another honey cake falling onto the fast drying ink.
Her army of seamstresses are constantly at work on her expanding wardrobe. Her designs become so famous that the king of France sends her a present of a doll dressed like herself. Even down to its underwear, he jokes. Though when she turned it upside down it has none.
She finds herself chuckling at the thought now. Men: how their minds do run on one thing. It is amazing that they get anything done at all.
Still, in the confessional, along with gluttony she might add a touch of avarice and pride. When her brother was forced into marrying Lucrezia Borgia, the parvenu, bastard daughter of a pope (an insult softened by an eye-wateringly large dowry), she used the wedding celebrations to win a fist-fight of fashion with the bride.
And when the city of Urbino – home to her husband’s own sister – fell to Cesare Borgia’s army and he started shipping out the palace treasures, she went behind her in-laws back and got the best piece for free. How could she not? An exquisite sleeping stone cupid, she had lusted after it for years. Not because it was old, but precisely because it was not. It was an ingenious fake, sculpted in Florence by Michelangelo Buonarotti when he was still a teenager, then dirtied up and buried somewhere in Rome so the dealer who “unearthed” it could make money selling it as antique. Now, of course, he is everyone’s favourite, but she, Isabella, had seen the talent early.
Not that she has got everything she wants. Da Vinci has continued to elude her. On his way from Milan years ago he dashed off a sketch of her - a pretty profile with only one chin in sight, but despite an avalanche of pleading she never got a finished portrait. In Venice, Bellini refused a commission entirely; claiming that he didn’t like being told exactly what to paint. But it was her money and her study and she knew what would work best: a group of classical, allegorical paintings, the figures the same size and placed in such a manner as to respond best to the daylight. Thank God for Mantegna: though old and bad tempered he had still done what he was told. After he died, it had taken five years for Perugino to complete the final canvas, and still he didn’t get it right, delivering a nude Venus when she has specifically asked for her clothed.
Ah, how well she knows every inch of this little room. And how much she loves it, both its grace and intimacy. Though she is fine performer in company, she is at her greatest ease here. Her glance falls again to the floor and this time she allows it to linger.
By the time he died, she had not slept with Francesco for years. His nasty little affair with Lucrezia Borgia – a woman’s revenge takes many forms – had caused her more pain than she chose to admit and soon after the next campaign he had returned in contagious agony with the beginnings of the pox. But before that, at the beginning, when she was still a little in love and he was easily in lust there had been moments…
She can date it almost exactly: early 1494, not long after their marriage and she had persuaded him to give her a few crates floor tiles meant for his villa. She had known they were right from the moment she saw them; bold heraldic designs and bright colours, a wonder of modernity from the foundries in Pesaro where craftsmen were experimenting with majolica glazes that might remain undimmed under an army of feet.
They had been together in the semi-derelict room laying out a few to see the patterns they might make (when he gave such things his full attention he could surprise her with his eye for beauty). Her favourite was already the dog, upright and alert, its solid white body contrasting with the patterned collar and flying gold leash.
‘Ready for the hunt. Just like you,’ she has teased him. And he had reminded her then that the image of the muzzled hound was a symbol of the constancy and fidelity of the house of Gonzaga.
It was at that moment that the rats, for years the only inhabitants of the room, had scrambled up from the rotting floor and she had screamed as he picked her up in his arms laughing.
‘Ah, so you are just a woman after all,’ he has said, because he was already a little in awe of this clever, determined young bride of his. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll get the ratting dogs onto them,’ he added as he carried her out of the room.
‘Francesco,’ she had said afterwards, with unexpected sentimentality. ‘Let’s not kill them. I don’t want a study built on death.’
Some months later, with the rats released into the moat and the tiles laid, she gave birth to their first child. She had been pregnant again within months.
She moves her slippered foot over the dog’s body. The day he died she had come back here and though she was sure she felt nothing, she had found herself sinking to the floor, howling like an animal, her tears splashing across the dog’s back.
She shakes the memory from her mind and returns to the morning’s letters. It seems a dealer in Venice is dying and has a splendid Jan Van Eyck she might be interested in. What would be her best price?
MAR.M.159-1912 Spoon © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
After the first year and a half they relented with the bread and water and began to feed her some grain with milk, and very occasionally a little meat, because she had become more poorly than they wanted her to be or would allow her to be, now that they weren’t going to take her life after all.
But her getting any meat at all angered the other women to a point of shouting, sometimes shouting all night, and made them even rougher to her at the times that they were made to stand together for prayers and so on. So the benefit of having meat was as thin, maybe, as she’d herself become over the course of the bread and water days.
At that point she knew what nuts and greenery she’d need to get rid of the coughing. But there was nobody in the place or outside it who’d help with getting or bringing them in. It was back when the other women were still cold to her and hard on her, back when she had to eat what they gave her from the bowl with her cupped hand, and you could only use the one hand to eat with, because you needed the other to keep yourself clean, when you could, with what water they gave you for it.
Then the night came when she heard someone whispering her name at the place where the old wood had cracked in the window where it met the stone, the one place you could breathe air on the hot days and the place she’d learned to block in the winter by weaving the straw off the floor and hammering it in with her hands and her heel.
It was that girl Inge beyond the wall, a girl of eleven or twelve standing out there under the late night summer light, the open sky going up and up with nothing to stop it doing that above her head; but she announced herself with a proud intonation as Inge, the maid from the big house and was making a little speech using words that she knew the girl had no real knowledge of the meaning of, words she’d surely been taught by someone else, she was saying : regardless of any new ruling or softening of the sentence by the court and the justices and the churches, my mistress wants you to know that no court nor judge nor minister nor anyone alive nor dead, no matter how lenient, will be able to get you out of that place where you’ll lie and you’ll rot forever.
A child like Inge wouldn’t know the word regardless, wouldn’t know to say a phrase like softening of the sentence, a word like lenient, the child she remembered from the town with her face filthy under the bright hair and the little rivulet of snot always shining too between her nostrils and her lip, a slightly slow child, one of the ones the poor woman from the house next to the whorehouse looked after; now then, Inge the maid from the big house, she could have whispered back through that crack in the wood what would you have done that day you came running to tell me your grandmother (all the children called her the grandmother, the prostitutes did too) had the fever and the doctors said she would die? you’d have had no-one if she hadn’t got better, and how would you have made your way up to the big house to do your maiding then?
But she said nothing, like she’d said nothing at her trial, after they’d told her the lady had sworn, and she’d watched the three big house maids and the man who kept their dairy, one after the other, swear to the room that she’d made the cow fall over dead in the field. She said nothing to them about the child born with no roof to its mouth, and how the lady had sent one of those maids to her house to come and see her after dark, and had asked her in a room with a lot of fine curtains and chairs in it to stop the child before it came. Well, let little Inge have her time at the big house, where the bullying was maybe an improvement on the street’s bullying. Maybe Inge’s mother herself was in one of these rooms in this very building, she could’ve said that through the crack in the stone to the girl. Probably an eye-catcher now, herself, little Inge, and probably the near-child that she was would have a child herself to look out for soon, up at the big house, where the lady had her own four sons, and maybe it would have a roof to its mouth or maybe it wouldn’t, and nobody in the town to help them get rid of a child either before it came or after, no court or judge or minister, they’d have to go to another town to do a thing like that.
She thanked the girl through the crack in the wall, out of politeness, in case there was a kindness anywhere in it, maybe a warning of the start of an even worse time. She lay down on her back on the floor and readied herself for it.
But god bless little Inge, regardless, because the next morning something had changed, and for the better, and though they were all locked separately from each other she sensed it in the air, though the air itself was no different from its dank and stony usualness, which meant she didn’t dare believe it till the day after that, when she found the other women being held in the place had softened towards her, she knew the difference as soon as they were let into the church space for the prayers and one woman pressed up against her, but without roughness – with the opposite of roughness, and another on the other side put her arm through hers as they stood, and not to be mean or do pinching or anything painful,and left it there for the whole time that no one could see, and these were the first touches that hadn’t been rough towards her for more than two years, and later she found out they’d all turned kind towards her because the girl from the big house, in her keenness to deliver her message, and not knowing which room exactly she was to deliver it to, had stooped and whispered it at every window she could get near, which meant that half the place had heard the threat made against her from the big house, which had then spread through the whole place and the women, and the guards, and several of the men held across the courtyard too, had made up their own mind about whether she deserved such a threat, and over the course of that bright night the people she shared the place with had turned towards her like the sea turns round on itself naturally when the waves coming in change direction and begin to withdraw again.
So the women had begun to ask her advice on their sicknesses, and even the guards trusted her and brought in the green things and roots with which she eased most of the coughing in the whole place when they gave it out to the people to eat and drink, and in poultice form for those who had it worst, and she was even allowed to share a cell again with others, one of whom was Signe, who she spent some time in the same room with two harvests after the Inge night, and Signe, when she was let out of the place, she was only there for the winter, gave her the spoon she had because of the way they had kept each other warm through that winter. Then when she herself left that place six years after that and was back out under the sky in the streets, she went looking for Signe to give her back what was left of the spoon – she still had the bowl part of it. But Signe was dead by then, had been dead for over a year, and when she heard this after the weeks of looking for her she was sadder than she had ever been. Most of all she was sad for all the time that Signe had been dead and she hadn’t even known it. She went to one of the woodcarving shops and asked for a little oil so she could keep good what was left of the spoon, which was dry and whitening with use and age. Do you want me to put a new handle on it? the man working at the bench said.
She shook her head. She hadn’t the money for anything else, though she didn’t say so.
What happened to the handle of it? the man said. Did you break it over the head of your man for something he’d done that you didn’t like?
A glance at the man showed he was smiling; he didn’t mean it badly. But she looked down at the floor after the glance as quick as she could; she didn’t want trouble.
I’m not that type of woman, she said.
It was in her head as she said it, the mad bad woman who’d leaned across the table at her shouting the foul words and had snatched Signe’s spoon from her hands and snapped the handle off it and thrown the pieces in the air, telling her that she’d no need of a handle when she was the kind of woman who should sup right up against the nose and mouth of her beloved master Satan, and though they’d dragged the mad woman off her and the other women had beaten the woman’s malice out of her, though she had looked everywhere for the piece of the handle, she hadn’t been able to find it, and from then on only had the bowl of it.
The wood man was looking at her. In a moment he’d say, like had happened when she went asking for work at the mill and at the fishgutters, are you not Gunnar’s daughter by name? which meant, without them saying it, that they knew about her time and her crime.
But the man looked straight at her with a nod, and said:
Only a joke. You’re not the woman to hurt anyone.
Maybe he knew about someone she’d helped, back in the days when she helped folk. Maybe it was just that he was a kind enough man. He gave her a small bottle with the oil in it, and charged her nothing, and gave her a piece of his cloth to apply it and said he’d do the handle for free too if she’d like.
But she said no. She told him she liked the spoon as it was.
She married this man a spring, summer and autumn later, his name was Thomas and she had enough to eat and plenty of spoons to eat it with for the rest of her life, in the course of which, because she lived so long, her crime was near-forgotten and became nothing but a story among the older people who remembered it. She herself never forgot her innocences. When Thomas died ten years after they’d married, she sold his work tools and with the money they brought in, which was a pretty good sum, she paid for a piece of silver to be shaped, engraved with the words in Swedish and attached to what she had of the spoon, which she had the silversmith mark at the top end with an S with a circle round it, in honour of her friend.
That’s all made up. Which isn’t to say it’s not true – it’s just that its truth is a made up truth. Certainly towards the middle of the 1700s in Sweden the law changed, became more lenient, the death penalty was much less carried through and the crime they’d charge people like healers with was generally degraded to something called ‘superstition’. During the eighteenth century, though, punishment for superstition included jail, fines, public penance and expulsion. You could choose jail if you didn’t have the money for the fines. After 1734, when the law softened, and the death penalty only applied to what the courts judged really drastic cases of ‘betwitchment’, more people than ever were charged with ‘superstition’, which could take the form of things like ‘misuse of God’s name’, and more cases than ever before were heard of such ‘maleficium’, for which 77% of the accused were female, and historic statistics show that landowners and women were the typical – and were believed by the juries and the courts to be the most convincing – accusers.
I’m just back from being on holiday, I had ten days in Italy, and while I was away I was thinking about writing this piece to read to you tonight. I knew that of all the different objects in the exhibition I wanted to write most about the spoon. SPOON : Scandinavian, second half 17th / first half 18th century. One night last week in the gorgeous late August heat in a flat with a broken air conditioning unit before I fell asleep, I’d decided that my spoon holder might well be a woman, and that she might well be a healer. I’d checked whether these things were historically possible on my partner’s iPad. I was pretty alarmed at what really was historically possible, if you were a healer. Then I’d gone to sleep.
I’d had a dream. I’d dreamt about an actress from the 1930s, from a film from the really early days of sound, one that I’m particularly fond of, it’s called Maidens in Uniform, and it was made by Leontine Sagan. Its about all sorts of things, including the rise of fascism and the coming of a totalitarian state, but ostensibly it’s about a schoolful of girls in 1930s Germany, being shaped and repressed to be the right female fit for the future by a draconian staff and headmistress, and one of the girls, my favourite character, was Ilse, the rebel, who sings the wrong words on purpose to the school hymn, particularly, in a song about the generous fatherland, words about how hungry everyone in the school is because the food rations are so insubstantial, and who always fights back with a cheeky insolence you know is going to get her into real trouble, and is played by an actress called Ellen Schwanneke. So here was Ellen Schwanneke, who was 25 when she acted in this film, and who died in June 1972, alive and well in my dream last week, except it didn’t look like Ellen Schwanneke, it looked a bit more like my aunt Liz, the most flamboyant of my mother’s seven sisters, who was great fun, and glamorous, and visited us when I was a child.
Anyway, back to my dream, in which Ellen Schwanneke the 1930s actress is somehow involved in an architecture project where a lot of new houses are being built out past Addenbrookes, out where the train to Kings Cross passes. In my dream, in my delight at Ellen Schwanneke being anywhere near Cambridge, I had gone to see her to show her the 6 black coffee beakers which I had bought on eBay precisely because they’d been used, the dream-seller promised, on the set of the 1930s film she appeared in, Maidens in Uniform. I was going to give them to her as a sort of offering and appreciation. In my dream the lady who was Ellen Schwanneke was really pleased with the coffee beakers, and she was just telling me how much she’d enjoyed making that film back in the 30s when my alarm went off to wake me up for breakfast, and I switched it onto the mode which wakes you eight minutes later, and spent the next eight minutes scrambling to get back into the dream so I could tell Ellen Schwanneke how I’d loved her in the film so much that I’d gone out of my way in the pre-internet days to find out whether she’d survived the war and what kind of a life she’d had. I know about you getting out of Germany in time! I shouted at the fade of the dream. I know about how you worked in avant-garde and agitprop theatre in New York ! And in the Tiergarten theatre after the war! And in Switzerland! I know how you lived a long full life and died in Zurich! I know your dad was a silent film actor! I know his name was Viktor! I even know the number of your telephone in Berlin in the 1920s, because someone once sent me an actor’s agent’s press photo of you and it had your phone number actually on it!
I woke up properly. Was she really dead, who had seemed so alive in my dream, even though it hadn’t been her at all? There she was in my head, there she still is, thanking me for giving her six coffee cups in the shape of small black beakers, cups which have never actually existed.
Later that day, I was thinking about the spoon, the actual spoon, the one in this exhibition, and at the same time I was thinking about the notion of a spoon, and why the spoon is such a symbolic artefact. A spoon isn’t a knife. It has edges, with which you can cut through something, but its edges are mollified, adapted. It curves, to hold securely, without piercing something like a fork does. So it can do the work, to some extent, of both knife and fork, but it does this work in a less volatile way.
We had silver apostle spoons in the knife and fork drawer when I was a child. They were for eating eggs with, though the taste the egg and silver made together was something I didn’t like. My mother had brought them from her own original home. They were her riches, what she had left of her own pre-history, pre-us – the only other thing she had from way back then was a copy of a schoolbook, stories by Washington Irving. She showed me one day how a wooden spoon could be made to be a doll, simply by wrapping something round its head like a headscarf, or round its neck like clothes, like it had shoulders. This is what we did when we were small, she said.
There were spoons which my brother and I fought over. We fought most over the 1960s stainless steel dessert spoon with the little grooves in the handle. There was a dessert spoon my mother favoured, which was made of silver with a deep rich curve, a plenty-spoon from a cutlery set that was mostly gone before my memories start. I particularly disliked this spoon when I was small. I think now, when I think of that spoon, about her childhood in the 30s in northern Ireland, and the sense I have of it as a childhood in which there was just about enough, and no more than that, to eat. In my drawer downstairs in this house there are three spoons from our original home. I’ve no forks or knives, but three spoons. I’ve got the 1960s dessert spoon with the grooves in the handle. (My brother doesn’t know. One day, though, I’ll send it to him in the post.) I’ve got that deep dessert spoon my mother loved. Somehow, I’m not sure where it came from, I’ve also got a silver teaspoon with the name and the coat of arms on its end of the place my father finally lived. It’s in the cutlery container thing, with all the other teaspoons. The dessert spoons are in the dessert spoon part of the container, with all the other spoons.
I sat down to write something made up about a real spoon, one that had survived long enough to turn up in an exhibition in a museum about ordinary objects and how they matter to us.
I thought about the patina, the shine on the wood.
I thought about the careful thoughtful replacement of the handle, and what the words engraved in its silver meant. Nyttjad under en Elfra årig fångenskaps tid. Used during eleven years’ imprisonment.
I knew, one way or another, it was going to be about healing and surviving. I knew it’d be about nourishment. I thought it may well be about a gift of some sort. Probably in there somewhere would be something, too, about the dreams about the lives, death, truths, made-up truths and survivals that we find ourselves in most days, no matter where we happen to be, in what’s commonly called history.