James Fox: Raider of the lost archive
James Fox’s work strives to convey ideas and questions about our expectations regarding gender roles, work, culture and other aspects of our social and personal lives.
Using machine embroidery and reverse appliqué techniques, he seeks to juxtapose pattern with theme, in an incongruous and sometimes ironic manner to highlight how our expectations of life have adapted in a changing world.
James’s personal background and experience pervades the work; his training in the contrasting fields of engineering, time spent in a variety of work, periods of art practice and in the role of carer for his own children and a curiosity in observing the political and economic shifts over the past thirty years from Thatcher to the current austerity drive.
His more recent work has been guided by the political climate and his need to investigate and comment on the serious subjects of class divide, trade union history and the need for disenfranchised groups to have equality, sometimes light-heartedly and with gingham…
James has sold nationally and internationally, had commissions most notably from Kettle Chips, and exhibit regularly around the world.
In this article, part of our Creative development series, James tells us how gaining access to the local museum’s archive triggered a body of work that is full of political and social comment, which continues to chime and inspire the community is was made for.
Merging archive detail, local history and printing and textile techniques to create a piece of work which would represent ‘The People’s Preston’.
Use of archive materials
In writing this article I will try and give an insight into the investigations and outcomes of my recent commission from the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston Lancashire, which involved using the extensive archive at the Harris as inspiration to produce an artwork for the Gallery. This was a daunting task as the museum has a massive archive with thousands of historical artefacts.
However, the process was full of surprises and I delighted in using the archives given to me as I deemed fit, as well as learning completely new techniques like lino and other types of printing. So, with the help of the history curator, I slowly started to investigate the archives and was drawn to the museum’s photograph library, which covers all aspects of Preston’s history for over one hundred years.
The images of Preston at the height of the Industrial revolution were especially interesting. There was also hundreds of what at first appeared to be small black and white close up images of pavements and streets which looked like semi-abstract artworks.
After enquiring what these images were, the curator asked me to look on the back of the photo where was written the date of the image, where the picture had been taken and most interestingly that this was the scene of a fall, and gave the name of the person who had been involved. These photos had been taken in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and all involved women.
The museum also houses a collection of fashion photographs and designs from the famous Horrockses Fabric and Fashions, which were produced in the area, and also from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
I had previously produced a series of works which were based on protest, emancipation, social justice and trade unions. This investigation culminated in a solo show, Fabric of Society, at the People’s History Museum, Manchester in 2015.
This museum has the largest collection of trades union banners in the country and keen to continue with these themes I felt the images available from Harris’s collection would fit well with this.
Merging techniques with historical era and local colour
Using the photographs I produced a series of drawings which developed into designs and experiments bringing in other elements like patterns from the 50s, 60s and 70s.
As part of the invitation from the Harris Museum I had free access to the fantastic fine art print studio at the University of Central Lancashire, as well as superb technical help from the staff there. Utilising these facilities I worked my designs into lino prints.
The process of numerous cuts using lino was intriguing and led me to do a series of 5 colour prints based on a repeat pattern I devised around the idea of ‘protest’.
The prints produced in relation to my investigations dealing with the accident photos were then used to develop the idea further. The culprit paving stone responsible for the falls I decided to make a feature of the images. In the 1960s and 70s, there was a television programme called “The Golden Shot” which featured a target in the form of a golden apple.
From this era, there was also a newspaper feature called ‘Spot the Ball’ where you had to find the missing ball from an image of a sporting event, usually football. I combined both of these and called the intended work ‘SPOT THE FALL’.
The guilty stone would be embroidered in gold thread, which would also pay homage to ‘Simpson’s Gold Thread Works’, a manufacturer in Preston which produced gold thread and constructed badges and emblems for the military, royal outfits, the White star shipping company and the masons to name but a few.
With this in mind, I wanted to bring in a textile element and to work with reverse applique which would lend itself to the pavement grid design and the different patterned material I wanted to incorporate.
Incorporating Preston’s determination through history
During my investigations into the trade union movement and social emancipation, I encountered the suffragette movement in Preston and especially a Preston woman called Edith Rigby who was a key player in the working class struggle and women’s fight for the right to vote. She was the first woman to ride a bike in Preston, where she had eggs thrown at her.
She was imprisoned eight times, set fire to Lord Leverhulme’s house and splashed paint over a statue of the Earl of Derby in 1912. Using this act of protest I applied a splash pattern and incorporated it into a few designs both printed and embroidered.
Thinking about the Suffragette protest and the methods they used I came up with a design which could be used as a quick method to distribute a protest message in the form of print. I wanted to use images from the suffrage history, the window smashing campaign and Edith Rigby’s cycle through Preston, as well as slogans from the labour movement like ‘Unity is Strength’.
I wanted to bring a contemporary element into this design as well as something slightly more light- hearted, so I used ‘Austerity my arse!’ as a punchy statement on the design. This led me to take this term literally and developed into a cushion which was embellished with piping and embroidery.
Edith Rigby was also famous for helping children, especially girls, who worked in the industrial factories of Preston. She had a long battle with the owners of Woods Tobacco Factory, the factory building is still standing today.
Edith had the factory closed down until it was made safer for the staff which was predominantly young girls. I photographed the building and produced a series of screenprints using colour schemes based on Kodachrome film to give a feel of the passing of time. These images were set as a triptych.
Previously at the People’s History Museum I was struck by how much pride the makers of trade union banners had in the craftsmanship of even the smallest detail in the making of the banners- and the pride felt in all craftsmanship of that time.
While photographing Preston for my fact finding I was drawn to the detail and artistry in a drain cover.
At the time, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party leader had been derided for collecting photographs of drain covers. I used the exact size for the cover I had photographed to make a template to develop three designs to be shown in conjunction with the three screen prints of the tobacco factory.
These designs would use reverse applique and freehand embroidery using the elements I had been investigating, the pavement accident photos, the golden culprit paving stone, patterns representing the three eras and Horrockses Fashions of Preston.
These textiles would be placed if front of the prints with the words ‘SPOT THE FALL embroidered around the images.
Having fulfilled the requirements of the commission I have been left with a whole new set of destinations to head to on the art bus, and a few new skills to use along the way.
To see more about the Sparks project at the Harris Museum & art Gallery click here
For more information about James visit: www.jamesfoxtextileartist.co.uk
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