The exhibition seeks to question why Museums and society celebrate the lives of some people, but not others, and to challenge established notions of British history and colonialism.
Parian is a fine, unglazed porcelain resembling marble. It is named after Paros; the Greek island renowned for its brilliant white marble, used since antiquity to create sculpture. Invented in around 1845 by a Staffordshire pottery manufacturer, parian allowed manufacturers to mass- produce sculpture quickly and cheaply. However, it is by nature an inherently unstable material, and this unpredictability provides a platform from which Matt Smith examines changing views of history and our opinions of those individuals depicted.
In 2016, the Fitzwilliam was allocated the David Glynn Collection of over 300 pieces of parian by H. M. Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax from the estate of G. D. V. Glynn. The collection compromises mainly busts of widely celebrated historical figures, including William Shakespeare, Lord Byron and members of the Royal family, mythological figures, but also busts of contemporary Victorians, who were immortalised in parian ware during, or shortly after, their lifetime. Many of the busts were produced when the British empire was at its height, as a popular way of celebrating these ‘eminent’ Victorians and their achievements. In contrast, part of this exhibition seeks to explore how our understanding of the establishment, these historical figures, and history, especially colonial history and the abuse of power, is always in flux.
Over 100 busts will be massed in an imposing display, with six different individuals and events highlighted. These individuals include Sir Henry Havelock (1795-1857) and his connection to India’s First War of Independence and Field Marshal Colin Campbell (1792-1863) and his connection to the First Opium War. Busts of these individuals will be juxtaposed against a series of specially-commissioned designs that incorporate historic images, challenging the often sanitised history that is passed down to us and questioning the established reputation and achievements of those immortalised in parian. Matt Smith said: “These busts were created to memorialise and celebrate individuals. The installation seeks not to talk of whether these were good or bad people, but to provide a more balanced view of their lives and the differing views that might be held, depending on whether you were colonising, or colonised.”
The second part of the exhibition consists of a number of pieces from the Glynn collection and new works in both black and white parian, which have been made especially by Matt, displayed in amongst the Museum’s internationally-renowned permanent collections. As Matt Smith explained: “It is not only our understanding of the past that is always in flux, but the physical museum and its collections too. They are always changing, and I was intrigued to see what the effect of placing pieces from the newly acquired Glynn collection, and my new works, around the galleries would have on the Fitzwilliam’s wider collection.”
These surprising new pieces challenge us to revisit and review the museum’s own collections of porcelain, Renaissance bronzes, and fine art, including a painting by Gainsborough. Beneath Millais’ The Twins, Kate and Grace Hoare, two identical Victorian parian busts are joined by Matt’s contemporary intervention, a double-ended bust of twins locked in a tussle, both seeing and looking away. Matt described these new works, saying: “As an artist, I am continually drawn to making connections, both historically and physically. These connections rely less on didactic narratives and more on shared ideas of form.”