Text by Jane Faram
The Red Headed League, by Arthur Conan Doyle of the Sherlock Holmes series, tells the comedic story of Jabez Wilson, a redheaded London pawnbroker who is egged on by his young assistant Spaulding to respond to an ad placed for ‘nominal work’ by redheaded male applicants. The attractive ad is placed by the conniving Spaulding, with a generous wage attached, to distract his boss from the business so he has time to dig and access a neighbouring bank vault. Detective Holmes is contacted by Wilson once it becomes apparent his employment as a redhead in fact a hoax, and somewhere along the line he has missed a trick.
A new take on the story taking the same name has been pieced together by artists Michael Day and Lesley Guy who together form Furlough. The pamphlet they have produced is purely red headed in authorship, with a series of thirteen artworks by artists of matching hair colour, each aware of the original tale and their position in this new take on it, without the risk of ruination. Sticking to the original £4 fee, the curators openly admit the inconsequential amount is a deliberate defiance of inflation over 100 years, since the original story in which the fee was worth one hundred times as much. The artists’ should thus be less insulted by the pittance paid, because the demands are small – they can refuse, put in little to no effort, or produce something of worth if they freely choose to.
But hold on, despite this justification, is this not a similar insult to artists accepting a nominal/no fee for any project just that sufficiently grabs them? They want to artistically respond regardless, and intend to balance this with other monetary resources, surviving by compromise and determination. Artists’ fees are often calculated in light of experience, commitment required, travel, reputation, but The Red Headed League anew, sets a tiny standard rate of pay for all involved to deliberately see what each individual artist thinks about it. Why would the artists bother? A situation all too familiar to them is the expectation to accept an unjust fee for their valuable time and ideas. The Red Headed League does not ask this in actuality.
Each artist was given one of the first thirteen images in the Encyclopedia Britannica (Micropaedia edition). As ‘Micopaedia’ is a neologism from the Ancient Greek for “small” and “instruction”, it seems a good fit for The Red Headed League who aren’t employed to fully study the subject but to engage briefly in the instruction /distraction. Perfect material for “Purely nominal services”. Starting with “Aa”, artist Alice Bradshaw had the picture of the ‘Aalsmeer Flower Parade’. Her contribution is a fantasy interview with the young man dressed as a crocodile depicted on the parade float.
AB “You look sad in the photo, what happened?
NS “I wasn’t sad at all, just waiting for the parade to start”.
Kim Noble eats his page of Aalto the Finnish architect in a lightly buttered bap. Tim Etchells responds to Hank Aaron’s Encyclopedic portrait in a slapdash digital drawing. Lesley Guy has contributed a page herself as a redhead, on Abauzit the French scholar, partly cut-out, collaged against a pencil drawing of the colour spectrum with its memorable acronym, Roy. G. BIV. As Abauzit was highly respected by Newton, Rousseau and Voltaire, whilst noted for questioning authority, opposing theories and with many of his writings destroyed for that reason, it seems poignant that she places him beside a widely rehearsed tool for recalling the composition of a basic rainbow. Guy’s control as co-curator and compliance as an artist takes her a step away from suspicion, as in The Red Headed League of Conan Doyle’s creation, the man behind the plot is busy being devious whilst his red-head is foolishly busy working on his task.
Or is Guy playing a part to deceive us and the League further? What smoke screen is this? Perhaps The Red Headed League are a step ahead of us in their operation as a fiery troupe with some intrinsic secret woven into their common attribute. Piling the stereotypes up high will most likely get us nowhere. As Guy and Day state they have observed many curatorial decisions being based upon ‘generalised criteria’. Theirs is certainly a critique of this and less so a truly discriminatory agenda.
Of course £4 in your pocket is better than an empty pocket. Compare it to an artist’s fee for a more challenging task and it is pitiful. When the artists received their invitation to The Red Headed League, they were encouraged to see their task as unimportant in contrast to their own practice. Cards were laid on table unlike in the Holmes’ tale of greedy, foolish Wilson. The level of commitment and thought they got in return interestingly scales from seemingly next to nothing, to definite thoughtfulness. This is surely the artists’ plight, not to over-commit and take every invitation, accept every level of pay, be happy with trite reasons for inclusion, and to do more work than the money warrants. Unless they really, really want to.
“The Red Headed League is dissolved”, but their questions are burning.
The Red Headed League was produced by Furlough, a Sheffield-based curatorial platform founded in 2011 by Lesley Guy and Michael Day. The pamphlet was launched on 30 November 2012 at Bloc Projects, Sheffield and is available to purchase from www.furlough.co.uk.
Jane Faram is a writer and artist based in Sheffield, and is Gallery Co-ordinator at Site Gallery, Sheffield.