The Bowes Museum is the jewel of Teesdale. A mock French Chateau, it was built in the late nineteenth century by John Bowes and his wife, the Parisian actress Josephine Coffin-Chevalier, to house their growing collection of paintings and objets d’art. The most popular object in the museum is the life size Silver Swan, an eighteenth-century automaton. It delights visitors every day at 2pm when it whirrs into action to perform a piece of precise mechanical theatre, the catching and devouring of a small silver fish.
Seeing it brings to mind Hans Christian Anderson’s story, The Ugly Duckling, in which a swan’s egg is hatched in a duck’s nest by mistake. The ungainly creature that emerges is reviled and ridiculed, a demonstration of the cruelty of others, and an intolerance of difference. But the duckling is transformed into a beautiful swan, and the story has come to serve as a metaphor for rebirth and resurgence.
In the picture galleries at Bowes there are paintings, paintings, paintings displayed in a salon-style hang. The kind of paintings we associate with the history of art. But not just the history of art. It’s also a history of something else, the religious stories and myths that underpin an idea, a Western European idea, of who we are.
Here is ‘Amaryllis Crowning Mirtillo’ by Bartholomeus Breenburgh (1598-1657). It’s based on a sixteenth-century play, Il Pastor Fido, by Giovanni Battista Guaranito, in which Amaryllis organises a kissing contest amongst her nymphs in order to find a loving couple to prevent a plague destroying Arcadia. Here enters Mirtillo, a man disguised as a woman; a man in drag, of sorts, come to steal kisses.
And here enter three figures into the gallery, Lady Kitt and members of the DGA queer performance collective in a drag takeover of Bowes. In their performance, ‘Our love is a stow away. Always?’, one wears a black outfit with a white skeleton painted on it and a lurid pink wig and a pink cowboy hat; another is wearing what appears to be a biblical outfit, what might be called a dress. Kitt is in drag with a thin moustache and a t-shirt that bears the motto ‘SAPPHO IS MY QUEER MAM’, ‘mam’ indicating both Northern Englishness and working class.
They move around the gallery in silence, performing a slow dance, or they look at the paintings, mimicking the gestures depicted there; praying like the figures at the base of a crucifixion, miming holding a baby in front of ‘Madonna and Child’ after Francesco Francia (1450-1517). They look at these images, as if asking what meaning they might find in ‘The Baptism of Christ’ after Andrea Sacchi, the ‘Crucifixion Altarpiece’ (c.1490s) by the Master of the Virgo Inter Virgines or ‘A Levitation of St. Francis’ after Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652). But there’s more, too many to mention, too many to lose yourself in.
In another, shorter performance, ‘Gentleman Josephine’, Lady Kitt is in a top hat and tails. This is a reference Josephine’s career as an actress, when she played men on the Parisian stage, another drag-style messing with fixed ideas of gender. If history is full of such transgressions, then Kitt and the DGA are here to shout about them.
In another gallery is a fine silver statue of ‘Sappho’ (1848) by James Pradier, her robe clinging to her body and appearing to ripple in the wind. Kitt has set up other work nearby, a giant red origami boat stencilled with quotes from Sappho’s poems, including ‘That beautiful girl; her dress clinging makes you shake when you see it’. Around the boat are paper cut outs of the Sappho figure, and another larger one delicately cut with a scalpel into complex lattice work. Sappho is claimed by the artist as ‘that queer mam’.
Lady Kitt’s takeover is part of a larger exhibition, #Untitled 10 2019, in which artists and craftmakers have been commissioned to deconstruct The Bowes Museum in some way. But it’s not easy for artists to intervene in historic sites; it always means a negotiation between critique and homage.
Then there is always the business of class to deal with, and some of the artists here have managed better than others at negotiating the issue; Richard Bliss has made a workman’s shirt, ‘Mr Scott’s Best Shirt’ (2019), to alert us to those who built the museum; woodworker Andrew Hutchinson’s ‘Box’(2019) presents a series of wooden boxes, starting with crude slabs of wood nailed together, and progressing to more sophisticated constructions as he explores the process of learning a craft.
The craft objects in the collection are beguiling: Kate Ives has built her own Rose Engine to cut intricate patterns in wax, and has created two new objects, ‘John and Josephine’s Timepieces’ (2019) inspired by the engraved pocket watches owned by the Bowes; Jim Bond has made a kinetic sculpture, ‘Articulate’ (2019), inspired by the mechanism that drives the Bowes swan using contemporary electronics and programmable motors. But isn’t this homage rather than critique? And does it matter?
Lady Kitt/ DGA performances are a bit rough around the edges (largely due to working with community members in situ), but they are possessed of a fiery enthusiasm. They’re cheeky and irreverent, and they raise the question of what to do with works of art from another age. How are we to take meaning from them when our idea of religion and understanding of myths are slipping away? These days we can see the paintings of religious subjects as metaphors, so in front of Lucas Cranach’s The Elder’s ‘Lamentation over Dead Christ’ (c. 1530s), we might think of the resurrection yet to come, or a new beginning. An end to confusion and mockery. Just as the ugly duckling becoming a beautiful swan stirs hope in us all.
Lady Kitt/DGA Collective Drag Take-over was commissioned by the Bowes Centre and took place at the Bowes Museum on 11 October, 2019, as part of #Untitled 10 2019. Lady Kitt wishes to credit Emmanuela Wroth for sharing her research into Josephine’s performance work and artist Oliver Doe, who s work and support inspired ‘Our love is a stow away. Always?’.
Dr Mike Golding is a writer and artist. He writes novels under the nom de plume A. M. Stirling and lives in Newcastle upon Tyne.