Friday, 9 November 2012

Illustrating the archives - Guest Blog in October

The handwritten archive

Last week as I sat in the Search Room at the John Gray Centre I reached a realisation about this project. The epiphany was brought about when I opened a wallet containing correspondence relating to the ‘Haddington Inspector of the Poor, 1837 – 1854’. It was not the subject of these letters that proved so key, although this in itself is fascinating and I made a note to return and examine it further, rather it was the beautiful visual quality of the handwritten envelopes and letters, on backgrounds of pale muted browns, greys and blues, with weathered and dog-eared corners. 

I realised that the contents of this wallet represented what I had expected to find when I began work with an ‘archive’: it is a document of correspondence which details a social history, but also a historical record of the handwritten document, something so rare in our society of emails, text messages and mobile phones. A sample of handwriting reflects the identity of a person; the ebbs and flows of the line work describe the author and create their permanent imprint on a page. A lost art perhaps, or a momentary preoccupation with a more relevant technology, there is something fascinating about this kind of artifact.

This set of correspondence is by no means the only example of this in the archive; other intriguing examples include the Autograph book and some personal record books and diaries. As a visual artist I wanted to make use of these colours, marks and textures within the drawings I make of the county, layering up East Lothian’s physical history with illustrations of life in the county.

Fish & Chips in Cockenzie

This month I have also been reading ‘Olivia’s Story’ by Mary Contini, which I found in the Local History Collection at the John Gray Centre. This book documents the story and history of the Crolla family as they travelled from southern Italy to make their home in Scotland. The book is a fascinating record of the life of Italians emigrating and creating a life here, with particular focus on the Edinburgh shops they ran.

I was particularly excited to reach a passage about the Di Ciacca family who took over and ran a business in Cockenzie selling fish and chips and ice cream. The Italians were met with an initial wariness from Scottish families, however this business became the heart of the fishing community there in the 1930s, as not only a supplier, and often source of credit when needed, to the local families, but also as a meeting place after a day of fishing. The family also took advantage of thriving tourist industry in East Lothian at the time, cycling ice cream barrels down to local swimming pool and promenades to sell their wares.

The archive is full of stories of this kind, such as the strawberry pickers in Ormiston who had to pick and deliver their strawberries to Edinburgh on the first train of the day, or the Fisherrow wives I described last month. My challenge now is to do these memories justice in the work I create before the end of the project.

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