The Underclass, Underculture  & History From Below

Practice & Research Overview

Bubonic Plague Victim. 2018. Ink & Fineliner on Lining Paper.

The Black Death & An Upturned World. 

The focus of my work is history from below and fringe cultures from which a motley crew of themes has evolved - pirates, slaves, peasants, vagrants, bandits, heretics, as well as minstrelsy, the carnival, and Commedia dell'arte theatre; their social world, culture, oppression and radical ideas. Alongside symbolism and iconography, many individuals, communities and movements occur throughout my research and practice, from both political and religious spheres, which I feel are deserving of wider exposure. Creating work around these themes, I attempt to put a lens on the under documented, placing these communities, movements and people without a history front and centre.

This below perspective interest grew from creating a project centred around the Black Death (1347-51), and the societal upheaval its death toll caused for everyday people in everyday life, and in turn the gradual domino effect which occurred, literally 'turning the world upside down'. This death toll brought on a massive shortage of human labour which shifted the power relation to the advantage of the lower classes, providing a lucrative opportunity for the surviving peasants to charge a higher rate wage for their sought after labour, and for some to even own their own land. Fearful of the consequences this economic prosperity could potentially lead to for the lower classes, authorities gradually put in place oppressive legislations such as capping wages at pre-Black Death rates. This, along with other factors, such as the on and off Hundred Years War with France, and a poll tax, increasingly angered many labourers across the country and culminated with the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 led by Wat Tyler and John Ball.

In other areas of society, the gradual introduction of 'labour-saving devices' compensated for this labour shortage. In agriculture, for example, amongst revolutionary changes, I like to make the point that the scarecrow became a much more familiar sight. Made iconic by the 70s/80s horror film genre and Wizard of Oz, this device, during the middle ages, replaced farmers' children throwing stones, shouting and clapping bits of wood together (known as bird-scarers). Out with Europe and prior to colonization, the Native American would sit on a platform and apply similar bird-scaring techniques. The printing press, invented in the 1440s by Johannes Gutenberg, revolutionised communication technology, particularly in disseminating radical pamphleteering. It's worth noting that prior to the printing press, the Peasants' Revolt, as well as follow on uprisings involving the Hussites and Lollards, relied on the dissemination of information primarily via word of mouth, assisted by vagabonds and beggars on foot. The printing press was crucial in producing manuscripts in half the time it would normally take a few scribers to accomplish, and at a fraction of the cost.

The military would be massively affected by the pestilence and so the labour-saving aspect in this case would be the advancement of firearms, providing more accurate aiming and more distance, in some way compensating for the lack of soldiers. Distance made a big difference because prior to technological advancement, armies would generally battle at close proximity due to the weaponry not having much accuracy or reach. The roles of physician and surgeon shifted further apart, with surgeons relying much less on Galen's theories and using a more empirical approach to determine diagnosis. Hospitals became more like our modern understanding with the ward system preventing cross contamination, something medieval medics gradually grasped a better understanding of over time. Education, originally provided for by the church, shifted into its modern concept with independent universities becoming familiar across Europe. A factor in this gradual shift was due to the majority of the clergy (primary educators at the time) dying in large numbers because families of plague victims were requesting last rites, which inevitably exposed the clergy to the pestilence. It's worth pointing out this request of last rites was in an age where superstition and religious belief was still rife, however, this faith in God was gradually weakening.


Septicemic Plague Victim. 2019. Ink & Fineliner on Lining Paper.

Peasants' Revolt, 1381 (detail). 2018. Ink on Lining Paper.

Cut-Up, Ripped, Torn, & Unframed. 

I mainly work in drawing, assemblage sculpture, collage, painting and text, with the majority of materials either inexpensive, free, re-purposed or salvaged, such as newsprint, ink, acrylic, electrical tape, mannequins, string, used food packaging, old drawings and lining paper. Initially due to cost restraints, this low budget use of materials has now become a staple and important aspect of the work and, in some way, perhaps by coincidence, reflects the self-sufficiency of the pirate, peasant, slave and vagrant. To give an example, the pirate's life would more or less consist of what Gabriel Kuhn in 'Life Under The Jolly Roger' calls 'zero production' due to everything being re-appropriated. From the ship they sailed in, the clothes on their back, the iconic symbolism they sailed under (with the majority of pirates being former sailors, the skull & crossbones originates from a sea captain's log book to indicate the death of a seaman next to their name, and prior to that the symbol had obvious religious connotations), to the food they ate, usually prepared by slaves previously captured from a slave ship. Re-purposing is also reflected in other themes, such as the Strasbourg dancing plague of 1518, where makeshift platforms (by order of local councillors) allowed victims to dance the hysteria out their system as no medical advice of the time seemed beneficial. In agriculture, the iconic scarecrow is traditionally created by re-purposing whatever is available (branches, old rags, with plastic later becoming a common material.) In Commedia dell'arte theatre, the Harlequin would perform in their famous patchwork clothing, traditionally made from whatever scraps of material were at hand, indicating their social standing and poverty. This social standing could also apply to Pulcinella's striped costume as well as in a more general sense with the multicoloured stripes and patchwork décor used historically in fairs and carnivals, which over time has now become the trademark style of the market town and seaside fairs. The patchwork Harlequin costume could be considered a historical predecessor to the bricolage of inexpensive materials in the clothing of 20th century subcultures, particularly the attire of the punk movement, brilliantly summed up with in-depth analysis by Dick Hebdige in 'Subculture: A Meaning Of Style'.

I often use newsprint for collage, in a ripped and torn random fashion. It becomes permanent as part of the work in contrast to its usual brief life span as a form of information. There's an obvious reference to Kurt Schwitters, the Dadaist cut-up method, and contemporary artists like Tony Swain. The cut-up, ripped and torn use of newsprint also comments on how words and meaning are fluid and not fixed with regards to interpretation and translation. Written text appears on my large and small scale drawings and collages, providing context to the work it's on, but also sometimes referencing other work or unrelated ideas. The written text could be considered a nod to pre printing press manuscripts and pulp underground comix of the 60s. The work is unframed when curated and, with similar reasons to the use of inexpensive materials, was also initially due to cost, but has now become a preferred method of display and only lends itself to the raw makeshift aesthetic. You could say the simple pinning up of the work is like a declaration, doctrine or manifesto, such as the 95 theses pinned to the door of a church in Wittenberg by Martin Luther, the pirate charter, Privateer's letter of marque, or the Flagellant 'Heavenly Letter' etc. The practicality of rolling up large scale works, transporting them on foot to a space, and unscrolling them to display, gives a subtle nod to both the vagabond and the seafarer's map.

I like exaggeration in my work, notably enlarged facial features, hands and feet, as well as abnormalities, defects and physical symptoms such as big black boils of bubonic plague, enlarged black hands and feet of septicemic plague victims, the elongated beak of the plague doctor, and oversized conical hats of the heretics and the Flagellants. Exaggeration is also reflected in the the over-indulgent eating, drinking, dancing, sex and festival laughter of the medieval carnival, and the elaborate colourful costumes and masks of the stock characters in the Commedia dell'artre (Scaramouche, Harlequin etc..). The dirty, untidy appearance of the work stems from, and perhaps is in reaction to, the frustrating and thankless task of pristine and clean-cut work I used to create unsuccessfully. These ideas of failure and frustration and their usually negative definitions are now upturned, subverted and ever present in my practice.

Repetition of symbols and motifs occur regularly throughout my research and practice, particularly the cross in its various incarnations and meanings. Painted on the doors of plague victims during outbreaks, an official symbol associated with the Knights Templar, and it could be argued that the scarecrow gives connotations to the crucifixion. The iconic skull & crossbones is also an obvious motif with a cross. The universal conical hat (capirote) worn by various religious sects is a regular motif. Although mostly associated with Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition heretics and common headgear for the Flagellants on their pilgrimage across Europe, there is also the Dunce cap. Named after Scots philosopher, Duns Scotus, and originally an indicator of scholarly excellence, this shifted during the 17th century when Scotus' theories fell out of favour with the philosophical ideas and beliefs of the time. Variations of the plague doctor mask can be found throughout the Commedia dell'artre theatre and medieval carnival.


Heretics Of The Inquisition (detail). 2017. Ink, Coffee, Coloured Paper, Electrical Tape & Newsprint.

Photograph from the exhibition 'Stu-Manity & The Great Mortality' at Old Hairdressers, Glasgow. 2018.

Scarecrow. Ink, Coffee, Coloured Paper, Newsprint & Food Packaging On Lining Paper. 2019.

(Myth Of) The Ship Of Fools. 2017. Ink & Fineliner on Cartridge Paper.

Crossroad Burial (detail). 2017. Ink & Fineliner on Lining Paper.

Photograph from the exhibition 'Turning The World Upside Down With Stu-Manity & History From Below' at Old Hairdressers, Glasgow. 2019.

Heretics, Burial Rituals & Lockdown.

The Ship of Fools and the Danse Macabre are two allegories I've made visual representations of. The former made famous by Sebastian Brant's book of the same name (after book VI of Plato's Republic), regarding incompetent governance, has continued as a popular cultural theme through the centuries, with shifting interpretations. And the latter, arguably the first modern cultural genre in art and literature, considered a social leveller. Although a version of the 'Transi Tomb' and 'The Three Dead & Three Living', the Danse Macabre motif came into being as we know it around the time of the Black Death, when death, unsurprisingly, became a topical theme amongst artists and writers of the time. The best examples of the Danse Macabre is Holbein's book of his woodcut miniatures accompanied with an introduction to the history of the Dance of Death.

I like to think that because my surname means 'sea-warrior' I have an affinity with pirates. Many colourful personalities stand out: 'Calico' Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny, Mary Read, 'Black' Bart Roberts, Ching Shih (the most successful pirate in history, commanding the largest fleet of ships in her time.). And their more or less egalitarian way of life is something to acknowledge. Although it varied from ship to ship depending on the charters each crew agreed upon, a common principle throughout however, was the equal sharing of loot taken from other vessels. Although captains and quartermasters did tend to receive a fraction more than the rest of the crew, this gap was still comparably more equal than what it was aboard a merchant vessel between sailor and sea captain. It's also worth pointing out, that ex-sailors (and slaves) were treated with considerably more respect aboard a pirate ship than they had received aboard a merchant or slave ship. There was also an early form of social security aboard the pirate ship to accommodate crew who had received injuries during conflict or otherwise. The peg-leg, eye-patch wearing and hook-hand pirates did exist and pirates with these afflictions, often preventing them from some of their duties, weren't persecuted but rather compensated financially and cared for by fellow crew, and were also allowed to stay aboard ship as long as they saw fit. Many myths surround the pirate, such as walking the plank and buried treasure of which there is no evidence. On the contrary, the hanging of pirates in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise did happen. Some bodies were left for months, even years (Privateer William Kidd accused of piracy, a prime example.) This was a scare tactic by authorities to deter anyone from considering a career in piracy. Legally, sea crimes did not apply on land, so sea criminals, once the tide was in, were hung at sea. Execution Dock in Wapping, London became an infamous spectacle of this. And the jail, Marshalsea, where a number of these sea criminals waited prior to execution, lends its name to the 'Marshal's dance' (the wriggling movement the body made after hanging). Two books of particular interest to me are Gabriel Kuhn's 'Life Under The Jolly Roger' and Marcus Rediker's 'Outlaws Of The Atlantic' which provide a great history from below (deck).

Religious orders are a focus, in particular the Flagellants with their ritualistic self-flagellation for penance, not to mention their distinct attire. A common sight during the Black Death, the Flagellants would venture on pilgrimages across Europe, drawing attention from townsfolk with their chanting, striking white capirotes and gowns, and their bloodied ceremonies. Each flagellant would then fall to the ground and assume a specific position depending on their sin. Afterwards the townsfolk would then gather round and dip a piece of cloth into a flagellant's wounds as a relic keepsake. Other religious orders such as the Trinitarians and the Mercadarians, French and Spanish respectively, interest me for their ransom paying duties when negotiating for the release of European Christians kidnapped by Barbary Pirates. As well as ransom, another release from enslavement for Christians was simply converting to Islam, something Christendom would prevent if possible.

Rituals, both burial and religious, which more or less go hand in hand in some respect, is another area I deal with. Catherine Arnold's 'Necropolis: London And Its Dead' describes the burial ritual for murderers (after execution) and suicide victims (still a Catholic sin at the time.) where a crossroad out of town was a popular location to bury such people. Arnold explains that the crossroad would disorientate the spirits of the dead, preventing them from finding their way back to haunt family members and the town in general. The stake through the heart, an icon of horror films, was an actual extra measure put in practice and thought to physically prevent these evil spirits from rising. Inquisition ceremonies, both in the lead up to and the trial itself ('auto da fe') were ritualistic. Their humiliating parade of the heretics dressed in their sanbenito and capirote (different colours indicating particular heresies) through town continued for a fortnight until the trial.

Lockdown has postponed a couple of planned exhibitions and cancelled another, but has allowed me time to reflect on the work I've already made and provided more time to create for the yet to be rescheduled exhibitions. For an up and coming exhibition at The Pharmacy in Carlisle (date TBC), a rough idea came about with help from Eric Hobsbawm's 'Primitive Rebels' and George McDonald Fraser's 'Steel Bonnets', centred around social banditry and more specifically a local connection with the Border Reivers. The Reivers were clans of raiding parties operating on either side of the border (sometimes further afield) between the 13th century and the Union of the Crowns in 1603, with members of the various clans being publicly hanged, drowned or excommunicated by order of King James I.

I also have a planned exhibition titled 'Coffin Ships & Cholera Pits' in my home town of Kilbirnie, Ayrshire (date TBC). With the ship a central image, and what Foucault calls “the great instrument of economic development” and paradoxically “the greatest reserve of the imagination”, the exhibition will focus on the transportation of people during the slave trade, the Irish Famine and the Clearances. I also plan to include local history to the exhibition, specifically the unmarked cholera pits in nearby towns, remnants of the UK wide cholera epidemic of the 1830s and 1840s in which Ayrshire had one of the worst outbreaks. Connecting both themes, the universal quarantine flag for shipping (chequered black and yellow) would be a fitting symbol for the exhibition. For those unfamiliar, 'Coffin' ships were so-called due to the amount of people who died (mostly from typhus and cholera) on board these vessels transporting families (who could afford to) affected by the Famine and Clearances, across the Atlantic to America.

A body of work I started prior to lockdown, initially for an exhibition in Helensburgh titled 'The Stu-seum Of Jocularity: Grotesque Realism, Innocent Fools & A World Turned Inside Out', is centred around the history of the carnival, minstrelsy and Commedia dell'arte theatre. For this exhibition, I was interested in the history of laughter, forbidden humour in official medieval culture, language of the market place, lolling, cursing, role-reversal, profanities and indulgence, the carnival as an idea of 'freedom', or a safety valve promoted by authority. I had also planned to provide an insight into the world of minstrelsy, its shifting definition, under which the fool and jester are placed, their many different roles other than entertainment duties, such as military accompaniment, hunting, wafering (a popular snack at the Royal court), as well as placing a spotlight on the almost mythical jester, 'Jayne the Foole'. Work was also under way on the origin, social roles, stock characters and the costumes of the Commedia dell'arte theatre. Much of this research has come from Mikhail Bahktin's 'Rabelais & His World', John Southworth's 'Fools & Jesters At The English Court' and Allardyce Nicoll's 'The World Of Harlequin' and although this exhibition was cancelled, I've continued with this research and body of work, reshaping some ideas and creating a visual history in the form of a concertina sketchbook, weaving together these themes with the later circus and music hall culture, out of which the stand up comic was created.

Reading Norman Cohn's 'Pursuit Of The Millenium' and Silvia Federici's 'Caliban & The Witch' gave me the idea to create another concertina sketchbook, a visual history of movements, uprisings and persecution, giving focus to the more obscure events. From the 1381 Peasants' War onwards to the likes of the church radicals, the Lollards, The Bundschuh, the German Peasants' War and later with the successful Haitian slave revolt in the late 18th century.

An edited version of this is available on CuratorSpace who are currently featuring artists, curators and organisatons sharing their experiences and responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Social Security Of The Pirate Charter. 2019. Ink & Fineliner on Fabriano Paper.

'Lolling' (Carnival). 2020. Ink & Fineliner on Parcel Paper.

Masquerade (Carnival). 2020. Ink & Fineliner on Parcel Paper.

'Coffin' Ship. 2019. Ink, Fineliner & Newsprint on Lining Paper.