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. https://www.curatorspace.com/about/news/stuart-murphy-coffin-ships--cholera-pits/169?fbclid=IwAR0I0hzcXmFzMo6Aw0IuOAxOSWOqxwKsiQ0NLq-hJgKheEEyHP2z2bPdciE