Inclusive Histories: Stories of Disabled Lives in Compton Verney’s Folk Art Collection

Inclusive Histories: Stories of Disabled Lives in Compton Verney’s Folk Art Collection

This blog was written by Jenni Hunt, Inclusive Histories Research Fellow at Compton Verney, 2021. Jenni’s Disabled Lives display, featuring select objects from the Folk Art Collection, is now open in the Folk Art galleries. 

Compton Verney has the UK’s largest collection of British Folk Art, showcasing the talents and lives of local communities with work created by skilled but untrained artists. Last year, I was fortunate enough to undertake an Inclusive Histories Research Fellowship, which allowed me to examine this collection, and highlight the links it holds to disabled lives, past and present.

I am currently in the process of completing my PhD, examining how disability is represented within British museums. I am interested in finding out what museums hold related to disability, and uncovering what stories they are telling with these items. Compton Verney’s Folk Art collection was rich with possibility, but had previously been under-researched, and not considered from a disability perspective. I approached this activity using the social-model, which says that people are disabled not simply because of their impairment (their physical or mental difference), but also because of the attitudes they face, and the way that society is structured. For example, a wheelchair user is unable to access a door up some steps due to the lack of a ramp, rather than because of their spinal injury.

A challenge of working with the Folk Art collection is that a lot of items lack the kind of provenance that is found in other art collections. We may hold wonderful, beautiful objects, but we often lack information about who made them or what they were for. When we look for disability, this becomes even more challenging – aside from a few exceptions, there are few objects that stand out as having a direct link with disability. However, I was certain there were a lot of stories to find.

There are a lot of ways that objects can link with stories of disability, for example showing a disabled individual, being created, collected or used by someone with a disability, or resonating with the lives of disabled individuals. As the objects often lack information about their makers and users, this could be difficult – although some individual objects had clear disability provenance. For example the boxer Tom Molineaux died due to tuberculosis and health problems caused by alcohol addiction and his injuries, whilst Annie Brassey, the wife of the owner of Sunbeam, a boat depicted in a woolwork, had chronic bronchitis and was severely burned in a household accident as a child. Where information about the people involved was known, links to disability can be drawn.

Similarly, in Pottergate and the portrait of Daniel Lambert, visibly disabled individuals are shown. A lot is known about Daniel Lambert’s life, and he is easily recognisable, exhibiting himself at the time as the largest man that had lived. He was widely considered to be an intelligent and quick-witted man, although he was unhappy with the way people asked intrusive questions about his weight. Figures such as Daniel Lambert were well known throughout the country during their lifetime, and commonly pictured in cartoons and pottery. They are therefore often identifiable even if artists are unknown.

Other links, however, were less obvious. Many items can be seen as linking to dangerous careers, such as chimney sweeping, which caused widespread disability at the time, or else were the kind of objects that could often be made during recovery. Learning new skills after injury could enable wounded and disabled people to continue to earn an income. I could not be certain that these items were made by disabled people – but that wasn’t my goal. Instead, I wanted to look at possibilities, the perhapses and maybes that are sometimes the only trace that can be found around disabled lives.

And I found a lot of those.

In total, I made a list of fifty objects that seemed to link to disabled lives – everything from a portrait of pigeons (because keeping such birds can cause an immune response making it hard to breathe), to an image of Margate (representing various seaside towns that became a destination for many ill and disabled people, to enable them to breathe the sea air). I came to have a greater appreciation of the collection, and to look at it in a way it hasn’t been seen before.

What this project shown is that stories and objects linked to disability are everywhere throughout the collections of museums. Disabled people have always been a part of humanity, and so our stories and lives have left echoes down the centuries. These stories can be found, but only if people are willing to look for them.

Image: Lille Clog shop sign © Compton Verney, photograph by Hugh Kelly, Sept 2002