• Your sweetest empire is to please

Curran, Fiona, 2018, Conference or Workshop, Your sweetest empire is to please at Feminisms and Materialisms, Royal College of Art, 25th May 2018.

Abstract or Description:

This presentation will focus on my forthcoming public art commission for the National Trust estate of Gibside, Northumberland - an architectural folly based on an 18th century Wardian case, a box used to transport plants and seeds by ship, filled with painted ‘exotic’ plants. Gibside was the home of Mary Eleanor Bowes (1749-1800) and the commission focuses on her interest in botany and the contested role that botany played in women’s education and the gendering of knowledge during the 18th century. Botany was linked to ‘polite’ feminine activities including embroidery and music and seen as a suitable intellectual interest for girls. However, in advance of the Enlightenment, in depth material knowledge of plants, their medicinal properties and use as dyes, had long been the traditional preserve of women. Knowledge and skills were passed down through oral traditions between women contributing to “examples of gynocentric science” (Shteir,1996, 37). Linguistic conventions were prevalent in the 18th century linking women with flowers and notions of purity, beauty and fragility. Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), appropriated and subverted this play on floral references to draw attention to society’s neglect of women’s educational potential. Wollstonecraft confronted the contradictions implicit in Enlightenment ideas of gender by drawing attention to the ill effects suffered by women through inadequate education and the persistence of sentimental analogies between women and nature. Wollstonecraft substituted images of enlightened growth and cultivation with those of their opposite – curtailment, restriction and decay – suggesting that women had been reared like exotic plants or ‘luxuriants.’ Using an example of site-related practice this project highlights alternative feminist epistemological traditions rooted in material practices of gardening and botany. In the process it also draws on further research into colonial histories of plant collecting and bioprospecting.
Ref: Anne B. Shteir, Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England 1760-1860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Subjects: Creative Arts and Design > W100 Fine Art
School or Centre: School of Design
Date Deposited: 15 Feb 2019 14:48
Last Modified: 09 Feb 2021 17:55
URI: https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/id/eprint/3745
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