The Secret Staircase: private view and talk by Michèle Roberts and Caroline Isgar

The Wolfson Arts Society & the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing invite you to a private view and talk by Michèle Roberts and Caroline Isgar, on Friday 14 October 2016 at 5.30 pm.

The Secret Staircase is an exhibition/installation comprising etchings, a woodcut block, a woodcut print, a printed text, an artist’s book, and some associated artefacts. It was originally commissioned by the Foundling Museum in London.

It is a joint project created by artist Caroline Isgar and writer Michèle Roberts, who had the original inspiration together and collaborated all the way through, discussing ideas and methods at every stage, naming and solving problems together.

The Secret Staircase explores mother-child separation, the loss and grief felt by an adult daughter as her mother goes through the process of dying, how she collects her memories of her mother and attaches them to various significant objects. The Secret Staircase performs, therefore, a kind of Life-Writing.

We took as our initial inspiration the tokens (dating back to the late eighteenth-century) at the Foundling Museum. These tokens (identifying tags, rings, plaques, coins, etc) were left with the foundlings by their mothers, who may have hoped to come and reclaim their children some day.

The Secret Staircase etchings represent experimental ideas around children’s doodles, children’s early attempts to write, children’s carvings on tables and desks. These images subsequently informed the images in the book.

The book/text takes the form of an inventory of items connected with the lost mother, such as a hairbrush or a button box, which provoke childhood memories plus reflections on the present. Underneath the daughter’s direct speech runs a series of rewritten nursery rhymes, which express all that the daughter does not dare openly say.

The book/images suggest folklore, legends and myths, with particular reference to animals, domestic artefacts, and children’s writing exercises.

Associated artefacts comprise materials relating to our work process, ranging from sketches to commemorative items to found objects.

The book/images have been printed as an unusually large-scale woodcut (1 x 3 ) metres. The form of the woodcut block itself is a table, inspired by the elm refectory table at the Foundling Museum. The foundlings sat around this table for their meals.

The book/text has been printed on a single sheet of paper of corresponding size. The narrative sequence of the text begins at the lower left-hand corner and continues in an anti-clockwise direction.

The Secret Staircase print and text can both be wall-hung for display. They can simultaneously be displayed folded into a free-standing double zigzag, on a table. They have both been folded into a limited edition artist’s book, bound in a white tablecloth formerly belonging to Monique Roberts, Michèle Roberts’s mother. Her monogram M.C. is visible. As a young woman she hemmed the cloth and embroidered it with the initials of her maiden name Monique Caulle. Before she died in December 2007 she gave the cloth to her daughter.

Paperback versions of The Secret Staircase have also been printed and are available.

Caroline Isgar & Michèle Roberts

The Exhibition runs from Sunday 2 October to Friday 21 October 2016. Open daily from 10 am to 7 pm subject to College commitments. Visitors are advised to ring the Lodge on 01865 274100 beforehand.

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