Words, Kerry Milton
Arriving at Speke Hall is like stepping back in time so Alice May Williams’ project is a fascinating juxtaposition. Speke of the Future transports us to 2200, envisioning different tribes inhabiting Speke Hall inspired by the Arts and Crafts heritage of the building and original historical residents such as Adelaide Watt, Whistler and Florrie the Dairymaid.
Williams, a Goldsmiths MFA Fine Art graduate, used William Morris’, News from Nowhere (you can see amazing examples of Morris’ wallpaper throughout Speke Hall) as a starting point. The novel imagines a ‘perfect’ future based on a long-lost pastoral age, and Williams uses this idea to develop her own narrative to accompany the exhibition, imagining the National Trust, current owners of Speke Hall, as the Government of the future that not only preserves the past but saves the future.
Artefacts linking the present to Williams’ story are scattered all around Speke Hall, in the restaurant, Estate Room, Great Hall, Scullery and Servants Hall. In the Morning Room a table runner immediately draws in your eye, featuring a repetitive pattern of a powerful female face that represents one of Speke Hall’s most famous residents, Adelaide Watt.
The wonderful National Trust volunteers were on hand to explain that aged just 21, Adelaide took on the running of Speke Hall. Without giving too much of the story away, in Williams’ vision of the future a group of Women on Their Own also take over the running of the Hall and the Estate and become known locally as The Adelaides.
It is the setting of Speke Hall and the historical context that makes this exhibition so interesting. Walking into the Great Oak Parlour room there is a huge pink acrylic window panel that casts a strange light across an otherwise dark and somber wood-paneled room. The repetitive pattern, with handmade cut-outs, is reminiscent of Morris’ repeat pattern wallpaper designs and acts as a foil to the original stained glass Watt family crest; the only visible link to the family’s historical past with slavery and the plantations.
There is also much humour in Alice May Williams’ vision. At Home Farm you can find a pig dressed in a neon hoodie, as vegetarianism is a new religion in the future and pigs can’t be milked or eaten, so are considered sacred. This fluorescent, psychedelic patterned sportswear is made by another fictional tribe, The Idle Lads, who believe an artist’s only positive virtue is idleness. It is these fabrics and mixed media that contrast sharply with the plain, beige interiors of the building, creating fractures in our current reality as we are forced to take a glimpse into the future.
Speke of the Future is a wonderful, light-hearted installation that challenges our ideas of an ideal society by reflecting on our past. It adds another interesting dimension to what is an already incredible Estate. To use Williams’ line, “After all, to speak of the past is our way to find a Speke of the Future…”
For more information on Alice May Williams’ work at Speke Hall, visit the National Trust website: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/speke-hall-garden-and-estate/features/a-contemporary-take-on-arts-and-crafts