The tale of the scandalous trough
It sounds like the name of a satirical story by Jonathan Swift, but ‘the tale of the scandalous trough’ was the title of Lindsay Allason-Jones’ Presidential Address to the Royal Archaeological Society on 11 May 2022, in which she gave an account of her work of the last 12 years. She has been tracking down uncatalogued examples of Romano-British sculpture for the Elusive Sculptures project, to be documented in the Corpus Signorum Imperii Romani: Volume I, Fascicule 11 – sculpture from the hinterland of Hadrian’s Wall, which is to be published shortly (see CA 384 for more on this research).
The ‘scandalous trough’ of the title refers to the font in the church of St John the Evangelist in the parish of Lund in Lancashire which, according to the parish register, was thus described by parishioners when it was first set up by church warden Matt Hall in 1688. Perhaps the congregation was scandalised by the fact that the Christian sacrament of Baptism was being administered from a converted Roman (hence pagan) altar. Alternatively, they might have considered the carvings inappropriate, since they depict three dancing girls, with raised arms and swirling skirts and hair.
Fortunately, the objectionable trough has survived, though the figures are so eroded that you need advanced powers of imagination to see anything erotic or outrageous in these maenads – female followers of the wine god, Dionysus. Maenads became the favourite topic of a certain kind of Victorian artist, because the depiction of a ‘Classical’ subject gave them licence to paint half-naked women carried away by wine-fuelled ecstasy. In their original state, however, the carvings probably resembled the rather demure kind of dancing figures that are also on the Great Plate of Bacchus from the Mildenhall Treasure in the British Museum.
To compile the corpus, Lindsay and her fellow researchers scoured people’s gardens and poked around pigsties and barns, churches and boundary walls, tracking down some 700 examples of unrecorded Romano-British sculpture, of which 200 were rejected as undatable or not Roman, leaving 500 examples that she described as ‘hidden in plain sight’. The same could be said for the many wildflowers that are growing all around us if we have eyes to see.
The Guardian recently reported that ‘rebel botanists’ have been using ‘graffiti’ to draw attention to examples of native flora growing in urban pavements and walls. The idea started in the French city of Toulouse, where Boris Presseq of Toulouse Museum of Natural History began using coloured chalks to encircle and name the wildflowers he spotted growing on the pavements of the city. The sauvages de ma rue (‘wild things of my street’) campaign has since ‘gone viral’, with people all over Europe sharing their images of botanical specimens on social media.
It is perhaps not surprising that the movement should have originated in France, because herbicide use is now banned in French parks, streets, and other public spaces. Sherds thoroughly approves, and recently spotted orchids and coltsfoot growing in the centre of Cardiff. Finds like these reminded Sherds that a wildflower expert once objected to such plants being called weeds: technically, they are ‘ruderal species’ – plants that colonise disturbed land, from the Latin rudus, meaning ‘rubble’.
In London, wildlife photographer and environmentalist Sophie Leguil has set up her ‘More Than Weeds’ campaign to change perceptions of urban plants in the UK. She has won official endorsement from Hackney Council to create chalk trails to highlight the forgotten flora in the borough, and she is asking other councils to allow the same.
If you hurry, you might just have time to nominate places for inclusion on the UK’s next ‘Tentative List’ of natural and cultural sites for inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List (the deadline is 15 July). Sherds has been at plenty of gatherings where people have bounced ideas around for possible sites, but it isn’t easy to think of places that fulfil the very strict criterion of ‘universal value’, and that you can also draw a neat boundary around, further protected from future development by a ‘buffer’ zone.
Serious consideration has been given to the idea of nominating Offa’s Dyke, Wat’s Dyke, and other early medieval linear monuments, their universal value being embedded in the fact that they represent the first manifestations of ‘nationhood’, but that concept is itself fraught with difficulty.
There is no doubt that the UK has some seasoned experts in the lengthy and technically complex process of applying for World Heritage Status, and many in the sector believe that the time has come not to nominate yet more sites, but to form partnerships with other nations and offer our expertise to help them with their nominations.
Historic department stores
SAVE Britain’s Heritage has begun campaigning for the ‘imaginative reuse’ of the UK’s department stores, many of which are now empty and facing redevelopment, following the financial failure of some of the big names from the recent past, such as House of Fraser and Debenhams, a problem made worse by the pandemic and the rise of online shopping.
SAVE’s report, called ‘Departing Stores: emporia at risk’ traces the history of the department store. As a corrective to the prevalent idea that they represent American influence, the report’s author, Harriet Lloyd, shows that they originated in Paris, taking root in 1852 with the establishment of Le Bon Marché. Selfridges, founded in 1908, was definitely a latecomer, albeit an influential one.
Early department stores were, in Zola’s words, ‘cathedrals to the new religion of commerce’, deliberately designed using the steel-framed and plate-glass technology of the day with a monumentalism that reflected the Great Exhibition and its successors. Architectural opulence, inside and out, was matched by lavish window displays and a museum-like approach to setting out the goods for sale, in contrast to the practice of the past whereby goods had to be fetched by shop assistants from shelf, cupboard, and warehouse.
Among the innovations pioneered by French stores was the mannequin for displaying clothes, so that customers could picture themselves wearing the latest fashions, and public bathrooms for women, enabling them to stay out of the house for longer than had been possible in the past. Indeed, department stores played a key role in female emancipation by providing safe spaces that women could visit without a chaperone. The employment of a largely female staff also created new opportunities for women to find salaried employment that did not involve often exploitative domestic service.
The SAVE report goes on to describe the architectural charms of some 40 department stores across the country, pointing out that there is scarcely a major city that does not now have a handsome and grandly proportioned building facing an uncertain future. Since 2015, 52 per cent of all department stores have closed in the UK, making 2 million square metres of retail space available, and Marcus Binney, Executive President of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, writes of his fear of a race among developers to convert the stores to residential use or to raze them to the ground in favour of larger new developments.
Some model solutions are offered by the report. Bobby’s, a former Debenhams store in Bournemouth, has been let to independent local businesses and now houses an art gallery, food hall, brewery, smokery, and bakery, plus rooftop restaurant and cocktail bar, as well as space devoted to beauty products (apparently these are less likely to be bought online because buyers like to try before they buy). There is also an event space for community use, where current offerings include a children’s storyteller and classes on biscuit decoration.
The Twentieth Century Society, which has been lobbying Historic England to undertake a formal thematic review of the department store as a distinct building type, reports that Gloucester’s former Debenhams store (founded in 1889 as Bon Marché) has been acquired by the University of Gloucester, which plans a new city-centre campus. Each building needs its own solution tailored to local needs, but it is encouraging to know that there are alternatives that will enable the public to have continued access and enjoy the splendid interiors of these temples to consumerism.