I have spent most of the week at Hawkwood College just outside Stroud, Gloucestershire, on a writing retreat. I’ve been to Hawkwood before and I knew that it had a real shabby chic style in the main house, and a very beautiful garden, so I thought that I would bring the Laura Ashley dolls along to photograph them, possibly for a self-published blurb book as these are my latest guilty self-indulgence after the Quilts book I blogged about recently.
So, I took the girls into the garden and also posed them on the sofa in one of the rooms and by the bay window.
I had come to Hawkwood to do some work on Laura Ashley. I have to do the grunt work of going through the biography and getting a timeline sorted out for the business. I thought if I were captive that I would be obliged to do this, and I have got as far as the opening of the first factory in Carno in the 1970s. But most of the people who were with me were doing much more creative writing, and somehow it slipped through the ether and I decided to work more with the dolls and find out their Laura Ashley stories. I will set up a page with these stories at some point. So far I have only done two, but what I found fascinating was the way that the stories just coalesced on the page. Fully formed stories of love and betrayal, ambition and despair. We did some reading aloud on our last evening, and after I had read my stories, my imaginary interviews with the girls, the completeness and detail of the stories was what surprised everyone. I was making up the Laura Ashley stories that cannot be told, that are too painful or personal to tell, but which I know from my twenty plus lived ethnography with these women do exist. I respect the fact that not everyone wants to tell them, and in a way I am grateful that I am not then obliged to bear witness in some way, but I cannot present an entirely rosy picture of women’s identities either. So the dolls can have the painful stories. I think this might make them cultic objects able to absorb unvoiced pain. It’s strange territory.
But the reservoir of material I have astounded me. Some of it is recycled from my contemporaries, and a lot of it is from my mother. The story about marrying for security rang true in the room from our mother’s generation, although none of us had done that. The feeling of writing was extraordinary. It just rushed through me. I had to stop to think about dates and chronologies, but basically it was like opening floodgates, and, importantly, it felt like further evidence that this is a project which has found me; a project whose time has come. Interesting thoughts about creativity as well to take away. I have read a lot of practical stuff about innovation and creative practice at work, which is fine, but the more art or even fine art end of it is fascinating to observe as well. I needed time and space. I needed to be relaxed. I needed no interruptions. I needed enough time to invite the muse – whatever that means – to come. I needed space to be able to listen. I doubt that I will get more dolls’ stories when I am home.
And, I am left thinking that dolls are extremely powerful objects. My lifelong fascination with them is finally working itself out. Because these dolls are such carriers of pain, here is a nice image to finish with of them taking in the sunshine on a lovely day in the Cotswolds: