(Please note: this is one of my slightly more academic posts – continue reading at your own risk of terminal boredom!)
One of the reasons that I like using textiles as part of my academic work is that it slows things down. We are under tremendous pressure to produce published articles and this cuts down the time we have to consider what we are doing. Reflection is a bit of a thing of the past. This is fine for research which deals in quantitative data where analysis is largely mechanical and carried out by computers crunching numbers, but work which deals with ideas and the complexity of lived experience often needs a bit more time to ‘cook’. The textile pieces provide this space and allow all sorts of things to emerge.
I had a case in point last week. I am becoming very interested in what historians call the ‘long eighteenth century’, that is a period roughly from The Glorious Revolution (1688) to the Battle of Waterloo (1815). I became interested in this through my work on Laura Ashley and the second phase of her design aesthetic which draws on this period, but, as I have done my research, I have become fascinated by the period as a consumer revolution, when shopping became a real element of social life. All of this is a preamble to talking about keys.
I have long used keys on my textiles, such as this really early piece which has a band of tiny keys on the right hand side:
This is from a suite of five small quilts, several of which featured keys:
The piece was about confession and secrets. For me the most obvious symbol for secrets is a key. I also like the duality of them – they lock and unlock. They can be symbols of dead ends – the locked door, or opportunities as the door unlocks. Keys are a significant metaphor in our language. In my first job, in the dark ages, we talked about keyman insurance. In my current occupation we have keynote speakers, and talk about the key work on the subject. In the case studies we use to teach strategy there is often a key fact which unlocks the case. In education in general, our children go through key stages. I have some problem with this. When I was a very little girl I thought you learned languages instantly by being given the translation key which transformed English into French and so on, and we see what a mess that can lead to with the translation programmes available to us now which lead to garbled approximations of a text. I dislike this notion that education is an event – passing a keystone – rather than a unpredictable process. Information, I suspect can be acquired to order – how to strip down an engine, for example, but wisdom and knowledge take a bit longer to acquire. But this notion that there is a key which will unlock the world for us if we just look long and hard enough for it, is deeply engrained in our thinking about education. George Elliot satirised it in Middlemarch with Casaubon’s fruitless, lifelong search for the Key to all Mythologies, a search for arcane knowledge. He died suffering from this delusion. Douglas Adams subsequently satirised this in his ‘Casaubon Delusion’ in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The delusion is that we can overcome uncertainty by finding the key to all knowledge. Keys and knowledge, then, are closely linked – locked into each other, perhaps.
So, I was a bit surprised when I was reading Amanda Vickery’s excellent book on Georgian life: Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England to read her comments on keys and their importance in Georgian homes. She argues that keys became almost synonymous with women.
The association of keys with women is archaeological. Anglo-saxon women were buried with keys. A collection of keys hanging from the waist was a female ornament from at least the Renaissance. Eighteenth-century pickpocketing trials reveal that keys were commonly found along with money, teaspoons, thimbles and scissors, pieces of jewellery and handkerchiefs in women’s tie on pockets. Small padlocks can be found amongst the tokens vouchsafed by desperate mothers (probably servants) when they surrendered their infants to the London Foundling Hospital in the mid-eighteenth century. In paintings, the bundle of keys was the attribute of Martha, the patroness of housewives. Trial responsibility for the keys was part of female training. (Vickery, 2009: 45)
And giving up the keys was a ceremonial passing over of power either from a sacked and disgraced housekeeper or a mother handing over her son’s inheritance. Vickery is led to this consideration of keys through her examination of privacy in the eighteenth-century home. Essentially there was none. The only private space anyone, other than the very pinnacle of the elite classes, had was their locked box, to which they alone held the key.
I was struck when I was making the early pink quilt at the top of this post by all the keys on it, which I don’t really remember consciously putting there. This led me to thinking about the most important key bearer of them all in my upbringing: St Peter. Peter holds the keys to the kingdom, and this is a very interesting dynamic. He decides who gets into heaven and who is refused admission. Here he is on the Vatican, overlooking (I think) his cathedral in Rome, clutching his key:
For me, then, St Peter is a symbol of patriarchy, the keeper of the rulebook which keeps social order in place, and that social order has man at the head of the faith and the family. His word is absolute; there is no getting round him.
But, I think that Vickery also gives us a timely reminder of the connection between keys and women. People frequently ask me where I get all the stuff for my quilts:
I am given a lot of stuff (for which I am very grateful), but I also scour bead shops wherever I go. I like using pieces which remind me of good trips, and some of the keys in these photos were bought in Denmark and Brighton. What is fascinating about this is that the key is a very popular charm, as they are known, in bead shops which largely cater for young women who make jewellery. The prevalence of key charms, which are also on sale in the big out of town box stores such as HobbyCraft, suggests that there is a ready market for them. Young women – and longer in the tooth ones like me, must connect at some level with keys. They appear to have a universal appeal, along with hearts and flowers and birds. Clearly they are a supplied choice: we can only buy what we are offered for sale, but, their prevalence suggests that they are popular and have meaning of some description for the women who buy them. It is as if, and that is a phrase that a proper academic would never use, they belong to a shared unconscious repertoire of images, and one with a complex set of gendered associations: inclusion and exclusion, public and private, hope and denial.
I am not sure what, if anything, to do with this. One thing might be to look at old quilts and see if they have this imagery in amongst the freemasonry and the flora and fauna, to see if this is a recent resurgence in use of key imagery. Another might be to do some empirical research – perish the thought – and ask women why they are attracted to keys as design motifs. Perhaps they will talk about the five year diaries with tiny locks and keys that most women of my age were presented with at some point. I don’t really know, and I don’t know if it’s worth pursuing. Any ideas would be welcome.
Finally, I couldn’t find a way to fit this in, but one of the images I remember from reading books at school was this one from E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, published in 1902, in which It speaks ‘in a harsh, grating voice like large rusty keys being turned in locks’. Which is a great image to end on.
Amanda Vickery (2009) Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.