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Knit Knit: Issue #6, December 2005

This article first apeared in
Knit Knit: Issue #6, December 2005

Notion Nanny: Tinker, Tailor, Merchant and Maker

By Sarah Carrington and Allison Smith

Allison Smith is an artist preoccupied with the telling and re-telling of history. Through her work, she engages in a critical autobiography that begins with her personal history as the daughter of a colonial American crafts enthusiast and an inventor of tradecraft, or the art of international espionage. For over a decade, Smith has conducted an investigation of the cultural phenomenon of historical reenactment, or Living History, founded on the belief that historical events gain meaning and relevance when performed live in an open-air, interactive setting. In her current project Notion Nanny, Smith travels throughout England in search of traditional skills and revolutionary dialogue. Through an ongoing series of short-term apprenticeships, Smith gathers and re-tells stories exchanged and shared through the process of making.

The genesis of Notion Nanny was Smith’s research into the historical phenomenon of peddler dolls, or “notion nannies,” popularly displayed under glass domes in British and American households during the Victorian era. Traditionally dressed in a red cloak and holding a basket overflowing with miniature wares, the peddler doll commemorated the disappearing social custom of itinerant traders traveling the countryside, their baskets containing a tiny world of 18th and early 19th Century material culture. Smith became interested in the way that peddler dolls constitute a particular genre or category of popular art, while at the same time they present, or represent, a cornucopia of popular art traditions in their baskets. This ironic self-reflexivity within the object, an almost uncanny awareness in the doll of her own status, seemed to contradict the idea of the peddler doll as a curiosity or specimen not meant to be played with. Smith wanted to burst the bubble of the bell jar, magnifying the doll and her basket in order to make them more visible. Smith wondered what social histories could be written from the wares the peddler doll exhibited: examples of printmaking, pottery, glassware, metalwork, textiles, and many forms of handiwork. Thus the title “Notion Nanny”, suggesting a custodian of ideas as well as objects, is a fitting play-on-words.

The peddler woman is an ambiguous figure in Britain’s social history; her red cloak encourages multiple interpretations. Considered the most widespread and longest surviving traditional garment of the English countrywoman, and a familiar symbol to most of Europe as well as North America, the red cloak is perhaps an emblem of Tradition itself, connoting the “simpler times” of the past. The peddler doll was, after all, commemorating a figure of an economy that was quickly fading with the commencement of the industrial revolution. In her time, the peddler woman was probably seen as a welcome figure providing a necessary service, supporting herself and aiding others through her work, wearing her cloak like the precursor to a redlined nurse’s cape. Peddler dolls often suggest an open-armed Virgin Mary, and their baskets are comparable to the magic bottomless carpetbag of Mary Poppins. The color red is the color of blood and all its connotations e.g., life and fertility. At the height of portraiture in the 19th Century, many young daughters of wealthy families were painted wearing red capes or hoods, suggesting perhaps their sexual vibrancy and readiness for the marriage market.

Peddler women can be seen to have enjoyed a degree of freedom as mobile, independent women, traversing the landscape and crossing borders, but that must also have aroused suspicion. In literature, the peddler woman is often depicted as a threatening, lonely woman, rootless and vulnerable. In certain periods throughout history, morally upright women did not wear the color red, due to its sinful symbolism. A proverbial scarlet letter, the red cloak can be read as a signifier for the peddler woman’s difference and marginality from mainstream society. In museums and books, peddler dolls are often categorized alongside gypsy and fortune telling dolls, and possibly the reason for their placement on a mantelpiece at the hearth was to bring luck and good fortune to a household. Like popular cloth dolls of Little Red Riding Hood in which a second head, the wolf, lurks under the doll’s skirt, there is a flip side to the peddler woman, suggesting witchcraft and magic, her cloak serving as a protective shield to hide secrets.

As the re-imagined personification of a village character type, Notion Nanny offers a useful guise for Smith.

For the sculptural centerpiece of this traveling exhibition, she has re-created the peddler doll, life-size and in her own image. Creating a narrative link between Great Britain and the US via references to the Revolutionary War era from which peddler dolls emerged, Smith invokes histories of the peddler woman as a revolutionary border crosser in regional folklore and historical legend. She refers, for instance, to characters such as Ann Bates, a Loyalist American Tory who posed as a peddler selling goods to the American army as she spied for the British during the war; or, to American patriot Patience Lovell Wright, a successful sculptor of life-size wax figures in England who sent British military secrets back to America hidden in hollowed heads. Rather than taking one side or the other, Smith prefers to move across lines of conflict, implying shifting, coded, aesthetic alliances and the notion of revolution in general. By fashioning herself as Notion Nanny, she creates a surrogate object, a portrait of her subjectivity and a functional stand-in.

In Smith’s Notion Nanny, the peddler doll becomes merchant and maker, producer and consumer, as Smith takes on the role of an itinerant apprentice engaging self-described traditional craftspeople in a dialogue about their relationships to political and social histories of making. The doll’s basket is a repository, filled with wares inspired by her research and made in collaboration with makers. So far, Smith has worked with lace-makers, potters, knitters, wood turners, straw craftsmen, coppice workers, a basket weaver, a horn carver, a hat maker, a fan maker, and a weaver. Throughout her journey, Smith seeks out ways in which the process of making conveys messages, creating and adding objects to the basket to form an elaborate set of props with which to tell multi-layered stories. For example, slipware chargers with the slogans of an anarchist poet, rustic plates decorated with emblems of the French Revolution, change purses with Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist textile designs, the social philosophy of John Ruskin written in lace, contemporary re-workings of WWI convalescent soldier pin cushions, and horn ale mugs adorned with scrimshaw environmentalism.

Traditionally, the guilds were responsible for protecting and maintaining the story of each craft at its optimum. Individual masters would then hand the story down to their apprentices. Before attaining apprentice status, each trainee craftsman would undertake a journey around the country, offering himself for work town-by-town in his respective craft or trade. During this process, he would be known as a journeyman, gaining new knowledge and strengthening his skills along the way.

In Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” the journeyman is described as attaining advanced skills in the art of storytelling. “The resident master craftsman and the traveling journeymen worked together in the same rooms and every master had been traveling journeyman before he settled down in his home town or somewhere else. If peasants and seamen were past masters of story telling, the artisan class was its university.“1

For Benjamin writing in the thirties, storytelling is mourned as a dying art, a victim of modernity. “The activities that are intimately associated with boredom are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well. With this the gift for listening is lost and the community of listeners disappears. For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained.”2 In Notion Nanny, Smith offers the gift of listening in order to map and collect stories through traditional skills that may pass away with the next generation. Her quest is not one of mere re-enactment, historical preservation or commemoration however. Instead, Smith is harboring traditional skills, uncovering their secret uses and imbuing them with new messages and meanings, challenging all-too-familiar notions of craft as conservative, decorative, or mute.

Vernacular and popular arts and crafts are often celebrated as signifiers for national identity, foregrounded especially in times of national turmoil and division. Rather than a celebration of local traditions in a bid to strengthen national identities, Notion Nanny explores the role of craft in the construction of counter-cultural identities and allegiances. Through her activities, Smith demonstrates how to consciously navigate through traditional avenues of expression in order to produce potentially revolutionary visual histories.

1 Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Edited and with Introduction by Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1968.

2 Ibid.


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