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House of the Flying Wheel

12 June 14 words: Wayne Burrows
Backlit's latest exhibition celebrates a 19th century philanthropist whose textile business once occupied the gallery's own building in Sneinton.
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Darren Banks. photo: Neil Hoyle

It seems a bit unfair that Jesse Boot and Paul Smith are household names while the Victorian entrepreneur, social reformer and philanthropist, Samuel Morley, who arguably paved the way for both of them, has been largely forgotten by all but a few enthusiasts. One of those enthusiasts happens to be Matthew Chesney, director of the studios and art gallery that now occupies two floors inside a former Morley factory building on Ashley Street, just behind Sneinton Market, and it’s a fascination with Morley’s textile business and its history that gives House of the Flying Wheel its subject.

The unusual title refers to an old nickname for the floor that now houses a brand new, very light and much expanded, gallery space. According to Chesney, the space once resounded to the noise of hosiery and textiles being spun on giant mechanical wheels. At the centre of the display is Morley Engine by Darren Banks, a plain wooden structure that acts as a kind of study centre where Samuel Morley’s Victorian ideas about workers’ rights, the abolition of slavery and the creation of an equitable society are brought up to date.

Morley himself was a Gladstone Liberal and nonconformist and Banks represents him with a raw clay bust, reminiscent of something by Giacometti. Morley’s inscrutable presence guards a series of very small open-sided ‘rooms’ whose plain chipboard aesthetic reflects Morley’s distaste for shows of wealth and status - he famously turned down a peerage from Queen Victoria. In one of Banks’ enclosures a small DVD library includes Saturday Night & Sunday Morning, Ken Loach’s The Spirit of 45, Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave and Luis Bunuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, among others, and visitors can choose what to watch on the TV provided.

Another enclosure sets an optically striking fabric from Dutch Indonesia alongside one featuring a Bridget Riley pattern, underlining both the international dimension of Morley’s business and his interest in merging fine art with mass production. A third enclosure contains a laptop showing a man skipping against a Bridget Riley wallpaper, his rope’s cyclical clatter on the gym floor suggesting the rhythm of a machine: nearby, a 3D-printed teapot seems to represent a likely future for the industrial manufacturing of our own time. Banks’ piece seems to offer a set of threads connecting the works on show elsewhere. If the exhibition is a wheel, as its title suggests, then Morley Engine might be regarded as its hub. 

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Julian Wild's Pelham System. photo: Neil Hoyle

That Indonesian printed fabric links directly to Yinka Shonibare’s seductive video work, Un Ballo in Mashera (A Masked Ball) of 2004, which shows eighteenth century Venetian courtiers performing an elegant melodrama dressed in costumes made from the artist’s signature ‘African’ fabrics. As Shonibare has explained elsewhere, what we imagine to be distinctively African had its real origin in the Dutch East India Company’s global trade networks during the seventeenth and eightenth centuries. Wax printed fabrics were imported to Africa from Dutch Indonesia as part of a global system of trading that included slaves. The production methods were only adapted locally later.

If Shonibare’s piece references Morley’s campaigning against the injustices of slavery and exploitative employment practices in textile factories, Mark Davey’s Hung adds a 21st century note on the importance of LGBTQ rights. With an almost throwaway humour, Davey sets a pink florescent light-tube on a motor that turns it like a wheel while a pair of vintage Morley ‘International Man’ underpants slide up and down. Despite its minimal appearance, Hung manages to be wryly camp and strangely hypnotic simultaneously. Julian Wild’s Pelham System is equally striking: a labyrinthine construct of Victorian pipework crossing the full length of the gallery, as though the plumbing was put in by a nineteenth century version of MC Escher.

The most direct address to the spirit of Samuel Morley is found in Tracey McMaster’s five-minute video Caught Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea. McMaster’s camera observes while a spirit medium tries to communicate with the man himself, delivering fragmentary reports from the afterlife among deep shadows, surrounded by red candles and their bright flames. His features slip in and out of focus, sometimes benign, sometimes almost possessed or slightly demonic. McMaster’s film finally becomes a portrait of the medium himself.

The works in House of the Flying Wheel mostly approach Morley’s legacy obliquely rather than head-on, but it’s fair to say that collectively they stir an interest in finding out more about his life and works. It’s also worth noting that the opening of this new gallery and exhibition marks the fifth anniversary of Backlit itself, founded back in 2008. Samuel Morley’s statue still stands in the Arboretum, and among his many bequests to the city was his part funding of the Nottingham School of Design (later part of NTU). It’s fairly certain, then, that he’d approve of the use that his old factory premises are being put to.

House of the Flying Wheel can be seen until 7 September. Backlit Gallery, Alfred House, Ashley Street, Nottingham (free, Thu – Sun 12 – 5pm).

Backlit website


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