I can’t say too much about the sheep. Let’s just say we came to an agreement. And that one made a noise like Dot Cotton in an intimidation attempt.
A couple of weeks ago I returned to Tatton to spend another week there-the idea was to finish with a ‘mini-performance’ a taster of what might be to come. I’d be showing something and handing in everything on Thursday 28th (that financial year deadline)…
The information for Tatton was wide and I didn’t feel I had ‘a hook’, I had lots of ideas, bits of ideas, ideas for visual images, as I re-read my notes I began to realise I was back where I started, where my original proposal stems from: The Hidden Histories of the Servants. To maintain this focus this I decided to spend my second week working in and around a particular area in the house; The Kitchen, Scullery, Still Room and The Housekeeper’s Sitting Room. I made a conscious decision to not ‘go upstairs’ and get distracted by the rest of the house. I made lists of the roles I had particular interest, where they would sit in the rooms that I was focussing on, I made list of the people that I had particular interest with-because of some scrap of information, some part of a biography.
Using the material gathered from the Hidden History volunteers and the archive materials I began to try to trace some of the servants, across ages, across decades, different cities, different country houses. Some of this tracing ends in abrupt halts. Some there are huge gaps. I began to realise that this would not be about tracing three or so servants to put together characters in different periods as I had originally thought. It is easy to become obsessed with one person when tracing long dead people, finding more questions at every turn, wanting to know their whole life. I kept asking myself questions:
How does this tell the story of Tatton?
How does this tell the story of the everyday life for servants?
How does this history inform us of how we are today?
I was intimidated by the wealth of information.
How do you engage an audience but not drown them information?
How do you tell everyday stories and still make it interesting?
How do you bring alive the one time function of a room?
As I worked here I began to realise that the narrative through line is not one servant, one person’s story, it is the story of the house itself told through the lives of the people that kept it.
Using information from experts reports on Tatton in Domestic Service & roles, Technology , discussions about the plans for the house itself and wider reading around the history of service, I started to fill in the gaps in of everyday working life in service at Tatton. How the house worked. How it has changed. I can’t tell all the stories of all the servants that worked here, I can tell bits of stories, information gathered, stories that start before Tatton and end far away from it. Moments where Tatton was a feature in their life. A job.
The servants I’d started to gather, the one’s I had clues to could be placed in these rooms, I began to think about how the function and lay out for some of these rooms had changed over the years and over different periods.
Drawing on all of that material I spent the week writing, sitting and writing in the rooms, talking to myself, feeling somewhat awkward, trying not to get in the way in the week before the house opens to public. Trying to feel comfortable in ‘Francesca, the artist’ title I had gained while working there. Put on some snappy tights to fulfill the role/
Sometimes I wrote about the biography of the servants, or the actions and different duties that a particular role would do (plucking pheasants, washing up…so much washing up) , or writing about the room itself. Sometimes easier to write away from the rooms and then come back to them to try to fill them with words.
I came to realise that I cannot work on my own, that I need a director to help place words and actions in here. It also made me think about the people who are present in the house now, how their words needs to be heard in some way. They are active in making this home a place to visit for ‘the public’. People.
The Egerton’s, the family that owned Tatton, can be traced their achievements, life and births recorded in newspaper, documents, items that have been left behind. Crucially we also have a good idea what they looked like through painting and photo. The servants history, what they looked like, their characters, their fortunes, their tragedies and achievements we have scraps of information clues in handwriting, listings, census documents and the occasional photo. The servants were transient, often faceless and sometimes nameless. There are servants who perhaps we will never know the name of as they are lost between the decades of census returns. For the Egertons, there is a family tree, we can see who was the father to who, when the house was passed on, how their family and fortunes grow over time. The performance will document the voices that don’t get heard, the people that don’t have paintings hung on the walls in their honour; The Hands That Made This House A Home. (working in title).