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Presented By: History of Art

Alison’s Mind: Collage and Architectural Thinking in Postcolonial Britain

Claire Zimmerman, Associate Professor of History of Art

"Collage as Method, Manuscript and Moving Image: Cutting Edge"
Online Conference hosted by Yale University

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"Alison’s Mind: Collage and Architectural Thinking in Postcolonial Britain"

Summary: Some time in the 1950s, Alison Smithson took a copy of Charles Knight’s Old England: a Pictorial Museum of Regal, Ecclesiastical, Municipal, Baronial, and Popular Antiquities of 1845, and began filling it with images. Over the next four decades, she created a collage work of astonishing depth and thickness, with images culled from a heterogeneous array of material. The source and substrate of this years-long collage, a book of 478 pages in two volumes, was hardly distant from the concerns Smithson pursued elsewhere. A wide variety of lithographed images of artefacts, buildings and mise-en-scène fill its pages, drawn from the English past or from its encounter with other lands. The end result is a massive object, its binding strained by the material interleaved throughout its pages. This paper presents the fragile scrapbook for the first time, considering the unfolding dialogue between the book’s images and Smithson’s continuously layered additions throughout its pages and over an extended time frame. A private sourcebook, the book records collage as an artist’s working method, showing its utility for the generation of new ideas and suggesting corollaries between mental image-making and material output.

While the precise sequence and order in which Smithson filled the pages of the book are impossible to reconstruct (she did not work from front to back), nonetheless the early pages suggest an ongoing dialogue between book and architect, where images of medieval moats, monuments and abodes recall projects that she and Peter Smithson projected or executed in their architectural work. Set against her life, the scrapbook illuminates the fate of a highly intelligent, ambitious woman nonetheless thwarted by oppressive gender prejudice and cut-throat professional competition in post-war British architecture. Similar collage works by others in the IG group, most notably Nigel Henderson’s scrapbooks in the Tate collections, evince similarity in kind and radical difference of degree in the end results. As a private sourcebook, the scrapbook offers a window into Smithson’s working methods, allowing viewers access to one of the least-filtered outputs of her creative intelligence. Taken together with Smithson’s thesis, her forays into creative writing, her graphic work and her international correspondence with fellow travellers, such as Charles and Ray Eames, the scrapbook represents an under-explored record of architectural thought in post-war Britain. The paper is a first step in parsing the rapidly decaying scrapbook to help understand the workings of one of the most important minds of post-war architecture culture, situated within a changing postcolonial landscape in which the very concept of Englishness – of nationhood itself – is put on display. At a moment when this concept has resurged in the United Kingdom as elsewhere, we might consider the scrapbook as Alison’s record of rapidly changing national identity, with images of international consumer culture covering and nearly obliterating the English source material over which she mounted them.

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October 7, 2021 (Thursday) 12:00pm
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