Tuesday 28 April 2015

The Reappearance of The Clause 28 Tea Set, 1988, at The Pankhurst Centre, 2015

I made the Clause 28 Tea Set while still learning pottery at evening classes in 1988.

Clause 28

Clause 28, as it came to be known, sought to prohibit local government from both ‘promoting’ homosexuality and from publishing ‘material with the intention of promoting homosexuality.’ Further, it specified that ‘the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’ would also be prohibited. While all branches of the gay community were outraged at the bill as a whole, the latter part, referring to the ‘pretended family relationship,’ seemed to target lesbian mothers in particular. This, I suspect, was one of the driving forces behind many of the specifically lesbian protests which occurred consistently throughout that year.

The Tea Set

The Clause 28 Tea Set comprises eight cups or mugs, eight plates, two teapots, a jug and a sugar bowl. The cups and mugs record the most imaginative and, in some cases, notorious of the political protests by lesbians. Two stand out to this day as dazzlingly audacious: the ‘lesbians are out,’ protest, (February 2, 1988), in which three lesbians abseiled into the chamber of the House of Lords from the public gallery; and the invasion of the BBC Six O’Clock News, (May 23, 1988), with Sue Lawley and Nicholas Witchell. I am proud to say that I witnessed the abseiling lesbians. I was in the gallery at the time having been lobbying parliament earlier - another of the cups records my vastly more prosaic efforts. Two more cups record a ‘kiss-in’ at Eros, in Piccadilly Circus, London, and the overnight appearance of a number pink triangles attached to statues of the great and good, also in London. There is a scene from the protest march in Manchester; a protest showing a group of women, dressed as suffragettes, who chained themselves to the railings of Buckingham Palace, (March 8 1988); and a protest in which I took part, at the Ideal Home Exhibition in London’s Olympia where a group of twenty-five lesbians occupied one of the houses, on March 13 1988, Mothering Sunday, and threw pink protest leaflets out of one of the upstairs windows and unfurled a huge banner from another supporting the rights of lesbian mothers.

One of the teapots records the Manchester march, (Februray 20 1988), and the other, triangular one, the various lesbian conferences and events that took place that year. The images for the Manchester march were all from photographs that I took and still have. The milk jug was a moment to send up our own seriousness – it pictures a herd of assorted animals sporting pink triangles, including rat, demanding rights. A little self-irony was an essential part of the political survival tool-kit.

How it got to the Pankhurst Centre

I kept the tea set until about 2001, when I moved from Todmorden to London. I felt I had hung on to it for long enough and asked the Pankhurst Centre if they would like it. They accepted the donation along with some other plates and we stayed in touch for a year or so. Some time later, I contacted the centre and was told that they knew nothing of these ceramics. Much later, roundabout 2010, I tried again. This time I was advised that there had been some building work done resulting in much of the centre’s collection going into storage and some of it being distributed to other museums, but, again, the woman I spoke to knew nothing of these pieces. I, meanwhile, consistently reassured myself that pots have a habit of resurfacing when they’re ready.

How it was found

Dinah Winch, Director of Elizabeth Gaskell House, who knows my work and included it ‘Fired Up,’ 2010, while she was working at Gallery Oldham, contacted me to ask if some ceramics that had been found at the Pankhurst Centre were mine. The current management had decided a food bank would be a good idea. A room was available downstairs but was packed tight, from floor to ceiling with junk, so tight that it was near impossible to get into the room at all. Two courageous volunteers, Karen and Julie, set about clearing it. Some days later, right at the back, having disposed of everything else – they found a sink – ‘…with running water! “Who knew?!”…’ wrote Rachel Lappin, Pankhurst Centre Manager, in an email to me. Under the sink, fully expecting to find more rubbish, dried up cleaning materials and assorted spiders, they found The Clause 28 Tea Set.

Rachel continues: ‘I don’t think you will be able to appreciate their surprise and joy at finding and uncovering these most beautiful pieces of ceramic work that we now know to be your tea set and plates! Of course they called me down to inspect it, and I was – rarely!! – speechless; the pieces literally took my breath away! We didn’t know anything about any of the items, except that we assumed that they must have been made in the ceramics workshops that we know were held at the Centre in the early 90s, although of course we now know that this isn’t the case, and that they were made by you! … I can honestly say that finding this work was most certainly a major highlight of my time so far at the Centre; we just couldn’t believe what we had come across, hidden away amongst a load of junk in a room in the basement!?’


It has taken a while, but I do now have some understanding of why they were so excited. I guess it's not everyday that, while clearing junk from under a sink, you find a tea set recording a part of your own history. I was sure it would turn up somewhere in the centre. I didn't believe it had been re-donated  - life just isn't like that. It is just much more likely that things get lost for a bit and then turn up, particularly in places where funding - and therefore workers - come and go like changes in the weather.

I'm hugely grateful to everyone at the centre and to their two resident PhD students, who are researching the centre's history, for the considerable trouble to took to trace me and let me know that it was, after all, still there. I'm also grateful they took the trouble to communicate their enthusiasm for tea set to me - it has reminded me why I made it in the first place.

Those interested in the teaching of ceramics may also like to note that Rachel Lappin was not far wrong in her assumption that the tea set was made at the centre in the 1990s. It was made in very similar circumstances, in an adult education class, in Brixton, but just a few years earlier. Some of the ceramics degree courses may be closing now but there are many more ways to learn and they too can lead the student towards life as a professional, full-time maker. The Pankhurst Centre, I'm delighted to say, held a series of pottery classes for women. The Clause 28 Tea Set was on show to inspire and encourage their students - which is exactly what it should have been doing.