Recently I paid a visit to the Wirral, the place in which I was born and brought up. The reason for this visit was to go and meet the current curators of the first art gallery that I visited as a small child. It was the mid-1970’s and I would have been around five years old, possibly younger. The place was the Williamson Art Gallery in Oxton village. The gallery is reasonably sized with nine individual exhibition spaces that were filled with regular art objects but also some very odd artefacts, much of which was of unknown provenance. In June I will be returning to this gallery as part of their ‘Things That Live Under The Stairs’ series of talks, to tell stories and talk about the memories that this building and it’s objects hold for me. Even now as my grasp on memory becomes somewhat hazy and distant in many areas, I still have very clear recollections of the feelings instilled in me by this place.
In recent years I have worked on projects, on a fairly frequent basis, with Dr Alan Dunn, Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at Leeds Beckett University. The projects have been predominantly based around sound art and have involved a lot of collaborations with other artists, both established and emergent. It is through the continued presence of Alan that I was made aware of the sad demise of one of the aforementioned objects in the collection of the Williamson Art Gallery. The object is a Victorian Polyphon. My memories of being five and sat in a room full of furniture ten times bigger than they actually should be [pictured below] are vivid, and further embedded when I recall the sound of the Polyphon. A coin, 2p, is put in the slot, it wends its way down through the mechanism clinking and clanking as it goes. Eventually it rattles as it drops into a pit of other two pence pieces. The machine grinds into life and music drifts out into the quiet, rarefied atmosphere of the galleries. The sounds of the oversized Victorian music box drift through the building, permeating every corner of its nine galleries reaching my five year old ears as I sit amongst the furniture. The song ‘I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls’, which I learn’t much later is from an 1843 ballad opera entitled ‘The Bohemian Girl’, now drifts through my dreams as an adult.
The object remained a popular one, with people continually dropping coins in to avail themselves of its fascinating tones as I did all of those years ago, until eventually the mechanism became too worn to play.
After a 2014 project which used the sound of the polyphon as a prop for an exhibition I now find myself in the position of being the only person with a recording of said machine, complete with its clanking mechanism. Plans are afoot to repair this wonderful object and my performance / talk will be linked to the fundraiser for its repair. I hope you will join me in June as I get to obsess over this machine with an audience, in the place where I first encountered it.
More soon . . .
Before then Alan Dunn will be collaborating with Steve Hardstaff of the Williamson Art Gallery and Bryan Biggs on ‘Things That Live Under The Stairs: Brendan’s Mysterious Basement Box’ on Thursday 21st March: £3 https://williamsonartgallery.org/portfolio_page/brendans-mysterious-basement-box-a-talk/
Bruce Davies | March 2018