Tiny things that recall confinement and restrain against big ideas suggesting freedom. Mundane, ordinary things which become strangely appealing and bizarre in their decontextualised miniaturisation and real 'small' things created or used by Charlotte Brontë vs big wishes, imperative desires transparently displayed in big fashionable lettering vinyls.
This is mainly the idea behind Charlotte Brontë. Big and Small, the 200th anniversary Brontë Parsonage exhibition, curated by Tracy Chevalier. The contrast between Big Ideas and Small Everyday Life is a simple--naïve in a way--visual metaphor for the achievements and misfortunes of Charlotte Brontë's own personal and literary life. The selection of items from the Brontë Parsonage collection and some new works by contemporary artists negotiate these Great and Small narratives hoping to, in the unavoidable collision, find the elusive key to apprehend Charlotte Brontë's mystery. It's remarkable, and a sign of greatness, that a few years ago, Cornelia Parker in her Brontëan Abstracts worked from almost the opposite perspective to achieve similar results. Amplifying the everyday Brontë items in order to have a fleeting glimpse of something left unconsciously which could illuminate the Brontë enigma.
The first glimpse into the exhibition can be seen in Charlotte Brontë's room: a collection of miniaturised 'personal'accessories belonging to Charlotte and all connected to a Brontë life story created by Serena Partridge, like children's boots, a nightcap, embroidered gloves, a pocket handkerchief, stockings and mourning shoes. A disturbing display which is featured in a showcase that is not different from the other 'real' (and also tiny in their own way) objects in the room. Serena Partidge's creations can for a moment be taken for real relics until the visitor realises their wrong dimensions and the details that are carefully embedded in them, full of Charlotte Brontë stories. Particularly memorable are the nightcap with embroidered constellations made with glow in the dark thread and the mourning shoes thread with the hair of members of the Parsonage staff plus Tracy Chevalier herself, making plainly physical the continuity of the legacy of the Brontës through the Brontë Parsonage Museum.
Next to Charlotte's room, the so-called Children's Study has changed its display. Usually visitors cannot enter this room but now they are encouraged to do so and see, unmake and make again Tamar Stone's Brontë Bed. The bed has a Charlotte Brontë quilt (designed and quilted by Tracy Chevalier herself. In the upcoming other bicentenaries there will also be Branwell, Emily and Anne quilts), blankets, sheets, mattress... all of them embroidered with quotes taken from their letters, diary entries, poems and novels. Even John Greenwood's diary as quoted by Juliet Barker! Probably this is the object that symbolises the exhibition great-small thesis more compactly.
The other items of the exhibition are located in the Bonnell Room, dominated by quotes on the walls, particularly the poor-obscure-plain-little and the wish-for-wings ones in shocking dialogue with several items from the Brontë Parsonage collection epitomising this idea of smallness: physical objects such as evening shoes, gloves, bodice; Charlotte's creations: little books, tiny embroidery, minute drawings, watercolours; small samples of hair (from the whole of the Brontë family), of fabric used in her dresses... and the highlight of the exhibition, on loan from the British Library, a heartbreaking letter from January 8, 1845 from Charlotte Brontë to Monsieur Heger, which was torn into pieces and later sewn together.
The exhibition continues in the last room before the shop (the Contemporary Art Space) where a contemporary answer to the Brontë-Heger letters: A Correspondence by Ligia Bouton can be found. An installation that works as a commentary to the Brontë-Heger epistolary relationship from a symbolic point of view (that nevertheless renegades from coldness and embraces physicality through its embroidered textures) but doesn't fit that well with the general narrative of the exhibition.
The final item is probably the most publicised of the exhibition, the knitted scene from Chapter XV of Jane Eyre in which Bertha sets Rochester's bed on fire and Jane saves him by throwing water into the bed. Signed by Denise Salway, The Knitting Witch is a perfectly fitting end to the exhibition. It embraces both Great (Jane Eyre as her great outcome and her call to eternal greatness) and Small as it is, but full of extraordinary detail.
You can still see it until the end of the year. If you have the chance of a trip to Haworth, don't doubt it, the greatness (and smallness) of Charlotte is worth a visit.