Work on the installation – Weighty Friend – will start at 10am and is being led by Faye Claridge, Artist in Residence at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust. The spectacular event on the Iron Bridge, built by Abraham Darby III in 1779, marks the contribution of the wider Darby Family, including women, and their workforce in starting the Industrial Revolution in Coalbrookdale.
A team of over 50 volunteers has been recruited to assist in the installation and removal of the rags and the whole operation will take less than two hours from start to finish. Once installed the multi-coloured rags will form a shape echoing the arch of the Bridge and will be left in place for just a few minutes, whilst its transformation is captured by photographers and video artists. Claridge’s residency is being funded by Arts Council England. The span of the arch of the Bridge is 100 feet and 6 inches (over 30 metres) in length and 384 tonnes of iron were used in its construction.
In order to achieve this massive project over 1,400 metres of fabric will be cut up into hundreds of 28cm wide strips. The colour of the rags will be vibrant red, orange, yellow, magenta and purple, so they will stand out from the greens and blues of the existing scene and together with these colours they will cover the main colours of the rainbow. The hotter colours reference the furnace and the more stereotypical feminine colours reference the contribution of women to the Industrial Revolution. The longest strips will measure 12 metres long and will hang from the bridge to just above the river. All the strips will be tied to the Bridge by local residents, foundry men, pensioners, school children and Quakers.
Claridge has been working with museum visitors and local community groups over the summer to explore ways to create portraits of the Darby legacy. The Darbys were Quakers and, in line with their faith and belief in modesty, in the 18th century they did not have portraits painted even at the height of their business success. To respect this view instead of making literal portraits Claridge is creating portraits of their legacy, adding disguise techniques like tatter coats to highlight the complex task of representing people.
Claridge explains: “Quakers, Aga workers and Ironbridge residents will come together to cover the bridge in hundreds of strips of fabric, like an enormous rag rug or tatter coat. The multi-coloured strips will soften and enliven the bridge, rippling in the breeze and reflecting rainbows in the water below.”
Inspiration for the project has come from artefacts on display at the Darby Houses that show evidence of the Quaker faith through the education of women and the unusual lack of distance between home and business. These include embroidered samplers, which Claridge has linked with tatter coats, a style used by workers for decoration and also as disguise for those involved in traditional Morris Dancing on the Shropshire-Wales border.
Claridge continues: “It brings domestic ragging skills into the centre of Ironbridge, highlighting the relative respect workers and women were given by the early Quaker industrialists. In softening, or feminising, the Bridge the contribution of women in the Darby story in particular and the global industrial story in general comes to the fore, possibly for the first time.”
The installation is part of a symposium Re-imagining the Industrial Revolution that is taking place in Coalbrookdale 9th – 10th October, bringing together artists and academics to talk about the impact of the Industrial Revolution on society and the landscape and how it has been portrayed in art.
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