Margaret Harrison at Azkuna Zentroa, Bilbao

Charcoal Drawing from Series “Dorothy Wordsworth” by Margaret Harrison currently features in the exhibition, Margaret Harrison. Dialogues Between Sex, Class and Violence at Azkuna Zentroa, Bilbao until 14 January 2018. The first major retrospective of Harrison's pioneering work, this exhibition includes drawings from the early 1970s to more recent installation works.

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In the form of two framed pieces, Charcoal Drawing from Series “Dorothy Wordsworth” reflects on the life and work of the poet and diary writer, Dorothy Wordsworth (1771–1855), the less highly-profiled sister of English Romantic poet, William Wordsworth (1770–1850). In 1799, both Dorothy and William moved into Dove Cottage near Grasmere in Cumbria, a major heritage site that is today maintained by The Wordsworth Trust.

The drawing within the top frame of Harrison's work magnifies a patch of undergrowth. Here is a tangle of ferns and flowers that, through closer observation, reveals the minutiae of nature in great detail. Written in smudgy charcoal and contained with the second frame is the following text:

Sept 1800 Friday 12th
Worked in the morning, cut my thumb walked in the fir grove before dinner after dinner sate (sic) under the trees in the orchard. A rainy morning but very fine afternoon Mrs Sampson called for my packing needle, the fir of the mountains now spreads yellow veins among the trees, the coppice wood turns brown
Dorothy Wordsworth

The extract comes from Dorothy's Grasmere Journal which she began writing on 14 May 1800 and which William often mined (unacknowledged) as source material for his poetry. The journal is full of evocative descriptions of Grasmere and the surrounding landscape that Dorothy enjoyed directly on her daily walks. After her much-loved brother married Mary Hutchinson in 1802, she continued to live as the unmarried sister with the happy couple, often turning to her diary for solace. While the diary reveals little about her real feelings, contrasting lyrical passages about nature with mundane accounts of housework, it does expose – often unwittingly – some of the harsh details of poverty and illness that affected Dorothy's life.

Harrison's drawing is from a series that she produced directly in the garden of wild mountain plants that Dorothy planted at Dove Cottage. As with much of Harrison's work, the interest is in exposing some of the dual contradictions that reside in the narrative of the Wordsworths' lives. The relative obscurity of Dorothy against the prominence of her brother's reputation; and the personal, romantic feeling for nature as opposed to the hard, impoverished lives led by many in early 19th century rural England. Building on a practice that started with a feminist reinterpretation of iconic images from the 1970s (including armour plated-bunny girls and castrating superheroes), Harrison's drawing is an example of her work that brings an individual's private experience into the public domain. Focusing on one small-lived experience of Dorothy's life, this drawing ultimately reflects on wider issues of women's roles in society, in the context of class, economics and psychology.

Margaret Harrison was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire. She studied in the early 1960s at Carlisle College of Art and at the Royal Academy Schools in London. In 1970, she co-founded the first London Women's Liberation Art Group. Harrison's solo exhibition in 1971 at the Motif Gallery in London was swiftly closed by police because of the inclusion of a drawing of Playboy magazine's Hugh Hefner dressed as a bunny girl.

In 1975, Harrison, along with artists Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly, participated in Women and Work: A Document on the Division of Labour in Industry, an exhibition at the South London Art Gallery focused on their study of 150 women employed in a metal box factory in Bermondsey. In 1979, RAPE, a major feminist work by Harrison was exhibited at London's Hayward Gallery.

Harrison continues to exhibit her work internationally. She has completed residencies in Brisbane, Australia (1982) and in New York (1989), producing work respectively on Aboriginal history and on the Greenham Common women's movement. Since the 1990s, she has lived and worked between the United States and in the UK. Solo exhibitions include shows at Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco (2010) and at the Silberkuppe Gallery, Berlin (2012). In 2013, Harrison received the Northern Art Prize and a Paul Hamlyn Foundation award.

Further Information

Margaret Harrison. Dialogues Between Sex, Class and Violence
Azkuna Zentroa Arriquíbar
Plaza, 4, 48010 Bilbao

Email: info@azkunazentroa.eus