Tea with Mrs Ward celebrates the cabinet of curiosities— the precursor to our modern museums. Originally a room of wonders, over the centuries the cabinet devolved to a piece of furniture for the display of natural specimens, artefacts and objects. The aim of the wunderkammer (as it was known) was not to provide too much information as to make things vulgar but just enough to be educational, and always entertaining.
One could argue that the Mount Victoria Railway Museum is the ultimate wunderkammer; a place where you can encounter exotic bird specimens down one end of a room and refreshment room paraphernalia up the other.
This collection of birds belonged to Melbourne Ward (1903-1960), a naturalist who came from a theatrical family and was an actor himself. With their of shimmering feathered breasts and tall curling plumage Ward’s birds are quite at home among the polished silver cutlery and fine china also on display. We love to civilise wild things, to keep them palatable and under our control.
To take tea in Mrs Ward’s day was a performance of civility and there is a long history of china decorated with bird motifs. Tea with Mrs Ward is an ambivalent artwork; beautiful in detail but tragic in subject. The installation includes settings of teacups, saucers and plates decorated with images of the remains of a female satin bowerbird accompanied by souvenir-style teaspoons cast from her clawed foot.
In contrast, Ward’s birds have been stripped of any signs of their moment of death, their empty skins arranged for spectacle. They exist on the edge of time, locked in cabinets gathering dust in a quiet corner of a town oceans away from anyone who knows what they sound like when they sing, how they flit about in their habitat, what grows there and who goes there.
On the other hand, we are all (in the Blue Mountains at least) familiar with satin bowerbirds. They are wild creatures, with sharp claws and gravelly calls. They dart from tree to shrub eating fruit, flowers, nectar and seeds, and have luminous purple eyes. They fall prey to cats, dogs and foxes, their bloodied remains sad reminders of their once vibrant life.
The days of separating ourselves from nature are over. We coexist in a complex web of interdependencies and need to turn our urgent attention to protecting our shared environment from the increasing harm of human activity.
Jacqueline Spedding is a trained ceramicist, collector of lost, broken and abandoned things and a former, albeit briefly, museum worker.
She is grateful to the combined skill and expertise of Stuart Humphries (scientific photography), Claire Tennant (mould-making), Pure Casting (casting), Valerie Odewahn (metalsmithing) and Decal Specialists (ceramic transfers) all of whom had a hand in the production of this work).