Tuesday 3 March 2009

"Artistry & History Underfoot" Gillian Cooksey interview

Well I'm still engrossed with this little book and I'm more than happy that the author, Gillian Cooksey, has agreed to provide a bit of background and insight into how she came to write it. For me one of the fascinating aspects of Gillian's interest is that she looks on them with a designers eye as much as a historians. This is something I hadn't considered a great deal myself other than on a 'I quite like/dislike that' sort of level. I'll be looking at them with a fresh eye from now on...
Q How and when did your interest in coalhole covers begin?

A In the mid 1970s I attended evening classes on church brasses, but rubbing brasses in country churches with no transport and two young children in tow was not practical. Our lecturer mentioned other more accessible objects to rub with heelball, for example the cast iron plates covering the entrances to coalholes of Victorian houses.

Q Where did you find examples of coalhole covers?

A All around where I lived in a Victorian area of Watford, particularly outside the corner-shops. They had been there all the time – I just hadn’t noticed them. Another good source was the pavements outside the big houses in the Squares and Gardens in Bloomsbury, near my husband’s workplace.

Q What was it about coalhole covers that appealed to you?

A The great variety of designs, some very ornate. The Victorians loved to decorate everything, even mundane objects such as covers for coalholes. Also the names and addresses of ironmongers and foundries that were on many covers. Most of the companies had ceased trading decades before, but their names remain on cast iron plates set in the pavement!

Q How did you record them in the 1970s?

A By laying a sheet of thin white paper over the cover and rubbing with heelball or black wax. The raised design showed black on a white background. Although the process was quicker than rubbing church brasses, it was still hard on the knees!

Q How did you store the rubbings?

A On top of the wardrobe to keep them flat. Coalhole covers are usually at least 12 inches or 30 cm across.

Q What reactions did you get from passers-by?

A Mixed! Some gave me strange looks and a wide berth, while others were interested and even told me where to find other examples.

Q Was there general interest in coalhole covers at the time?

A There were one or two articles published in magazines and newspapers, and Lily Goddard published a book in 1979 entitled 'Coal Hole Rubbings – The Story of an Artefact in Our Streets'.

Q Have you been collecting designs non-stop since then?

A No, there was a gap of twenty years or so – work and family commitments took precedence.

Q What rekindled your interest?

A Six or seven years ago, I noticed a cover in Hastings with a Hastings ironmonger’s name on it, and that made me wonder if the Watford covers I had seen in the 70s were still in situ.

Q Were they?

A No, a lot of them in Watford had disappeared, but there were still very many different designs around, especially in London.

Q So what did you do?

A I set about recording as many different designs and company names as possible before they too disappeared.

Q Do you still record them by rubbing with heelball?

A No, digital cameras make the task much easier these days!

Q Do you just take photographs?

A No, although a photograph gives a true record of the state of a coalhole cover, I am more interested in the actual designs and company names, which are sometimes not very clear on a photograph. I prefer to adapt the photograph to a black and white illustration.

Q How do you do that?

A I print out the photograph, trace the outline of the raised areas with a black pen onto another piece of paper and scan the tracing back into the computer. I then use suitable software to fill in between the outlines with black. The result is like a rubbing.
Q How did you come to write your book?

A I realised I had acquired a mass of information on coalhole covers. Since 2002 I have taken photographs of about four hundred different coalhole cover designs, mostly in London, and collected a long list of company names. I became interested in the history of a few of the companies – how their designs had changed over the years, sometimes subtly and sometimes radically. I also researched various patents for self locking plates and those with illuminating prisms etc. I decided to put all this information in one place – hence the book!

Q What were your main sources of information for the company histories?

A The Guildhall Library in London has a few old ironmongers’ catalogues and one or two company histories. I found some on line too thanks to Google. I checked company addresses and followed the expansion of companies using historical trade directories such as Kelly’s Post Office Directories or Pigot’s Directories. The best place to search for these is The University of Leicester’s Historical Directories website.

Q How did you get your book published?

A Having unsuccessfully tried Shire Books, who publish books on all sorts of unusual collections, I decided to publish my book myself using a print on demand publishing company called Lulu. The book content is uploaded to them and copies of the book are printed by them as and when they are required.

Q What are your favourite designs?

A I particularly like those covers with trademarks and those with very ornate designs.

Q Are you still collecting designs and company names?

A Definitely! I’m sure there are very many different covers to be found in London, let alone the rest of the UK. The Faded London site has already displayed several that are new to me!

(Details of how to obtain a copy of "Artistry & History Underfoot" can be seen on the previous post.)


Dub said...

Thanks for that!

BTW - 1) Do watch it out there!
BoingBoing:Manchester man arrested for alleged sewer-grate photography, held as a terrorist!

2) Did you already do "The Children's Hospital" by Oval Station?

Yelfy said...

Hi Dub - That video's a bit of a worry. I'll just have to make sure that I don't show an unhealthy in security-checked drains in future but it does go to show. Two days locked up for nothing does seem to show a lack of common sense on the part of the police.
Childrens's Hospital at the Oval? No, I don't think so but no doubt I'll stumble over it one day...