Gemma Blackshaw is an art historian. She trained at the University of Birmingham, specialising in modern Austrian art after seeing Egon Schiele’s harrowing dry point of 1914, ‘Squatting Woman’, acquired by her tutor for the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Her publications on the history of art and visual culture in Austria in the 19th and early 20th centuries have led to invitations to curate exhibitions for London’s National Gallery and Wellcome Collection. She is Associate Professor in Art History at Plymouth University and has made the city her home. She lives in a Victorian house with vast, serpentine mantelpieces but sadly, no view of the sea.
Mum bought a pair of chairs off a pavement in Leicester for a song. It was the 1980s. She’d taken me and my brother to visit family friends, and we returned, triumphant, with two curvaceous antiques, springs intact. Dad, an interior designer who knew about such things, didn’t like them, but who cared? She’d dared to buy and bundle them home in the boot of the car. The spontaneity; the style…When I got a living room of my own, Dad was very happy to let one chair go. Mum paid for it to be re-upholstered for the umpteenth time in its short Blackshaw history. It has never looked so beautiful, which is just as well, as it could never be described as comfortable.
Drawing, Martin Brooks, artist:
I first saw Martin’s drawings in a show at our old campus site of Earl Richards Road North, Exeter. A tutor at Plymouth University and an RCA graduate, Martin works in conté and charcoal. His images on paper are unsettling: winged human figures bat in panic against the boxes, the traps that close around them; heads rock atop boat-like structures or rattle past on wagons with botched wheels, pulled or pushed by God knows what. I collect them because they bring to mind the poem by Rainer Maria Rilke: “Let everything happen to you/ Beauty and terror/ Just keep going/ No feeling is final”.
Drawing, Calum Storrie, architect and author of The Delirious Museum:
‘Madness & Modernity’ was the first exhibition I curated. It marked the end of a long journey, embarked on with two other scholars, into the study of mental illness and the visual arts in Vienna on the eve of the 20th century. On the opening night of the show the exhibition designer, Calum Storrie, gave us each an exquisite drawing of a famous Viennese doorway. He had recreated these doorways for our exhibition; they were white and gigantic, phantom entrances. Calum’s drawing of the glazed door to the Café Central leans against my study wall; it is a window on to my research and friendships, professional values and creative drives.
Handkerchief, Tracey Emin, artist:
My best friend from Essex was getting married. At the reception she sat me and my fiancé next to a glamorous employee of Momart, a company specialising in the handling of fine art. We talked about contemporary artists and Christmas cards, Tracey Emin and her bed. One week later I received in the post the card designed by Emin for Momart, sent out to all its clients in December 1999: a machine-hemmed white handkerchief, hand-embroidered in turquoise with the words, ‘Be Faithful to your Dreams’. By the time I saw Emin’s work at the Venice Biennale of 2007, my best friend and I were dreaming differently, of new lives and new loves.