Eleanor McLean
Robert Young Antiques
30th January - 18th February 2023

Eleanor McLean, a recent graduate of the neighbouring Royal College of Art’s MA Sculpture programme, uses cathartic craft-based processes such as tufting and ceramics, alongside complementary creative writing, to create sculptural installations evoking collective memory or personal nostalgia. Often employing found objects or researched references, she investigates how each becomes romanticised and sentimentally assimilated into popular culture and society. For her solo exhibition ‘Promise’, McLean turns her attention to a Scandinavian marriage chest, selected from the Robert Young Antiques’ collection and displayed as part of the presentation.

Courting in the 18th-century Austrian Empire was conventionally a textile-themed affair, with traditional love tokens including mangle boards engraved with romantic motifs or flax knives hand-painted with personal inscriptions. Regarded as the climax of this courtship ritual, the marriage chest was a standard Scandinavian wedding present, filled to the brim with wools, cloths and linens both practical and decorative. Frequently the first substantial item of furniture owned by a young couple, the chest would also serve as a safe space to store sentimental keepsakes or items of monetary value, such as jewellery, a marriage certificate or bible. Some are painted in a colour scheme typical to a particular region, others to match the bride and groom’s wedding attire, all with additional ornamentation (tulips or hearts to represent love, ribbons to signify celebration etc.). The example currently residing in the collection of Robert Young Antiques is crafted from slow-growing mountain pine, and is personalised with both the year of the marriage, 1782, and the bride’s full name, Eliza Barbara Sauaura

Often referred to by the alternative title of ‘Hope Chests’, a nod to the well-wishing for a long-lasting marriage, such trunks could be considered the physical embodiment of cultural conservatism, the upholding of certain social constructs or enforcers of outdated gender stereotypes. Representational of a much-anticipated marital expectation or obligation, of ‘settling down’, a supposed desire for domesticity akin to getting on the property ladder in more contemporary times. Therefore, drawing upon Sara Ahmed’s cultural critique ‘The Promise of Happiness’, which views happiness through the lens of feminist theory as not a present state but rather something to be obtained in the future, McLean considers the concept of having something to ‘hope’ for. In her tufted artwork, she recognises the pursuit of happiness as something that is often sought out in destructive ways, aided by the discovery that the term Hope Chest was also employed in the early 20th century as colloquial slang for a packet of cigarettes, another pleasurable yet ultimately destructive pursuit.

Additionally, McLean presents the latest in her ongoing series of lampshade sculptures. A study of the oft-overlooked household staple, in this iteration she has endeavoured to produce the covering entirely from scratch, a reflection on the hand-made nature of the folk art furniture found within the Robert Young Antiques’ collection. As such, the sculpture blurs the boundaries between functional object and art or aesthetic antique, and questions at what point an object crosses from the former category into the latter.