In 1934 the sculptor John Skeaping told the Daily Mail: ‘Perhaps I ought to tell you that I have concealed something in the belly of my horse.’ In his third visit to the Tate archives, the poet Paul Farley discovers some hidden thoughts left for posterity
Notes. Have you ever been tempted to leave a few lines to posterity? At some point in our lives, we’ve all at least entertained the idea of the message in the bottle, the feint lined cri de cour, some words for the future reader to stumble upon unexpectedly. In a way, this is every writer’s stock-in-trade, at least those of us who want to be read. And many of us have been on the receiving end in some domestic setting, feeling the sad thrill in finding, say, a child’s scribble underneath old wallpaper, or a crossword puzzle completed decades ago in the carpet underlay.
Artists are no different. Take the case of John Skeaping’s Horse. Carved from mahogany and pynkado in 1933, this startled, fleering creature was displayed in Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire until 1945, when it was presented to Tate. All to the good, except Skeaping’s Horse was decidedly Trojan. He’d hinted as much in a statement to the Daily Mail in early 1934: ‘Perhaps I ought to tell you that I have concealed something in the belly of my horse. It is a little bundle of papers containing my private and personal views and opinions about my contemporary artists and their work!… Posterity (if my horse survives) may get some fun out of what I have written. I hope it will, at any rate!’
Uh oh. Skeaping never lived to know whether or not his words would see the light of day (he died in 1980). In 1991, conservation work on the horse revealed a folded document:
This is practically my only opportunity of
Saying exactly what I think about
In truth I am only interested in
myself and my own pleasure. I think that almost everyone I know
in the artistic world are just one mass
Henry Moore is a good
sculptor in a very limited way.
Barbara Hepworth has hardly got an
original idea in her head.
There are no other sculptors except
J. Epstein is one of the best artists
that we have
_____ Cedric Morris is one of the
__ and _____ ____ people I am ______.
Those faded words and part words are either not clear, or completely lost – the ink has faded, and insects have attacked and partially eaten Skeaping’s opinions.
I found this concealed artefact strangely moving. It was as if the art object, built from sound materials and designed to endure, had admitted something very human and very fragile.
Looking through the archive, though, it turns out it isn’t only artists who have striven to leave some lines here. The very fabric of the building itself contains messages. Next time you’re in Tate Britain, look up at the skylights in the Rotunda dome. Renovation work has revealed a note left up there by five plasterers working on the gallery at the end of the nineteenth century. It reads:
This was placed here on the fourth of June, 1897 Jubilee year, by the Plasterers working on the job hoping when this is found that the Plasterers Association may still be flourishing. Please let us know in the Other World when you get this, so as we can drink your Health.
The message reminds us how, in the words of T.E. Hulme’s short poem, ‘Old houses were scaffolding once / and workmen whistling’, but it also indicates how we will all, given half the chance, have our say, make our mark, and speak out of our time to our descendants. Especially, given the two notes here it seems, when we are supposed to be doing something else. John Skeaping sent a few words into the future using art as a time capsule. Those five fin-de-siècle plasterers used their intimacy with the high, dusty places above the gallery to preserve what they wanted to say. Artists and artisans alike seem highly aware, perhaps because they make things meant to last, of how nothing does for very long. Raise a glass to them now.