Stirring the Pot: Speculating with fragments & informing the imagination

Kiera Lindsey explores the role of imagination in the historical research process as part of her DECRA speculative biographical project on the colonial female artist Adelaide Ironside.

Most historians can recall an exhilarating moment in the archives when a reference to a smell or sound, taste or touch suddenly brought their subject into sharp focus. There is something tantalising about sensory evidence that can stimulate rich historical imaginings. However, my research has recently reminded me that sensual clues can be seductive in ways that require careful contextualisation and also raise important questions about historical imagination; when, where and why it is appropriate.

I am currently conducting an ARC DECRA that involves writing a speculative biography, then reflecting upon how to write the lives of those who are under represented in the archives. Reflecting upon the way archives have been shaped by the prejudices of the past, American historian, Nell Irvin Painter insists that we must not ‘cede’ biography to ‘the Usual Suspects’ who had the economics, education and influence to create the sort of records previous generations considered worthy of preservation. To write the lives of ‘the Unusual Suspects’, Painter continues, we must come up with approaches that challenge the boundaries of historical practice. My project considers the methods and ethics of such practices, and will, I hope, assist those working in areas such as gender, postcolonial studies and family history who wish to share their research of lost lives and silenced stories with general readers.

Carte de Visite, Adelaide Ironside, SL NSW Mitchell Ironside Paper and Sketches, A1826.

My biographical subject, the colonial artist, Adelaide Ironside, (1831-1865), seemed a likely candidate for such a project. As a native-born urban woman she belonged to a demographic for which I have previously found few references. I have since discovered, however, that Adelaide left a rich, but scattered archive that offers rare insight into the interior world of a nineteenth-century Australian woman. Nonetheless, the more time I spend with Adelaide’s archive the more I am frustrated by intriguing events and relationships for which there are only fleeting references. To fashion a coherent narrative from these loose threads in a way that engages general readers I will need to draw deeply upon context and to speculate in ways that involve what historian Natalie Zemon Davis calls ‘informed imagination’.

While informing our interpretation of primary sources with context is ‘core business’ for historians, creating a narrative from the lives of those who left only scanty remains is particularly challenging when the ratio between sources and context frequently demands greater than usual speculation. With less to interpret it is also tempting, indeed, often necessary, to draw more than some would like upon historical imagination and fictional technics.

Sensory clues play a vital role in this process, evoking the past in ways that analysis cannot. And yet, such imaginings need to go hand-in-hand with a type of reading that demands constant readjustment and refinement. Typically, historians read in a state of open-ended enquiry, speculating about the possibilities, developing, then discounting questions until the materials either confirm a current path or blasts things wide open in a new direction. The detachment we so admire concerns the way we hold multiple influences in a state of suspended animation until the weight of evidence becomes compelling. We might think of sensory clues as neutral tidbits that sit outside this process, but, as I recently discovered, these also require caution. Consider, for example, a letter to Adelaide by an Italian monk, written in 1858 and instructing her about how to prepare fresco:

Take a block of plaster, which you will find where they sell colours and paints and grind it to a fine powder. Make a glue with rice, that is take rice and oil it with water until about half the water has been consumed … you have to grind your water-colours and then take a hen’s egg, beat everything well together and put it in a wineglassful of water, blending it well so the water and egg mix thoroughly together … Make sure your egg mixed with water is renewed every two days. If it sits longer it corrupts itself.

Adelaide Ironside Sketchbook c. 1850, PXA 1759/Reference Code 440215. Original held in Private Collection.

From the descriptions, self-portraits and only photo I have of Adelaide, it is tempting to imagine a slight woman in her twenties, with long black hair and a broad white forehead, scouring the markets in Rome, speaking fluent Italian as she searches for a block of plaster, some rice and a few hen’s eggs. We might also imagine her in her studio, the pot on a makeshift stove, the glug of this paste spitting and popping. The hen’s egg mixed in water several days ago, now stands neglected in a wineglass, giving off a faint stench, as my ambitious artist wrestles with this new medium, occasionally consulting the monk’s letter, which lies on a nearby bench …

Capturing Adelaide’s working life as an artist is crucial to understanding her character and her world, particularly as she typically worked up to 14 hours a day in her Italian studio. To do this I will bring a host of sources into conversation with one another. One of Adelaide’s letters describes the numerous luminaries who visited her studio and in so doing conveys a lively sense of how art, commerce and society often intersected in that space. In another letter Adelaide mentions how her mother was frequently with her, ‘tending to the brushes’, while she worked. Add to this a source from the Royal Academy, which describes the Roman studio of Adelaide’s mentor, John Gibson, a celebrated sculptor whose workplace was a popular location for fashionable visitors touring the continent, including the Prince of Wales:

we drove into a miserable side street … stopped before a dirty wooden door much resembling a stable – the door opened and we stood in an atelier filled with statues. A delightful warmth was instantly perceptible  … a young man was chiselling a marble head … as we emerged into a pretty garden … before passing under verdant arcades into a large apartment …

Catherine of Aragon, circa 1850, by Adelaide Ironside. Original held in private collection.

This quote allows me to describe Adelaide’s visits to Gibson and to speculate about her own more modest studio. I also know she lived in Rome during the battle for Italian unification known as the Risorgimento. During this period Adelaide met Pope Pius IX and somehow managed to secure his approval to train with monks despite his dislike of women painters and the fact that she was an outspoken Republican who occasionally expressed anti-Catholic attitudes. Yet another letter reveals that when Garibaldi’s troops laid siege upon the Eternal City in 1861, Adelaide could hear the cannon fire from her studio, and that she nonetheless remained there, all the while, ‘working on her art’, and ‘crying Vive Garibaldi’. As I collect these clues I am constantly rethinking my subject and how these pieces might fit together. In the process I shift my focus from primary to scholarly sources, between macro to micro, wrestling with the minutia of Adelaide’s life and the broader contexts of colonial Sydney, Victorian England and Italy during the Risorgimento.

Red Woman by Adelaide Ironside. Original held in private Collection.

I had been toying with these possibilities for some time, when, during a visit with Adelaide’s descendants, a small slip of folded paper fell from a folder. It was a letter to Adelaide’s mother from a British artist, which had not been placed in any official archives. This slightly torn parchment revealed, for the first time, that, despite their poverty, the Ironsides had a servant in Rome, who would, no doubt, have been charged with the task of shopping. Reading this misplaced missive I realised I must alter my scene at the market, and also reconsider that pot upon the stove. Who stirred it? Was it Adelaide? Her mother? This unknown Italian servant?

Such sensory details are vital to capturing a sense of Adelaide’s studio and making my subject flesh and blood. With careful research I can glean much about the social energies that whirled about her — the smells and sounds of the streets, the people who visited, what they said and ate, even the precise colour and texture of her paints. Even so, to bring the drama of her studio to life I will need to draw upon fictional technics, creating, perhaps, dialogue with visitors that draws upon letters in her archive to capture a sense of both the activities in her studio and the dynamic between personalities. Does this matter? And if so, how should I signal the shift from firm fact to fictional rendering in ways that sustains my reader’s trust and interest?

Thinking through such questions has led me to wonder if some historical events are more acceptable to imagine than others. And while I am yet to answer all of the questions above, I am convinced that the way we shape the lives of Unusual Suspects needs to be intimately attuned to both our subject and their sources. Indeed, these two elements must be our primary obligation and inspiration. I also suspect that the answer to many of the methodological and ethical questions I have raised here depends upon our intended audience. Rather than a one size-fits-all approach to history practice there is a need, particularly when it comes to writing about Unusual Suspects and for general audiences, to develop approaches that respond to Nell Irvin Painter insistence to expand the boundaries of historical practice. And to do this in ways that make productive the tensions between historical integrity and historical imagination we need to think about our practice in ways that are not only critical and creative, but, dare I say, perhaps also a little more speculative.

Dr Kiera Lindsey is based at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) where she is conducting an ARC Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) on speculative biography and historical craft. In 2016, she published her first speculative biography, The Convict’s Daughter with Australia’s largest independent publishing house, Allen & Unwin. Reviewers described The Convict’s Daughter as ‘blazing a new path through history and fiction’ and ‘gloriously unputdownable’. Kiera is currently working on a second speculative biography with Allen & Unwin. She has been the on-camera historian with the HISTORY Channel and ABC and a regular guest on Radio National’s Nightlife.

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