Civilisations & Leather: a tanned history of the world.
Written by Tom Rusbridge.
Between the 5th and 8th of March, the National Leather Collection played host to its own Civilisations exhibition – inspired by, and run in association with, the BBC’s recent relaunch of Kenneth Clark’s 1969 classic series.
A Neolithic bowl. Seventeenth-century coffers. Modern steering wheels. Three not obviously connected objects (among many others in the newly decked-out gallery) share a mutual space as waypoints in two itinerant stories: Civilisations’ broader ‘history of the world’ as communicated through art and culture, and the more specific narrative of leather within it.
What is the ‘world story of leather’ that this exhibition wishes to tell? By way of a quick précis, at one end of the spectrum objects such as the Neolithic bowl and Egyptian shoes speak to the versatility and functionality of the material; the potential to be transformed into a range of objects and embody a range of qualities. While the Neolithic bowl, made from ox hide, is firm, rigid and strong, leather could also meet the physical demands of object types necessary for bodily comfort by being a soft and supple material. Taking visitors through the medieval period the collection shows how skins used in the form of vellum were canvases for charters, and arriving in Europe’s renaissance a number of objects show how goods made of leather sat at the crossroads of utility, comfort and ostentation. A mound of chests and trunks at the centre of the gallery demonstrate how the strength of leather protected individuals’ personal wares whilst also communicating something of their identity. Meanwhile a row of saddles, dating from between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, sit in quilted glory and would facilitate riding as well as decoration. Perhaps most obtrusively, the re-acquisition of an eighteenth-century sedan chair enabled the owner to travel in style and comfort. Bringing visitors into the twenty-first century, at the far end of the gallery, is a leather-upholstered steering wheel. Emblematic of modern and cutting edge technology, this object sits in sharp contrast to its neighbours. But they are all underpinned by a common and constitutive material element.
This is all very interesting in the flesh; the stark differences in the height, form and surface textures of these objects are visually very exciting. But what do these objects do to say something about civilisation as we live and experience it today? The purpose is not to simply to highlight material change. If anything, leather is a far less present material today than fifty or a hundred years ago – its unique capacity for variety superseded by ever-innovative new materials. The go-to brand for homewares – IKEA – for example, stocks 158 leather items in its online catalogue, compared to 4,369 made of plastic. Today, leather is more readily associated with luxury items of furniture and the interiors of expensive cars – a far cry from the accessibility of this material in seventeenth and eighteenth century Britain. Indeed, for some this decline may be somewhat disheartening were it not for the survival of the material in a few selected object types. Leather shoes, it seems, will never go out of fashion, and even vegan faux leather materials are being developed – including the mushroom-based ‘muskin’ – to enable consumers to enjoy the look and feel of the material detached from animal origins.
Instead, the more important world story being told is one of technology. This may seem counterintuitive, especially as leather is a material with such ‘rustic’ connotations and is presented by advertisers as an ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ choice. However, if the comparison between the earliest and latest objects in this exhibition – a Neolithic bowl on the one hand, and a steering wheel on the other – says anything about ‘civilisation’ in the long sense, it’s that materials are a stable entity through which consumers, over time, have engaged with both the most rudimentary and quotidian forms of consumption, as well as interacted with some of the most sophisticated and technically advanced objects. Inherent in the string of objects this exhibition encourages visitors to explore is a bold statement about how a staple material, one which some argue is the earliest of human manufactures, responds to such broad change. Its applications and the objects with which it has been keenly associated have changed substantially, but what is consistent is its biological and material qualities: grain patterns, colours and smells which have survived the impact of technological change and enable a sensory connection between people and objects.
Furthermore, and perhaps less stubbornly, the exhibition, a response to the question of what ‘civilisation’ actually means, is poised to challenge one of the central criticisms of art historians and heritage institutions alike. Instead of boiling down ‘culture’ to a series of paintings, decorative objects or exquisite buildings, this exhibition highlights the middle ground that exists between culture and a more everyday form of utility, and the objects and materials that make it.
Tom Rusbridge is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham, with a specialism in the history of leather drinking vessels.