A Buffet of Mortification. 2022-23
Warrington Museum and Art Gallery
‘A Buffet of Mortification’ explores the theatre of public punishment from the 1600s through to the early 1800s, considering how the populace played an important roll in upholding social order by witnessing and participating in the spectacle of state justice. The title of the exhibition comes from a historical print ballad written from the perspective of a criminal who is ‘buffeted’ or hit with turnips by a crowd whilst on the pillory.
Smith developed this work in response to the iron gibbet and the taxidermy court room tableau in the ‘Cabinet of Curiosites’ room, as well as Warrington’s connections with John Howard and his publication The State of The Prisons of England and Wales, 1777. Taking these elements as starting points Smith researched into how public punishment functioned in the early modern era and explored Warrington’s archives for cases and references to the subject.
Smith sees the gallows and pillories that were erected by the authorities as the ultimate stages or sculptural monuments to express power, and the ritualistic procession and punishment of criminals as a theatre or pantomime of shame and moral correction.
On a punishment day the public acted like they did in protest or festive settings; gathering in enormous crowds to see ‘justice’ served, eating, drinking, singing and throwing objects to make their opinion known. Ritual actions used in rebellions or festivals were duplicated in support of the state against those who were deemed to have upset societies order. Crowds could get so carried away that public punishment days could end up creating their own public order issues with raucous revelries and pickpockets running rife. People sentenced to time in stocks or pillory could end up being accidentally executed by the rowdy crowd.
Smith has taken symbolism from prints and ballads of the time, and referenced the taxidermy court room to create her work. She has made theatrical punishment stages which evoke carnivals and fun fairs, and a ceramic buffet of objects which represent the participation and involvement of the public, with rodents taking the role of the convicts.
The resulting show examines the rituals around social control and brings into question ideas of power and the people, mob mentality, public entertainment, and the need to shame or scapegoat others.
Alongside the art there are selected items from the archives and museum’s collection and The Museum of Policing in Cheshire’s collection that describe punishment and order in Warrington, including homemade constable’s truncheons, a finger pillory and a scold’s bridal. In 1880, William Beaumont writes of the case ‘within living memory’ of Cicely Pursill, an inmate of the Warrington workhouse who was forced to wear the brank, or scold’s bridal that was later held at the museum. Beaumont states that Cicely was the last to be made to wear the bridal in this neighbourhood and he says “One can hardly conceive a punishment more degrading to the offender, or one less calculated to refine the spectators”
The iron gibbet on display was used to display the body of Edward Miles from Garston who was hung for the robbery and murder of a post boy in 1791. Gibbets acted as a warning to others and were an additional punishment after the extreme act of execution because they denied the convicted criminal a Christian burial and therefore, according to the beliefs of the time, resurrection, and a place in the afterlife. It was a way to entirely shame the criminal, ostracising them from a place in society in the real world and the afterlife. Also on display are two pamphlets from the archives dating from the late 1700s that document other trials of mail couch robberies in which the accused were gibbeted on other roads leading out of Warrington. The pamphlets emphasise how the criminals are more devastated to learn they would be gibbeted than hearing they were to be hung. In the case of James Price and Thomas Brown in 1796, Brown is reported to have chalked onto his gaol cell wall:
“But ah, poor Brown no coffin shall thou shalt have,
nor yet a shroad, or yet a peaceful grave,
Prisoners all a warning by me take,
Repent in time, before it be too late”