Shadow boxing

I can’t even remember where I saw it advertised but when I saw pictures from the Royal Academy’s Wanderlust exhibition of the work of Joseph Cornell – an artist I had never even heard of – I was desperate to go. I found myself even more charmed than I expected and went round the exhibition twice. I won’t say too much about Cornell’s life because you can read all about it yourself, but several things struck me. The title Wanderlust refers to Cornell’s idealised love of travel and exoticism, yet he never left New England and was pretty much a recluse. In the early 20th century he became a prolific maker of art, collecting all kinds of objects and compiling them into what he called his “shadow boxes”, many of which reflected his interest in travel by incorporating maps and papers written in foreign languages, particularly French. He scoured junk shops looking for items, combining Victorian etchings with a range of found objects into three dimensional, glass-fronted works of art – this Pinterest board has a brilliant selection featuring may of the boxes I saw at the RA. You can see other recurring themes such as birds, “medicines” (usually strange objects in apothecary-ish glass bottles), celestial bodies/the night sky, balls and games.

Why did the shadow boxes appeal to me so much? Well, they are whimsical, and so am I. As a child I was always claiming things for my “little collection” – anything went, as long as it was small. Later this was expanded to my “museum” (OK, a cupboard with the front panels removed and replaced with chicken wire, previously home to a defunct guinea pig) and I admitted larger objects. There was a former rubbish dump at the end of our garden where I found the broken torso of  little china doll, shards of porcelain and a tiny blue Victorian scent bottle. Things I’d found became combined with things people had given me and more “treasures” I started buying from the secondhand stalls at the local market, a habit that has stayed with me.

I came away from the exhibition feeling really inspired and immediately started looking for quirky bits and bobs. I didn’t have a box, though. I looked on eBay at print trays, the most obvious approximation to one of Cornell’s boxes, but the postage or collection seemed beyond me so I shelved the idea until 2016.

We went to Herefordshire to stay with friends over New Year and they took me to Ludlow. I was very excited when I found THIS on the pavement, propped up against the wall of a shop selling hand-printed cards. It was raining (as in most of the UK over the Christmas and New Year period) and the wood at the bottom was wet but there weren’t any others, so it came back with us damp and stood in our friend’s hall, drying out slowly,  until we left.

The box waiting for some TLC

The box waiting for some TLC

Now it’s in our hall while I think about how I want to proceed. Tom’s going to help me clean out the individual cells, but I’ve already started playing around with some bits I might use. The pink swan on the top might look a bit strange, but among the birds parrots and swans particularly feature in Cornell’s work and I just found it in a charity shop.

Getting a feel for the sizes of the cells

Getting a feel for the sizes of the cells

Now to acquire more objects. The word acquire is key. I don’t want to just go out and buy the objects. I like the things to sort of come my way through being given to, discovered by, or found by me, and if gifts I prefer them to be from some considerable time ago.

According to my rules, it’s fine to go to a charity or junk shop with a vague mental list of the types of object Cornell might’ve used and hope I’m fortunate enough to find some. I won’t however be going online to search specifically for “old glasses” or “marbles”. My hope is that if I go out with a sense of openness something might suggest itself for the box. Chance and serendipity are really important to me. I don’t really enjoy sourcing objects from tidy corporate charity shops either. I like them cluttered, kooky, idiosyncratic. The best are one-offs that support a tiny charity I’ve never heard of.

The only exception is the purchase of some tiny glass jars or bottles which you’ll have seen crop up in number of shadow boxes. There is no way I would come across those in a junk shop and I’m pretty sure Cornell couldn’t have had either, but like him I plan to fill them with found items.

In terms of the backing papers, I have a mix. As Cornell used maps in his boxes I had the idea that I might too, and that just as he drew inspiration from the past, it would be fun for me to look backwards using an atlas like the one I pored over as a child. It struck me that with so much geopolitical change in the last 30 years, maps of the USSR or Eastern Bloc were as much a product of a now vanished world as were the Victorian engravings Cornell was using in the 1920s and 30s. Miraculously, I found the exact same edition in a charity shop the very day I thought of it! Now there’s a chance finding. So I can take what I like from that.

These gorgeous paper theatre templates I just unearthed were given to me well over a decade ago by a guy I very briefly dated… look at the bottom one (you couldn’t make it up – and no, he didn’t know):

Template for a "sun box"

Template for a “sun box”

A Puppet Theater

A Puppet Theater

Anxiety Dream Theater

Anxiety Dream Theatre

Here are some vintage postcards from my favourite charity shop – the ones shown here are Russian (top) and German, fitting in with the Wanderlust theme:


And this, from a book of postcards of the Red Fort in Old Delhi, which I have scientifically dated by the tourists’ flares:


Here’s a charity shop  print:

I might pursue a shell theme across one row

I might pursue a shell theme across one row

I haven’t decided yet whether I am going to put Perspex over the front of the finished box (it definitely won’t be glass). I may have to, otherwise even items which I’ve superglued might not survive someone knocking their shoulder on the corner of the tray. So I’ve decided to keep all the items within the depth of the box, even if that means leaving some things out. While Cornell was alive he kept the boxes open, adding and changing the contents, but I think mine will have to be “finished” at some point.

In the meantime I shall bore you with updates. I may well be a wee bit obsessed with this project, but given how high I’ve been there are so, so many worse things I could be obsessed with!

Bits and pieces from around the house

Bits and pieces from around the house – pebbles, a marble, sea glass, an urchin shell, coal, a tiny bell, leaves and berries. There are a couple of polished semi-precious stones in there as well but I think they are too “refined”



About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
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9 Responses to Shadow boxing

  1. jazzmanhenry says:

    What a fantastically creative thing to do. I had a colleague who made at out of odds and ends she found, and they are really beautiful. You can find photos on my blog, though you have to wade through other photos that you may or may not like before you get to them! She’s called Rose Verney. Her father invented the Dodo Pad, a wonderfully eccentric diary/planner.

    • Oh really! I’ve seen those planners. I thought you might appreciate the value of me having a creative project to work on. As pathetic as it sounds it also “gets me out of the house” and I’ve found myself checking out bits of London I don’t really know looking for plunder! Hope you’re OK x

  2. Sue says:

    Hi purple, this sounds like a great idea, especially if it distracts you from your illness X I would just say don’t be in too much of a hurry to finish it, enjoy collecting and you will have many happy memories when it is finally complete X Or are you intending to keep changing things around maybe?

    • Well Cornell kept adding/fiddling… so I’m thinking instead of a fixed glass plate over the front maybe I could have a kind of hinted glass flap… Tom thinks that would be possible, I need to speak with a glazier to see if that’s possible, but do you think that would be a good idea in principle?

  3. The Millers Tale says:

    This is utterly charming and has piqued my curiosity. I have a little ‘something’ you might like, if you can let me have a postal address I can send it to you.

    Have you followed Nicola Mudlark on twitter? I think her feed might intrigue you. @tidelineart is the name.

    • Ahh that is really nice, several people have offered to send me things but to warn you I am down to the really tricky small bits so I might put photographs instead of things… Still have my thinking hat on.

  4. Pingback: Shadow boxing part 2 | purplepersuasion

  5. Ecompassion says:

    Wow your box is so beautiful . I have wanted to do something similar and you truly have inspired me.

    Thank you.

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