Cornwall, like so many rural areas, thrives and survives because of its close-knit communities which provide fund raising, educating and much needed support in a county where poverty and isolation often lurks behind the sunsets and sandy beaches. Institutions like the Women’s Institute, the Lions Club, Rotary Club and the Girl Guides are long established forces for good in the community and should be celebrated more often.
I Dream at Trelissick
In the National Trust’s Trelissick House this summer the I DREAM exhibition takes a look at the life and work of Ida Copeland and her connections with the early Girl Guide movement. However, the artist Ilene Sterns’ thoughtful photographs and engaging installations are also a tribute to this wonderful institution’s influence and its place in Cornish women’s lives over the past 100 years.
Ilene’s admiration and connection to the girl guiding spirit is tangible in her work but also as she explains where that love comes from.
‘Growing up in the US in the early 1960s, I dreamed of becoming a Girl Scout. But there were no troops in my area, so much like Ida, my mother worked to make my dream a reality.’ Ilene’s mother eventually started her own Girl Scout Troop. ‘I loved everything about scouting, especially the badges, which gave me new-found confidence.’ She says that the experience changed her life in so many positive ways that when Trelissick proposed this new exhibition it seemed like the perfect fit.
‘The National Trust has long been an important part of my life. It has brought me joy, insights and new experiences. So the opportunity to create this project at Trelissick, my local property, [brings] many strands of my life together.’
Ilene is well known for her thoughtful installations that bring the past to life. She has been working as an artist and writer for the past 35 years, and with a degree in archaeology and anthropology it is hardly surprising that she is fascinated by the connections we make between the past and the present.
The Artist Ilene Sterns
Ilene was born and raised in New Bedford, Massachusetts. ‘I left home for Cornell University at 17 and remained in Ithaca, New York for 8 years, first as an undergrad studying Classics, anthropology and archaeology and then as a PhD student in anthropology/archaeology. During that time I was doing scientific illustration and also studying ancient pottery and I eventually realised that I wanted to make my own art, not study other peoples. So I did not complete my degree but instead, moved to New York and started working as an artist.’
After a successful career in the US Ilene moved to England in 2000 and her previous work in Cornwall includes the critically acclaimed The Gardeners of ’14 for The Lost Gardens of Heligan.
A Timeline of Faces
The highlight of the I Dream exhibition is undoubtedly the portraits of guides past and present. Shot in soft, vintage-style black and white, the Holga photographs are almost ethereal. Hung chronologically around the wall of one room they create a tangible timeline of faces, Cornish Guiding from the 1930s to the present day.
Each image is a joy but perhaps the most striking is that of Doreen Burtt. Now 93 years old Doreen has been involved with the Brownies and the Girl Guides since the early 1930s. The image of her is gentle and extraordinarily natural. It holds your gaze. I am surprised to hear Ilene say that she was worried about putting the sitters at their ease as she had to complete all the portraits in just one afternoon.
Girl Guiding’s Cornwall County Commissioners Jill Jeffs and Sue Norfolk agree, when asked about the experience they said
‘We were thrilled . . . the photo shoot was relaxed and fun . . . a wonderful opportunity to do something really different and to let visitors know that Guiding is still the same today as it was in Ida Copeland’s time.’
That continued link between past and present is also reflected in the activities that visitors are encouraged to do. The activities take their inspiration directly from the 1911 badges that the Guides then could earn – artist, boatswain, clerk, cook and naturalist – and would have been very familiar to Ida.
Visitors to Trelissick are invited to test themselves against those early Girl Guides, to try out knot tying (the guides were expected to tie 8 knots blindfolded), to practice on an old typewriter and to practice their artistic skills.
At each badge station are collections of Ilene’s beautiful photographs of the present day guides from St Breward and Camborne taking on the 1911 tasks. They act as a backdrop and another poignant link between historic guiding and the present.
‘Modern girl guides are the perfect subjects for an exhibition celebrating Ida Copeland’s attitude and approach to life,’ says Ilene, ‘like her, they are intrepid and forward thinking.’
The Trelissick Badge
Ilene’s attention to detail and her thorough exploration of what the Girl Guides was, is and will be is moving. On the side board in the Dining Room, a little too easy to miss, is her own, very personal tribute to Ida Copeland’s legacy – the Trelissick Badge. Hand-embroidered, this brand new badge took her around 60 hours to produce and is entirely her own original design.
‘The idea for the badge was to link the 1911 badges directly with Ida and Trelissick. I chose imagery that represented Trelissick (the grand Ionic portico of the house, the Fal River and the iconic pink camellias in full bloom, all surrounded by a green border representing Trelissick’s famous gardens, parkland and woodlands. I chose an elegant roundhand script with a ‘period’ feel for Ida’s initials, done in blue because l felt that for her, the sky was the limit!’
Because of the warm response to the exhibition the National Trust have introduced a special Memory Book where visitors can record their own personal experiences and recollections of guiding.
Reading through the many entries from girl guides young and old, from Cornwall and far further afield, it is clear that there are common themes that remain as relevant today as they were in the past – freedoms explored, confidence built, skills acquired and firm friendships forged. As well as plenty of camp antics that stayed with the girls forever!
The exhibition runs until 9th September 2018
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