Kiss the Wooden Lady addresses the woman’s voice in relation to naval impressment and maritime power. The centuries old practice of impressment or taking men into naval service by forced recruitment was at its height in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The press gangs, ordered by the Admiralty, would search the local pubs for seamen in order to sustain the navy in times of war. Both experienced seamen and, less frequently, non-seamen, were seized against their will. They were taken to a ‘rendezvous’ where they were confined and ordered to join the Royal Navy, sometimes leaving wives and children behind. The custom of the Silver Oar was embedded in the wider popular culture of the 18th century as a well-understood symbol of British naval power and punishment throughout the British Empire. Copies of the Silver Oar are still processed at naval hearings today. It has its origins in the earliest Admiralty Court during the reign of King Edward III in the 1360s. The most public displays of the silver oar were at executions of convicted pirates where it was processed publicly before their hanging. Kiss the Wooden Lady interrogates the symbolism of the Silver Oar, and considers its representational and material significance in relation to maritime power and punishment practices.
The phrase ‘kiss the wooden lady’ is taken from the name of a punishment administered on board ships where a sailor was tied facing the mast with his hands lashed, and kicked in the buttocks by passing crew. The ambiguity of the show’s title also conveys an invitation to imagine the oar as a body on the slab, the kiss, perhaps a parting gesture of separation between partners, or the silenced lady cast behind after her husband’s seizure.
A large facsimile of a Silver Oar made of solid walnut, was presented on a white tiled plinth in the Trinity House Banqueting Hall (1721). Trinity House possesses a rich history as part of the Newcastle Quayside, traceable back some six hundred years. Archival material discovered by Latchem during her research into the Trinity House archives, specifically letters from Mrs. Margaret Taylor to her impressed husband during 1809 are projected onto the plinth.
In the library, objects carefully selected by Latchem from the Trinity House collections were on display including the wooden oar mace, the symbol of the office of the Water Bailiff (1606) and an image of the Lord Mayor’s barges gathered upon the River Tyne at the Quayside in 1901. Both of these objects resonate with power, procession and ceremony and make a sharp contrast with the singular voice in the original letters from Mrs. Taylor displayed alongside them.
In collaboration with The Tea Cups, a local folk band, two traditional songs that tell of the woman’s plight as a result of impressment, Here’s the Tender Coming and The Weary Cutters, have been especially re-composed for performance at the opening of the exhibition.
The oar can still be seen at Trinity House, show closed May 2018.