Cath and Aunty El
(and 'The Missus Swan')
My object is a green swan that’s made from Australian porcelain erm and it was given to me by my Grandmother when her sister died. My erm, she was always known to me as Auntie El and she was one of three sisters and they, it always makes me laugh cos when they were young, it, they used erm kind of nicknames for themselves and as they got older they didn’t think that was proper enough. So she became El and Bessie (my Grandmother) became Elizabeth. And Peg, erm can’t remember her name, what did she become? . . . Margaret she was. She became Margaret.
My Aunt died of breast cancer and, my Great Aunt sorry died of breast cancer, and I was always really fond of her. She was quite different to my Grandmother and whenever we went to her house, my job when we arrived was (we’d always take a bunch of flowers) my job was to cut the ends off the flowers, burn them on the gas burner to seal the end somehow, and the theory was that these flowers would last longer. Erm I
never knew whether they really did but my job was to do that and put them in a vase. And I really liked her because she was kind of a bit gruff really. A bit, and a bit rough round the edges and this huge cackle of a laugh, which was probably more her smoker’s cough than anything else. But she was fabulous and it was really sad cos we were on holiday when she died and we weren’t around.
But the reason this object is particularly important to me, because it actually represents so much more than Auntie El; it’s the whole family of the Great Aunts. Of erm, or Great-Great Aunts to me, of Elizabeth Farm in Australia. And Elizabeth Farm is a historic house that’s owned by The Historic Houses Trust. And it was originally built by a man called MacArthur who brought sheep farming to Australia. Erm and after he’s, he died and his wife died, it got sold on. And there were various owners and then my erm, my relative saw it and saw it as an opportunity for the family. And he had eleven children and nine of them were these women. And they, they, the idea of it being so significant is that this object is a swan and their surname was Swann.
So for me I look at this object often and see it as something that reminds me of what I have to live up to with these Aunts, because they were remarkable women. Erm their father encouraged them to not get married and to have their life, if they wanted it. They were free to marry if they wanted to but only one of them got married. And the eldest one (they, they were just amazing women), the eldest one became the youngest pupil teacher in Australia, ever. Erm another one was the first women dentist and when she went to actually sit her exams and be admitted to the dentistry board, the men refused and said, "No, no, no, it says any man that enters." on the document she had to sign and she said "No, no, no, no, it says any person." so they had to let her in. So she became the first woman dentist. Erm, and another one of the Aunts then ran the house as a business for all the other women. Another one taught music lessons and, and her pupils would just arrive and start playing piano, so she knew that they were there, and the music lesson would start. So there’s this whole story around these women that lived in this house, and the house now is considered to be the ol. . . have the oldest European building part within it, that still exists in Australia. So it’s kind of, there’s this lineage that comes down and there’s this kinda national interest as well for the county, for the country really, so.
And it’s one of those things that for me, being an Australian living in another country, it, it’s become an even more important object to me. Because y. . . when you’re out of your own kind of comfort zone and your own country and everything that’s familiar with you, to you, your objects become much more important. So it sits on my bookcase with all of my books and all of my things, and is a reminder of, of these amazing women.
They were very much ahead of their time and they, they were v. . . they were all Quakers and they were very big in the peace movement and particularly with the First World War, they were all very much anti-war and tryin’ to kinda bring peace, peace really. And they became known as an institution within the suburb of Parramatta where they, they were. Erm and they were known as Misses Swann of Parramatta and there’s people around now who still erm knew them as chi. . . as when they were children and had gone to lessons and had music lessons with them. But it’s very strange cos you go to the house now and as soon as you mention you’re a relative, everyone kind of, this mob comes on to. . . all the staff, "Oh my god it’s, it’s one of you!" kind of thing. And I used to go to events with my Grandmother where she’d talk about her memories of living in the house as a child and visiting, and you were treated like royalty. It was just bizarre, it was something that I’d grown up with and it was extremely odd to have other people kind of revering you and looking at you completely differently. But what’s nice is that I grew up with a lot of the furniture from the house in, in my house as well, so.
Erm yeah they are, they’re absolutely remarkable women. And not that they ever put any pressure on me or anyone , but I have this feeling of these women that I have to live up to and kind of honour. And one of them, I mean they were, they, one was offered a proposal of marriage but she refused and she didn’t want to, she wanted her career. So they all stayed in this house and they ran, they had pigeons and vegetable garden, and all the stuff that y. . . they did in that era. And one of the children died, one of the boys died. But it’s quite, it’s quite interesting growing up with this history around you knowing that there’s other people interested in you, rather than just your own family. And this kind of erm, responsibility of what you’re part of. And when my, my Grandmother said that when she’s died, she’s actually bequeathing the whole collection to the state library in, in Sydney because it was deemed as a, a nationally important collection of documents, so. Erm yeah, it’s quite amazing really. It’s kind of . . . it’s erm, yeah no pressure.
It’s funny actually cos I kind of, in choosing an object for today I kind of wish that this was something a bit more grand and a bit less erm, kind of just like an old piece of pottery that, that I think lots of people have. But actually it’s kind of incredibly tactile and I, I like the fact that it’s just a simple elegant swan that has this amazing story to it. Erm, and that, that people over here don’t really know, but that all of my friends and
family and people really, they, it was always, it was kinda one of those houses that you always visited as a child on a school excursion, so. And then when you tell ya friends that actually my ancestors lived there and were responsible for saving it, they always squealed and laughed hugely. Erm yeah.
I’d like to actually research it and find out more about it. But I, I also love the, the kind of irony of it because in Australia we have black swans and over here whenever I, we live not very far from a swannery and people have said there are two black swans that hang around and everyone here hates them because they’re pests. And to me it’s absolutely a familiar sign of home, so it’s really nice; the swans become this kind of important figure to me. And I kind of imagine that this object, that it’s kind of one of a family. That there would have been a lot more of them.
It’s funny cos I grew up in a family that was very much no religion at all and these women were kind of very down to earth. There was no, I mean they, they were Quakers themselves but that was more linked to the peace movement than I think a religious side of things. There was actually, it’s become quite interesting because they were Quakers and my Grandmother and my family had no religion at all; since coming to live in the UK, I am not religious but I would call myself spiritual and I’m a shamanic practitioner. And so there’s a nice link kind of back to the ancestors of what they were doing and why they were doing things. And in a, in shamanic practice one of the things that you are able to do is psychopomp which is going and visiting the spirits and people who have passed over.
So as I was saying before the objects become very important but by having to work out how I can form a connection with this landscape, I then start to explore the spiritual side of things because to me I used to go and sit in the desert and it was a spiritual experience. So, by becoming a shamanic practitioner in some way kind of links me closer to my own ancestors, in a strange way. And what they used to do and actually understanding them better in a strange kind of way. Don’t know if that really makes sense but erm . . . yeah. Just having to form your own kinda relationship with a new sense of place and how you do that. And you do it through things that you wouldn’t expect to do, so things like this swan. This swan, this object becomes, everything starts to link together so you see a black swan out in the, at the swannery and it, suddenly it becomes important. And then it reminds you of your ancestors and there’s this kind of link though everything; it’s really hard to verbalize sometimes. Erm and that, and things like you . . . because of being an Australian you think you fit into a country because you speak the same language and everything’s the same. But you miss all the, the subtleties of things. And people have been very welcoming and friendly and so you, you feel welcomed. But then at the same time people say, "Oh you’re, you’re one of us now." and that then actually completely negates who you really are. That’s the one denial of, that you’re not like them because you’re an Australian and you feel different. And it, it’s kind of constantly, constantly these relationships that you’re trying work out, and where you, where you fit in. So sometimes to come home and just sit around ya stuff, from Australia’s really nice.
It’s funny actually the first thing I think of when I think of this object, when I think of Auntie El is her hacking cough. That’s probably not the most attractive thing to remember about someone! But she had these big, big glasses and this big mop of hair, and my Grandmother was quite serious, so she was this antidote to, to my Grandmother. Erm and she kind of used to slip ya ten dollar notes and give you sweets, and she was kind of like the, the naughty Aunt. Yeah, but she’d had a, she’d had a really hard life so . . . I was always really pleased that, that when I went and saw her, I was always erm, always admired how she seemed to still have it all together and was happy and laughing and . . . She’d had some kinda awful things in the family with erm marriage split ups and suicides and kind of really difficult stuff. And I always really just loved seeing her. And it was remarkable at how well she just got on with life and lived on her own and well went out and did things and, nothing really stopped her really. So when she got, when we heard she’d got cancer that was a bit of a shock really. Which of course now gives me a family history, so I now have to be careful. But it amazes me how much stuff can come out of one object. Talking about something, about your family and all the things that it, that it means to you or doesn’t mean or whatever.
She was, she was a very strong woman and, and, but what also interests me is that my brother would probably have completely different memories of her. And although we used to go and do things together, that, how two people’s experiences could be so different. And like with Elizabeth Farmhouse the, the . . . you get the academic view verses the personal view; and there used to be archaeologists and people that would come round and they’d be looking at water pipes and work out where they thought the bathrooms were and they’d written this whole report. And my Grandmother just came up and said, "Well no!" she said, "We didn’t have that. They, they weren’t there, they were over here. We used to go and do this." and they, just the, the basic thing of actually talking to someone and finding out their story. And I, it, sitting here talking about this makes me want to kind of talk to my brother about his memories of her and what, cos he’s, he’s older than me, so. Five years older, so he would have different memories of course. But yeah, they were quite a pair, her and Grandma together.
It came to me with, with a, another vase that my erm, I don’t remember Auntie El’s funeral, or anything. All I remember was that we were away in a really hot, I think we were in the desert somewhere in Australia. I think it was Christmas 1990 and we heard that she’d died and then all I remember is being given this and another vase, that I have here with me as well, that was hers. But that’s all really. I mean I wasn’t that young but for some reason, maybe it’s, I don’t know maybe it’s to do with those kind of experiences of, of grief. Or at the time that you don’t remember things because of how you were. But erm, yeah it did, it came straight to me and I have no idea whether my brother got given anything or not. But I’m, I’m always kind of secretly proud that I got given the swan, being the daughter of my family and having that connection to the Swann women.
And also it’s, it’s a Swann with two ‘N’s, the surname. Cos, and in Australia there’s hardly any Swann’s with two ‘N’s but in England there’s loads of them. And it, it always makes me laugh because it was something that my Grandmother was always really insistent on, that is was Swann with two ‘N’s, whenever she was doing kind of newspaper articles or interviews with people. But I don’t, it comes from over here, I mean all my family originally came from, from the UK, so with erm. . . And what’s really nice is that there’s actually, now that I’m living here, is that there’s Swann graves up in Yorkshire in the Quaker cem. . . Quaker section of Undercliffe Cemetery. And gone up there and visited them and it’s really bizarre because my partner’s family is all from Yorkshire as well and we all used to laugh and say, "Oh we’d better stop talking, we might be related! We don’t wanna know if we’re related!"
It’s funny actually cos I don’t realise how much of an impact those women and the family and all these things have, but it’s always there; that they were Quakers and that they were these peace activists so going and finding their graves was a really amazing experience. And then locally I’ve been working on Weymouth Peace Garden, which used to be a Quaker burial ground. And I keep seeming to, and there’s all these other things in life, I keep coming across Quakers and it’s kind of, I feel like it’s leading me towards, I should be doing something or I should be kind of taking more note of these women. But yeah they’re, they’re erm, they’re just always there as this reminder constantly. By going and doing the Quaker burial ground it’s this kind of, it’s this . . . I don’t know how to explain it, it’s . . . it’s almost like there’s this shadow of them with you all the time and everything you do links back to your ancestors, which I guess is really natural really. But it’s nice to know who they are and erm to kind of heard stories and have the family history known well enough that other people can tell you stories as well as people who used to go there and have music lessons and all that kinda stuff. And that it’s out there publicly, cos my Grandmother’s written two books on the family. Erm yeah, more, the more I talk about it the more I become proud of it but I try to be kind of really humble about it. But, yeah.
The only other thing I would say is that it always interests me at funerals that very rarely do people say negative things about people. It’s always, you might get kind of a loveable rogue comment, but it’s always very positive. But, and I’ve been to a few funerals where it hasn’t been like that and it’s been incredibly exciting that it’s been different. But I can say with all honesty that there is, I don’t have any negative memories of her at all. Erm I, all I have, I just, as I said before, just this image of her laughing. There’s nothing else but this big cackle that she used to have.