Mantelpiece exhibition gets pride of place

30 Jul 2020 10:44
Published by: Scott Callan

Bolton Museum’s new exhibition will have visitors feeling right at home.

‘Mantelpiece Observations’, which will open on September 12, is inspired by the household objects of 1930s Britain.

Renowned artist Richard Slee has created a series of objects and installations based on Mass Observation’s 1937 Mantelpiece Reports.

Well-known for his oversized Toby figures from the early 1990s, Slee has made his first Toby figures in 25 years after taking inspiration from the reports.

The solo exhibition is part of a wider public programme, funded by Arts Council England, exploring the meaning behind people’s home possessions.

It will include a second exhibition, ‘Mantelpiece Stories’, by photographer Madeleine Waller, as well as online events, film screenings, talks and workshops.

It is the result of an ongoing collaboration between Bolton Museum, the Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex and the Museum of the Home,

Hilary Fairclough, Bolton Council’s Executive Cabinet Member with responsibility for libraries and museums, said: “This exhibition is a real coup for Bolton. Richard Slee is one of Britain’s most important ceramic artists.”

Mass Observation was a pioneering social research organisation which aimed to document everyday life in 1930s Britain.

Its first initiative, the Mantelpiece Directive, tasked its national panel of volunteers with sharing what was on their mantelpieces.

The results demonstrated how the seemingly insignificant objects in our homes are in fact full of meaning and led the organisation to conclude that we are what we live with.


Slee’s first Toby figures in a quarter of a century were inspired by a detailed description in one of the 1937 reports.

Other works include a Janus-faced ceramic spaniel taking inspiration from a Staffordshire dog figurine as described by a housewife from Burnley. 

Slee has also selected 18 photographs by Humphrey Spender to hang alongside his ceramic pieces.

Spender was the lead photographer on MO’s study of Bolton and Blackpool in the late 1930s, and the 900 images he took for the project are held in the collections of Bolton Museum.

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