26 Treasures

By John Simmons

An illustrated anthology in which 26 writers respond to 26 treasures in 4 museums, using only 62 words

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

By candlelight

I have to admit I wasn’t that keen on my candle stand at the V&A. There were other objects that appealed much more to me: the drinking flask, the bust of Homer, the Elizabethan miniature. These appealed more immediately to a sense of humour or romance, there was a more obvious aesthetic attraction.


The candle stand looked undistinguished in the photograph. Not my taste either, a feeling reinforced when I saw the candle stand close up. The rococo style is not one I’d choose for personal preference.


What I liked, though, was its purpose. To illuminate. The fact that this object had been designed to provide light. There was a metaphor to explore, but in a literal sense there was also something interesting. What scenes or people did the candle stand once light up?


So I started thinking about that. Eighteenth century society. Only a rich family would have such an ornamental candle stand. Social gatherings of the rich and famous, in the times leading up to Jane Austen’s era. This would have been a gay, glamorous candle stand, not just an observer but a participant in grand occasions. A bit of a wit, probably. Winking at people through the candlelight.


This was all pointing me towards the candle stand having a distinctive personality. It was a short step to imagine the 62 words being spoken by the candle stand.


But he’s speaking now, in 2011. In a corner of the V&A. To be honest, he’s not one of the stars of the British Galleries. You have to look hard to find him. He’s behind glass and, ironically enough, not very well lit. Few people will find this former aristocratic servant fallen on hard times. Having found him, they probably wouldn’t give him too long a second look.


So it seemed natural to me that he would speak words from his 21st century situation, reflecting a certain sense of disappointment and disillusion. He resents the fact that he’s in a neglected corner of a museum rather than a shining light in the stately home of his youth.


The tone and the words flowed from that. But I also decided that the form of the words – the actual shape on the page – should reflect the object too. It would encourage visitors to look at the candle stand in a little more detail. Which was something I wanted to happen because my feelings towards the candle stand had shifted. I now thought of him with much more sympathy, as a person not an object. In fact I felt a bit sorry for him, and I hoped you would feel a little sorry for him too, and want to hear what he had to say.


Because there’s nothing worse than being ignored. And in a museum with millions of artefacts it’s easy to be ignored. I’d got closer to my candle stand and felt he’d got a bad deal. Can I help?


I needed to squeeze my thoughts into just 62 words, while reflecting the shape of the candle stand. It came relatively easily. It started out as a weak joke, tossed off to either side of the room, visually showing the spindly candle holders stretching out in two directions. As the piece progresses, in chronology as well as story, the tone becomes a little more desperate and bitter.


The first time it came out close to the number of words needed, a little bit under the limit. I’d already decided to use the EE Cummings style of running several words together to make one, not to help the word count but to make a point. With a bit more tinkering, I had 59 words, just three now needed. I added Gaze who will, seeing the phrase almost as the candle stand’s epitaph. And perhaps the epitaph for all the objects in the V&A.


You'll see the result in the book. And 100+ more objects with a story to tell.

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christine devaney
 christine devaney says:

Already intrigued and would like to see this neglected candle stand now.

posted 10th December 2011

John Simmons
 John Simmons says:

It's there in the V&A British Galleries - looking rather neglected. I'm sure he'd appreciate a visit

posted 12th December 2011

Jane Schaffer
 Jane Schaffer says:

Very interesting to follow your thought processes from the start of your introduction to your candlestick to the development of a relationship when you finished your writing, though I was surprised that you didn't warm to your object from the start. I have always loved candlesticks, especially the ones that you can carry with you as you move from darkened room to room, taking your light with you.

posted 7th January 2012

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