For some, “true” art is young and avant-garde; for others, it’s not art unless it was crafted centuries ago by a European man covered in paint. Debates rage, and showing that you’re clever and tasteful enough to “get” art can become more important than actually experiencing it. Perhaps it’s time to go back to basics: what are you looking at? Do you know the history of the piece, or what it’s made from? Perhaps the answers are more strange and interesting than you think! Here are some objects, materials and places in London that challenge the assumptions we make about art.

1. Saliva

You probably didn’t think bodily fluids extruded from any end of a creature could be attractive and sacred, but you’d be surprised. Silkworms build their cocoons out of hardened saliva, which is then boiled to make raw silk.

We may associate painted silk and embroidery with frivolous luxury scarves, but silk, paint and thread also form religious artwork called tangka. Produced in Nepal and Tibet and used by Buddhists to aid meditation, tangka are produced to strict regulations that ensure proper ritual function. They are powerful religious objects precisely because of their highly crafted art, showing that even the most unusual materials have a great potential for transformation (an opportunity unfortunately denied to the silkworm itself).

The embroidered tangka of the dharmapala Yama is on display at The British Museum.


2. Dead Bodies

It’s generally agreed that making art from stolen dead bodies is, to put it mildly, in fairly bad taste. But the delicately shaded, pale complexions of European women in society portraits, as in Angelica Kauffmann’s self portrait, owe their lambency to Mummy brown.

A garlic-scented, resinous substance from Egypt, this pigment was used to make a harmonising glaze for paintings. Mummy brown fell out of favour with artists during the 19th century when it transpired that its name was not just exotically evocative but an actual description of its composition: ground up mummies, human and feline, from desecrated Egyptian tombs. Certainly a macabre way to paint a pretty face!

Angelica Kauffmann’s self portrait is on display at The National Portrait Gallery.  


3. A Boiled Suet Pudding

Borobudur is an ancient Indonesian Buddhist monument whose Buddha sculptures were, even in the early 20th century, deemed pleasing enough to be respected as valuable art. George Birdwood, an Anglo-Indian official, took exception to this, dismissing a sculpture as an “uninspired brazen image… A boiled suet pudding would serve equally well as a symbol of passionate purity and serenity of the soul.” 

It’s tempting to think that Birdwood had remarkably modern views on art, but it seems he generally dismissed non-European art – his assertion that there was “no fine art in India” is, at best, very puzzling. If he saw the art world today, it’s hard to say what would upset him more: the acknowledged value of Asian and African art, or things in art that have less artistic worth than boiled puddings!

The Borobudur Buddha head is on display at The British Museum.


4. Someone Else’s Home

You’ve arrived at 18 Folgate Street to follow the lives of the Jervis family. Ten rooms represent different generations – you are in the present day, yet also wandering through the 18th and early 20th centuries. Rooms filled with sugared fruits, dust and the tang of an un-emptied chamber pot. Dusty antiques, furniture, and fresh food act as props, all carefully arranged to give the impression that the Jervises have just left the room. You see, hear, and smell your way through the past and present.

Yet the Jervises are not real, the history is only an approximation: it’s the invention of Dennis Severs, an American artist who lived in this house until his death.

So, is this art? A heritage site? Could it also be theatre? Severs described his house as a “still life drama”. Signs around the house say it’s not a “lifeless” museum, yet they also constantly interrupt your experience – reminding you to believe its fictional history – be silent, and not touch anything. You are both drawn in and alienated.

It is difficult and perhaps unproductive to try to categorise the house: it doesn’t help us to understand the place, yet it still remains an intensely engaging sensory experience in spite or, indeed, because of its ambiguity.    

More details on Dennis Severs’ House can be found here

 …strict categories of art sometimes fall apart on further thinking…

Throughout history, there’s been a concern that somewhere, hidden under all the spit, dead bodies, suet puddings and strange houses, there’s real art to be discovered.  But maybe it’s also important to consider that strict categories of art sometimes fall apart on further thinking, leaving us bemused rather than enlightened.

Dennis Severs’ motto is: “You either see it, or you don’t.” With this in mind, perhaps we can think more openly about why we, as individuals and as a society, see some things as art to the exclusion of others.  


About The Author

History of Art graduate from SOAS (jointly with UCL). I cook, eat, and observe the world. Then I write about it and share it with you. This is a unilateral decision.

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