Artwork from the Project

There will be a final, close-of-show exhibition in London for the Gossip and Nonsense project’s artwork in mid-December.

The Bank Gallery at The Cass, Central House, 59-63 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7PF
Friday 11th December 2015, 12 noon – 8pm
Saturday 12th December 2015, 12 noon – 5pm

Come and explore the potential of rumour and chatter to degenerate into productive nonsense. Dominic Hills has taken inspiration from masters of French Renaissance wit and prolixity and from Japanese shunga in the construction of his sinuous, erotic, and explicit woodcuts. Clare Qualmann’s investigation of the distortions and creative potential of the parlour game Chinese Whispers is inspired by the late Renaissance essayist, Montaigne.

Programme of events:
Live: Games of Chinese Whispers throughout the exhibition (drop in)
Live: Letterpress printing, Friday 1 – 6pm, Saturday 1 – 4pm
Talk: Prof. Hugh Roberts and Dr. Emily Butterworth discuss the project Friday, 6 – 6.30pm, followed by a drinks reception.

Blaming the dog

One of the functions of a blog such as this is to record the synergy between academic research and artistic practice by documenting the process of knowledge exchange. One such exchange recently took place when the artist Dominic Hills produced another print of the old French proverb ‘Whoever farts valiantly and with courage extends his life’ (‘Quiconque pette bravement et avec courage prolonge sa vie’).

Whereas his earlier print featured two men and a medium emission of flatulence, the latest version was of a woman and a giant gas cloud:

Quiconque pette II© Dominic Hills

Quiconque pette II
© Dominic Hills

This immediately brought to my mind the gendered nature of farts for, in the very speech which contains the first known recording of this proverb, the comedian known as Bruscambille also remarks, ‘Isn’t it amusing that just carrying a little dog gives ladies leave to fart around the clock, and they are excused by a “Get that dog out of here, he farted!”?’ [N’est-il pas plaisant quand pour le port d’un petit chien il dispence les dames de peter à toutes heures, & les quitte pour un chassez ce chien, il a vessy?]

Knowledge duly exchanged, the academic-artistic process came full circle as Dominic Hills sharpened his tools to carve a little dog, hidden behind a flap, into the gas cloud:

Quiconque pette II (avec chien)© Dominic Hills

Quiconque pette II (avec chien)
© Dominic Hills


Gossip and the Fabrication of Reputation: Performance event at KCL

An immersive performance of the soundscape of pre-modern gossip, recreating songs and slanders through which stories circulated in the streets, will take place in the Chapel, King’s College London, on Wednesday 14 October at 6:30. It’s free to attend but tickets need to be booked here.

In a series of talks and performances, Simon Gaunt, Emma Dillon, Emily Butterworth, and Laura Gowing will explore how reputations were fabricated through street talk and song, performed by students from the Music Department. There will be twelfth-century speculation on what Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most powerful queens in Western Europe, got up to in Antioch with her uncle, through a number of songs that were composed, improvised and circulated throughout Europe. Women’s reputations more generally will be under scrutiny in medieval motets. You will also hear sixteenth-century French songs, written for performance in small, elite social gatherings, which try to mimic the gossip of the country and the streets, and simultaneously reflect on the process of gossiping and the kind of audience it constructs. The rumours and insults of sixteenth-century London, reconstructed from court cases, will be performed by students from the History Department. The talks accompanying the performances will explore how gossip moved through social strata and through oral and written forms, and the impact it had on the reputations it tried to construct.


Paying attention to the words the past uses to describe itself sometimes gives unexpected results. I started this project thinking I would write a book about gossip in Renaissance France: after reading my corpus – actually, after even a cursory glance at sixteenth-century essays on talk – a different term emerged. It was ‘babble’. What we might call gossip was still there, in the texts – called caquet [cackle], or sometimes médisance [slander] – but what seemed to be of greater concern was this other species of talk, babil [babble]. And this made me think about what that might mean for the preoccupations of those sixteenth-century writers who thought it worthwhile to write an essay on the tongue and its dangers. Babble is a kind of unconsidered, almost automatic talk, a compulsion to speak about anything that strips the babbler of the qualities of reason and reflection that are the ideal characteristics of human speech. Babble is demeaning and also somehow dehumanising. It allows the subjectivity of the babbler to be submerged in the flood of words. This sounds like a concern that is rooted in the individual and their own personal identity, but it is an ethical one, too. In the Renaissance, a babbler is a betrayer: of himself and his own secrets, but more dangerously of others. Babble was a political vice. It was the worst thing a courtier could be accused of.

After thinking about Renaissance babble for a while, I was delighted to come across it in Ford Madox Ford’s wonderful books about Katherine Howard and Henry VIII, The Fifth Queen (1906-1908; Penguin, 1999). Magister Nicholas Udal, Lady Mary’s teacher, is ‘a notorious babbler’ who tells ‘many lies’ (p. 80); and Cicely Elliott asks Katherine to look for her husband: ‘in the Lady Mary’s room you will find my old knight babbling with the maidens’ (pp. 117-18). What is remarkable here – and in Renaissance treatises on the subject – is that men are particularly condemned for babbling. This was partly because men’s babble could do more harm since it was more consequential, as an early seventeenth-century pamphlet argued, in a rather double-edged defence of women. But in Ford’s vision of the Tudor court, it is women who guard their tongues and their secrets, and men who let their words blab.

And then I also remembered that my little sister, when she was 5 or 6, had made up a song that (if I were superstitious) I could take as some kind of omen (if omens deigned to pronounce on the subject of academic books): ‘Babble. When you’ve got nothing to say, Just babble.’

Cuckolds and cousins

In his speech on cuckolds and the usefulness of horns, the French comedian known as Bruscambille (see previous posts) observes that cuckolds embody generosity and are showered with honours by those who visit them and especially their wives.

He continues to justify his view of the happy lot of the cuckold by referring to a proverb:

I only need the common proverb to justify my statement, that all men are cousins to whoever has a beautiful wife: how much doffing of caps, how many recommendations and humblings, hugs and bows: for the gifts of fortune, the horn of Amalthea never overflowed like that of a man of good judgement who knows how to manage his household affairs, his horns produce for him, it’s a dairy cow that never runs dry, a meadow that always makes hay, that he can cut a hundred times a day, it’s a mine that he has at home, the more you dig it, the less you empty it, a garden that brings forth new flowers every day, what more shall I say? an infinite seed plot, an inestimable treasure.

[Je ne veux que le proverbe commun pour verifier mon dire, que quiconque a belle femme tout le monde est son cousin, combien aura-il tous les jours de coups de chapeau, de recommendations & submissions, de caresses & de reverences : pour les biens de fortune, jamais la corne d’Amalthée n’en repandit tant que celle d’un homme de bon jugement & qui sçayt bien mesnager, les siennes luy en produisent, c’est une vache à laict qui ne tarit point, c’est un pré de perpetuelle fenaison, qu’il peut tondre cent fois le jour, c’est une miniere qu’il tient en sa maison, que plus on fouit & moins on vuide, c’est un jardin qui chaque jour esclost de nouvelles fleurs, que diray-je plus ? une pepiniere infinie, un thresor inestimable.]

The proverb, ‘quiconque a belle femme tout le monde est son cousin’ (literally ‘whoever has a beautiful wife, everyone is his cousin’) encapsulates the happy fate of the cuckold and his horns of plenty, gifts that keep on giving, rather like Bruscambille himself, who seems to have been the first to have recorded this piece of wisdom in print, and which has now inspired Dominic Hills’s latest two-stage print:

Belle femme © Dominic Hills

Belle femme
© Dominic Hills

Belle femme © Dominic Hills

Belle femme
© Dominic Hills


Whispering Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on conceptual art.

Throughout the Gossip and Nonsense project Emily and I have been using Sol LeWitt’s sentences on conceptual art as phrases to ‘chinese whisper’. Written in 1969 these were first published in the magazine 0-9 in New York, and in Art-Language in London (both 1969). I’ve gradually been setting the resulting ‘translated’ sentences using metal letterpress type.


Possibly the most laborious way to produce a printed page, letterpress appeals to me because of the amount of care that it requires; the decision making and accuracy; and the physicality of the heavy-weight cubes of metal; the sound of the sticky ink; the smell of news print; and the effort required to pull the press.


To date (August 2015) the following sentences have been whispered and printed in an edition of 30, on newsprint.

1. Conceptual art are eternal optimists.

(whispered by London Met staff Cat Jeffcock, Aimee McWilliams, Charlotte Worthington and Marianne Forest in English)

12. For each work of art that comes from a circle there are many variations

(whispered by artists group members: Rebecca French, Agnieszka Gratza, Karen Christopher, Sheila Ghelani, Clare Qualmann in English)

14. The words of one artist to another might induce an idea strain.

(whispered by artists group members: Rebecca French, Agnieszka Gratza, Karen Christopher, Sheila Ghelani, Clare Qualmann in English)

15. Art can take whatever form it likes, warts are another matter

(whispered by participants in the Gossip and Nonsense symposium, Exeter, June 2013, in English and French)

16. If words come first of all it’s because of art, not literature.

(whispered by participants in the Gossip and Nonsense symposium, Exeter, June 2013, in English and French)

20. Successful art challenges our perceptions by changing our understanding.

(whispered by participants in the Renaissance Rumours event at Inside Out, King’s, October 2014, in English and French)

26. The artist makes the seed, but others do their own.

(whispered by London Met Fine Art students, May 2015, in English)

27. The concept of a work of art may involve the people.

(whispered by artists group members: Rebecca French, Agnieszka Gratza, Karen Christopher, Sheila Ghelani, Clare Qualmann in English)

34. When an artist makes his scene he makes his scene well.

(whispered by London Met Fine Art students, May 2015, in English)

You can compare the original sentences here.

Dominic Hills’s prints for sale

In the early seventeenth century, a highly successful comic anthology written in Latin appeared for the delight of students and other citizens of the Republic of Letters who would have known their classics: the Nugæ Venales, Thesaurus ridendi & jocandi ad gravissimos serverissimosque viros […] (Prostant apud Neminem: sed tamen Uibque, 1642), that is to say Trifles for sale, or thesaurus of laughter and jolliness, addressed to the most serious and severe men […] (To be sold at nobody’s address yet everywhere, 1642).

Among other things, as Annette Tomarken discovered, this collection features numerous passages translating bits of the French comedian known as Bruscambille into Latin, which means that his jokes, including mock learned discussions of farts and how these are good and spiritual, had an unexpected afterlife.

As followers of this blog will know, Bruscambille’s jokes have continued to resonate in the form of Dominic Hills’s prints, and these nugae are themselves for sale through Robert Eagle Fine Art (an online gallery, so truly Prostant apud Neminem: sed tamen Uibque).

To boldly blow…

In his third and final speech on farts, ‘That a fart is a good thing’, the comedian known as Bruscambille cites Cicero, for whom goodness consisted in what was ‘useful, pleasant and honest’ (On Duties, II, 10). The usefulness of the fart, which in turn naturally contributes to its essential goodness, is seen in the widespread proverb, ‘Whoever farts valiantly and with courage extends his life’ (‘Quiconque pette bravement et avec courage prolonge sa vie’). There were indeed proverbs of this type in the air at the time, a variant being ‘Whoever wishes to have a long life should let his arse break wind’ (‘Qui veut vivre longuement il faut donner à son cul vent’). Such proverbs also have their English equivalents, including the (apocryphal?) tombstone bearing the legend, ‘Where’er ye be, let your wind break free, for holding it in was the death of me’, which has its own variant reading, ‘Where’er ye be, let you wind break free. In church and chapel, let it rattle!’

Bruscambille’s piece of age-old proverbial lore has inspired Dominic Hills’s latest print:

Quiconque pette © Dominic Hills

Quiconque pette
© Dominic Hills

Not everyone would agree with this proverb, of course. The great Dutch humanist, Erasmus, would have been among them. In his massive and hugely successful collection of proverbs, the Adages, he cites the ancient saying ‘Suus cuique crepitus bene olet’ (‘Everyone thinks his own fart smells sweet’), but concludes that it doubtlessly originated from the very dregs of society and that he has yet to meet anyone who thinks this way (Adages, III, 4, 2/2302). Yet, from another point of view, the persistence of such sentiments about flatulence across the centuries points to a fundamental continuity in the human condition. Stephen Greenblatt famously opens his Shakespearean Negotiations with the comment that ‘I began with a desire to speak with the dead’ – these proverbs suggest that the answer to fulfilling that desire is blowing in the wind.


Conjonction orbiculaire

In one of his two speeches on castrati (controversial figures, apparently ideal lovers for women who did not want to get pregnant, and the subject of an injunction of 1619 issued by the Parisian law-courts as a result…), the comedian known as Bruscambille makes the following observation about Spring:

‘In this pleasing season, the pilgrim starts planting his staff while the shepherd starts playing on nature’s flute and the mute bagpipe in the shade of the shepherdess’s mossy mound. In short, at this time, everything lives, everything dances, and breathes only orbicular conjunction.’

[En ceste agreeable saison, le Pelerin commence à planter son bourdon, le berger à jouer du flageolet de nature, et de la cornemuse sourde à l’ombre du tertre moussu de la bergere. Bref, en ce temps tout vit, tout dance, et ne respire que la conjunction orbiculaire.]

He goes on to comment how sad it is that castrati cannot ‘chime and ring their bells’ to celebrate the arrival of sweet Spring.

The ornately Latinate phrase ‘orbicular conjunction’ / ‘conjonction orbiculaire’ has inspired Dominic Hills’s latest and similarly ornate print:

Conjonction orbiculaire © Dominic Hills

Conjonction orbiculaire
© Dominic Hills

Bending nature’s crossbow

In his speech on the rare and remarkable objects he has brought from Mexico, which he intends to gift to the French nation so it may be seen as the greatest for the sumptuousness of the dresses ladies wear to ballets, the comedian known as Bruscambille (see previous posts, passim) lists, among other things:

  • a pair of underpants of the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca that are full of moral sayings worthy of profound consideration;
  • Jupas’s lute, which produces such harmonies that whoever hears them isn’t deaf;
  • a pair of marvellous glasses that allowed Saturn to choose a white cloth with which to wipe his bottom.

For his latest print, Dominic Hills was naturally inspired by one of these Mexican objets d’art, namely:

The chamber pot used by Mars and Venus, to Vulcan’s great displeasure, of such size and perfect proportion that it inflames the hearts of its viewers with unbearable lust, and makes nature’s crossbow bend back, to fire at the deer with no nose.

[L’urinal duquel se servoient Mars et Venus, avec un grand desplaisir de Vulcan, de telle mesure et juste proportion qu’il enflamme les cœurs des regardans de luxure insupportable, et faict bander l’arbalestre de nature, pour tirer après la beste fauve qui n’a point de nez.]

Bander l’arbalestre de nature © Dominic Hills

Bander l’arbalestre de nature
© Dominic Hills

Anyone in any doubt as to what the ‘deer with no nose’ refers only needs to consult one of Bruscambille’s speeches on noses, where he establishes in Latin that while men have two noses ‘primum capiti, secundus jacet in braguibus’ [‘this first on the head, the second in the codpiece’], women on the other hand only have one nose ‘ad est capitale, sed abest bragale’ [‘one on the head, but the one in the codpiece is missing’].