Made In Britain by Wendy Elia


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164 x 184cm

Oil on canvas

Featured in Wendy Elia's solo show Just Saying!

This outstanding large scale work is a remarkable presentation of the modern history that formed present day Britain.  Encapsulating politics, migration and identity; from the suffragettes, to the conflicts in Northern Ireland, from the Windrush generation to Polish, Indian and Chinese immigration, this work portrays the foundations and fabric of our great country.  You would be hard pushed to find a more relevant, intelligent, richly academic, contemporary art work that has been executed by a true modern master.  Courbet is dead, long live Wendy Elia!

Below is a section about the piece written by Dr Marie-Anne Mancio, for her essay Histories in the Age of Confusion - examining works by Wendy Elia RWA

"Several of the models reappear in Elia's large scale group portrait Made in Britain which re-imagines “home” in the artist’s studio. (Indeed, the fact that the models are all either family or the daughters of Elia’s close friends implies she sees them as her extended family.) As in the individual portraits, the models are contextualised through family photographs which act as still lives but again the fictive quality of the space is re-emphasised through the juxtaposing of these photos, some of which are placed outside the frame of the mirror as if on a giant mantelpiece. Making, fabricating – these are acts of invention.

As a phrase, the work’s title Made in Britain is something of a cliché. Implying a manufacturer's label, its use here could be ironic: very little is made in Britain now. However, given the painting's references to families and lineage, this is also a jokey nod to where these young women were conceived. It could also be a reference to a 1982 British drama (directed by Alan Clarke) about racism and the working classes. The young women's parents or grandparents are not middle or upper class but their labour secured better futures for their children. The issue is alluded to via a pencil sketch on the floorboards: a group portrait of exclusive secret society the Bullingdon Club. A 200 year old institution which comprises Oxford University students, the club has become synonymous with privilege. Several members (David Cameron, Boris Johnson, George Osborne) currently hold key political positions in Britain. 

Elia also references Constable's The Haywain (1821), a work that has come to stand for a quintessential Englishness. Whilst it is now often denigrated as chocolate box (Constable's surfaces appearing overworked beside Turner's vaporous-thin oils), there was a political dimension to The Haywain. Constable was describing a disappearing rural idyll, a countryside and way of living he feared spoilt by industrialisation. Affected perhaps by Marxist readings of Constable as the prosperous mill owner's son whose image of labour was already genteel,  Elia uses it as a sign of a mythical England, a fiction of the upper classes, far removed from the real-life hardships of the rural poor. Perhaps the biggest irony of all though is that in Constable's lifetime it was the French rather than the English who appreciated "stay at home" Constable and his technical innovations. It was the French Salon, not our Royal Academy, who awarded The Haywain a gold medal. It was Delacroix and the Impressionists who borrowed his coloured shadows.

Gender is also pertinent to Elia’s enquiry. The fact the models are all female is no accident. Inscribed in pencil on the room's floorboards is the faint image of Suffragette Emily Davison and the King's horse. Davison ran in front of George V's Anmer at the 1913 Derby to protest against women not having the vote. She was hit by the horse and never regained consciousness. Her skull fractured, she died from her injuries four days later in Epsom Cottage hospital.

The contemporary artist - like the medic - is supposed to be able to transcend borders. She participates almost seamlessly in international exhibitions, themselves ever more homogenous in character. Her practice may be valued for its foreignness yet is always reassuringly familiar. Yet the migrant can choose to play the interloper: Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura photographed himself in multiple roles, literally inserting himself into the Western art canon as Manet's Olympia and her maid, as Frida Kahlo, as Cindy Sherman. In Made in Britain Elia pictures herself in the large mirror behind her sitters. Her self-portrait references Velasquez's meta-painting Las Meninas but reinforces the role of woman as producer. Since this group portrait also contains the image of an earlier Elia portrait The Visit V (Mary), it reveals and perhaps respects Elia’s own heritage: Mary is her mother.

Made in Britain also reprises a familiar Elia motif: a reference to a JMW Turner painting. She positions his 1840 Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On) on the staircase, in the same place as its ''cousin" - Elia's Turner-inspired sea painting Oil on Tent - in The Visit V (Mary). This creates a sense of continuity between the series, while also alluding to the sometimes risk-laden migrations of the girls' families and perhaps to the inevitable romanticism with which we treat the journey. As Robert Winder says in Bloody Foreigners: The Story of Immigration to Britain, “Immigration, indeed, might be a rather grandiose, unequivocal word for what is often a diffident decision, full of hesitations and reluctant compromises.” (2004: 88). Elia uses Turner’s work to remind us of Britain's pivotal role in the slave trade and how multiculturalism, evidenced in the young women of Made in Britain, is its only positive legacy."

Marie-Anne Mancio 2013 ©