Nicola Maxwell: The Backhouse Enquiry

15 July – 10 September 2023
FREE / No booking required
NGCA Collection Space

Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens is the oldest public museum outside of London. The Museum’s holdings of natural science and natural history artefacts originated in 1810, and include the collection of Edward Backhouse (1808-1879), a Victorian philanthropist and Quaker.

Nicola Maxwell’s project, acquired into NGCA’s collection in 2015, was the result of a year-long photographic investigation into Backhouse’s archive in Sunderland Museum’s collection. It took the form of a trail of images stationed throughout the City Library and Arts Centre, leading to a collectors’ editioned book that visitors could handle themselves, as if an exhibit or precious and rare specimen. 

Maxwell examines the Victorian desire to classify and order the natural world around us. Each of the photographs reveals a natural specimen in extraordinary, oddly hyper-real detail. Each is presented against a plain, stark black or white ground akin to a veil or velvet cloth, under a strongly raking light that throws the objects into relief as though they were highly tactile sculptures. It is, almost, as though Maxwell’s camera had brought back to life a series of 150-year old species.

These ordinary objects, including fern leaves, were lovingly – obsessively – collected by Backhouse for future generations to know the world by – or rather, to see it through his eyes. In our own time, 150 years later, we now know that even some relatively ordinary species of flora are becoming threatened – or marginalised and confined to the margins of urban life in the face of pollution and suburban sprawl.

Today, the grounds of Edward Backhouse’s family home, now called Backhouse Park, opened to the public in 1923 and still exists as an arboretum that includes many of Sunderland’s largest mature trees.

Image: Nicola Maxwell, The Backhouse Enquiry, 2015, photographic print. Courtesy of the artist.

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