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Blog 4: On my namesake the Georgian Performance Artist, Joseph Williamson / 2 September 2012

photo of the inside of an arched Victorian brick tunnel with cobblestone floor

Williamson Tunnels on Edge Hill, Liverpool

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Continuing the subterranean theme of my last posting (in search of kitten paintings down in the dank dungeons beneath Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery), I decided to take an afternoon trip to the wondrously-named Williamson Tunnels on Edge Hill.

Joseph Williamson was a Liverpool tobacco merchant who’d caused enough coughing by the age of 50 to afford his retirement and pursue his lust for building tunnels for twenty years from 1820 on.

He didn’t build them himself obviously – armies of grateful yet baffled men were employed to dig them out of the sandstone. A friend of Williamson’s, James Stonehouse posted a review in 1846: "the tunnels appear to be utterly useless... stupendous works without perceptible motive, meaning, reason or form."

I’ve had raves like that for certain of my endeavours in performance art and it’s always nice to be understood. But Stonehouse had a point. You would think it was easy to continue digging a tunnel: you have the basic shape overhead so just keep pushing forward with the spade, right? Well, not with the Williamson tunnels.

As the guide led our small hard-hatted group through, over and around the tunnels it soon became apparent that the man who designed this warren had anticipated the work of MC Escher a hundred years early. There are tunnels inside tunnels. Wide, low arches abruptly collide into tall thin ones and vice versa. They don’t even do this in a straight line, but haphazardly mutate at strange angles, off-centre, or why not – continue a storey up or down (access fans – this place is not good).

No-one truly knows why Williamson devoted his later life to building the tunnels. He was married to an artist (who shares her name with one of my sisters, Elizabeth Williamson); there’s an unattributed painting of the great man in the Walker collection and I’ve chosen to believe that his wife painted the likeness which Williamson wrote on the back of the canvas shows him ‘half-seas over’ – ie, drunk. I was looking at the painting for some time to see whether, aside from an appearance of inebriation, there was a family resemblance between us but decided there wasn’t.

I did, however, make some tunnel-art of my own a few years back in rural Italy that shared a certain aesthetic of futile labour with Ol’ Joe’s work. So it’s nice to have a possible ancestor who understood the uses of performance – that pointless, brilliant, infuriating medium – as long ago as the 1820s. Joseph Williamson ended up with various nicknames awarded him by his army of confused tunnellers who knew nothing of what their endeavours were aimed at: ‘The Mole of Edge Hill’, ‘The Mad Mole’, and my favourite, ‘The Troglodyte King’. He wore the same patched outer-clothing year in and out, but was always fastidious about his underclothes which were ‘of the finest description’. Mmm. And he attempted to carry his horse to church on Sundays in return for his own carriage during the week.

I like this story too from David Bridson’s Life of JW: ‘...a lady was sitting in her drawing room when a hole appeared in one of her walls. Workmen appeared and proceeded to fit a doorframe into the hole while other men made good the damaged wall around the frame. Williamson himself appeared in the new doorway and asked if the adjacent room would not make an admirable nursery. . .’

I definitely aim to incorporate some elements of this bright-star character into my eventual performance at the Walker gallery. Whilst reading the archival history of the unattributed painting of Williamson, I discovered an analogous form of tunnelling – through walls of filing cabinets – that took me back to my previous theme of clairvoyancy...

Keywords: access issues,artist film and video,painting,risk taking,williamson tunnels