Domestic items have always loomed large in artist Linder Sterling’s work.
Her most familiar piece, used for the sleeve of the Buzzcocks’ 1977 single Orgasm Addict, substituted an iron for the head of a nude female model, and her photomontages – which she started making in Manchester as a key figure in the emergence of punk – are peppered with out-of-place objects and unusual juxtapositions with a feminist message; a hoover for a face here, a table fork in someone’s eye there.
But now Linder is exploring a much grander home environment as the first ever artist in residence at Chatsworth, where paintings, drawings, books and artefacts amassed over centuries are kept.
The collagist, who once led her own pop band, Ludus, and is known for being singer-songwriter Morrissey’s best friend, has been given free rein to explore the Peak District house and incorporate her discoveries into new creations.
Some of the resulting work will be shown at Chatsworth from next month and the rest will appear in a large retrospective exhibition at the Nottingham Contemporary, called The House of Fame.
“The work I was doing in 1976 was very simple – just going into a newsagent and finding as many different images of women as I could find, whether that was in a fashion magazine, a child-rearing family magazine or a pornographic image,” explains Linder. “I wanted to see the difference in how women were portrayed, from Playboy through to Woman’s Own and Vogue. Within this house it’s still the same, looking at different portrayals of the female lineage, and then the domestic objects, which are so exquisite and extraordinary. Photomontaging with those is exactly the same as I was doing 40 years ago, but it looks radically different.”
We have been ushered into a book-lined meeting room to talk and, shedding her long padded winter coat, Linder goes straight to the shelves impulsively on the hunt for material. “Oh, there are some good catalogues here. I should probably avert my eyes.”
Her six-month spell at Chatsworth comes after she won a Paul Hamlyn Foundation award worth £60,000, making it Britain’s biggest art prize. Unusually there are no strings attached – she can do anything with the money.
Linder had already been asked to put on her retrospective as part of the Grand Tour, an Arts Council-funded initiative bringing together cultural organisations across Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, when the invitation came.
“Without any hesitation I said yes. I mean, it’s sublime.”
Linder met the Duke of Devonshire recently, to gain his approval for her list of loans.
“He was laughing and said ‘this is a really strange collection of objects’,” she recalls. “We have things like a one-handed flute that was made especially for a player in the house who was injured in battle. We have theatre tokens from the late 19th century – relatively modest little finds, but I think they tell far larger stories.”
Linder has been living in Edensor, a stone’s throw from the grave of Kathleen Devonshire, the sister of murdered US president John F Kennedy. JFK flew in to pay his respects in 1963, a tale that fascinates her.
“Six months after standing at Edensor he was assassinated. There are all these narratives, it’s a house of stories.”
There is ‘a lot of death’ in the new work, partly as a response to losing her mother and father over the past six years. “Suddenly becoming an adult orphan is quite a shock.”
She has borrowed the death mask of Arthur Strong, an old librarian at Chatsworth. “There are a lot of ghosts here. There’s almost 500 years of history.”
Linder wanted to ‘go right back to the taproot’ of the estate, which is where the female lineage comes in; Elizabeth Cavendish, Bess of Hardwick, started building the first house at Chatsworth in 1552 and was a close friend of Queen Elizabeth I. The monarch was locked in a power struggle with Mary, Queen of Scots, and kept her imprisoned at Chatsworth for 15 years, on and off.
Linder has made a film about Mary for Glasgow Women’s Library, linking with this year’s 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote.
The House of Fame, meanwhile, is derived from the title of a masque – a form of dramatic performance – by Ben Jonson from 1609. Jonson lifted the name from Geoffrey Chaucer, and a 17th century drawing of the house by set designer Inigo Jones lies in the Chatsworth collection.
Fame is ‘portrayed as a monster - a thousand ears, a thousand eyes, a thousand mouths’, says Linder.
Is Chatsworth the House of Fame?
“Very much so. Everybody knows Chatsworth. It really dominates this area. It has that clout, with the gold and gilding on the windows and the family motto. Someone I was talking to was thinking about the vulgarity of, say, Trump Tower. Here you have that kind of branding. Of course, it’s done with such sophistication, but we know where we are when we come here. You can’t move for the symbol of the serpent.”
Linder was born in Liverpool in 1954 as Linda Mulvey, later ‘editing’ herself down to one name to adopt a modishly austere sharpness. She grew up in Wigan and moved to Manchester in the mid-1970s to study graphic design. In 1976 she saw the Sex Pistols’ fabled Lesser Free Trade Hall gig alongside those who would shape the city’s musical legacy – Mark E Smith of The Fall, members of Joy Division and New Order, Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks and Magazine, and Morrissey. It inspired her to form Ludus, a group she once performed with at the Haçienda club while wearing a meat dress, years before Lady Gaga.
In Nottingham visitors will see the Buzzcocks image first – the collage has been made into a full-colour, two-metre-high lightbox. “She takes on a new life. As a stereotype she hasn’t dated that much.”
‘Ninety-nine per cent’ of the time Linder still works with scissors, scalpel, glue and paper. “Very low tech. If you’re working with digital, it’s just too easy. If you go back to 1976 it’s two cut-out mouths and one iron, but it can take a long time to find the exact iron and those two mouths that will then skew that image and give it a whole new meaning.”
But her practice of taking a blade to sexual images has a darker origin. When she was very young, her step-grandfather would show her inappropriate pictures; in 2015 she told a national newspaper her work has been ‘part of her survival’.
She’s encouraged by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements against sexual harassment, assault and abuse. “There is a long way to go. But at least there’s a debate now, it’s been quite muted over the last few decades. It almost feels like the late 1970s again.”
Linder has a grown-up son, musician Maxwell Sterling, and used to live on the Lancashire coast to be near her parents, but is now ‘nomadic.’ “I like that,” she admits.
Today she feels ‘vindicated’ – her work is in the Tate and Arts Council collections, and she was only the third British artist to have a career-spanning exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. “I was really lucky. My path could easily have been far different. I could have died with stashes of photomontages under the bed.”
Linder’s work will be shown at Chatsworth from March 24 to October 21. The Nottingham exhibition runs from March 24 to June 17.
‘Film portrayal was identity theft’
Linder Sterling was portrayed in a film last year about the early life of Morrissey – but she refuses to watch it.
The biopic England Is Mine, directed by Mark Gill, showed the singer-songwriter struggling with life before meeting guitarist Johnny Marr and forming The Smiths. Linder was played by Jessica Findlay Brown; there are scenes of her producing collages and meeting Morrissey for walks around Southern Cemetery in Manchester – excursions later referred to in the Smiths song Cemetry Gates.
“I have very little interest,” she insists. “It’s a case of identity theft, really, that somebody is portraying myself. How would anyone feel? I’m almost not wanting it in my head. It came and went so quickly.”
Her friendship with Morrissey – who had no involvement in the film – is still strong after 40 years. They write letters and meet up whenever they can.
“I think the friendship’s beyond geography. It will just find its own contours depending on where we both are in the world, what we’re both reading and looking at.”
Her friend has had to fend off criticism for his statements about immigration and the Hollywood sexual abuse scandal. Does she worry about him?
“No, he’s been there before. He’s buoyant. He’s got a sell-out tour happening, so no worries whatsoever. There’ve been so many periods of rough press, haven’t there. It just happens if you’re not toeing the party line. Most British musicians don’t have that many shock-horror headlines about themselves because they don’t say anything of interest.”