The Victorian doll is a symbol of feminine delicacy and piety, but the Scottish sculptor Jessica Harrison has turned that notion on its head, constructing porcelain figures and painting their flesh with vivid sailor tattoos. Harrison, previously featured here for her graphic and macabre figurines, subtly builds upon contemporary dialogues of sexuality and the female body. Where Victorian women were encouraged to be sexually modest, religious and sober, Harrison’s dolls adopt the visual language associated with drunkenness and sexual freedom on the high seas. Sailors, feared for their rowdy traditions, were thought of as the antithesis of the ideal woman, who was almost always middle class, white, home-bound.
Harrison’s dolls, like many Victorian woman, wear corsets and petticoats of soft, pastel hues; one even modestly holds a fan. But these seemingly coy women obviously have some ruffian pasts. Tattooed on one woman’s pale arms are the names of a dozen conquests: Daisy, Rita, Maria, Eileen. Unlike the figurines treasured by small Victorian children, Harrison’s characters seem to have anachronistically accompanied Sailor Jerry on his boozy pin-up filled adventures. Beside a budding rose sewn into the color of her dress, a lady reveals a pair of flying swallows, an icon that appears frequently in mid-20th century sailor tattoos.
Harrison’s impressive series coyly lays bare the deeply entrenched sexism, racism, and classism of the Victorian era, during which women were not permitted to vote or visit pubs. With their waists cinched and their hair powdered into elaborate updos, these seemingly fragile porcelain figures contain an undeniable grit that transcends all social barriers.