Rights and Romance: Representing Gypsy Lives

Treasures of Brotherton museum have opened their latest exhibition ‘Rights and Romance: Representing Gypsy Lives’. The exhibit combines a variety of fictional and visual representations of Gypsies. All the representations were created by non-Gypsies, which leads to the exhibition’s main question: who has the right to represent Gypsy lives?

‘ Rights and Romance’ also aims to challenge stereotypes about the Gypsy community, many of which are still prevalent today. The exhibition was curated with the help of Leeds GATE (Gypsy and Traveller Exchange) and the Gypsyville heritage group in order to gain a Gypsy perspective on the artefacts. As well as the visual exhibits, the museum also uses audio clips recorded by local people and Gypsies, which can be listened to via mobile.

Pencil drawing by Joseph Appleyard. © David Appleyard.

Gypsies have often been the subjects of artwork. It’s debatable if all the Gypsies in the artwork gave their permission to be painted or whether would even have been pleased with the result. The exhibition continually requires us to question whether outsiders have the right to represent minority groups. Joseph Appleyard, a local Yorkshire man working from 1930-60, drew much of the artwork on display.  Appleyard stated in his autobiography that his relationship with travelling Yorkshire Gypsies was ‘some good, some indifferent, but in my opinion never bad.’

The pictures of another Yorkshireman, Fred Lawson, are also exhibited. It’s interesting to see the history of Gypsies in Yorkshire as depicted in his work. One of the paintings shows ‘Brough Hill’ just outside of Leeds, which used to be a bigger horse fair than the famed Appleby fair.

Ink drawing by Fred Lawson. © Sonia Lawson.

Another section of the exhibition holds the collection of Dorothy Una Ratcliffe, a relation of Lord Brotherton. She donated her self-titled ‘Gypsy Library’ to the University in 2015. Her collection reflects ‘an outsider’s admiration for Gypsy and Traveller culture.’ Many non-Gypsy authors have represented Gypsy life with the same tropes of costumes, dances, campfires and wagons, yet this fails to represent the diversity of Gypsy life. Artefacts such as those owned by Ratcliffe, are seen by Gypsies as objectification, yet are unfortunately still representative of the way many non-Gypsies imagine Gypsy life.

The final section of the exhibition catalogues the discrimination Gypsies have faced institutionally and in everyday life. Although the discrimination against Gypsies dates from 1530, it is sadly still pervasive today. Many pubs and public places had signs in the 1950s that openly refused entry to Gypsies. These were only outlawed with the introduction of the Race Relations Act. The section also displays the efforts that Gypsies have taken to counter negative stereotypes and provide their own forms of representation.

Watercolour by Fred Lawson. © Sonia Lawson.

I found the exhibition well worth a visit. Although small, it poses interesting questions about representation and who is qualified to represent a minority group. Furthermore, it challenges preconceptions about Gypsies and dispels them as well as highlighting the discrimination the minority group still faces today.

If you live or work in the area, the exhibition is the perfect place to pop in for a lunch break or for a browse after work. It is open until the 31st July alongside the gallery’s regular displays.

  • Written by

    Esther Marshall

  • All images reproduced by permission of Special Collections, University of Leeds.