Sitting around a campfire with a blanket on our shoulders, singing and talking, can be a defining memory shared by many of us. This ritual is taken to another level with scouts and girl guides whose uniform blankets are embellished with the badges of shared histories constituting a collective folklore.
Here, Hamish Coney, former scout, art historian and passionate collector with a keen eye, writes an ode to these groups and their blankets.
We were called Brownie, Cub, Girl Guide, Scout, Rover, Sea Scout; we were the pack. As a young boy I was dragooned, probably unwillingly, into that arcane twilight of Empire experience that was Cubs and Scouts. I liked the uniform, although I, like most schoolboys, was highly diffident about being forced into it. I sought to customise mine as soon as possible. I realised that there were a myriad of ways the Cub or Scout uniform could be ‘cooled up’ and I was away. There were badges of all sorts to add to sleeves as well as a range of funky woggles ( my favourite was a scarlet plastic wheku head that I nattily decorated with a black tongue and green eyes). Although there were set guidelines for tying scarves the ‘default’ setting could be messed with in all sorts of ways.
Most of all I recall Scout nights were loud, barely controlled chaos. Akela, Boo Boo and Bagheera did their level best to assert some degree of order, but most of the time we were running amok: twanging each other’s tent leaders; setting up pratfall traps for the unsuspecting; or torturing compasses and gas billys - sabotaging the simplest of tasks. It was all a bit Five Go Mad on Mescaline and bloody good, clean fun. For me today there is a vestigial knowledge of knot-tying skills, the most rudimentary of camping skills, and a deep nostalgia for those pre-device days when kids got together after school and had a grouse old time.
‘… I search among fragments (emotional and formal) for the scatterings of history.’ Jannis Kounellis
I imagine some grown men have still kept their uniforms and occasionally find them stored away and marvel at just how they managed to get all three levels of the swimming badges. For most, I suspect, Cubs and Scouts is a time they have long forgotten. A time when they were in that fog of boyhood and young adolescence when being good at making models or collapsing your enemy’s tent with one tug were skills genuinely worth having.
That is the context within which I returned to the Scout blankets, by trying to be true to my younger, fun-loving, easily distracted and barely controllable 13- year- old self. The scout blankets stand as a kind of mappa mundi of the pack experience memorializing, as the most impressive ones do, decades worth of jamborees and gymkhanas (a blanket in my collection features jamboree badges from 1936 to 1973). Each badge is freighted with experience and the specificity of place: The Australian Corroboree at Woodhouse in 1966 or the combined Raupo/Rapanui Contingent gathering in Auckland in 1972. These events warranted a special badge to record the occasion.
The blankets can be viewed as both a sociological phenomenon and as a nascent art form whose roots go back well into the past. If a date must be chosen then it is 1908 and the formation of the scouting movement based on Robert Baden-Powell’s publication Scouting for Boys. Here in New Zealand this of course carries all the baggage of Empire, however the teaching of practical skills for young boys and soon girls and the tribal nature of the pack, articulated a global Esperanto on the concept of belonging: the first international Scout Pack was formed in Chile in 1909 and the rest is history.
Once a year our pack would head off to a big jamboree to compete, scoff cheerios and create mayhem on a larger mega-pack scale. We’d come home laden with badges swapped or earned in noble competition. We added them to the growing design on our blankets, which in some cases had been passed down from a dad or uncle, maybe even a grandad.
The blankets are, of course, mostly not the work of jelly-bean thieving schoolboys, but, more usually, their loving mothers, aunts and grandmothers. At their essence, the Scout blankets are a collaboration between sons and daughters, their parents and extended family members. I imagine the formulation of the design schema, the placement of the key elements and badges must have been the subject of intense debate and discussion: the goal of course to be true to the Scout or Girl Guide experience and also to deliver a design with genuine ‘wow’ factor.
Sadly, I do not think I had a blanket like the ones I collect now, or as seen in this publication. I suspect waves of joy, wonder and partially lost, suppressed, mourned, even misunderstood emotions overpower most observers of these incredible objects on first (re)view. They really are a sight to behold. Like standing in the wet mist of a thundering waterfall, it takes time for one’s being to warm to the task at hand. These blankets are sensuous. If any object can be understood as a detailed route map of childhood then surely it is one of these wondrous Scout blankets.
This is where the art comes in. The Scout blanket is in its own modest way a bit like a whare whakairo or carved Māori meeting house. Each individual part is there first and foremost for its narrative or metaphorical role – just like an amo board, maihi or kōwhaiwhai design. Each badge, scarf or pennant is a record of a place, event or achievement. An old blanket speaks to a whakapapa in the same way a carved house is not just to be marvelled at for its magnificent carvings or the intricacy of its tukutuku panels – - it is telling a story. It exists to be read and within those threads and badges is a history of precious childhood experience and memories.
The braided nature of the blankets, the sense of a societal structure cascades out from the Scout blankets, as a does a rich past articulated by the dozens of badges. This ties in closely to the central themes of Arte Povera . An Italian post-war art movement that emphasised artisanal production, old modes ‘retrieved’, material obsolescence and rejection of new technology in favour of the mythological and intuitive. The Scout blankets’ ‘prelinguistic’ modes of narrative provide us with an art historical hall-pass to sneak out of the, at times, austere and coercive modernist conceptual detention room – - and avoid the maddening, emotionally- unavailable drolleries of contemporary art hipster poses. These blankies are shape-shifting hybrids. Utilitarian in such a simple way, they are almost instantly dismissed from a serious art context, yet they are so layered in time, gender, family and social context that they outgun all but the most fully credentialed contemporary art installations. In other words, these blankets are pretty cool.
What makes the Arte Povera door the one that feels like the most illuminating conceptual art lens through which to focus on these blankets is the idea of human nature as the subject in a broad sense and in particular making space for the performative and differing notions of ritual. In this case of scout blankets I refer to the regalia (the pack) of belonging in both a prescriptive, and as we can see with our own eyes, a very elastic sense as well.
Whilst framing these objects within an art discourse may seem like drawing a long bow. Assigning a context where none exists is the guilty pleasure of many art critic, we must again look with our eyes and ask what is both the purpose and the intent of these creations.
Jannis Kounnelis, who I trust would adore these blankets, was a great believer in art revealing what is already there, not by making it concrete, but by letting history speak in the present:
It is entirely conceivable, indeed probable, that the makers of these blankets, those young boys and girls and their resourceful supporting relatives, framed their creations primarily as works of art, and anticipated that is just how they would be consumed. For the lucky few, their 15 minutes of fame would come at next year’s jamboree. It is in their artisanal mode of making, distinct visual vocabulary, collaborative processes and commitment to asking a shared history to sit around the campfire year after year that these blankets so closely align with the aims of Arte Povera. In the process creating a visual narrative of childhood, belonging and a collective experience.
Thanks to everyone for their generosity
Photos by Darryl Ward
Styling by Kirsty Cameron
Retouching by Sjoerd Langeveld
Models - JK, Lily, Monty, and Tom from The Others Agency, and our friends - Areez, Arlo, and Felix
Lily wears Cynthia’s girl guide blanket created over 50 years of involvement in the guides and with much of that being a guide leader
Hair and Makeup by Katie Rogers
All vintage Scout blankets belong to the National Scout Museum, Kaiapoi. Thanks to Paul Van Herpt.
Hamish Coney is Managing Director of the auction house Art+Object in Auckland, New Zealand. He’s also an art historian and Qantas Media Awards winning columnist who writes regularly on culture, art and architecture. Hamish is a trustee of the Kauri Project, dedicated to raising awareness of, and contributing to the fight against kauri dieback disease which threatens to eradicate New Zealand’s ‘king’ of native trees.