Liberty or Death: The Flags of Peterloo
On August 16th, 1819, over 60,000 people marched on St. Peter’s Field, Manchester. Hailing from miles around, from towns like Bolton, Stockport, Bury, Rochdale and Oldham, the people stood side by side in the name of political reform. On that day, they were the many.
The protesters carried with them, flags bearing declarations of resistance not unlike those seen at marches today. “Liberty or Death,” “REFORM,” “Hold to the Law,” are just a few of the statements that soar over the heads of the disaffected masses in Mike Leigh’s Peterloo. It’s not hard to imagine these slogans emblazoned across one of Katharine Hamnetts’ iconic 1980s protest tees, or sailing down Whitehall on cardboard signs.
As is typical of any Mike Leigh film, the Peterloo production team went above and beyond the call of duty in researching every element of art and design, producing a work of staggering historical accuracy and authenticity.
We spoke to the film’s Art Director, Jane Brodie, all about the painstaking recreation of those proud flags.
What did you know of the Peterloo Massacre before beginning work on the film? I was certainly not taught about this in school.
I’m ashamed to say, like many, even with an A Level in History, I only had a faint memory of it being something we’d skimmed over when studying The Great Reform Act - but I couldn’t remember any detail. My Uncle David is the only person I know who had heard of it. However at least now I hope this film, and the bicentenary, will bring the event and this great tale of people banding together, to light.
How was the film pitched to you and, more specifically, what was going to be required of the art department?
The film was ‘pitched’ to me on the last day of filming Mr. Turner - although a pitch wasn’t necessary, it was more about when the dream team could reunite! For a creative, Mike Leigh’s process and film family is impossible to turn down. The level of detail and world building that goes into every set is such a joy to unfold. Peterloo was waiting in my diary for three and a half years…
Closer to the time, when Production Designer Suzie Davies called to explain what we had in store, it sounded impossibly ambitious (dozens of sets, a spectrum of social classes, filming spread across the country, historic details, an awful lot of horses, more exteriors), but nothing phases Suzie.
At key points in the film, we see characters carrying flags of resistance. Presumably the flags and the slogans they bear are based on historical record. What resources were available to you?
Thankfully we had historian Jacqueline Riding on board. Jacqueline’s extensive research in prep meant we started on the right foot with a good pile of books, phone numbers of expert historians and archives to visit. Notable resources for the banners include: Samuel Bamford’s accounts, the documentation of the trials that followed, Touchstones Museum in Rochdale and the People’s History Museum in Manchester which has a brilliant collection of banners from the period.
Do the flags recreate specific artefacts from 1819, or are they more a representation of the flags that will have been used?
As far as we and the experts know, only one banner survives from the actual Massacre which is held at Touchstones Museum in Rochdale. We were lucky enough to meet the surviving banner in person with Vivian Lochhead, who had conserved the banner in the 1970s and was able to shed some light on how it was constructed, painted and the materials used. She told the story of how the banner had been hidden under a woman’s dress to escape the end of the massacre. So many banners were destroyed at the massacre, or even during the trials afterward - we can’t be certain as to why - whether it was to protect the makers of the banners from being prosecuted or to protect the prosecutors from proving the makers’ innocence - this is something we can only speculate on.
Compiling a list of the banners present was a huge piece of detective work for which I think every member of the rehearsing cast and crew were involved. I’d get emails, calls or even yells across the Art Department if anyone spotted so much as a hint of a mention of a banner in their research. I pulled quotes from accounts of the Massacre and from the illustrations drawn shortly afterwards, and compiled a spreadsheet which included columns like “Who, Where, Words, Image, Fabric, Fabric Colour, Lettering Colour, Size”. A clearer picture started to emerge.
There is a clash in accounts we had to balance - some talk of the beautiful, peaceful nature of these banners, made for this day which was meant to be almost a celebration of the people coming together, they had worn their Sunday Best. Others talk of the violent, terrifying imagery on these disgraceful banners. One account describes a banner with the image of a scary, bloody woman with a dagger in hand - we later realised this was probably a description of an image of Justice someone had got carried away with. I pointed out this clash of accounts to Mike - he told me to work with both sides, as those accounts, peaceful and terrified, are the truths we have on the matter.
The flags are so a vital to the film as they sum up the key ideas at the core of this story. What notes did Mike Leigh give you when you started work on the film and, in particular, what did he have to say about the flags?
Mike’s key message was to be true to the history, to reveal the individual people’s voices to the best of our ability with the accounts and information we could find. Thankfully, despite the lack of physical evidence, in our research, those voices did emerge.
The colours and the typefaces used across the flags make them all feel part of a set, of a brand. Were the flags created under a single vision? Or is their shared aesthetic more of a coincidence, a product of what was available and the trends of the time?
The brand is 1819’s working Manchester. It’s a beautiful mixture of styles and hands inspired by their means. After researching the possible making processes and inspirations for the designs of banners from the period, I compiled an extensive research pack to help our team of makers 'Get into the Character' of 1819, but they were encouraged to use their own voice within the period.
The banners were purposefully made by different combinations of about 15 people - from skilled painters, embroiderers and pattern cutters to people who have never painted anything more than a wall before. Some worked with guides/design examples and some worked completely freehand. I particularly liked giving the people who “couldn’t sew” some sewing to do. It gives the banners a unique personality you can’t fake. In the same way the finesse of a professional embroiderer gives a level of quality only those skilled craftsmen would have had. The banners were made over the period of a few months from a huge variety of fabrics, (sourced by our stellar Set Decoration team), paints and gold leaf techniques. Hopefully the unique quirks of each banner can also be seen in detail in your exhibition.
Can you tell us about the fabrics and printing methods used at the time?
Well, a lot of the protestors were workers in cotton and silk factories, which is something we worked with, imagining maybe they would have taken the end of a roll, a scrap from a test run, or even specially made some extra fabric for the occasion. As part of my detective work, I drew a map of where the different fabric (e.g. cotton or silk) factories were at the time, with their route to St Peter’s Square to try and work out who would have used what kind of fabric for each banner.
“Printing” wise - all my research pointed towards these flags being hand painted, like sign-writing. The machine printed world in Peterloo was kept to the newspapers, books and posters (notably through Wroe’s printing press office which we recreated in the film). Looking at the period, they could have used woodblocks to achieve such large designs if they wanted repeat, but there was no sign of this in the research — notably through looking at the extensive collection at the People’s History Museum in Manchester every banner was unique — and our message with these flags was about individual voices speaking out. It’s a bit like the difference between a printed sign or a hand drawn sign at today’s marches.
Were you able to create the flags using these same materials and processes? Or were there any modern day limitations?
Thankfully crafts like signwriting and embroidery are making a great comeback so we were able to work with a mixture of skilled and unskilled craftspeople to get the variety of voices.
The flags are extremely striking and they feel immediately iconic, despite the fact that the events of 1819 are relatively unknown. From an art and design point of view, is there a modern day example of protest art that you think is particularly powerful or iconic?
This is an area that certainly could be improved upon. My mind jumps to protest posters of the 1960s or 1980s but not to the present day. In terms of our modern day protest art, I am allergic to the funded printed placards we see in swarms at protests these days. Is that really what the person holding it truly thinks? Similarly to the Peterloo banners, I have much more time for the home made signs with unique voices and points of view that open my mind to the ideas developing on our political stage.
Liberty or Death.
Mike Leigh’s Peterloo plays on Curzon screens from Friday 2 November.