In the latter years of the 19th century, in the industrial area in the north of the county of Staffordshire, England, the collection of six towns known collectively as the Potteries and subsequently to be federated into the City of Stoke-on-Trent, a group of men came together and founded a new artistic movement. They called themselves the Transformationalists. They believed that art, in all its forms (music, literature, painting and the rest), was a tool which could be used to change the world. How they intended to achieve such a transformation is not known. If they wrote a manifesto, it has been lost. If they had some declaration of principles, a list of methods, a detailed agenda of any kind, there is no trace left. The only evidence we have that they existed at all is a handful of photographs, a few pieces of music, two novels, a poem and a plethora of rumours and contradictory statements. Even the concrete evidence stands on shifting sands. For example, the main photograph, which is clearly labelled 1897, could have been taken several years later according to those who believe they have identified the young lad on the left. The truth is that no one knows when the Transformationalists were formed, how long they lasted, or whether indeed they still exist.
In 1979, a four part story entitled ‘The Revenge Of The Transformationalists’ was published by the quarterly START: Stoke Magazine Of The Arts (funded by the Stoke-on-Trent City Council and printed at the Burslem Leisure Centre, the former Old Town Hall). The story was written by three different writers, Clive J. Buttle, Jeff Hartnett and Ed Coli, and although it began in a fairly serious vein, by the end it was touching on the more infantile shores of the ridiculous. However it does include this brief history of the Transformationalists:
"A certain Malcolm Bingham and Frederick Hammersley both from the Potteries had formed the Transformationalists in 1886 along with a John Williams from Crewe and Matthew Darlington from Manchester. Their aims, though a little obscure, had been summed up in their manifesto as: `We are dedicated to changing the world through the liberation of art’. For several Years nothing much happened, more people, all local lads and lassies joined but they seemed to be in danger of becoming just another Victorian arts society, albeit with funny tastes. Then they began to become more ambitious, more vocal and proceeded to stage various artistic events throughout the Potteries. These events included all the arts, music, painting, theatre etc., either individually or combined; all very ambitious, extravagant and avant-garde with political overtones. They were either laughed at, or ignored.....mostly. Sometimes things did work out, perhaps the best example being the almost spontaneous circus-like street theatre and sculpture event staged in the newly-opened Burslem Park in 1894. Slowly, as the 19th Century drew to a close they began attracting more and more people from all walks of life, except the arts. This was just as they hoped. But the professional artists of the Six Towns (some of whom could not count) would have nothing to do with them and in some cases even actively tried to oppose them. Then in 1901 they made their first mistake, which upset the local councils and indeed some of their growing band of followers. When Queen Victoria died they staged a massive celebration; the Potteries were not amused. And so the authorities began to take notice of the political side of the Transformationalists` activities, and for three years a running battle of wits began. There was little more to tell, they became more avant-garde and more active politically until in 1904 a very volatile meeting took place in that same Burslem Park. It turned into a protest march led by all four of the founders to the home of a local, and rather bigotted, art collector. The reasons for selecting this particular person were not clear, but by the reports in the paper, several hundred people were involved, mostly spectators. In the confusion things got out of hand, theart collector lost his cool, as they say, and fired a shotgun. Unfortunately Mr. Bingham was standing in the line of fire, and sort of died. The police, directed by local councils, arrested Hammersley, Williams and Darlington. So ended the Transformationalists, and so they were forgotten. No further trace could be found of Darlington after the three were imprisoned, but Williams appeared to die there and Hammersley was last heard of in France in 1918."
(from ‘The Revenge of the Transformationalists: Part One’ by Clive J. Buttle - START No. 3, Jan-Mar 1979)
Concerning the end of the Transformationalists, everything in this account about the events of 1904 can be disregarded. There are no reports in the local paper about riots in the streets of Burslem and the death of Bingham and the disappearance of the others was merely inserted for the benefit of the next writer who took up the tale, since ‘The Revenge of the Transformationalists’ is mainly concerned with the descendants of Bingham and the return of Hammersley. The whole episode seems to have been inspired by the Chartist disturbance of August 1842 when one of the rioters was killed outside the ‘Big House’ in Market Place, Burslem. I would also question the date given for the inception of the Transformationalists. 1886 seems impossibly early to me since their most creative period seems to be at the turn of the century and they continued well into the 1920s. John Williams’ masterpiece, ‘Mirrorrorrim’ was not published until 1919 and the flyleaf gives his date of birth as March 17th. 1875, which would make him 11 when he helped found the Transformationalists. I think it is more realistic to count the September, 1894 event in Burslem Park as the first public unveiling of Transformationalism and date the origins of the movement a few months previous to this. Before leaving ‘The Revenge of the Transformationalists’, there is one fascinating element in the story which deserves some comment. In the second part, written by Jeff Hartnett (author of ‘The Dark Brethren’, reprinted by Inverted Tree press in 1997), a pivotal plot point is the discovery that Malcolm Bingham was an expert forger of Old Masters. The painting used to reveal this fact is Uccello`s `St. George and the Dragon`, which has been hanging in the National Gallery in London since 1959. At the time ‘The Revenge of the Transformationalists’ was written there was no question of the authenticity of the painting. However, in 1998 an article in The Guardian cast doubt on its provenance, claiming that the painting which the National Gallery had bought for £120,000 and, if genuine, is now worth £10 million, was actually painted in the 20th century by someone who lived on a barge on the River Thames. That Bingham was a forger is common knowledge and one of the reasons why the Stoke-on-Trent City Museum`s collection of Old Masters rarely sees the light of day, but Hartnett’s choice of that particular painting was either the result of inside knowledge or prescience or chance. It could even be taken as an example of Matthew Darlington’s ‘transformationalistic effect’. The only odd thing about the painting is the fact that the dragon is actually a two-legged wyvern and its wings bear roundels, so that it looks almost like a Spitfire, and of course, Reginald Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire, was born in Stoke-on-Trent. As to the mystery man on the Thames barge; was he Malcolm Bingham? There are no dates of birth or death for Bingham, but he could conceivably have still been alive in 1959. There is also the fact that the painter of ‘St. George and the Dragon’ was said to live on a barge. No self-respecting Transformationalist would be seen dead in London, the place was anathema to the movement as a whole. But ‘living on a barge’ implies movement, hints at an unsettled existence, suggests the man was a traveller only stopping long enough to sell his painting before moving on or going back home.
The myth that Bingham died in 1904 is perpetuated in an article by Peter Stone in START No. 16 published in Autumn 1982. This adds the ‘fact’ that Hammersley, Williams and Darlington were incarcerated in Stafford Gaol after the riot, but their names do not appear in the gaol`s records. However the Stone article does give a later date of 1892 for the formation of the Transformationalists which seems more credible. Stone also cites Hammersley and Bingham as being the two founder members, with Williams and Darlington joining later. He gives Williams’ profession as shop assistant and Darlington’s as a miner. The whole article is a curious mix of fact and fiction and one wonders if the writer was trying to achieve some kind of transformationalistic effect by altering history in this way. He repeats the opening declaration of the manifesto and claims that the rest was destroyed by Hammersley’s wife, whereas no part of the manifesto, if there ever was one, survives. As to the 1894 event in Burslem Park, Stone constructs an elaborate tale involving the theft of mayoral writing paper and invitations to 45 brass bands as part of a complicated ruse to engineer a performance of Hammersley’s ‘Symphony Of A Thousand’. I think this can be discounted in its entirety, although Stone is otherwise very authoritative on Hammersley`s music. However, yet again, he commits a serious error in remarking that the ‘Symphony In D’ was written to commemorate the death of Malcolm Bingham. Stone sheds no more light on Williams or Darlington (which is surprising considering ‘Mirrorrorrim’ and the `transformationalistic effect`) but he does add to the history of Bingham by mentioning the only piece of the artist’s work which is still in existence, not counting the forgeries of course. This is a piece of wood, painted white, with the artist`s initials scratched in the bottom right-hand corner. This was discovered nailed to a window in the cellar of the Old Town Hall in Burslem. Aside from the disputed painting in Liverpool, this is Bingham’s only original work and certainly the only one which he felt was important enough to sign with his own name. Whether he also chose to hang it over the window in the cellar of the Old Town Hall is open to speculation. As the cellar is below ground the windows are redundant. To cover them with a piece of art which is the equivalent of an empty canvas perhaps speaks volumes.
There are other unsubstantiated tales and half-truths told of the Transformationalists. One persistent rumour which seems to have no basis in fact whatsoever and refuses to be tracked down to a source, is that one of the descendants of one of the four original founders, was killed in action during the Spanish Civil War while fighting on the side of the fascists. Another is that Darlington`s son Michael emigrated to the USA and became an actor, appearing as an extra in several films directed by Arch Oboler. Then there is the matter of the shrunken head, reputedly the work of Frederick Hammersley, which once held pride of place in the collection of the Stoke-on-Trent City Museum until it was renovated, extended and reopened in 1980 and regular visitors were astonished to find that the head had been donated to the Municipal Museum at Macclesfield. Rumours abound but facts lie thin on the ground.
There was a brief revival of Transformationalism in the 1970s, instigated by the Artists Action Group which was founded in 1974 as an offshoot of the Stoke Arts Centre whose own rallying cry was ‘Everybody Is An Artist’. The AAG had an untransformationalistic penchant for publishing manifestoes (see MUSICS, No. 11 February 1977, published by the London Musicians Collective) but they did stage various transformationalistic events including a performance in the Burlem Leisure Centre of some of Frederick Hammersley’s music. The AAG limped along into the 80s and had even less success than their inspiration in changing the world through art. As their final act, they staged the Transformationalist event in Burslem`s Market Place in August 1984, consisting of a rock band performing on the bandstand while a brass band in full uniform looks on and three men smash pianos. Frederick Hammersley would have been proud.
The true history of the Transformationalists lies beneath an ocean of time, the waters muddied by the attempts of other groups to adopt and adapt their legacy, revealed only by the occasional scrap of information to come floating slowly to the surface. The reasons for their failure are obvious. They insisted on remaining in the Potteries. They felt to move to the established artistic centres of the world, to London or Paris, would dilute and taint their message. They believed that everyone could become an artist, and by thus unlocking their own creativity their own understanding of the world and their response to it would be transformed. Through a gradual process as more and more people turned away from the control of the established order, thus the world itself would be changed. The Transformationalists were not interested in merely changing other artists. They wanted to change everybody and so they started in the six towns of the Potteries and due to indifference their movement remained there and refused to spread. Of course there are those who believe that Transformationalism didn`t fail. That the raison d`etre of the movement was to plant certain seeds in the fertile soil of the rational world and allow them to grow over the years into weeds of disruption which would choke our conditioned response to reality and allow us to glimpse a new vision. Artists, Revolutionaries, Occult Visionaries, however you perceive them the truth of the matter is that once you have been alerted to their presence your view of the world has been radically transformed. Perhaps the Transformationalists did not fail after all.