Sunday, 25 August 2019

Guardians and Ghosts

I've spent so much time in the past few months hunched over a hot computer, working on digital collages, prints, and books, that it has come as something of a relief in recent weeks to re-connect with the pleasures of simple, serendipitous photography, just wandering about with a camera slung over my shoulder, seeing what there is to see. Unfortunately, the weather – alternately too wet and too bright – has meant that the best wandering was to be had indoors. But this is precisely why museums, galleries, and the National Trust exist, as far as I'm concerned.

National Portrait Gallery

For my daughter's birthday we met up in London and, after a pleasant meal down in Brixton, visited the National Portrait Gallery to see the major Cindy Sherman retrospective there. Sherman is not really my taste in photography, but then it wasn't my treat, after all, and both the daughter and the Prof loved it. So, having given the exhibition the obligatory once-over, my son and I wandered off into the dark patriarchal backwoods of the rest of the gallery. It's a real treasure-house, if you like portraiture, although – having visited several times in the past couple of years – I do think they could refresh the displays more often from their vast collection held in store. Anyone know who the pensive bloke above is? I forgot to note down his name. But I love the way the camera has turned this negligible little niche into a Renaissance portrait painting.


I was intrigued (not to say slightly spooked) by the veiled Victorian figure above, one of many busts to be found in the Gothic clutter of Tyntesfield, a 19th-century monstrosity near Bristol now in the care of the National Trust, built by one William Gibbs from the profits of the South American guano trade. The Gibbs family had strong Hispanic connections, and many of the rooms have an unmistakably heavy Iberian overlay on top of the plush Victoriana. Despite their no-expense-spared opulence, most of the interiors are as a consequence rather oppressive, and it's not a place I can ever imagine wanting to live. The sheer skill involved in rendering this veiled woman in marble is extraordinary, though, and she makes a nice enough photo on that sunny windowsill. But it's obvious that what she really wants is to become an excellent ghostly Guardian. Patience, madam, patience.

Clevedon Court

In another part of the Somerset woods, this jolly fellow is part of an Elizabethan carved limestone doorway at Clevedon Court, another NT property near Bristol. I'm intrigued by his insouciantly folded arms, and whatever it is he is doing with the fingers of his right hand. Is that some sort of gang sign? The Wodwo Boyz, maybe. If you've ever watched The Draughtsman's Contract you can easily imagine him stepping down when no-one is looking, like one of those motionless living statues you see everywhere these days, and sneaking around the place in search of mischief.


Now, I really like this photograph. It actually needed some rather serious editing, to remove some distracting surroundings and some poor framing on my part, but is still essentially a truthful representation (yeah, yeah, that's what they all say). We were going down a dark, narrow corridor at Tyntesfield, when we spotted this pair of framed prints of the Avon Gorge. As it happens, we ourselves have a copy of the right-hand print in the Bristol flat, dated 1756, although in rather better condition than this and also lightly hand-coloured. So, simply for record purposes, I grabbed a shot of the pair. But, as so often happens when the brain concentrates on a strong "subject", it fails to see what else is present in the frame of vision; in this case the reflection of the elaborate window in the opposite wall. The ability to see and not to ignore such intrusions, and then either to incorporate or exclude them, is one of the traits that mark a competent photographer. Serendipitously, though, my lapse produced a photograph of greater interest than a mere record shot. I love the ghostly blue shimmer of that reflection in the imperfect, antique glass of the frame. So much so, I, um, edited it a little more...

That may be taking the idea of "reframing the shot" a little too literally for some, I imagine. I also rather like the offending window itself, a classic Victorian Gothic confection, and you can expect to see it reappearing here, from time to time, in one new guise or another.



Martyn Cornell said...

The chap at the top looks a bit like Pitt the Younger ...

Mike C. said...


Thanks - a good thought (I've never met the man, myself) but a search on Pitt and NPG doesn't throw up any likely matches.