By Elizabeth Edwards
On the northern edges of Lancashire’s industrial (or now post-industrial) landscape where the remains of textile mills, mines and their cottages creep along valleys and their water sources, and where industrial sprawl meets the northern moors and the Pennines, tucked away is Gawthorpe Hall. It is a Jacobean house, it was probably designed and built by one of the Smythsons who were responsible for the great houses of Longleat, Hardwick and Bolsover. Subject to many vicissitudes over time, it was ‘done over’ by Charles Barry for a local industrialist.
In September, I was invited by Mid-Pennine Arts and the National Trust to a participate in an ‘in-conversation’ about the interpretation of historical sites with Richard Dean, National Trust Curator for the northwest region, Tom Freshwater, National Trust Contemporary Art Programme Manager, and Adrian Richardson, Chairman of the 1635 Household, a costumed history interpretation group. There was a lively and amicable debate around the purposes of both re-enactment history and contemporary art interventions in historical spaces, and more generally, how the National Trust pitches the ‘time’ of a given historical site. From which moments does it come? What constitutes the ‘narrative’ of a house, whose narrative and to what extent can this be blurred, challenged or refigured by different sorts of intervention?
The context for this debate was an installation, Flicker, by artist Catherine Bertola, a commission to explore and respond to the historical layers of Gawthorpe Hall from the perspective of the people who have occupied that space over time. Catherine, whose work has often focused on questions of history, memory and place, positioned a camera-like object in four rooms of Gawthorpe Hall. These discrete interventions displayed a shifting series of images around the imagined history of the room and people who had used it. As the visitor looks into the ‘ground glass’ plate, a video of flickering stills animates the space, inserting imagined previous lived experiences into the space of the visitor.
Part of our wide-ranging conversation thus inevitably focused on the role of photographs in constructing a sense of historical space and experience. There were immediate tensions between the forensic use of photographs to ‘furnish’ an historic house and the more metaphorical use of photographic appearance to reconstruct historical experience. What was interesting in Flicker was the way in which historical distance and thus photographic appropriateness shaped responses to the images. While the 1950s children playing in the long gallery felt comfortable – within the realms of normal photographic apprehension, others offered a vertiginous temporal collapse which demanded a more hyperbolic response that Roland Barthes’ simple ”here-then: here-now”. This, for me, was especially so in the dining room installation. The viewer looked into the camera, which almost, but not quite, filled their field of view. Across the ground glass flickered scenes of a 17th century household meal, chatting, passing food and so on carefully reconstructed by members of the 1635 group. The images offered an almost uncanny layering of time – 21st century re-enactors ‘being’ 17th century in a room and seated on chairs which were a nineteenth century construction of an imagined and reconstructed 17th century. Yet translated into the black and white space of photographs flickering across the glass of the camera that work opened an ethereal space for historical imagination.