Original article Photomonitor, January 2018
Trish Morrissey / A Certain Slant of Light
Interviewed by Katy Barron
Trish Morrissey’s current exhibition A Certain Slant of Light is an exhibition of photographs and films based around the two last female residents of Hestercombe House, near Taunton, Somerset, a stately home and garden, parts of which date back to 1280. Working with archival material, Morrissey created photographic and moving image works relating to the lives of Elizabeth Maria Tyndale Warre and The Right Honourable Mrs Constance Portman, who each owned and ran the Hestercombe estate at different times in the 19th and 20th centuries. Below, Katy Barron spoke with Morrissey about the creation of these works.
Katy Barron: Please can you begin by explaining the genesis of the project and how your chance encounter with two reproductions of black and white photographs led to a year-long residency at Hestercombe?
Trish Morrissey: Well, that is quite a long story! I had been invited to Hestercombe Gallery (which at the time had only been open a year) by Kate Best who was guest curator on a coming exhibition called Double Take:Photography and the Garden in 2015. The gallery is on the first floor of Hestercombe House, a stately home which has been there in some iteration since the 1200’s, though recent history has not been kind to the house. Since the 1870’s it has had some updating which removed a lot of the previous architecture, and since the 1950s has been home to the Somerset county council, most notably used as the fire service head quarters. The estate is famed for its gardens which were taken over by the Hestercombe Trust and reclaimed from the jungle they had become about 20 years ago. The house then went into the Trust’s care 3 years ago, hence the gallery opening. So on my visit, I came across some photographs hanging in the Column Room restaurant, which is also in the house. They were from the early 1900’s, mostly of the interior of the house when the last family (the Portmans) lived there before the house went to the Crown in lieu of death duties. Included in this group of pictures were the two portraits of Mrs Portman that you mentioned. What struck me about them was the way she was posed, always looking to her right and slightly down. I was interested in finding out more about her so was put in touch with Kim Legate who is the archivist of the Trust and spent a long time studying the material held there. That was where I found out about Elizabeth Maria Tyndale Warre (who had been Mrs Portman’s predecessor) whose family had owned the property for nearly 600 years. She was unmarried and was the last of her line. Both women had run the estate themselves independent of men in a time when this would have been very unusual.
Miss Warre (as she was known) was a spinster and Mrs Portman was a widow from early on in her marriage as her husband Teddy had died young from pneumonia. So as I studied the material around their lives held in the archive, two very interesting characters started to form in my mind. There was no visual material for Miss Warre (b1790-d1872), only letters, newspaper articles, shopping receipts, a book of sketches made by a young cousin, and most valuable of all, an account of her death which included anecdotes about her character and behaviour, how she looked and dressed. This gave me huge scope as to how I might play her, a completely free rein. Mrs Portman on the other hand was photographed extensively by her son who was a keen photographer and would have used one of the first box brownies. So with her characterisation, there was if you like, already a body of images to go on. In the archive there were also fabulous interviews with former staff of Mrs Portman and their relatives who spoke about their experience of working for her and living on the estate (which had many workers’ cottages). These anecdotes showed quite a different side to the ‘official’ story of her life. So I then made a proposal to the Gallery director, Tim Martin, to see if there was any way what I wanted to do could be incorporated into the programme, and very luckily, he said that he could offer me a year residency, which was the most amazing offer. I had a room in the house to work in, 24 hour access to the house and gardens, and off I went. The whole process from my first visit to the show opening was two and a half years. Though most of the filming and photography were done in the Spring/Summer/Autumn of 2017.
KB: Much of your work centres around questions of identity and photography, sitting in the liminal, often uncomfortable, space between truth and fiction. How did you resolve questions about identity and fiction when you were making A Certain Slant of Light and how far does veracity matter when you are making work about people whose family members may be living?
TM: I used the archive material as ‘stuff’, material to be used as points of departure. There is no such thing as ‘true’ history as it is only ever a view-point. Sure, there may be facts like births and deaths, battles fought and won, but circumstances, thoughts, feelings, events happening in parallel with these big ‘facts’ are always interpretations. The author Hilary Mantel is someone whom I refer to often. She says her job as a writer of historical fiction is ‘to take the past out of the archive and to relocate it into a body’. She also says that ‘Facts are strong, but they are not stable.’ There are often contradictions in the historical sources which themselves are already interpretations. My own experience in the Hestercombe archive is that some of the photographs of a slender woman around 30 years of age were claimed to be of Mrs Portman. But comparing Mrs Portman’s date of birth with the date of the photograph, I realised she would have been already in her mid fifties. So it could not be her. This was someone else’s interpretation of the material, which had become ‘ fact’. Until I came along and made a new interpretation. Mantel also says that ‘facts’ are being rewritten all the time
I think because I play the roles of both women in the photographs and films, the idea of identity becomes slippery. I am working as an artist who is performing rather than as an actress trying to embody or impersonate (not that that is only what an actor does), so my approach is different. I see the work as impressionistic, a glance at a character, rather than attempting some sort of documentary. Especially with Miss Warre, whose life straddled the early to mid nineteenth century, my version of her is purely imagined. The clothing is not trying to be historical. The way I played her is informed by the document in the archive that outlines her death and her character. In particular, the descriptions of her eccentric style of dress. I rather saw her as a time traveller, I played her as I imagined I might have been had I been her. So she is a hybrid.
I interviewed the 85 year-old grand niece of Mrs Portman who was born when she was already a white haired old lady. Her memories of ‘Con Con’, as she was known to her, were of a wonderful grandmother figure who was warm and kind. But my characterisation was from the servants’ perspective which of course was very different. I was very interested in the relationship between master and servant, control and letting go which is what the film ‘ Six Scenes’ is about. There is a huge responsibility playing people whose relatives still live, which I am very conscious of. But I am if you like, attempting to put flesh on the bones of dry history.
KB: I very much enjoyed the contrasts in personality and presentation between the two women that you present. Whilst both of them existed within the upper echelons of British society, where they both had unusual responsibility and independence, you emphasise Miss Warre’s eccentricities and the contrasting constriction and convention that ruled Mrs Portman’s life. Did you develop the two personae in parallel so that they balance each other in terms of their character, historical period and narrative?
TM: The development of the characters was very intuitive, there was no big plan when I set out. As each character became more alive in my mind, I would try out different costumes, stances and mind-sets. I worked with an acting coach to learn the Laban technique, which in essence breaks all personalities down into a set number of exaggerated gestures, which you perform while trying to ‘find’ the character. Then when you play the character, these gestures are internalised, but somehow, they reveal themselves subtly. Each character had a sort of talisman that as soon as I held or wore it, I entered the mindset of the character, and then the body followed. So for Miss Warre, it was the blue contact lenses (she was famed for her beautiful blue eyes, mine are brown) and for Mrs Portman it was the pearl earrings, which she was never without. So I did not set out to have a balance, but the two women were so genuinely contrasting in character, or at least as much as I could glean from the archive material, that it could not have turned out any other way.
KB: It could be argued that all art is autobiographical to some degree and I wonder how far the two women in A Certain Slant of Light reflect aspects of yourself and if this is unavoidable when making work that is so centred upon ideas around identity? Equally you were making work in a historic setting that is so far removed from modern experience that you must have found it challenging to inhabit the lives of these two women and I wonder how far your work investigates their positions as independent women within a typically patriarchal society?
TM: Well, yes and no. Certainly, my own life experience filters through into the work even when playing people who are so different from me. I felt most at home with Miss Warre, I really knew her character, or at least, my interpretation of it, while Mrs Portman was more challenging to inhabit. Her need to control everything around her meant that I had to develop a certain rigidity and quickness, as I think she would have felt that she could never let her guard down in case everything fell apart, while inside, she might have been in turmoil. Of course, the real Mrs Portman may not have felt like this at all, but this is where the hybrid between she and I come in, if ‘I ‘ as I am now, had to live her life, I would have lived it very differently. But then of course there is the argument about how circumstances and outside forces influence character and behaviour. Certainly the partriarchal society they lived in adds more texture to my work. Mrs Portman actively campaigned against women’s suffrage, while I feel Miss Warre might never have married because she would lose agency, would no longer be able to do as she pleased. While lives and circumstances might change, people’s hopes and desires don’t change very much across the centuries and the classes. Humans want to feel in control of their lives, to be needed, to be free, but more often they suffer oppression and lack of opportunity.
KB: This project feels like an evolution from your recent work in Sweden and Finland in that you more fully embody and interpret your characters – taking them from single still images into a complex filmed narrative. Was this a conscious choice on your part as a result of spending so long in the archive and was your earlier experience of making work about ‘real’ people important for the work at Hestercombe?
TM: Yes, it was a natural follow on. When I started the research at Hestercombe in 2015, I had just finished ‘Ten People in a Suitcase’, the series of photographs for the Serlachius Museum in Finland. That work was based on the Museum’s online archive of over 30,000 photographs, which had been taken in the town of Mänttä, and spanned the entire history of photography. Most of the photographs had simple archive titles, with a number and perhaps a location, but little or no information about the individuals depicted. I used the photographs as starting points, and there was plenty of scope for interpretation. The ‘Rosa and Irma’ project at Bohusläns Museum in 2016 was the first time that I played multiple roles in the same frame. I did not plan to play all the parts in A Certain Slant of Light but it was a natural development. The luxury of having a year at Hestercombe rather than just a few weeks on the other two projects meant that I could really explore the characters and the surroundings. I had only planned on making one small single scene film with Miss Warre, but as the project developed, my ideas expanded. I also feel that given another year, I could have expanded even further!