Character Studies

Curator and writer David Chandler interviewed artist Trish Morrissey about her work at Hestercombe Gallery, Somerset where she was Artist in Residence for 2017. The exhibition Trish Morrissey: A certain slant of light opened at the gallery on November 18th 2017, and ran until February 25th 2018. This interview first appeared in the catalogue for the show.


DC: Your previous photographic work has explored the conventions of photography itself, especially in relation to family portraiture and figurative representation, so what drew you to Hestercombe as a place and a context for your work?


TM: I think those themes are still there, though perhaps more subtle in this instance. I am still interested in the language of photography for sure, but also in families and particularly in the stories of women.


I first came to Hestercombe as Kate Best’s guest. The gallery had been open for less than a year, and though I was aware of the renovations that were taking place in the gardens – I live fairly nearby – I didn’t know about the gallery or its ambitions. Kate was curating a show there, so she asked if I would like to come and see the spaces and look around the rest of the house and gardens.


It was April so the gardens were just coming to life and I was quite overwhelmed by the environment.  But most of all, I was struck by the photographs of The Right Honorable Constance Portman, the last occupant of the house, that hang in one of the restaurants. In all the photographs she is looking away from the camera, with her eyes cast slightly down. The pictures were taken by her son with a Box Brownie camera between 1900 and 1916. It was the beginning of handheld photography, so though obviously posed the photographs were very much in the mode of snapshots. It was her averted gaze that really intrigued me. This powerful woman, who ran the house and estate single-handedly after the death of her husband in 1911, who employed over seventy gardeners and maids, ran the farm and estate at a profit, was prominent in church and took charge of educating many local children looked cowed in front of the camera. As well as the unconventional posing, she intrigued me as a woman. I then spent some days in the archive at Hestercombe and at the Somerset Archives gleaning more information about the occupants of the house. There are some wonderful interviews with surviving servants and their descendants made in the 1990s, which are very revealing about Mrs Portman’s character.  


I also came across the story of Elizabeth Maria Tyndale Warre. Her family had owned the estate since the 1390s and consecutive generations had lived there. She was the last of the Tyndale/Warre/Bamfylde family and remained unmarried and without children. Her story is completely captivating but in very different ways to Mrs Portman. Known as ‘Miss Warre of Hestercombe’, Elizabeth Maria ran the estate from 1819 until her death in 1872. No images of her exist apart from a painted portrait made when she was about four or five years old. However, there is a lot of material about her life in the archives, things like household accounts, shopping receipts, newspaper articles and, most invaluable of all, an account of her life written on her death by a cousin. This document reveals an eccentric character who made her own clothes and hats (which according to the document caused much mirth and excitement whenever she went into Taunton, the nearest town); who was forthright, a great orator and always won an argument. When she inherited at 29, it slowly became apparent that her father had run up thousands of pounds worth of debt when speculative business ventures in the ‘New World’ had come to nothing. It took her five years to pay everything off, by selling anything of value, closing down most of the house, reducing the number of servants to a skeleton staff, then eventually selling the house to a local MP with herself as sitting tenant. On her death the house was bought by the Portmans.


I spent quite a few months digging around in the lives of Mrs Portman and Miss Warre. The two women were from different eras and were both eccentric, but in very different ways. I felt that there was huge scope for me to work with these characters.


DC: In both cases these women seem to represent complicated and slightly ambiguous figures of Victorian and Edwardian women in authority; women who oversee a private, domestic realm of land, house and staff and exercise a particular kind of power over that realm – and, all this within a broader patriarchal social order. What was it about this sense of female power and authority that interested you?


TM: I think that their power manifested itself in very different ways. There certainly was a patriarchal social order, which I think Mrs Portman would have adhered to and felt was right. She was very conscious of appearance and to be seen to be doing what was right. Her days were very ordered. She was against women’s suffrage and actively campaigned for the status quo. Servants were kept in their place. Maids were not allowed to look out of the window, or look her in the eye, for example. She exerted total control over them, even on their few hours off on a Sunday afternoon. She would play the gramophone for them, and she would choose the music. It was common at this time for house staff to remain unmarried, and to devote all their energy and time to looking after the wants of their employers. I have played her as quite conflicted in the film Six Scenes. She is a woman asserting control, but there are hints that she might be concealing her softer side. I imagine she thought that women were silly and needed to be looked after, apart from herself of course. I also imagine that she had to be rigid and guarded, in control at all times, or she might crumble.


Miss Warre on the other hand (at least in my imagination) would have asserted her power by not giving a damn about what anyone thought of her. She would have rejected the social order. She reportedly had many suitors and was a great beauty with thick blonde hair tossed up any old how with a comb. I feel she was a rebel and defied convention. Her life spanned the middle of the 1800s and it would have been very remarkable for her to live alone with few staff and without a husband, and yet not have the status of widow like Mrs Portman. Miss Warre rarely left the estate. However, she did throw a few lavish parties that were reported in the newspapers. She was fun; she enjoyed life very much. All her letters are in a scrawling, almost illegible hand, mostly just a few sentences, signed off with ‘ ...yours, in haste...’ In her later years, she became quite reclusive and only really saw her cousins who she was very fond of and who stayed with her for extended periods.


But what really interested me was how this outside force of society would impact on the physical and psychological aspects of the two women. I was interested in Mrs Portman’s rigidity, and Miss Warre's fluidity.


DC: In what ways do you think that society impacted on them?


TM: Mrs Portman was active in the church, she was very involved at the hospital in Taunton (one of the wards is still named after her) and regularly brought food hampers for the staff there. She did extremely good deeds for the community and despite her controlling nature, looked after her own staff well. She was very visible in society and would have been in control of her image. Having so much responsibility, having so many people relying on her for their livelihood, would have taken its toll. A woman without a husband in a man’s world would have had to work extra hard to keep it all together; it would have required a huge amount of psychological energy. I imagine her breathing would have been shallow, her steps quick, her mind racing from one thing to another, but giving the appearance of complete control. She would have looked like her corset was tightly laced at all times, even when she was not wearing one.


The outside pressure on Miss Warre would have been to marry; society expected it. She was concerned about keeping the Estate afloat. She was always worrying about money and was frugal in everyday matters. However, she was very generous when required. Many of her good deeds came to light only on her death - the estate children whose education she paid for; the sick curate who she looked after and whose medical bills and replacement she paid for while he recovered. But mostly she stayed at home where no one was looking and did as she pleased.


DC: Body language, and particularly the language of gesture, has always been important in your work, and I can see how that became true again when considering the characters of Mrs Portman and Miss Warre, and the different ways in which they exercise that authority. The ambiguous averted gaze, for example, of Mrs Portman, contains all manner of enigmatic possibility. I imagine it’s one of the things that attracts you to photographs of people, that they deal less with facts than with ‘suggestions’, with what things ‘seemed’ to be. Is this the indeterminate space – the ‘seeming’ space – that you inhabit in your work? And if so how has it been manifest in your work at Hestercombe?


TM: Yes, that is a really good way of putting it. I ‘seem’ to be someone, and it is the conditioning or experience that the viewer brings to my work that fills the space in a way. Our brains always want things to work out, so I will ‘seem’ to be the mother in a family group on the beach as I was in the series Front, for example, because I am inhabiting the space correctly. It is quite a complex concept and the illusion totally falls apart when the details do not ring true. I am often trying to tread a fine line between psychologically disturbing and a little bit funny. On first glance my pictures might fulfil expectations, but on closer inspection they are a bit unsettling.


I mentioned earlier that I was interested in how outside pressures impact on the psyche, which in turn affects the body. But actually performing this concept is really quite tricky. So for the Hestercombe project, I was working with the stories of two women, and in the case of Mrs Portman, I included other characters – her maid, her gardener, her husband and an older gentleman friend. I had an acting coach work with me to try to find the physicality of all the different individuals. We used the Laban method, which splits all character types up into a set series of movements, which are a type of exaggerated gesture, and while you don’t perform these movements when you are performing the character you somehow internalise them and they then leak out into the body in a very subtle way. It was a totally fascinating process.


I don’t see myself as an actor, however, and I found holding onto the characters for extended periods while we were shooting the films really challenging. It is a completely different discipline working with moving image to stills. Sometimes when I am posing for a photograph, I get to a character unexpectedly, in an off moment when my guard is down, and that is often the best photo. With narrative film, you have to really internalise the character and hold on to it. If you lose concentration, you lose the character and it is really obvious (I think it is called ‘corpsing’ in theatre) - even if you don’t laugh, you just end up as the real ‘you’ in funny clothes.


DC: Yes, although you have worked with moving image before – and in a sense your still photographs have always involved a performative element – your acting for the Hestercombe project is quite an important shift in your practice, placing you in the work in a very different way. I imagine the two women offer very different challenges in that respect. With Mrs Portman, the photographs give you quite a rich context to work with - a visual model to perform from - but with Miss Warre, the biographical information is restricted to a series of domestic fragments and details, the shopping receipts etc. Did this give you more room for invention, especially since Miss Warre evidently lived her life as a kind of theatre?  


TM: Yes, absolutely. Miss Warre is a complete visual fabrication. My main source for her was the document written on her death in which her eccentricities are described.  I located my interpretation of her somewhere around 1840, when she would have been about my age. Initially, my line of thinking was ‘what if she were alive now, what if I was alive then?’ I tried to find a common thread between us. I wondered about such things as what her opinion would have been on the Irish Famine, for example, which was 1845-1852. Would it have entered her consciousness? Would she have felt anger, or would she be more concerned with her own domestic sphere?  What if I was transported back to Hestercombe in 1850? Would I have been like Miss Warre, rebellious, or would I have towed the line. Would I have been more politically engaged than she was?  


One of the ways I had of ‘finding’ Elizabeth Maria Tyndale Warre was to think of her as a time traveller. I didn’t try and dress her in Regency or Victorian clothes, but in a mish-mash carefully chosen from vintage shops and on eBay, with a lot of customising. Everything is post-1970. Her hats were designed and made by myself and Mark Harriott, a stylist I have worked with since my Seven Years project. We played for days with the various directions Miss Warre could go in. She was a bit steam punk for a while, and then a bit like something from Mad Max, quite futuristic. In the end, we settled on a bit Amy Winehouse, a bit Molly Parkin, and quite a lot of me. I stopped dying my hair and grew it long.


For the film I went on a complete flight of fancy. I worked with a creative writer who used the same cousin’s testimony as source material and wrote a short story, which is mostly tangential to my interpretation, yet it coincides at different points. This will be the voice-over to the film Eliza, which is about my imagined interior world of Miss Warre, her thoughts and feelings rather than her acts and deeds.  Hilary Mantel talks about historical fiction putting the human experience back into dry history, the imagined into the facts (of course, she also says that facts are being rewritten all the time, but that is a whole other answer to a different question). With Mrs Portman, my photographs are informed by the archive pictures, so, as you say, there is already a body to work from. Though I think I might have exaggerated her rigidity somewhat!  


DC: The sense that the Miss Warre in your work is partly you brings me on to the distinction, perhaps, between the search for character that a professional actor might engage in – the striving in some ways to become the person they are playing – and your approach as an artist, which it seems to me is quite different. You are always at the centre of your work, and I think it has always been fundamentally, and also visibly, bound up with your own identity. Characters, those elusive people in the images you work with, are obviously interesting in themselves, but they are also vehicles for, on the one hand, engaging with the slippery codes of photography and, on the other, for placing yourself in the image; they are a way of taking control of a picture and reforming it around your own preoccupations. Do you think this is true?


TM: Yes, it is probably true. For the most part, I feel like I am in camouflage, trying something on rather than becoming something or someone. I am in disguise, revealing a little but concealing quite a lot. I first realised this while making Front. It was as if I was trying on motherhood. When I started that project I was newly pregnant though I was unaware. It was obviously a subconscious preoccupation as it had been on the cards for a while. Then, over the two years that I made the work, I gained and lost three stone (and grew and birthed a baby) thereby helping the illusion as I actually shape-shifted in real life. So while the catalyst for that series was an interest in the language of family beach photography, the notion of borders, boundaries and the liminal space that the beach represented, my subconscious was doing something else entirely.


On reflection, and I have only just thought of this, I am probably trying on middle age in the case of Miss Warre, and the transformation from married life to widowhood with Mrs Portman. Of course there is a lot of other stuff going on, but that is probably the subconscious reason I was attracted to them as characters in the first place. Then all the other ideas, the more concrete concepts, put flesh on the bones in a way.


I suppose the other big difference to how an actor approaches a performance and how and artist does, or at least how I do, is that there are no outside influences, there is no director, I am not interpreting someone else’s idea, it all comes from me. It might actually be interesting to work with someone in that role to see what else it might bring, as an experiment, though I am a bit anxious that I would find it inauthentic, like I was losing authorship.


DC: So, the work is always alluding to things beyond the immediate subject, to your own world and experience, and in many ways Hestercombe is completely alien to that, a strange and somewhat arcane culture from the past that you have to imagine yourself into. It’s ironic because we are so familiar with drama based on that kind of life, on TV, in films etc, but in rejecting all that you seem to have pared down country house culture, especially in Six Scenes, to a series of formal movements that embody the physical and psychological tensions of that culture. It’s a kind of choreography about the control of space and people, but in a way I suppose it could also be read as a kind of gentle satire about those popular dramas?


TM: The first part of your question I would say is true, I am using Hestercombe to talk about things beyond the lives of the women. But I didn’t think of the work as satire about costume drama, though it is an interesting interpretation. I wasn’t thinking so much in terms of country house culture either (though that is the skeleton of the work perhaps), but rather human relations and stories. I would love to think that there might be universality in that. Though the women are historical figures living privileged lives, they were humans and human nature does not change so very much over the centuries and through class boundaries. Humans like to feel powerful, in control, needed, free, though more often they have to put up with oppression, poverty and lack of opportunity.


DC: You say you were not really thinking about country house culture, and yet in many ways your work does cast a new and interesting light on the history of Hestercombe, and may begin to open up that history for visitors to the exhibition. But, perhaps in order to preserve a distance from that sense of ‘historical re-enactment’, you have chosen not to include too much historical imagery and information in the show. Could you expand on this a little?


TM: There are some archival objects in the exhibition. There is the book of sketches made in the 1860s by Miss Warre's cousin Rosamund and the album of photographs commissioned by Miss Warre’s relatives after she died and before the estate was bought by the Portmans. But I am not showing any pictures from the de Vesci [Portman family] album, which informed the embodiment of Mrs Portman.


Old photographs of people are very appealing, as they are soaked in nostalgia. I am using these historical photographs as starting points, but my photographs are not transcriptions; I am not trying to seamlessly recreate them. My pictures are not pretending to be historical. Apart from the costume, they look contemporary, they are in colour. I don’t really think of them as re-enactments. I am trying to ‘wear’ the character and the archive photographs are just some of the ingredients that make up the whole. There might be a temptation to see how well or otherwise the new pictures compare to the old and then my work would only be seen in relation to the archive, and that would close off the viewer’s experience. In the case of Miss Warre, her embodiment is complete fantasy, weaving elements of her life, recorded in words into a visual representation. I want the films and photographs to function outside of the country house culture, but sure, to have that as a framework to talk about power, class, society, and relationships.


I would really love if the work opens up the history of Hestercombe for visitors, but I am also a bit anxious that some may expect this to be documentary rather than impressionistic work that wraps fact and fiction and fantasy around each other. I met with Rosie Pease who is the grand [great] niece of Mrs Portman and now in her eighties. She was born when Mrs Portman was already old.  Rosie’s impression of her ‘Aunt ConCon’ was of a wonderful grandmother figure, very kind and generous. She was keen that this came across in my portrayal of her. I did tell her that I was looking at her from the point of view of her staff rather than of her family. I think our chat inspired me to hint at Mrs Portman’s softer side.  


DC: Yes, that hint of the loved grandmother is there, but to offset that there are strong elements of humour and the absurd to what you have done, and something indescribably creepy about the rituals and relationships that are played out in the work. It has its darker side. This all underlines that idea of complex female characters and a complex response on your part. Do you feel now, after working for over a year on the residency, and after working through all these elements of fact and fantasy, that you are closer to 'knowing' these women, or to understanding them?


TM: I have actually been working on the project for two and a half years! I made my first visit in April 2015, then spent some time in the archive before proposing the project. The following eighteen months were spent researching and visiting on and off, sourcing props and costumes and applying for funding. Then I started on the photography in the Winter of 2016/17. After all that time, knowing and understanding these women are actually two different questions. I ‘know’ their history, I know the facts of their lives, but I don’t know them at all. But I do feel I understand them, certainly through the lens of how I might have been had I been them. I feel a lot more affinity with Miss Warre, I can absolutely see myself in her - or at least how I have imagined her. Mrs Portman however is a foreign land. I can understand the pressures she would have been under to hold it all together, but I don’t have any of her personality traits. I love a party, believe in freedom of choice, certainly don’t feel that women have an inferior intellect, and would most likely have been campaigning for women’s suffrage.


It probably is not that obvious, but making this work is actually a very emotional process. You might be surprised to know that I absolutely hate fancy dress parties, as I hate dressing up just for the sake of it. It comes back to that huge emotional investment in my characters. There is a conflict between ‘wearing’ the character and internalising them, because while I am trying them on, in order to really feel the character I have to invest emotionally. It can be very intense.


DC: Your comments here have begun to make me think of a whole other line of questioning about confronting things that are difficult; because that 'emotional investment' you mention is also about challenging yourself and being exposed. And to an extent it's maybe 'on the edge' of what you can deal with. But finding a path through that to something of real quality - maybe that's what all the striving is - a kind of searching, pushing your interests through difficult places to something that's new and outside your experience?


TM: Yes, I do question myself constantly. I am always looking for a truth in my work, even though you could argue that I am actually always fake. It is easier to push through emotional boundaries as a different character, to experiment with ‘how will that feel’ when I am not being myself. I can safely experiment with the emotion of the situation or life state. I get to try it on, then when it's my turn to experience it in real life, I might have a muscle memory or an emotional memory already stored. I will be prepared, not caught off guard perhaps.  


©Trish Morrissey and David Chandler 2017