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Conjectured Pictures: The Mappin Wall


No. 6

150 x 120 cm

Notes on this work

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The original postcard, acquired 1970

installation 600 x 800 cm

installation 600 x 800 cm

In 1970 I acquired a postcard (Scott series no.2 published in Birmingham, printed in Hessen) of the interior of the Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield; a typical card of the early years of the 20th century. The pictures shown hanging in the gallery are so reduced in scale, so simplified by the high contrast black and white underlying halftone, so vague as a result of the coarseness of the screen of that halftone, and so distorted in colour by the crudely registered and arbitrarily decided tints applied in Hessen (evidently by colourists who had no knowledge of the pictures in question), that although some are still identifiable as landscape or portrait at a generalised level, most are obscurely cryptic, or boldly panda prophetically abstract, or even in one or two cases, without form and void.

In May of that year I made the first transcription of one of these spectral images in a mood of casual curiosity. This watercolour (which also featured the barrier rope that occurs in the card) so intrigued me with its wild composition and impenetrable subject matter that I started making versions of the other paintings on the central wall. Eventually the wall itself became the motif and I set about reconstruction it life-size, limiting myself to the ghostly information that the card contained. Painting from fine crisp photographs is a stultifying business: their flattened perfection draws one inescapably into a kind of mindless mimicry. An artist's source can often be rich in proportion to its suggestive incompleteness. Here, at a magnification of approximately x 120, I was building whole dream worlds of romance and imagined action from little more than a cluster of dots like dark stars on the creamy sky of the card's own surface. But art, as Theophile Gautier says, is robust and a potent image will somehow survive amazing ravages (a sparse scattering of paint flakes still conjures for us, on a wall in Milan, the magnificence of Leonardo's Last Supper). Not knowing what these pictures were I respected them as if they were masterpieces, though in fact they told me as little as the hiss and scratch that is all we have of Brahms playing the piano. I was under the illusion, as I screwed my eyes against the magnifier held to the card that I was truly copying each picture and inventing nothing that was not there.

I made various guesses as to the actual size of the originals but it was not until I was sorting out my library and making a pile of volumes to be discarded that I came across the information I needed. A book fell from the precarious heap of discards and (just like they do in films) fell at my feet flung open at a page containing a familiar looking reproduction; familiar because the picture of an old gentleman in black bearing a white flag, entering with others through the portcullis of a castle had exactly the disposition of light and shade as the lady dressed in crimson in a pastoral setting which forms the apparent subject of No. 6. The painter was John Pettie R.A. (the book was his biography) and the picture was called The Flag of Truce. Other illustrations in the book seemed to tally more or less substantially with pictures on the wall in my postcard. Since the sizes were given I was able to work out all the measurements of the paintings featured on the card. Unfortunately (in one way) all this did not occur until late in 1973, by which time I had painted my versions of quite a number of them at I scale I now found to be inaccurate. But I was also lucky in that my reading of the information on the postcard had not been affected by knowledge of the rather workaday originals. The whole project was begun again.

Since so to speak the cover of the pictures had been blown, I felt I'd risk nothing by going to the Mappin Art Gallery itself. The then director, Mr Constantine, was extremely helpful and together we tracked down the identity of many of the originals some of which we visited in the storeroom, now minus their grand gilt frames. One of the pictures indeed still hung on the wall. The turned out to be the portrait of Mr Mappin himself (complete with dog). Seeing these sources was very diverting, but, as with the book, it was a question of cool rather than hot interest since I was now ineluctably wedded to my own fantasy versions and well-armed against the truth.

I also found in the city archives the original black and white photograph on which the card had been based. This demonstrated that some of the most prominent features of the pictures shown were in fact accidents of lighting  (caught reflections in the glass of the frames of bright incidents from the opposite wall).

In restarting the project I also had the benefit of rethinking the installation and its problems. Since there was often little demarcation between picture and frame, or even on occasions between frame and wall, in the blurred world of the card I was working from, I decided it would be better to make the frames part of the paintings. All I could make out of the wall that the pictures were hanging on was a faint patterning  of regular blobs. I copied a section and had it printed to scale. Thus the complete version of Conjectured Pictures: The Mappin Wall involves hanging the wallpaper and arranging the pictures according to a plan. This was first done at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1975. When later I had an exhibition at the Mappin Art Gallery itself the installation came home to occupy its original space.

Since the work was first reproduced (eventually to become itself  a postcard in 1987) it has been interesting to follow its subsequent additional distortions and variations. I have painted two further versions of No.6 from reproductions, following the Chinese Whispers to the end.

Works & Texts p63-66