ABSENCE: Art with the Dolls' House Connection
by Veronica Tonge and Jenny Fairweather
Absence,“the state of being away from a place or person”, was the concept of a mixed media art exhibition held in the centre of Maidstone, Kent in 2014. Focused on the exploration of the imagined narratives and emotional atmospheres of deserted houses, it had a strong dolls' house content and connection, and encompassed photography, printmaking, assemblage and collage in both two and three dimensions. Artist and dolls' house enthusiast Veronica Tonge and photographer/printmaker Jenny Fairweather staged Absence in the new contemporary art space Below 65 Gallery, in Maidstone, Kent during August 2014. Absence was the first joint artist collaboration of this kind in the gallery and was gratifyingly given the accolade of having the “wow factor” by the proprietors Elaine Gilbert and Chris Clark. Works which related to dolls' houses in some way, are discussed here.
Poster for Absence exhibition, Maidstone 2014. Photos on the poster (Top left: Tudor Cottage Stairs; bottom right: Upnor Castle). Photos: © Jenny Fairweather. Poster design © Chris Clark of Below 65 Gallery, Maidstone Kent
Veronica and Jenny first met fleetingly at Maidstone Museum in the 1990s, when Jenny was a mature fine arts student looking for exhibition space and Veronica was the art curator there. Losing touch, they met again when both joined Maidstone Visual Artists Network, discovering, almost by chance, that dolls' houses had a significant place in their art practices.
Veronica already had a fascination for historic dolls' houses from her work in the museum, and had started her own collection, after leaving work, of both scratch built and manufactured 20th Century examples. These became stimulating new starting points in her art practice of mixed media assemblages.
Veronica's workspace. Photo © Peter Fletcher
Jenny had treasured her own childhood dolls' house, an iconic turquoise Tri-ang Queen Anne, still with some original furniture and miraculously, though disintegrating, the original card roof. She asked Veronica over to see it and provide some background information; thanks to the excellent DHP&P site this was no problem.
Jenny's Queen Anne dolls' house. Photo © Jenny Fairweather
Both artists worked together on Absence over two years, discussing and developing parallel and personal ideas around abandoned buildings and their narrative possibilities, finding they shared, as creative people using different media, “a fascination with buildings once occupied by people, now physically empty, yet resounding with atmosphere and implied memories”.
This description fits old dolls' houses too, with their rich, past histories as miniature versions of idealised domestic dwellings for children’s play. Absence was fortunate to be shown in a gallery space that was very like the basement of a house, accessed from a framing business at street level by internal stairs. The space was windowless, intimate and slightly secret, perfect for a variety of thought provoking works, requiring the visitor to spend time engaging with each.
As a photographer and printmaker, Jenny’s art work was primarily in two dimensions, but for Absence she had also experimented with three dimensional settings, related to the sort of scale and imagery found in dolls' houses, stating that “absence seems to recur as a theme in my work; I find it expressive of the past and full of potential.”
Her powerful series of colour and monochrome photographic prints of empty rooms in Veronica’s mid 1930s Tri-ang DH10, taken only with fleeting shafts of natural winter sunlight, revealed a spookiness at odds with expected role of a child’s toy. Jenny described the Tudor house as “a space which could have been inhabited or played with and which has its own life. I try to evoke the atmosphere of its spaces, stimulate the imagination and raise questions in the spectator.”
Veronica agreed, finding one deceptively simple shot a particularly disconcerting image: “stairs rise, clumsily and illogically steep, from a varnished, printed, herringbone oak floor. Worn, printed paper stair carpet, trodden by the many dolls of the past child owner? Strange shadows wait on the landing – two heads, or just the balusters?”
Tudor Cottage Stairs. Photo © Jenny Fairweather
The “room box” side of dolls' housing gave Jenny a stage set on which to play out strong ideas of the personal, emotional significance of a special piece of furniture in a work produced for an earlier exhibition. Blue Sofa Voices, a mixed media assemblage, comprised a wine box, photos, wallpaper and luggage labels inscribed with memories written for the work by family members young and old, feeling it ‘‘celebrates with fondness my old piece of furniture that seemed to hold within it memories of much loved, absent people. Objects can contain powerful memories of human presence”. Interestingly, Jenny is currently photographing her Tri-ang Queen Anne and is planning to make some miniature sofas.
Blue Sofa Voices, by Jenny Fairweather. Photo © Jenny Fairweather
Jenny’s other photographic works included a telling series of images of Upnor Castle, on the north bank of the River Medway, now owned by English Heritage, where up to 64 ordinary soldiers and two officers were garrisoned from around 1718, recording that “they were manning the Magazine, ... managing massive stores of gunpowder ... life followed a regular uneventful pattern. Empty though the rooms are now, they speak to me of mystery, of past human occupation and confinement” suggesting a parallel concept to her haunted, atmospheric images of the deserted Tri-ang Tudor cottage.
Upnor Castle. Photo © Jenny Fairweather
The Little Gem (closed 2010), a tiny abandoned Kent pub, very much sized down to almost dolls' house proportions, celebrates the memory of a famous, much loved village local. Jenny’s subtle, superimposed photograph “records the sad state of this once lively pub at the heart of Aylesford Village. Absence ... of customers ... the building’s lack of purpose. There is sadness and poignancy in absence but it can also be full of promise of curiosity of what is to come...”
The Little Gem. Photo © Jenny Fairweather
Veronica’s works were mainly actual dolls' houses, which had been modified. She explained that her work was related to “found objects inspired by the 20th Century Surrealist practice of being attracted to an artistically meaningful, second-hand thing and having to buy it.”
Her work frequently “plays” with the drama of hidden meanings and she felt that the compartmentalised, miniaturised domestic environment of a dolls' house offered the perfect stage set, admitting that “retrospection, and the desire to collect and restore 20th Century doll’s houses with their social history implications also informs my work ... a sort of self dialogue ... a subconscious self portrait”.
Bohemia: Abandoned House started as an intriguing cobweb-ridden stripped-out shell no one seemed to want. Veronica noticed a dolls' house with a complex past history, probably converted from a large wooden box around the 1940s when family resources were short. It had Classical elements, but had undergone a partial and fairly crude Arts and Crafts style makeover around the 1990s. In creating the artwork, Bohemia’s original vintage details were retained or partially exposed (the grey tile paper on the roof was removed to reveal the original red paint) whilst its later Victorian style décor was developed further and the old and new alterations blended. Sensitively restored to reflect Bohemia’s past double history, a few furniture items, aged with paint effects, were added to amplify an imagined narrative of abandonment; someone artistic had lived here, and then left, why?
Bohemia: Abandoned House, by Veronica Tonge. Photo © Jenny Fairweather
Another dolls' house with a secret, The House With The Blind Window, was inspired by a children’s crime adventure book by Elisabeth Batt, published by C.S.S.M. in 1955. It was written during the Cold War period of nuclear anxiety and set in a private boarding school run by a devious but charismatic philosopher fronting a Russian criminal gang. The gang had kidnapped the son of a nuclear scientist. The boy is imprisoned behind the blind (absent) window as ransom for a nuclear formula. Cruelly treated by his captors, he is eventually discovered and rescued by schoolmates. A “Devil versus Christ” plot, with undertones of the corruption of innocence, it has an open-ended resolution as the crooks get away. An ELC Georgian house was painted in drab, sinister tones to resemble an antique house. Each room was collaged with contemporary and historic images with toys and objects relating imaginatively to aspects of the story: Dr. Garnier’s Huge Ego, Devil’s Office, Behind The Blind Window, Subversive Library, Eat All You Can Dining Room, Wicked Recreation Room, Nuclear Anxiety Attic.
The House with the Blind Window, by Veronica Tonge. Photo © Jenny Fairweather
Difficult issues were also explored in two of Veronica’s works.
In Alone, a room box kit previously assembled by someone as a pleasant country kitchen was a start point for a work about loss. The original contents were removed, supplemented or modified with paint effects to create a highly emotionally charged scenario. Simultaneously, personal feelings about bereavement (Veronica’s mother had recently died) and loneliness (her husband was away at the same time visiting family in Australia) used an abandoned dog, without food, water or a bed, as a metaphor. Coincidentally, the work relates to a painting of 1952 by the Surrealist artist Magritte, The Listening Room, which also features menacing giant apples in a room creating “ a feeling of claustrophobia, or near panic”.
Alone by Veronica Tonge. Photo © Jenny Fairweather
The first ever aerial bombing of civilians during the 1914-18 War was memorialised in The Pub Witnesses, an assemblage created in someone’s uncompleted project, a 12th scale Sid Cooke corner shop/pub. The actual pub was the Brewery Tap in Tontine Street, Folkestone, Kent where on 25th May 1917, one of a squadron of 21 German Gotha GIVs (new heavily armed bombers not spotted by coastal defence), dropped a 50kg explosive onto a local greengrocers next to the pub. Literally out of the blue, on a sunny day, 160 ordinary men, women and children in a local shopping street were killed or horribly injured; an atrocity too shocking for the newspapers of the day. Symbolically representing the absence of life, in the aftermath of carnage, was a challenge achieved by “bombing” decorative Edwardian style tea ware with a heavy weight and edging the resulting shards with fake blood paint. Scattered over the floors of the pub and used with other miniature props, including a model Gotha and an abandoned pub piano with a First War song sheet on the music stand, a powerful, dramatic scenario of destruction was evoked in a very small space.
The Pub Witnesses by Veronica Tonge. Photo © Jenny Fairweather
An independent review of Absence contained some interesting comments: “Absence is subtle stuff. Although some visitors have concluded they “don’t get it” there is no mystery involved. The theme of the exhibition can be translated as a mid-life retrospective, looking back to the memories of lives lived and forward to the premonitions of an unknown future with a known end ... in their different ways both artists have successfully engaged in self dialogue with their unconscious ... this is a powerful exhibition”.
Collaborating on Absence, for both artists, was an important milestone in developing new work. The surprising element was the extent to which the dolls' house concept, with its miniaturised scenarios of nostalgic domesticity, inspired the successful result.