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> > > Rachel Gadsden: Whispers from the past

24 November 2008

In November 2007, Rachel Gadsden was selected and appointed to be the first Artist in Residence at Hampton Court Palace. For the past year, Rachel has been exploring the palace and uncovering stories trapped within the fibre of the building. Colin Hambrook responds with some personal memories brought alive by the work

I first met Rachel Gadsden in 2005 at an Arts Council SE launch event of Architecture Inside Out. She had a mesmerising selection of paintings and drawings on show, inspired by the derelict Cane Hill asylum in Surrey. In the 1980s I’d been associated with a group called the Campaign against Psychiatric Oppression which was led by Eric Irwin who’d been an inmate at Cane Hill during the 1960s. He remembered the place for its’ institutional humiliation and violence. Eric was haunted by the story of a man who’d run away several times until a time came when he’d got lost for some time in a deep snowdrift. Untreated frostbite in his legs had turned to gangrene. As a result his legs had to be amputated. He couldn’t run away any more.

Drawn in Triumph by Rachel Gadsden

Drawn in Triumph, one of a series of paintings by Rachel Gadsden inspired by Mantagne's 'Triumph of Caesar', with contributions from participants of the Big Draw Event at Hampton Court Palace in October 2008.

Through my childhood and adolescence in the late 1960s and 1970s, I had a relationship with a series of Victorian asylums in Surrey – Banstead and Belmont where my mother was incarcerated and Netherne, where as a volunteer, amongst other things, I helped organise dances in the ballroom. Rachel’s paintings – like jewels glistening at the bottom of a rubbish heap, helped to bring these memories alive. Faded chandeliers; straight-jacketed ghosts dancing at midnight; the porcelain echoes of screams; the eternal drug round of major tranquilizers - chlorpromazine and largactyl injected, if you couldn’t be trusted to take it orally; the locked ward with its discreet cubicles, where the ECT machines sat waiting to serve with a promise of permanent brain damage.

Women locked away for fifty plus years, for being pregnant out of wedlock; men serving a similar sentence for the crime of being unable to recover from the first or second world war. Amidst the pain and humiliation, Rachel captures the attempts at dignity; letters home written in beautiful italic script; confidences made in the early hours, turning clay into brick; the soft sway of bodies clinging to jazz music in the ballroom; choirs joining in song – often discordant, sometimes tinged with laughter; the coveted best dress; treasures made in the art room.

Hampton Court

It was while studying Rachel’s paintings and drawings of these derelict institutions on the internet, that Lucy Collins, education officer at Hampton Court saw the potential of Rachel’s approach to capture the resonances held in the fabric of the historic palace. At the time there was an exhibition about the history of the Grace and Favour flats which inhabit large parts of the building above the main public areas. Largely derelict now, these are spaces where, for centuries, individuals were allowed to live, at a peppercorn rent, with the approval of royalty.

One of Rachel’s three largest paintings, which came out of her 10 month residency at Hampton Court, explored a devastating moment in the history of the Grace and Favour apartments. In March 1986 a resident accidentally started a huge fire that went through the ceiling and into the Cartoon Gallery where Raphael's 16th-century cartoons of the ‘Acts of the Apostles’, had fortuitously just been removed for cleaning.

Detail from Chapel Royal, painting by Rachel Gadsden

Detail from Chapel Royal, painting by Rachel Gadsden

Rachel’s painting of the Cartoon Gallery titled ‘Miraculous Draught of Fishes’ uses photographs of the fire as a starting point. A large part of the foreground of the painting is taken up with charred and burnt timbers cascading down into the long gallery. At the far end of the room is a glimmer of light echoing from a mural on the wall. Amongst the devastation two figures lean out into 3-dimensional reality, casting a net; calling out from the past to capture the treasures and trinkets left in the debris. Like the Bible story, the painting holds a story of hope and reconciliation. The foreground is littered with shards of cut glass, literally protruding from the ruins. A group of Cranes – a symbol of immortality – hover above the fragments. The painting represents the renewal that can come after devastation; the need for destructive forces to allow new influences for growth.

Hampton Court itself is a metaphor for the tension between the idea of monarchy on one hand as cruel and oppressive power dominating and controlling the lives of the many; and on the other hand as a civilising influence. In reality the world of a royal palace is worlds apart from the world of a mental hospital – but both institutions serve to uphold the status quo. In the power play that unfolds both represent struggles for supremacy over human nature – at different ends of the spectrum. Royalty were imbued with an absolute divine right of power until the notion began to be questioned at end of the 17th century. It was around the same time that the generally believed idea that the ‘mad’ were possessed by Satan was similarly first challenged.

Detail from Henry 500 (1509 – 2009), painting by Rachel Gadsden Rachel Gadsden

Detail from Henry 500 (1509 – 2009), painting by Rachel Gadsden

Image: Rachel Gadsden

‘Whispers from the Past’ gathers up these threads. The jester is a character who seems to fly between the canvases. He is the whisperer; the one who dares speak the truth; the only one who can speak the truth and still keep his life. He appears on his own in three glorious canvases where he screams out of the paintings. In another of the three largest works ‘Henry 500 (1509 – 2009)’ the jester appears grimacing wildly in Henry VIIIs troubled ear. The painting tells the story of the embarkation of the royal navy to meet the French king Francis I in 1520. It was a grand gesture intended to promote peace. The fleet of toy soldiers heading east at the Kings command, adds a touch of irony. There is something paradoxical about this painting – its grandness underscored by the tragedy of the kings’ wives whose images and emblems are embedded within the overall tapestry; alongside Indian regiments and other shadows of lives caught up in the unfolding story.

Some of the most remarkable pieces in the exhibition were the four canvases made up of a collage of drawings made in response to a series of Renaissance paintings by Mantegna; The Triumphs of Caesar. Purchased by Charles I in 1630 the paintings have hung in the palace ever since. As part of the Big Draw event, over 400 participants came to take part in workshops. Rachel got participants to study the motifs; mythical beasts; barking hounds and remembering elephants; young children crowned and blazing with gold; symbols of grandeur that must have haunted the king when he was imprisoned in his royal home. The results, reminiscent of Chagall on acid, (as described by a fellow admirer at the exhibition) are a testament of Rachel’s skill in drawing the best out of people. They are also a fine example of how she can adapt to extraordinary advantage, her skill in building layers of images to create narratives within narratives.

Jester, painting by Rachel Gadsden Rachel Gadsden

Jester, painting by Rachel Gadsden

Image: Rachel Gadsden

I am convinced that somewhere in the Grace and Favour apartments – probably in apartment 23 - a shadow of Rachel Gadsden will forever remain. Whispers – a film made with Abigail Norris, explores Rachel inhabiting the skin of a maid who served in the palace. There is something frenetic and feverish about the pace of the act of drawing that takes place in the film; in contrast to the billowing skein of spiders’ webs that float across the filmscape. It is a haunting piece of work that I hope will be shown in different contexts as it conveys an insightful sense of Rachel in her role as flaneur.

Over the past 10 months over a thousand people have taken part in Rachel’s workshops at Hampton Court. All have come away with inspired ideas of how to develop artistic processes using the techniques Rachel herself employs. More importantly for the institution itself, they will have positive memories that will keep them and their friends and families going back as visitors.

Drawn in Triumph, one of a series of paintings by Rachel Gadsden

Drawn in Triumph, one of a series of paintings by Rachel Gadsden inspired by Mantagne's 'Triumph of Caesar', with contributions from participants of the Big Draw Event at Hampton Court Palace in October 2008

Rachel Gadsden’s residency at Hampton Court is leading to a final exhibition in the Clore Learning Centre, Hampton Court Palace, 20-26 November 2008, open 11am-5pm.

Read Rachel Gadsden’s psycho-geographical account of a journey through a derelict asylum in Denbigh, North Wales exploring a week in the life of a patient in 1876.

To find out more about Rachel Gadsden’s work visit her web site

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