Bedroom Table Scan, Theo Ellison

As part of New Art West Midlands 2018, five artists and alumni of the exhibition were awarded coveted residencies with the National Trust. The residencies are part of an ongoing dialogue that aims to support West Midlands artists as part of Trust New Art, the National Trust’s programme of contemporary arts.

Theo Ellison was awarded a residency at Coughton Court, an imposing Tudor house in Warwickshire closely associated with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. We spoke to Theo about the residency:

How did you go about the residency? 

I initially found the scenario quite a tricky one to work out – it was a short five-day residency (officially and endearingly termed a micro-residency) in a huge Grade 1 listed gothic stately home laden with so much history. There was no imposed brief or expected outcome from the National Trust, and they were extremely accommodating and supportive, so it was more of a self-imposed pressure to come up with an interesting response.

What did you think of Coughton Court? What inspired you?

For those who haven’t visited Coughton Court, it manages to exude all the grandeur of a gothic country estate whilst somehow keeping things homely. Though that homeliness must have been in part due to the sunny weather and cheery team members, I’d love to return in the Winter on my own to see it in full gothic horror-film mode. I did envisage my time there as being like Jack Nicholson’s in the Overlook Hotel, but it was too pleasant in reality. Its association with the Gunpowder Plot was intriguing, and I was tempted to make some work using fireworks and explosives on the premises, but the conservation team weren’t so keen on the idea…

Unititled (Preservation), Theo Ellison.

Due to the nature of the house and where it’s set were you restricted in how you could work? Did your ideas have to evolve/change as a result?

Yes, absolutely, my ideas evolved directly in response to the restrictions. The first day and a half on-site was overwhelming, and I remember getting the distinct feeling that I was shoehorning in elements of my previous work. It was also frustrating because, understandably, the restrictions over which objects I could get my hands on and what I could re-arrange were wide-ranging. The next day something clicked and I began to make this the focus of my work – that is; ideas surrounding preservation, conservation, and nostalgia. After that things fell into place and the experience helped to push the work forward.

The blue fabric in the photograph is a curtain designed to minimise the amount of light from entering the interior, which over time would gradually fade those interior surfaces. Certain curtains and window shutters would only be opened if strictly necessary, and this felt analogous to the house being set on life support or in solitary confinement. The rest of the project stemmed from there.

Blue Table Scan. Theo Ellison.

Is there anything you have learnt on this residency that you will take with you into other projects?

I learnt a great deal from this residency, particularly about working within my means and using restrictions to my advantage. It was and continues to be an invaluable experience. On top of that, I worked with some fantastic people and was able to utilise some cutting edge laser scanning equipment to gather the intricate details of Coughton Court, and push my work down some new paths.

The scans (pictured) were made using a large laser scanner mounted on a tripod and each room took multiple scans. Again I was looking at ideas surrounding conservation, preservation, permanence and nostalgia. These digital scans will in theory last indefinitely, while the actual Coughton Court requires continual maintenance to prevent it fading away. It is an exploration into our desire of maintaining what exists and of archiving as a response to the fear of loss. In that sense, the project looks to celebrate the educational, historical, and aesthetic value of Coughton Court, but also looks to interlink that with the murkier, more obsessional side of nostalgia.

The project is still ongoing and we scanned as many rooms and elements of the property as possible. I chose to dedicate most of the time to scanning the bedroom and drawing room as both bedroom scenes and game-playing scenes feature heavily within art history, which adds another dialogue and context to work with.

I would like to thank New Art West Midlands and the National Trust for giving me this opportunity; Tom, Rob, and Max from Mowma, curator Kate Stoddart who has been brilliantly supportive, and everyone at Coughton Court including Emma and Anna.

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