THE LEGEND OF ALICE DOWNHAM

‘The Legend of Alice Downham’ is a video , the result of a proposal for work to be shown under a pseudonym. I wanted to display my ceramic Spitfires (see https://acooperwillis.wordpress.com/2008/04/30/the-end-of-the-year/), so Alice became the putative artist.The video was displayed at the recent Conjunc+ion Show here in Stoke-on-Trent, in a small space, with the planes hung from the ceiling and illuminated only by the light of the projector, it made quite an effective installation. The dramatic story of her life is told in a slideshow of collages made using fine art images, my photographs taken locally and product illustrations from the Argos catalogue.


A formative influence on the Alice video was the 1911, humorous, Dadaist, classic ’What a Life’, a book by E. V. Lucas and George Morrow (http://scruss.com/wal/contents.html). They used the engravings from a Whiteley’s Department Store catalogue collaged with text to tell a dramatic story. The catalogue must have been huge; it seems to have illustrated every variety of product, from horse blankets to silver cutlery, which could be ordered by customers in the colonies and the shires. The Argos catalogue is clearly a modern equivalent.


The inspiration for narratives told through still images is from Chris Marker’s iconic film ‘La Jetee’ (1962), which I find amazingly compelling; the story of a time-traveller told entirely in black and white, still photographs with a detached, monotone narration.

Some Background to the Alice collages.

1 – I discovered a whole genre of war paintings being done by men whose fathers were probably too young to have fought in WW2. There are a myriad limited edition prints at different prices,unsigned, signed by the artist, signed by pilots who flew the sort of plane illustrated and sometimes the original is for sale too. This had a splendid ‘Boy’s Own’ atmosphere.
2 – the background is a photograph of derelict kilns in the old J.D. Weatherby’s Factory. The figures of course are from the Argos catalogue.
3 – A photo from the Guardian of Marc Quinn’s sculpture installed in the grounds at Chatsworth for the Sotheby‘s selling exhibition, Beyond Limits. Amongst the horrified crowd are Damian Hirst, a Francis Bacon figure and the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.
4 – Poussin’s In Arcadia Ergo; no better background to the   vengeance for a death, with another Qinn; Portrait of the artist as a young man.
5 – Victor Burgin’s 1986 re-stating of Hopper’s The Office at Night, but including Alice’s typewriter.
7 – The Spitfire in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. A  figure of Reginald Mitchell stands on the viewing platform at the back of the gallery holding a Spitfire aloft. The platform is no longer accessible due to health and safety concerns.
8 – This heroic image, Home is the Hero by Ivan Berryman, was in many ways the starting point for the story. The heroic spirits are photos of the ceramic planes.
9 – The fall of Icarus, Breughel (ca. 1554) As Auden said (roughly); tragedies happen while people go about their daily lives. In this case the event is Alice’s fall; her Spitfire splashes into the sea.
10 – Who’s Who; Alec Downham has been erased from its pages.
11 – Richard Prince, Nurse of Greenmeadow (2003) is the background. The patients are a happy snap of some merry party. The lady playing Alice was labelled ‘Best Mummy’. Archibald McIndoe did amazing pioneering plastic surgery at the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead. The Guinea Pig Club was stared by his patients, it’s badge is a guinea pig with pilots wings. The Spitfire’s fuel tanks were positioned just in front of the pilot and appalling burns to face and hands were sadly common.
12 – Botticelli (ca 1482). In 2007 Prince designed a line of handbags for Louis Vuitton, these nurses were part of the launch. The patients are all demonstrating mobility aids in the Argos catalogue.
13 – Audrey Hepburn in Dickinson’s 1952 film Secret People; Alec is vanishing as Alice realises she no longer resembles him.
14 – The Burslem Sunday School (http://www.thepotteries.org/church/burslem/hill_top.htm). Only the portico remains of this massive chapel, closed in 1977 and demolished after a fire in 1987.The blue plaque says ‘Stych Chapel’ it was thus named by Arnold Bennett. For a wonderful description of an industral hades see http://www.thepotteries.org/location/districts/sytch2.htm.
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