I use objects as starting points; as entries into narratives which have their own unique shape. Objects are vessels of time, triggers of memory, allowing me to construct connections that inform my own dialogue with this unfathomable concept.

Documenting this particular journey here as a blog will provide some breadcrumbs, some clues, for later. Although the piece may mutate, for now I am seeing it as a video triptych.

There is Laurie, son of a ceramicist, artist friend of mine. Laurie is now a young man. His step father drew Laurie’s portrait in pastels when he was just four years old, imagining Laurie as an adult. He has now grown towards the place his step father imagined in that drawing all those years ago, having caught up with his own imagined self. When I saw the picture recently it seemed such a strange reverberation, emitting shamanistic  overtones; addressing the unconscious.

Then there is Unity, the daughter of renowned English 20th century painter, Sir Stanley Spencer. A talented artist in her own right, I became aware of Unity through her doll ‘Golden Slumbers Sonia Rose’. Unity is the subject of a painting made in 1937 by her father (with her mother, Hilda, stood sternly  behind) in which Unity can be seen holding Sonia Rose. She still has this doll. It has made the journey. I recently saw a photo of 85 year old Unity holding the doll in front of that very painting, tweeted out by the Stanley Spencer gallery in Cookham. It intrigued me; an object which has witnessed a very evocative journey.

And there is ‘me’. Mine is a self portrait, but then an artist’s work is perhaps always a self portrait, regardless of subject matter. I have struggled with how to frame a piece I call ‘When was NOW 2’ for a long time, having begun a blog here on that very subject and then stalled. Finally I may have found the vehicle. The piece features a much younger ‘me’ in 1981. A video ‘me’ is attempting to hold time fast. The King Canute of video art. Over time I have begun to see this video as an unwitting portrait of my younger self.

My younger self was also a big fan of Stanley Spencer’s work. His weaving of narratives drawn from the bible, overlaid onto the familiar surroundings of his Cookham village life, is a very powerful comment on the construction of personal narrative. His very colloquial take on two thousand year old biblical stories, drew those fictions into the heart of his own world.

Leeds City Art Gallery now owns the painting of Unity and her dolls. As a youth, prior to art college, I worked in a newsagents located opposite the gallery. Many of my lunch breaks were spent absorbing his work.

So, three quite different narratives, each in their own way bearing witness to the passage of time. This is where I begin. I am hoping they can sit alongside and inform each other, and be all the richer for that association.


“Oh my god, John, the pain.”
Unity Spencer is doubled up – her shock of silver hair is all I can see on my fly-out monitor as she slumps forward. I look around for John, her son, not knowing if this is something really serious. I’m not sure what to do – she seems to be in so much pain. This really isn’t what I had imagined.
“Coming mum” says John, simultaneously assessing my obviously worried look,
“don’t worry she’ll be fine” he says.
She doesn’t seem fine, but I take my cue from his air of confidence. He’s been here before. Well in fact he lives here.

Unity Spencer is younger than my own mother, who currently resides in Leeds General Infirmary and is similarly infirm. I inevitably compare. Her skin looks the same – thin as gossamer and wax pale with blue veins. She was always slight I’m thinking.  In fact Shirin, her older sister, at 91 is the same age as my mother. Similarly deaf but quite spritely, smiley and jovial; she seems in better health than Unity. I have read up a little on their well documented background, so I know some of the intricacies of the Spencer upbringing, but to be spending the weekend with people you have only read about in art books is something else.

On the Sunday morning, after she made me toast, Shirin said to me
“are you having a nice time, are you getting what you need?”
She meant had I been able to film anything of interest with Unity.
“We are just a normal family you know” she said with a big grin
“well maybe a bit mad perhaps.”
“Mad is good”
I said gesturing back in a theatrical larger than life way. She couldn’t hear but smiled and nodded.
“Mad is good.”

I meant it.

The house is, shall we say, a work in progress. Unity’s pictures are on the walls and lots of others, at least one of her mothers, Hilda, are stacked against other walls. The floors are strewn with a tangle of anything and everything. It is a veritable car boot sale. There is a full size gilded harp – with one string. This project, inspired by a very evocative personal object of Unity’s, has led me to a trove of other objects which seem rather casually scattered.

And yet I am aware that the legacy which is the Stanley Spencer estate, is anything but discarded. In fact John is working on the mammoth task of transcribing and publishing some of the millions of words Stanley wrote to the love of his life Hilda whilst they were married, continuing this dialogue for years despite their divorce. John now has some help with that task from a local lady who I meet over dinner on the Saturday evening, and who seems to currently be living that past life by proxy. Immersed in the Tate archives.

Unity has her moments. She can be (as John describes her) ‘quite difficult’, but she can also be totally lucid and amusing, light hearted and tender. My filming was not going well up until the evening. I didn’t even know what I was looking for, but I thought I might know when it happened. I had various themes I wanted to explore, often referencing something Unity had written in the past, but it was very quickly apparent that I would have to readjust my approach quite radically. Unity either didn’t remember, or wasn’t interested to engage in grander concepts of time, or the meaning of her own or anyone else’s paintings. She wasn’t even sure why I was there and kept asking me. In reality I was a stranger in her house and my explanations made no sense.

Meanwhile in the kitchen John had a chicken. The chicken needed cooking. The vegetables were a negotiation between the guests… It was just like being with a bunch of old friends, except we’d never met before. By the way I hadn’t met the YouTube gothic horror actress either.. she just happened to be helping out with most things around the house, having originally been the part time skip delivery lorry driver… and well… she got co-opted and stayed!

Unity was helped through to join us. We all drank wine and Unity was handed a sherry glass of red wine which she took gleefully; more of a theatrical gesture than a drink. She wanted to read poetry. She came alive.

“You should film this” said John
“are you sure?” I countered – it seemed a tad intrusive.
“Yes of course – that’s what you came for.”

I did not need a second invite – quickly grabbing my gear from the other room. One of the good things about shooting with a DSLR is you can be low impact – but also secret the audio recorder elsewhere – it’s all very flexible, and I’m used to sorting things quickly in these circumstances. It worked; she was a different person. She held the stage.

In fact they have an actual stage arrangement of sorts in the garden. There is a summer house (also a work in progress) and John has arranged it so plays can be performed there. It’s all very idyllic in a 19th century sort of a way. Tho I have to tell you.. after a lot of wine, and when the oldies had retired, we went through his collection of punk and new wave recordings. The Ruts are his fave. Anyone remember Howard Devoto in Magazine? I do. This household may often gaze backwards, but not exclusively to the same time and place. We erm… went to bed after four. It seemed rude not to.

Eight that same morning I was up and recording bird song in that same garden. Remarkably fresh considering. Mind you it was a beautiful day. Once everyone had risen – John helped Unity into the garden where I was filming. She seemed in good spirits, and I think recognising me from the day before really helped. No longer was I just a stranger beamed in. I had my own brief part in the story and she was warming to my intrusion.

John had worked in film making for the BBC quite a few years ago. He knows how these things work. He tells me he was Mark Rylance’s snoring double one time on set. The nature of the Spencer legacy means he regularly rubs up against the great and the good. But that’s another story. My point is – he is a wonderful facilitator and general enthusiast for all things, leaving me alone, or helping me when necessary, with Unity.

Today he is my doll handler and occasional sun umbrella man. One of the things on my ‘to do’ list that seemed achievable was to make the doll, Golden Slumbers Sonia Rose, come alive. She, after all, had been the initial reason for my interest. I tried to open her eyes when she lay down but without success. Then I realised that gravitational inertia made them open. You had to tilt her and then, rather spookily, she came awake. John held her – I had him move her through space for the camera. A living doll. She gazed at me knowingly through time. You know how eerie dolls can be.

Re-appearing in the garden that morning, Unity held Sonia Rose whilst John held a brolly over his mum for shade.
“She’s not wearing her best dress”
said Unity.
It was actually in the box with the doll, but so delicate, like tissue paper, that we didn’t dare dress her in it.

I don’t recall asking her to do it, but Unity began singing nursery rhymes and little ditties. John and I looked at each other. ‘Yes I am recording it’ I nodded silently.

In the greenery, and with the white noise of wind; wearing her coquettish straw hat, and breathing the air of another century, it was quite magical.

” That’s really all you needed wasn’t it” he said as I let the camera run on and looked away.
My initial doubts subsided.
“If she wasn’t doing this, what else would she be doing?” John had said earlier.
He had a point.



I am moving ahead quite quickly. Having decided not to apply for any funding for this project it has, by necessity, to be lean in its cloth cutting. Single camera – one to one is my preferred approach anyway. Like many of us no doubt, I have lots of different ideas mulling around, but then when the opportunity arises, sometimes it’s just better to go with it and to hell with sorting out the ticky boxes and project descriptions. Audience demographic? hmm not sure but I am sure there is one.. I just REALLY want to get on with this piece.

I’ve had this conversation before with various people…‘so where will you show the finished piece?’ Well actually I know exactly where I want to show it, but I haven’t yet approached the gallery, and anyway, would you typically ask the same question of a painter before they had put brush to canvas… I think not… so what’s the difference with video art? .. and I do class it as video art… not documentary.

Talking of which – the reason why John Spencer (grandson of Stanley) offered to let me come down and stay, and talk with his mother (who is a little frail), was because he totally got the concept. He gets many requests from people keen to have a piece of the Spencer’s.. and apparently not everyone has their best interests at heart. But John saw that this is an actual piece of work…an artwork not an exploitation.. I don’t want anything from them except their time… and I’m not trying to retell a very well trodden narrative. Like all my work, I travel ‘hopefully’. I have an agenda but it’s very open ended and I’m looking for the narrative not yet invented.

So – this weekend I am to travel to Bridgend in Wales (a 7 hour train journey from Newcastle) to spend some time with the Spencer’s. John very kindly offered to put me up too, so I shall do some filming on Saturday and pick up with Unity (and her doll) on the Sunday.

I am truly impressed at how accommodating in every way they are being. I will take my own camera and sound gear and John has lights etc so I can just about yomp it on the train. Having said that- I am to be picked up at the station and have no idea where I’m actually going, so this is very much a leap in the dark. Very exciting and very nerve wracking too. It’s the sort of thing I used to do in my ‘just out of college’ days but I am a tad more advanced on the timeline now, so forcing myself out of my comfort zone.

In many ways this feels almost unreal. Stanley Spencer, and his painting of Unity, have been in my mind file for the majority of my life. Now they are to come alive in a way I could never have imagined when I first saw the painting at 17 years of age. Spencer’s paintings are of course very magical anyway.. his layering/ interweaving of biblical mythology into the fabric of English village life, before, during and after world war two, is an unusual world construct. For some reason I have developed elements of that approach in my own work. Unconsciously though; it is as if his work resonates with me again in a way I couldn’t have anticipated when I first discovered him.

But this piece is about Unity. Inevitably her father will emerge.. but I am determined to focus on Unity, though she does seem to be defined by her father (I have been reading her biography).

This week I filmed Laurie – my other subject. I don’t think he will mind me saying that he has had some issues in his life. He talks openly about them. His mental health has oscillated over the past few years and he was sectioned not long ago. He’s back into life’s babble now though, and in much better spirits. His allowing me and my scrutinising camera to sit with him whilst we wandered through a landscape of thoughts, was a very generous gesture I think. He didn’t have to do it – and I certainly didn’t want to put him under any pressure either. But in the end we had a really interesting journey.

It took me a while to set up the gear and find the right spot.. it was dark so needed lighting and I wondered if he would lose interest or not be very forthcoming. Indeed, as I was lighting him he was quite subdued, as if not much was going on with him. Then we began. I had a number of questions prepared, but only as backup. What happened was that thing that usually happens but which I never dare rely on. We just talked; it flowed; we went to places in the bubble which is two people encapsulated in their own time. I guess that’s maybe what a psychotherapy session is like. Anyway it is a special place (in a none ironic/comedic sense!)

There was something odd tho. It appeared as we developed ideas of time, and what it meant in relation to his portrait, that Laurie wasn’t sure the picture was of him. He pondered that it could be anyone imagined by his step father (the artist Gerald Davies). I was surprised: ‘Your mother said it was definitely you – projected forward when you were about four years old.. I thought you knew that?’ He wasn’t convinced. We moved on.

Later, after Laurie had disappeared upstairs, I chatted to his mother and brought this up. ‘Oh yes it is Laurie imagined as a young man’ she said ‘but I shall text Gerry to make sure’. She did just that, and later sent it over to me. The text said:

‘.. I thought he would be elegant but spirited, as I recall there is a horse rearing out of his back! It was one of a group of drawings prompted by ephemeral, hardly perceptible suggestions; intuitions’