Catalogue Essay for Dear Reader, a solo exhibition at Derby Museum and Art Gallery in 2017
“Reader, I married him”
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
One of the most famous lines of English nineteenth-century literature leaves no room for doubt: the eponymous heroine, Jane, is talking to you, dear reader. At the very climax of her novel, Brontë has Jane address us directly, bringing the reader into her confidence and relating her triumph and emotion to us personally.
In Dear Reader, Eleanor Watson issues a similarly direct invitation to the viewer to engage with the new body of work she has produced for the 2016-2017 Jonathan Vickers Fine Art Award.These striking paintings require active observation and willing participation, but will reward the viewer who engages by revealing their secrets just as Jane does to her reader.
Tasked with finding her own way of interpreting this year award’s theme – The Changing Faces of Derbyshire – Watsonbegan to explore the county that would become her home for nine months. With the fresh eyes of someone who really wants to find out what makes a place different, she immersed herself in the landscape, the culture and the heritage of Derbyshire. Over the course of her research and travel, Watson found herself increasingly drawn to the many stories of the women of Derbyshire. She came up with a list of women, both real and fictional, contemporary and historical, who have shaped the county. The final selection included a Roman warrior, a Victorian lady, a spirited modern reformer, and a titled boxer, among others.
While straightforward portraits of these remarkable women would have produced an interesting gallery, Watson decided to represent her subjects by other, more unusual means. Looking past appearances, she presents a series of paintings that focus on the settings of these womens’ lives, including homes, gardens, and landscapes, as if presenting the stage sets against which their stories have unfolded. You can count the actual figures in this series on the fingers of one hand, and yet the human figure is very much present in its absence. Shying away from direct figuration of the sitters, her suggestive interiors are full of ambiguity and spectral presences.
It is no coincidence that she regards Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, two of the Nabis painters considered masters of the domestic scene, as sources of inspiration. Like them, Watson pays acute attention to those details that make a space personal as well as to the unspoken words that hang in the air. It’s not unusual to look at her work and feel as if the owner of that airy sitting room is about to come in for a cup of tea (Florence’s View) or as if you are about to go for a stroll down the tree-lined avenue with a Lady (Deborah).
In Vivienne Red, for example,we look into a richly decorated red interior. A table floats in front of an intriguing decorated fabric, surmounted by a vase full of exquisite white flowers, some of which lean out as if to escape the composition, while the rest dissolve into the patterned background. The composition is full of other such optical tricks and illusions: a frame above the table hides its contents even though a light above it ought to illuminate the artwork; a door on the left seems to lead us into another room, but on closer inspection the thin perpendicular lines reveal it to be a mirror instead. The draped curtain speaks of an attention to matching décor,while a flash of white reveals the ghostly figure of the owner, one of the grandes dames of British fashion.The interior becomes a counterpoint of seen and unseen, a play on the juxtaposition of the positive and negative space where the artist never gives too much away but lets the viewer complete the picture.
A different kind of private space can be found in J’s Garden. Watson places the viewer in the middle of a paved path, walking towards a garden gate that stands invitingly slightly ajar. A few steps closer and we will enter an enclosed garden in the midst of the breath-taking Derbyshire landscape.We are thus led into the hidden, private world of a woman known for her outspoken public profile and allowed to share it with her. It’s a spiritual place, a place where she can take respite from the troubles of the day, talk to somebody in confidence or just peacefully rest her mind. The painting is a moving portrayal of the beauty of the simple pleasures of life and a clever metaphor where the opening of that locked gate reveals the private joys of a public figure.
Rather than being welcomed into a private space, in the painting Jane, Watson has placed the viewer on the outside, looking in. We are now peering through a window like a naughty child, a voyeur into someone else’s life. The chosen perspective gives us no choice but to stand at the edge of the imposing Thornfield Hall with her; there is no way in.The leaded glass window through which we look reflects the ones on the opposite side of the room. On the left, we can clearly see a portion of the hall where the natural light of the stark grey sky washes over the wooden surfaces as splashes of yellow and green hint at an autumnal landscape. While we look at this deceptively empty space our attention moves to the right where the focus is less clear, the window is stained and unwashed. As we are trying to figure out what we are looking at, something seems to move on the far right; have we just missed our heroine? This place is imbued with her story; there is no need to see her face.
And so we get a glimpse into the lives of some of the famous women of Derbyshire: Lizzie, Juliette, Alice, Florence, Sandeep, Georgiana, Bess, Laura, Deborah and many others, whose public personas and private passions have fascinated not only Watson but generations of readers, historians, tourists, and locals. These paintings tease and tantalise the viewer. They speak to us directly, calling us to look at these private spaces, to try to imagine the women who inhabit(ed) them. Each scene gives us just enough information to want discover more about the women who changed this county and the world: the changing faces of Derbyshire, indeed.