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Negative Capability:

The Stourhead Cycle


The Stourhead Cycle is a series of eight large-scale photographic works that was shown for the first time in the installation

Negative Capability: The Stourhead Cycle at Matt's Gallery, London June/July 2012.




Generated at the National Trust site of Stourhead (Wiltshire, UK) in 2006*, the images eschew any desire to document a specific location; instead, the historic house at Stourhead, along with it’s world-famous 18th century landscape gardens, were employed by Crisp as a formal device to reflect upon the colliding imperatives of heritage, leisure and history at a site of national cultural significance.

Implicit are questions concerning the democratising of cultural ‘assets’ or the space between the public and private spheres but ideas are also articulated through a formal visual language where tensions are set up between proximity and distance, between the flat plane of the photograph and the perspectival depth of landscape or between revealing and obscuring a ‘view’.

The phrase 'Negative Capability' was first used by the Romantic Poet John Keats in 1817 when he identified, in a letter to his brother, the ability to accept uncertainty and the unresolved as prerequisite for creativity.**  The relationship between knowledge and doubt has long been at the heart of Crisp's practice and is often reflected in her work's wilful instability as it oscillates between illusionistic space and explicit, functional presence. 

Negative Capability: The Stourhead Cycle was Crisp's third exhibition for Matt's Gallery and continued her exploration of what, in phenomenological terms, a photograph is - What is it capable of?  Here the equivocal identity of Crisp's work persisted as glazed and framed photographic works were removed from the plane of the gallery wall and were sited on single scaffolding poles to create a new, provisional architecture of the gallery interior.


* In 2006 the National Trust site of Stourhead, Wiltshire hosted Beauty and the Beast - an exhibition of contemporary sculpture featuring the work of eak-art, Barbara Ash, Fiona Crisp, Dame Elisabeth Frink, Jeremy Turner, Abigail Fallis, Gary Martin, Boo Ritson, Deborah Jones, David Toop, Beth Carter, Kieran Brown, Gavin Turk and Keir Smith (catalogue ISBN 978 –1 –84359 –267 – 9)

During the exhibition, Crisp was commissioned to undertake a six-week residency supported by The Arts Council, England, that resulted in the working prints for The Stourhead Cycle.  Three of the images from the series have been reproduced in the artist’s monograph Hyper Passive:

** Letter dated Sunday, 21 December 1817

Romanticism: an anthology, By Duncan Wu, Duncan Wu Edition: 3, illustrated Published by Blackwell, 2005 p.1351







The following text was written by Fiona Crisp at the end of her six week residency at Stourhead in 2006:


 It’s beauty raising it’s ugly head again …..


When first commissioned to respond to the site of Stourhead in the context of ideas raised by the exhibition Beauty and the Beast, a phrase, I believe spoken originally by an art critic, resurfaced from the depths of my memory. Now, nearing the completion of my time working here, the same phrase persists ……

It’s beauty raising it’s ugly head again

For me, Beauty is the Beast.  By stating this, I do not intend to blacken Beauty’s name or to advocate that it should be denied or ejected.  I say it instead to remind myself that Beauty, far from being benign, is something to be grappled or sparred with – in other words, given the fighting respect it deserves.

Beauty, along with Virtue (and, interestingly, also Vice) is almost always personified as female.  Beauty distracts, beguiles, soothes or comforts.  In myth and legend Beauty is used to give meaning and direction to a quest but it is also used to deceive and distract – to ‘get one past’ the hero.  Imagine, for example, how much shorter Homer’s Odyssey would have been had Odysseus been blind to Beauty.

In the gardens at Stourhead, there is a sensual beauty of smell and sound, of climate and touch but overwhelmingly, Stourhead’s beauty is visual.  The literally spectacular nature of the gardens only exists through an exacting visual control, achieved through horticultural means.  As one walks around the gardens, one’s view is therefore prescribed and only at certain points are we allowed a vista. In between these ‘opening ups’ we are kept looking inwards - literally at what is near to us on the path and metaphorically at our inward thoughts.

These relationships between proximity and distance, between dark and light are crucial to how the gardens function.  By limiting our opportunities to perceive a view, each vista appears to us as fresh and enlivened, as though we were actually being offered up a painting.  The impact of such a gesture is predicated on the intervening periods of interiority – we thus need to limit our vision in order to be able to see.

Perhaps this is why, for me, Ariadne is a pivotal figure in the gardens.  She lies in the underworld of the Grotto in perpetual reverie, enduring but far from inert – as we are reminded by the continual flow of spring water that, like a river, is always new, always the same.  Unlike her fellow statues with their blind stares, Ariadne closes her eyes to the spectacular beauty of the gardens, having recourse only to the mind’s eye and subconscious spectres. 

My time at Stourhead has been intense.  Emotional and intellectual decisions, usually drawn out over an extended period of a residency, have by necessity been kaleidoscoped into a short six-week period.  In this time I have truly been beguiled by the extraordinary beauty of Stourhead with its theatre of Classicism and stories from Antiquity.

In my work however, I have attempted a ‘face off’ with beauty.  To have merely reproduced spectacular vistas would have been, for me, giving way to the Beast that is Beauty’s underbelly - where aesthetic pleasure becomes anodyne or soporific and where fear of corrupting an image prevents us understanding what that image has become. 
Instead, I have sought to collapse oppositional forces - of proximity and distance, of light and dark, of classical and contemporary – into the single plane of the images.
Here, as in the gardens, what is obscured is as important as what is revealed.



Fiona Crisp September 2006








Click for enlargement


Apollo from the Walking Tree







Temple of Apollo  






Temple of Flora 





The Pantheon  






Flora from the Watch Cottage 






Pantheon from Tree 645   2006/2012





Pantheon from The Shades  







The Saloon 



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