When I told a friend that I had just come from seeing Maisie Broadhead’s startling large scale installation Peepers at the Royal Pavilion he responded by describing the building as ‘An Indian Palace from the outside, decorated like an especially over-the-top Chinese restaurant on the inside.’
This then prompted a brief discussion on the place of royal palaces in modern day society, and inevitably on the monarchy: ‘That’s how a palace should be though, open to the public.’, my friend concluded.
Exchanges like this are what makes Peepers such a relevant piece. There’s something unnerving about seeing a group of 20 foot high aristocrats in powdered wigs and face paint leering back in at us (and in such an opulently decorated room) that makes us question the business of what is essentially having a good old nosey at how ‘the other half lived.’
In times when the poverty gap seems especially pronounced – and when television seems obsessed with portraying contrasting social archetypes from Benefits Street to Toffs – does tramping round exquisitely decadent buildings (albeit one that’s been in public ownership for over 160 years) constitute a type of reverse class tourism?
George IV was once such victim of his own celebrity. Initially happy to let the public in to gawp at his incredible creation, he eventually tired of the attention, especially when it turned rather scathing, not only from the public and press but even from those working in his own court.
George lived hedonistically and paid for it. By the time he was 30, he was corpulent and stricken with gout. He even had a tunnel built connecting the Pavilion to the Dome, apparently to avoid being seen and ridiculed by the public.
The prince was condemned in the press as a man who ‘at all times would prefer a girl and a bottle to politics and a sermon’; his only source of happiness being ‘gluttony, drunkenness and gambling’ (Correspondence of George, Prince of Wales, 2.2–3). Even his obituary in The Times was unflinching, declaring that ‘there never was an individual less regretted by his fellow-creatures than this deceased King.’
These stories were a key source of inspiration for Maisie’s work, which also resonates with more contemporary reference points, such as the news footage from Ukraine of protestors storming the presidential palace of Viktor Yanukovych. Those who did were dumbstruck by the extravagances they found, such as private menageries, purpose built rooms housing classic car collections and even a reproduction of John Lennon’s Imagine piano.
The figures in Peepers are startling not only because of their size, but also due to the attention paid to their facial expressions, the result of painstaking work. Each model was shot individually with around 200 shots taken in situ at the Pavilion.
Maisie originally trained as a jeweller, after stints in a jewellery shop and as an art publisher’s picture researcher. She trained at the Royal College of Art, which she describes as ‘a place for people searching for answers.’
She’s known for her meticulously staged portraits, often informed equally by personal themes and art references, and a sly, knowing sense of humour. Questions of authenticity abound, as in her Hall of Fake series on master forgers and her work at Sir John Soames Museum, the brilliantly titled ‘She Pulled my Heir’, in which she sneaked her own family portrait into an existing collection of Hogarth portraits.
The artifice inevitably at work in art is something she revels in, in a decidedly postmodern fashion. Very elaborate, almost theatrical, sets are often constructed for her portraits, even for what look like ordinary domestic scenes.
There’s a revealing film on display in Peepers, which shows the entire process of selectively framing an image. This comes across even in how she describes her approach to photography: ‘I feel like I make images, rather than take them.’
I spoke with Maisie to get a peep into the mind of the artist who’s brought such an impactful work to an already iconic space.
You studied in Brighton, what was it like to be back here and work on this commission?
MAISIE: I studied in Brighton from 1999 to 2002 and although I haven’t been back very often since, it was lovely for things to come full circle. For me Brighton holds a mix of memories, both good and bad, but living here it was impossible to not be affected by the Pavilion in some way, and it was strange and wonderful to be actually working inside the building.
You’ve talked about how Peepers was inspired by learning about George’s feelings of unwelcome public scrutiny, especially in his later years, did you end up feeling sympathy for him?
MAISIE: Initially no! It’s a funny one, as obviously it is hard to sympathise with someone who was so privileged and spoilt, but I think where I made a connection was with the state of mind he was in. His state of mind was of someone who was clearly depressed. I know people who have suffered with depression, so I know just how desperate it can feel.
He became increasingly reclusive in later life, even building the secret tunnel to escape public scrutiny, and towards the end he was more or less confined to his chambers. Some events in his private life happened that made him withdraw from the world, losing his daughter, his thwarted marriage and the disapproval of his father, who was a far more respected monarch, so all of that obviously played a role and tarnished his mood.
You’re known for your use of allusions and art references, homages etc., are there any in Peepers itself?
MAISIE: Well the interesting thing about working with the Pavilion is that it’s fairly unusual because it doesn’t have any formal portraiture. Most stately homes or palaces have artworks hung over the fireplace or something, but the Pavilion’s different, which forced me to think about this commission in an entirely different way. It was quite freeing really, if also a little daunting to begin with.
I took my lead from the various personal connections in his life, from the cartoonists who were at him all the time to the people who worked in his court and his immediate circle. The figures in the installation aren’t exactly specific people or characters as such, but they’re certainly intended to represent the range of people and ages who had an influence on him.
Why did you choose the Music Room for the installation?
MAISIE: Being a clear room with little furniture, it lent itself really well to the concept, especially with the diffusion blinds and the big windows, it’s a clear space. Also I was told that George used to have the windows open originally, letting the public look in while they were entertaining. It’s the room where he liked to throw parties and get to show his more exuberant side, so that appealed as well.
As the gap between ‘the haves and have nots’ seems to be widening in Britain today, do you think that our increased nosiness and fascination with celebrity culture is a justified form of escapism?
MAISIE: I’m not sure that celebrity is such a new concept. I think it’s always been there, it’s just become more readily accessible, and unavoidable really. I’m not someone who follows celebrity gossip or reads those sort of magazines myself, but obviously many people do. I think that prying is just human nature, we all want to know what other people are doing, especially with people we think we know simply because they’re famous and their lives are paraded in front of us all the time. But I’d question what purpose it really serves. It can make people dissatisfied with their lives, by comparing themselves to others.
In your opinion, what makes historic houses like the Royal Pavilion relevant today?
MAISIE: I think they provide an element of fantasy and escapism for people. It’s almost like losing yourself in a good book. You can switch the outside world off and let you imagination take over. It’s definitely something you need to experience first-hand too. There’s no point in doing a virtual tour of a place like the Royal Pavilion.
What was the biggest challenge of working in such a historic and lavishly decorated building?
MAISIE: The biggest challenge was getting over my fear of the project. The actual installation process all went surprisingly smoothly. It helped to work on the cases with fabricators from Portslade-based Millimetre, who have a strong conservation background and so knew the terrain. I’m used to working on my own projects and troubleshooting as I go, but this commission was completely different, it required more advance planning, but the whole thing went suspiciously well.
With a project like this, nothing’s left to chance, everything’s mapped out. It took 8 months of preparation, which isn’t unusual. The interesting part was writing the proposal, which took 3 weeks in itself. I’m used to working a year or so ahead, but setting it all down on paper can be quite an odd process.
As an artist, your biggest fear with working in an environment like this is accidental damage. I would hate to walk out having destroyed a priceless chandelier or something! Of course we still have the de-installation to look forward to, so it’s not too late for something to go wrong.
Coming originally from a jewellery background, what drew you towards photography in recent years?
MAISIE: I’ve always been interested in photography. I used to have a darkroom in the basement of my house and liked playing around with all the chemicals. Crafts attracted me I think because I just enjoyed keeping my hands busy. The problem with crafts and making 3D objects is that people rarely get to see your delicate handiwork, because there aren’t always the right spaces to display them properly. Often what you end up with are fairly generic 2D pictures of beautiful 3D items.
So I started to play around photographing jewellery items, and then creating specific pieces that weren’t actually designed to be worn, but would work for the camera in 2D, re-appropriating them for the medium of photography. Together, this 2D picture of a 3D item, creates something else entirely, something new.
You often put yourself, friends or family in artworks. Were you tempted to do that with Peepers, and how did you choose your models?
MAISIE: With photography, I’ve always worked with people I know well. It just always seemed like the most obvious and natural way to go about it, instead of using a casting agency. It’s easier to take pictures of people you know, they relax more and because they already know you, it’s easier to discuss the work with them and make them feel a part of it. For Peepers, most of the models were friends, except for the older gentleman who came from an agency, mainly because I just didn’t know anyone who looked right for that particular role.
What about the clothing and make-up, were you deliberately going for a Regency look?
Yes, very much so. I did toy with the idea originally of making the figures contemporary, but ultimately I wanted to conjure up part of George’s world, to give a sense of putting the viewer in his shoes.
I did a lot of research on the costume elements and spent a bit of time in the National Theatre Costume depot, where I hired most of the garments from.
Towards the end of the Regency period, fashions changed, with hairstyles evolving to be a little more restrained, so that was the look I was going for.
The aspect of George’s reputation I was drawn to was his personal story, the people closest to him, in his family and circle, because ultimately I think that it wasn’t really the public’s view of him that affected him so much as that of his family, friends and others in his immediate orbit.
I loved your portraits of the forgers. Authenticity seems to surface a lot in your work. Are questions of authenticity and validation becoming more (or less) relevant in the art world these days?
MAISIE: It’s a subject that’s fascinated me for a long time and the longer I’ve been working in the art world the more I see that everyone is grappling for some badge of authenticity.
I did my dissertation on fakes and forgerers. It came about after I took a tour of a famous London museum with a jewellery historian who admitted that there could well have been some fake items among the exhibits.
Often how the person who gets to decide whether something is a genuine artwork or not tells you more about them than ‘the artist.’ It’s all those subjective judgements that make it interesting.
But actually, does it even matter anyway, aren’t we all just telling stories?
Finally, what is your favourite item in the Pavilion?
MAISIE: Well there’s just so much to choose from, but tying in with that last question the ones that really stuck in my mind were some of the replicas of original items, like the fireplace pewters that are on loan to Buckingham Palace.
Jools Stone, Blogger in Residence
Peepers is open until March 1st, admission starts at £5.50 for local residents, or free to members.
Maisie’s next exhibition A Young Man’s Progress is on at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge from 24 March to 6 September.