Friday, 1 April 2011


Viola as twins (c) the artist

Blogging combines three of my favourite things: walking, researching and writing. And some days you accidentally discover pure gold.

I was at the Mall Gallery with a friend at the 2011 Renaissance Photography Prize exhibition, sponsored by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, to raise funds for the Lavender Trust (for the care of younger women with breast cancer). We both decided that Viola As Twins was the image we would most like to take home and live with. When  I started to research the artist, to my delight I came across a photograph I saw at the National Portrait Gallery in 2008, one of the most memorable images I have ever seen. It’s Quints (below) and won the  Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize that year.

Both images are part of a portfolio of Dreams and Nightmares, drawn from the memories of the artist and her friends. Not knowing this, what first drew me to Viola As Twins  was the calm 'authenticity' of a film set.  Perfection. I can stroke that leather sofa, know how to switch on that fringed lamp, might slip on the polished parquet floor, am poised ready to jump down and pick up that ball of wool if it runs out of control. And the colours... My school corridor was painted green (exactly that shade) below,  cream on top, with a black line separating the two. All our rugs at home were beige and fawn and rust and brown... yes, yes, you're right! 
But what is going on? The children stare ahead as if each is alone in the room. The ‘mother’ is oblivious of them, distracted by something outside, yet that badge of caring motherhood - hand knitting - is in her hands. Why haven’t the girls raided that exquisite 1930s dolls house? Who could resist it?

This is how the one of the artist's friends recounts her dreams;
It's a very sunny, positive atmosphere. Viola (my three year old) runs up to me with her arms open wide, calling "mummy, mummy", a big smile across her face. As she gets closer another Viola coming from behind her does exactly the same thing. The whole atmosphere shifts, turning the dream into a nightmare. I'm left speechless, wondering who the second girl is and, by the same token, if the first one is really my little girl at all.

Another, very brief dream; Viola's there again, happy and smiling. She's blonde with blue eyes (in real life and in the dream). Then suddenly another little girl appears. In the dream I know her to be Viola too, but this second girl is dark, with green eyes, also very pretty. They both behave like I'm their mummy but don't seem to notice one another. I feel like something's wrong, then I realize I can't remember having had twins. I don't know who my daughter is.

copyright: the artist
 Quints  on the other hand has all the majesty, sensuality and vigour of a Titian or a Caravaggio. It's a grand and beautiful setting, usually reserved for celebrities like the Madonna and Child. But there's not just one baby here, there are ...three, four, even five. Davies used a model for the mother together with her 10 week old niece who posed as all 5 of the quins. Here, as they say, is the back story, told by the friend whose dream it was:

Bizarre nightmare... I was pregnant with quintuplets, and this was scary... (having a 10 and 13 year old already)... I had to convince my midwife (who has retired) to be with me throughout the pregnancy and birth, as she had been with my other kids. Then ...I was worried about the size of vehicle we now needed... How was I going to park that in London as easily as the small car we had already? I wasn't able to pursue my career, and my husband had to give up his music career... would our relationship suffer? How would our 10 and 13 year old cope? Where would the finance come from? Would they have to become show babies like the French-Canadians in the 1950's (I think) who had the state looking after (them),and the mother had restricted access to her babies? I then woke up, rather bemused!

What makes this image so outstanding is the brilliant way Lottie Davies captured  what she said she set out to do: the 'calm and serenity of motherhood, as well as the feeling of imprisonment'. And how imaginative to make the setting so lush, so glorious. We're used to seeing pictures of young babies in medical surroundings or as part of a quotidian family tableau. But here birth is celebrated as the gorgeous, powerful and disruptive event it really is.

Lest anyone thinks this artist confines herself to multiple births, go the websites and see her portfolios of workportraits, travel photography, photojournalism and fine art - on locations as far apart as the Kalahari, the Arctic Circle, Guatemala and Japan.

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