Charles Dickens’ description of Jacob’s Island in Oliver Twist was challenged by a former Lord Mayor of London. He declared that no such place existed, that is, no place of its like existed in London. However, this man-made island, created in the latter part of the 17th century, was quickly built-up, and by Dickens’ time was a place of squalor, degradation, and disease. The realism of Dickens’ representation of Victorian London, a source of inspiration for the works of Marcus Dobbs presented here, is juxtaposed with Gothic elements that are manifest in its blending of the imaginative and improbable with the realistic; the tensions of conceived and lived space; and the spectres of individuals, events, and traditions thought laid to rest. His tale captures the complexity of London as a place shaped by the simultaneous presence of conflicting codes.
Dobbs’ works allude to these modes of representation of London through images that seemingly possess latent narrative yet are reticent and cause uncertainty; with heightened visual language for the working of affect. The conceived space of architecture and urban planning is appropriated and adapted to create fictional worlds through which the ‘real’ places of the city can be more readily understood as locations of the intense interaction of multiple discourses.
Estuary 1 and Estuary 2 evoke the Maunsell Forts of the Thames Estuary, antiaircraft towers built during World War II to defend the United Kingdom. Upon closer examination, the structures in Dobbs’ works capture the domiciliary resonances of these decaying stilted erections—creating a secondary world in which the vulnerability and domesticity they were built to protect becomes uncannily visible. In the Monuments series, distinctive architectural details of the Albert Memorial, Royal Albert Hall, Greenwich Hospital, and the Victoria Memorial rise out of mysterious fogs (perhaps the insalubrious, dense fog of Victorian times), as rays of light incongruously shine upon them. These phantasmal views call to mind the expression “The sun never sets on the British Empire” that came to describe Queen Victoria’s reign.
The spectral-like structures soaring in nebulous space in Monuments present a stark contrast to the solid and stolid edifices in the Tamesis series. However, here too, the inscrutable and apparent are inextricable—the darkness of the windows of the buildings echoing that of the entrance to the Victorian sewer. In Dickens’ time, the River Thames was essentially an open sewer, resulting in cholera epidemics, and Jacob’s Island was hit particularly hard by the disease. The possible meanings of ‘Tamesis,’ from which ‘Thames’ is derived, as ‘dark’ or ‘dark flow’ take on a new dimension. It is through such fragmentation and displacements—whether metonymic, spatial, or temporal—that Dobbs’ works move out of proscribed rules and forms to motivate new insights into and imaginative engagement with the polysemous, and often darker, environs of London’s past and present.
© Jeelan Bilal-Gore, 2015
JBG When many people think of London's dark history, I think the first stories that come to mind are those that have been popularized across the globe in some form or another -like Tower Hill and the Tower of London or Jack the Ripper. However, you seem to be tapping into an altogether different history of London. For example, looking into 'Tamesis' led me into the realm of a rich pagan past about which little is known - bringing together a Celtic goddess, an Egyptian goddess, and weirdly and more contemporary, Oxford University rowing. What aspects of the city's history particularly speak to you from growing up and living there?
MD Charles Dickens wrote about a place called Jacob’s Island, situated along the banks of the Thames, which was described to the effect of something similar to hell, with disease, decaying buildings, and extreme poverty. As time went on, the slums were replaced with Victorian warehouses; it would then go on to be bombed during WWII.
What was left has since become luxury apartments, and the area as a whole is one of the most desirable places in London to live. It’s those aspects, and the contrast between the old, new and everything in between that I am fascinated with, and that’s where I draw my inspiration.
JBG The architecture and structures in your work seem deeply expressive in a way that is arresting. What significance do architecture and structures have for you, if any, in these imaginary worlds you make visible in your work?
MD I use buildings that can be seen as a symbol of power to create a sense of importance. I like to create a feel of mystery and exploration within my work with bleak landscapes contrasting up against well-kept structures. Many of the buildings I use I have a connection with, whether it is passing them everyday on the bus or reading about them in history books. I like to create a new purpose for these buildings, placing them in new environments and showing them in a different perspective.
JBG Thinking about monuments and history- they are such a significant part of cultural heritage that can assert and reify a narrative of effectiveness and adherence to particular ideals within a reality of social and political dysfunction; or social architecture projects that seek to address specific societal issues through spatial design - in relation to the question about architecture and structures in your work, do they also give expression to the utopian and dystopian visions of the city you mention?
MD I like to think they give expression to both depending on the viewer’s perspective. I feel there is more of a dystopian element to the work I create, in a sense I am drawn more to darker elements, such as the tone and atmosphere within the image. This goes back to my interest in London’s dark history, particularly the Victorian London described by Charles Dickens.
The Royal Albert Hall is a music venue, the Albert Memorial was built in the memory of Queen Victoria’s husband, and the Greenwich Hospital with its two distinctive domes was built to treat Royal Navy sailors. All of these buildings serve a different purpose from my perspective, for an example: the Greenwich Hospital is an entrance to a grand palace with a royal barge anchored, The Royal Albert Hall actually being that palace, and the Queen Victoria memorial statues placed on either side as a gateway.
JBG Finally, what are you working on now and what kinds of directions are you heading in?
MD I have recently finished working on a feature length film titled Set The Thames on Fire directed by Ben Charles Edwards. It is a dark comedy staring some great British actors such as Noel Fielding, Sally Phillips, and Sadie Frost. My role was to create the film's dark London setting. I’ve spent the last six months working alongside a London based visual effects team to bring my work to life. My next project will go back to my exploration of a fictional London focusing on the creation of a series of hand drawn maps.
© Marcus Dobbs and Jeelan Bilal-Gore, 2015