The Dead King In The Car Park, David Ferry, And His Cutting Knife

David Ferry. Elizabeth (detail). Faces and Places

In his new photomontage exhibition The Invader’s Guide to the British Isles, David Ferry revels in the historical inaccuracies of picture books, Hollywood blockbusters, BBC comedies and Shakespeare, finds Stephen Clarke…

The body of King Richard III lay buried beneath a council car park in the city of Leicester. Following his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the nefarious Monarch was laid to rest, yet his story continued. Infamous for the murder of the two young Princes in the Tower, Richard was depicted as the deformed, hunchback villain in Shakespeare’s play: an established stereotypical trope for pantomime dramatics. The true history of Richard, the last reigning Plantagenet, was distorted to suit Tudor propaganda and so became as dead as its master.

This King’s old bones took centre stage again when they emerged from the ground over 500 years later to find a more fitting venue in the city’s Cathedral. In March 2015, Richard was re-buried with deferential pomp suited to both royal ceremony and media event. Among those at the service of reinterment was the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who was discovered to be a distant descendant of the medieval regent. Cumberbatch’s best-known role is as the quintessential English detective Sherlock Holmes. Like the detective, a historian is caught between facts and fictions; histories of Britain are constructed with particular artistry.

Just as the fictitious detective collects his minute fragments of evidence to build his case, the artist David Ferry follows his own eccentric thread. The key feature of Ferry’s practice is the scouring of charity shops for printed material that he can use in his artworks. The series of prints Faces and Places from English History (2001–2006) was born from a found picture book. The Country Life Picture Book of English History was a saccharine account of old England that concentrated upon images of a kingdom that combined political trauma with quaint customs. Ferry noted that absent from this sweet narrative was the British popular culture with which he was familiar. His understanding of a British national identity is informed as much by the comedian Peter Sellers reciting the lyrics to the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night in the style of Laurence Olivier’s Richard, as it is by the famous play.

“The picture books used by David Ferry are composed of dubious facts and most are out of date”

In Ferry’s art the tale is retold through the filter of popular parlance, cross-referencing authorised history with common culture to construct a gentle satire.

In his 1961 George Macaulay Trevelyan lectures, delivered at the University of Cambridge and published later that year, the historian E. H. Carr asked the question: “What is history?”. An introduction to the theory of history it was the first lecture, The Historian and His Facts, that contrasted two approaches to the writing of history: the empirical (objective) and the non-empirical (subjective). Carr began by citing Lord Acton who at the close of the 19th century proposed the production of “ultimate history”; this would be the accumulation of all historical facts, thus giving a full, objective account.

David Ferry. Hastings. Faces and Places

By the middle of the 20th century, Sir George Clark advocated the alternative view that history has a subjective bias since the past has been processed by one or more human minds; this history is the product of its time and is constantly being updated. The picture books used by David Ferry are composed of dubious facts and most are out of date before they reach the charity shops. Careful selection of material by the authors of these guides edits out the brutality of facts and sidesteps contemporary reality. One imagines it is a territory that neither Acton nor Clark would have recognised as worth note, but it is these smooth guides that give impression of a nation’s history and, consequently, are ripe for the photomonteur’s intervention. In Ferry’s print What Henry VII Looked Like, the reader is confidently assured that we can recognise the face of Richard III’s nemesis even though the artist masks the first Tudor king behind a woollen shield. The comforting pastime of knitting merges with coffee-table literature in Ferry’s historiographic practice.

“Ferry’s knife, either physical or digital, cuts into his raw material of the picture book”

In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (1979), the author Douglas Adams lampoons the ability of computers to acquire knowledge through the accumulation of facts. The supercomputer Deep Thought is programmed to answer the Ultimate Question of “Life, The Universe and Everything”. After seven and half million years of calculation the computer provides the Ultimate Answer: “42″. The computer operators are frustrated by this brusque answer. Deep Thought points out that they have not formulated a clear question. Ultimate history might suffer the same flaw.

In his lecture, Carr explores how the “fetishism of facts” directs the historian. This fetishism has formed the basis for schoolroom education and living room entertainment as we learn to recount the names of the Kings and Queens and their colourful deeds. Carr queries this seemingly definitive roll call by asking: “What is a historical fact?” The commonsense reply is that there are basic facts that are the same for all historians, and these facts anchor the narrative.

David Ferry. Henry VII (detail). Faces and Places

At this point, Carr-the-historian and Ferry-the-artist converge, both citing 1066 and Hastings. For Battlefield of Hastings Ferry incorporates the diagrammatic device of x-marks-the-spot to indicate “the spot where Harold died”: a common simplification of actuality. This date and place, Carr asserts, are the raw material for historians rather than history itself which is processed by the historian. He considers nonsense the belief that historical facts are independent of interpretation. In the 21st century, the present-day supercomputer that is the Internet endows its paying customers omniscience: the quick answer from the smartphone is 42. Pertinently, Carr referred to a reliance upon the accumulation of fact as “scissors-and-paste history” that is without meaning or significance. Ferry’s knife, either physical or digital, cuts into his raw material of the picture book guide with its comforted readership. Donor contributions are pasted on to the surface of each image. Scissors and paste bring together disparate sources that the artist has collected. The remaining corpus satires the list of inherited values and sinks accepted entitlement.

“Facts are ‘refracted through the mind of the recorder’”

At the start of a new millennium, an American film re-wrote history and caused a controversy that sent ripples into British Parliament’s House of Commons. U-571 (2000) depicted the capture of the German Enigma machine not by British sailors, as recorded in factual history, but instead by US sailors as told in fictional history (the then Prime Minister Tony Blair referred to the film as an “affront” to British sailors killed in operation). Just as the stage productions of Richard III had given audiences what they wanted, so too the Hollywood film industry had appealed to its target demographic.

In the second part of his lecture, Carr explains the proposals of philosopher and historian R. G. Collingwood that bring historians into the limelight as the producers of history. According to this view facts are “refracted through the mind of the recorder”. It follows that when we read a work of history attention needs to be paid to the author of the work before we concern ourselves with the narrative told and the facts used. The author will inhabit a particular period and place, hence this context will shape the discourse. The obvious danger with this licence for the storyteller, rather than the inconvenient facts, is that like the director/scriptwriter of U-571 and the Bard of Stratford, history loses its objectivity.

David Ferry. Standing Form No.3. Faces and Places

In the picture books altered by Ferry this objectivity was already dissolved in the mixture of simple facts, sunny day depictions and superficial comments, to this frothy brew the artist adds his own fruity flavours. Ferry’s account of the history of Britain takes its lead from the Carry On films — the history plays of the 1960s and 1970s. Alongside their stock of contemporary subjects were the Romans (Carry On Cleo (1964)), Henry VIII (Carry On Henry (1971)), the Navy as they take on the Spanish Armada (Carry On Jack (1964)), Dick Turpin in Georgian Britain (Carry On Dick (1974)), and World War II (Carry On England (1976)). Unlike Shakespeare’s history plays, which include Richard III, the Carry On films revel in their inaccuracies and this is the appeal to their audiences. In Ferry’s histories the giant, chalk, hill figure of the Long Man of Wilmington has his modesty protected by an enormous leaf; and at the Roman Baths visitors are instructed that neither diving nor urinating are tolerated.

“Facts and fictions are recast in a montage that mirrors the artist’s plot”

If the facts are dumb, and the historian a propagandist, then what hope is there for history? Carr comes to a happy compromise stating that there is a reciprocal relationship between the historian and the facts. This interaction is the exchange between a present and the past: the narrator exists in his own time while his subject sits in moments gone by. Ferry’s ambition is not the production of history but the construction of art; however, like the historian the process of interaction is central. Ferry’s work exists within the context of art practice that traces its origins to Dada artists of the 1920s and is expanded upon by the Punk collagists of the 1970s. His update of this discourse is the refinement of its language, moving away from the declarative to develop a subtle and humorous eloquence. In his montages, British history is refracted by donor material from neighbouring coffee-table productions; the mundane asserts itself over the heroic, just as the tarmac of the car park covered the King.

In 1924 the amateur historian Saxon Barton and a group of friends founded The Fellowship of the White Boar, a group devoted to setting straight the account of the King that was misshapen by Shakespeare’s prose. During the 1950s, Olivier’s film of Shakespeare’s Richard III (1955) and Josephine Tey’s crime detective novel The Daughter of Time (1951) contributed to a surge of interest in the Monarch and his modern followers who, in 1959, became the Richard III Society.  In 2012 the Society, alongside the University of Leicester and Leicester City Council, announced that they had begun to search for the remains of Richard III. A skeleton was soon found and identified as the King; his remains were re-buried in Leicester Cathedral. In 2016, Benedict Cumberbatch played Richard III in a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s play: The Hollow Crown (BBC 2).  Facts and fictions are recast in a montage that mirrors the artist’s plot.

Stephen Clarke

This article has been produced for the occasion of the exhibition David Ferry: The Invader’s Guide to the British Isles – see it from 26 October-19 November 2016 at the Post Office Gallery, Federation University Australia, Ballarat, Australia. Exhibition opening  Saturday 29 October 2016 at 5.30pm — FREE

David Ferry is represented by Roe and Moore, London and The National Print Gallery, London. He is Professor of Printmaking at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales

Images, from top: David Ferry. Elizabeth (detail), Hastings, Henry VII (detail), all from Faces and Places; Standing Form No.3, from Public Sculpture in England. All images courtesy the artist

Read Look and Look Again: David Ferry

Posted on 31/08/2016 by thedoublenegative