Laura Ford: Seen and Unseen

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Last weekend, on a whim, we decided to take a short break in Cumbria. We’d planned to visit the latest Lakeland Arts exhibition which straddled Abbot Hall in Kendal and Blackwell, down the road near Bowness, and as the weather outlook was pretty good a stop over in Grasmere followed by a walk on Sunday seemed like a good idea. So that’s what we did.

We set out earlyish on Saturday and drove up to Kendal. First stop was Abbot Hall to see the first half of the exhibition of works by Laura Ford, previously shown at Strawberry Hill House, Twickenham, (20 June – 6 November 2015), and also the National Gallery’s Rembrandt self-portrait which is “on tour” round the country with Abbot Hall one of the venues.

I have to admit of never having heard of Laura Ford before the exhibition was announced, although she is represented in the collections of Galleries including the Tate, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The publicity photos I’d seen looked interesting but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

The works on display were mainly sculptures, but there were also a number of ceramic pieces, paintings and drawings. Most of her works are figurative – lifelike humans and animals, but with a twist. She works in bronze, other metals, fabrics, wool, Jesmonite and other materials, including clothing to dress some pieces. Her works include  humans dressed as animals (or ‘sculptures dressed as people who are dressed as animals’), humans with animal aspects and anthropomorphic creatures. Most with a very Surreal influence evident.

The exhibition blurb tells us that

Laura Ford is one of Britain’s most original sculptors and is well-known for her portrayals of animals through which she explores aspects of the human condition – although Ford describes her own work as sculptures dressed as people who are dressed as animals. Deploying a nightmarish imagination she uses humour and acute observation to engage with social and political issues. Her works are personal and particular but also draw inspiration from popular culture as well as painting and sculpture from throughout the history of art.

Nightmarish is a very apt description for many of the works we saw.

The artist is skilful in creating realistic poses so that many of the figures look as if they are about to move. In some cases we worried that if we looked back they would have followed us! That aspect made some of the works very creepy indeed.

At Abbot Hall, they were displayed in the main exhibition space upstairs but some were located in the Georgian furnished rooms on the ground floor. For example, this pair of Medieval Cloud Girls standing amongst the furniture in the drawing room on the ground floor

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Upstairs we encountered this group of rather creepy penguins the size of children. There was something about them that made it seem as if there were real children inside the costumes.

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Perhaps it was the worn plimsolls they were wearing and the way they were posed. I was almost convinced that they had moved when we came back into the room.

At Blackwell the works were distributed throughout the house and outside in the grounds.

These Armour Boys  appeared to be evidence of a battle that had taken place in the Great Hall

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The poses were very convincing.

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Old Nick relaxing by the fire in the dining room

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There were a number of smaller ceramic pieces displayed in the White Drawing Room.

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I don’t think I’d like to bump into these fellows. A rural version of the Ku Klux Klan? or Something out of the Wicker Man.

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There seemed to be a surprise around every corner including this mouse boy

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and an elephant boy partially concealed behind a wardrobe in the small dressing room

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There were two giant rag dolls in the bedroom

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creepy enough without the second face on the back of it’s head

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The Lake District is closely associated with Beatrix Potter who lived over the other side of Windermere from Blackwell. There were three sculptures which almost could have come from her stories, except the characters were clearly down on their luck

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Perhaps that’s what upset these two children

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It was a marvellous exhibition that we thoroughly enjoyed. It’s always great to discover something good that you weren’t expecting and this was certainly the case on Saturday.

The Lakeland Arts website suggests that visitors really need to see both aspects of the exhibition by visiting both locations. I think that’s true and they do offer a reduction voucher for the second site when you ay admission at the first you visit. Mind you we are Friends of the Trust and so are able to visit as often as we like. And the excellent exhibitions they put on make the annual fee well worthwhile.

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