The Octagon Room

Above: The black-and-white photo-document used by Fred Fordham. Credit: Richmond Council.


The Orleans House baroque-style Octagon Room (owned by Richmond Council) is used for wedding receptions and is also available for general hire. ("The room was built in 1721, holds up to 60 guests and is a beautiful location for cool summer or cosy winter ceremonies.") In planning a refurbishment of the room (recently completed) those involved considered an old black-and-white photo of the interior in its heyday--which depicted an oil painting set in pride-of-place. Research revealed the painting to be by Giovanni Panini (1691-1765), and deemed vanished (possibly burnt in a house-fire at some point). The Trust overseeing the redecoration decided to commission a precise replica--a copy--of the painting from graphic-artist Fred Fordham. Fordham looked at Panini's other work for indications of colour palette and approach to brushwork but for the composition itself he was limited to just one black-and-white photo-document.

Writer J.G. Ballard did something similar, commissioning in the 1980s, professional artist Brigid Marlin to make him a copy of a known-to-have-been-destroyed-in-WWII oil painting The Violation by Surrealist artist Paul Delvaux. Here again Marlin worked from an existing photograph only.

The humble photo-document is obviously crucial in both examples: the photo as reference and official record from which can emerge new versions of the real objects depicted. The photo functions as a code, a source, a blueprint. In terms of photo-theorizing the frisson (ODE: "a sudden strong feeling of excitement or fear; a thrill: a frisson of excitement") that these examples provoke is in their Dickian-ness. For PKD, "I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power."

The Orleans House Panini is of no great significance compared to the pseudo-realities that Dick is speaking of, for sure, but it might be indicative of a generalized tendency: a creeping sense that what is authentic and real is becoming ever-more increasingly a matter of choice and preference only--a copy (a fake) is not inferior to an original per se ... it might actually be preferable, and actually in some ways superior.

(3 March 2018)