featured image: Benedict Cumberbatch © Derry Moore/Prestel Publishing
It is a truth universally acknowledged by those who deem themselves quintessentially English that every man’s home is his castle. Rooms are spaces of comfort, yet can also be of concealment and confinement. Derry Moore’s collection of interior photographs, featuring noted Britons in their chosen surroundings, lifts the veil and reveals the psychological depth underpinning each portrait, peeling away the layers of personality shelled inside its four walls.
Having trained in the Schule des Schens in Salzburg with Oskar Kokoschka, and specializing in photography with the eminent Bill Brandt, Moore’s works are anything but static. Although he readily admits that his previous book 25 years ago, English Rooms, comprised of ‘mainly upper class [people] and all sharing certain criteria of taste’, his latest publication can hardly be called a complete departure from this, with an Earl, Marquees, Duchess and Duke all present in his work. However, nobility shifts to national treasure, with figures such as Alan Bennett and James Dyson making a prominent mark in Moore’s work. His emphasis of the particular, idiosyncratic significance these individuals attach to their environment takes center stage.
In the same way that Gilbert and George, the artistic duo from St Martins School of Art, peer out their window and gaze at their own reflections looking back at them, in what they call an ‘Alice and Wonderland’ effect, many of Moore’s photographs act as mirrors of the imagination and, perhaps more interestingly, evocations of memory; Benedict Cumberbatch’s choice of room, the Garrick club in London, is rooted in his childhood memory of his father bringing him there as a boy, whereas the ornate presence of Chatsworth in Derbyshire serves to highlight the absence of Nelufar Hedayat’s home in Kabul. Such evocations quickly turn to excavations of the past. Alan Bennett’s home in Primrose Hill is painted with water-based stains in terra cotta not only emulate the wall of an Italian palazzo, but also to keep the translucency of architectural notes ingrained in its lime plastered walls.
As much as these are interiors of times gone by, they also represent places where one can enjoy the comforts of solitude. There seems to be an innate desire to be isolated, as Gavin Stamp’s portrait illustrates. Caught halfway down the royal staircase at the Renaissance Hotel in St Pancras, there is a glint of pride when he explains the way in which Moore has captured him ‘pensive and alone’. Even in a bare dressing room in the Apollo theatre in London, Stephen Fry highlights the importance to seek and maintain a ‘refuge from outside interference’.
Above all, these photographs show what Simon Jenkins, the head of the National Trust, referred to in his choice of room as a process of osmosis, of absorption, protection and diffusion, a place where learning, inspiration and solace collide to bring about a level of awareness lost in the hustle of everyday working life. Nowhere is this more apparent than Monty Don’s farm room in Wales, his joy stemming from the ‘desire for intimacy down to each blade of grass, every tree, every stone in the walls and streams.’ It is an intimacy that coalesces with nature and time against ‘the huge backdrop of the Black Mountains and the present set against the whole roll of history back to the Mesolithic’ in which he is ‘aware of slipping from time to time as I move from field to field, down the deeply worn tracks to the woods and on up above the tree line onto the mountain ridge. And that sense of history and time flowing through and around me makes the present doubly real and alive. It is a present as free from desire as I have known.’
The glowing achievement of Moore’s work is his ability to dissolve barriers. We now become the fourth wall in a room that would otherwise be a protective, emotional membrane for its sitters. Yet in doing so, these portraits also reveal our own habits, fears and desires of the surroundings we situate ourselves in and the importance of preserving that sense of self through space and time.
An English Room by Derry Moore is published by Prestel and out now, priced £29.99