The Curious Case:
Objects in Displacement

My thoughts on Spirit of Place are focused around a small suitcase full of objects, belonging formerly to a patient at All Saints, and given to Mary Hooper on the last working day at the Hospital in April 2004. The case represents only a small fragment of the place, and of the people who inhabited it; but it offers glimpses and hints of one past life, while the fabric of the building itself offers glimpses and hints of the many past lives of patients, staff, and visitors, who came and went there for almost a century and a half.

One of those visitors was my father, who regularly played the organ in the Hospital chapel during the 1960s. In recognition of his role at All Saints I have dedicated these reflections to his memory, and in particular to the fact that he gave me my first 35mm camera and light meter when I was 11 years old, setting in motion my life-long love of photography.

To a disinterested outsider, the suitcase and its contents could easily be dismissed; there is nothing of any obvious "importance" in either historical terms or monetary value. But my first impression was a strong one: of a remarkably intimate insight into the owner. I felt an almost overwhelming responsibility to respect the glimpse of intimacy I detected, and to be careful not to exploit it.

I imagined someone packing her life into this suitcase as she emptied her home - salvaging as many small, portable items as she could make fit, as she embarked on the final phase of her life.

In tribute to this thought, and to the owner, I took the case and its contents with me to the Hospital, listening out for clues to the particular past life it seemed to embody, and to hints regarding the past life of the building. On my first visit many of the echoes I detected were melancholy, and some seemed sinister - especially in the two small turret rooms at the front of the building; in the old Staff Quarters, and, on the uppermost floor, in the abandoned Seaside Ward that had remained closed for many years, gazing blindly out to sea.

But there were many aspects of the fabric of the building that offered feelings of sanctuary, security, and hope. Henry Woodyer's ubiquitous carved stone Gothic arches framed doors and windows at every turn - simultaneously encompassing an aspiration towards Heaven, and delineating the boundaries of an enclosed world seemingly suspended within an independent time frame of its own.

I decided initially to photograph in the turrets, each of which contains a single, cell-like room whose only means of access is a narrow stone spiral staircase. Inside the cells a number of nails punctuated the walls, beneath which saints' names had been neatly written in pencil, as though marking the spaces where devotional pictures had once been displayed. It was difficult to imagine what the original purpose of these rooms might have been - they appeared to be designed for silent retreat and contemplation, but they also retained a faintly corrective air, removed from the main body of the building and lit only by small windows high above my head. As the day passed I began to experience a not entirely pleasant sense of isolation.

On my next visit - a freezing day in December 2004 - I arrived with the suitcase and a large quantity of dried flower petals, intending to continue using the turrets as a location. To accompany my photographs I had been selecting a series of literary texts with metaphors relating women to flowers, which I intended to combine with fragments of clinical texts about ageing. I had been reading about dementia and delirium in geriatric care, and at this stage I was thinking about the very end of life, as the owner of the suitcase would have passed her last days at the Hospital. I planned ultimately to work backwards: using the objects in the case to trace more youthful clues to its owner's life, and to link these with images of flowering and blossoming. But on my arrival I discovered the turret doors had been padlocked. Nobody seemed to know who was responsible, and although the security guard searched patiently through a vast array of keys, none could be found to match the new locks. Admittance to the turrets had become firmly, though inexplicably, denied.

I waited for Mary to return from some nether region of the Hospital where she was on an errand with someone else. The building had been empty for months, and it seemed colder indoors than out. I was struck by a pervasive sense of desolation. The powerful scale and immediacy of the architecture, and the penetrating cold itself, combined to prevail upon my senses. Ideas that had seemed quite logical back there - in the world of central heating, constant distractions, and sound bites - seemed to be rapidly unravelling. In here my physical discomfort was growing. In here, my hearing was becoming more acute. In here, I was being prompted simply to listen: to the intense, and sometimes disconcerting, Spirit of the Place.

Mary finally returned, and took me to find alternative sites where I might work. At the end of a long, chilly tour of just about every aspect of the building, we came to a room that I was told had once belonged to the Mother Foundress, Harriet Brownlow Byron. As I stepped across the threshold, I felt as though I had entered the heart of the Hospital.

Dominating the space was a massive fireplace decorated with Woodyer's Gothic arches - a monumental feature that seemed designed to be both hearth and shrine. Carved in stone across the width of the mantel were these words:

  OH : YE : FIRE : & : HEAT : BLESS : YE : THE : LORD

Returning a couple of days later, I removed a board that had been nailed across the grate, revealing a handful of ashes. I had brought the suitcase with me, and some objects I had selected from it: an 'art deco' alarm clock; a locket containing hair; a sepia photograph of a mother and child, and a tiny metal model of a dog, together with a quantity of postcards and printed ephemera, which I set out on the mantelshelf and in the niches above it.

The windows had long been boarded up from the outside, and I had brought numerous small candles with which to light the photographs. One by one, they flared into life. The carved stone was thrown into new relief and, as I photographed, I found myself wondering about the fiery text and its significance. The words were half-remembered, half-familiar, prompting an echo somewhere far-off in my own lifeperhaps they were biblical? Perhaps they were part of a psalm that I sang in my father's choir as a child?

At the end of a day at the Hospital in February 2005 I visited my brother at his home in Eastbourne, and showed him some of the work in progress. He immediately recognised the text in my photographs of the fireplace, and told me it was a quotation from the Benedicite. He said it referred to the Old Testament story of 'The Three Boys' - who, although consigned to a fiery furnace as a punishment for their faith, nonetheless emerged unscathed, triumphantly singing. According to the Apocryphal version of this story, the boys were protected by angels, which "smote the flame of the fire out of the oven; And made the midst of the furnace as [if] it had been a moist whistling wind, so that the fire touched them not at all, neither hurt nor troubled them ". In their defiant Hymn the Boys called upon every element and living thing - sun and moon; the stars of Heaven; dew, winds, fire and heat; winter and summer, light and darkness; ice and cold, frost and snow; lightning and clouds, fountains, seas and rivers - to join them in praise; for, they sang: "he hathsaved us from the hand of death, and delivered us out of the midst of the furnace and burning flame."

It remained intensely cold during the period in which I photographed in the Mother Foundress's room. Each time I visited, the words 'fire' and 'heat' became more compelling. Each time, for a few hours, the little candle flames enlivened the gloom.

Almost imperceptibly, the poetry of flowers and the pragmatism of clinical texts (the original references I had been developing for the project) were becoming transmuted, inside this derelict room, into images of the fire of life, faith and courage in adversity, cleansing, and re-birth - fundamental symbols of the original Spirit of the Place.

Enshrined above the mantel, the objects from the suitcase had found a space in which they might fleetingly repose, offering a quiet tribute to the vitality of their original owner.

High above, beneath the roof, the windows of the long abandoned Seaside Ward gazed blindly out to sea.

Far below, the endless tides rolled in and out, as they had always done.

Dedicated to the memory of Walter Stephen John Woodward
28 February 1914 - 13 December 1981
Organist at All Saints Hospital Chapel during the 1960s

Now proceed to The Curious Case.