Soup. That was it, I thought, some time after seeing the work of Tom Ellis within the Wallace Collection. Although it’s difficult to pin down the exact aroma – nothing distinct like the mercurial broccoli and Stilton – it is certainly within the range of carrot-coriander and minestrone. It’s low-lying presence, mingling together with the rich musk of silk wall hangings and dusty chairs topped with prohibitive teasels, seemed ubiquitous with historic collections, heritage houses and poor forgotten wings of large museums. The Pitt Rivers too, yes! The V&A? Perhaps, but more eggy, really.
A steady stream of visitors asking for the directions to the Wallace Collection’s picturesque restaurant at the centre of the building may have missed Ellis’ unintentional olfactory intervention in the Front State Room.
The burgundy silk panels denuded of usual ornament, four large paintings that have been created with romantic, painterly abandon are displayed instead on a ceiling-high wooden armature running across all four walls. The paintings, gesturing in colours of mustard, mildew and mohair to facsimiles of the 17th century ‘The Shoemaker’ by David Teniers the Younger, emitted a more radical stench. The fumes of linseed, oil paint and turps pervading the room signal that the surrounding master works, in this especially sedimented collection, had in fact once been unfinished and freshly painted too.
Tracking and rollers are attached to the top and bottom of each Ellis painting to insinuate that they may be repositioned. Several items of furniture that Ellis has made alongside the painting process can be flipped from table to chair on a hinge. The title, too – ‘The Middle’, chimes with the viscous, ebullient tracework of his painting parlour game: to reproduce the Teniers painting ad infinitum, ad absurdum. Never finished, these signposts say. In flux, potentially re-combinative. The effect, though, of Ellis’ wide array of display methods, pushed into the Collection proper as well as in the purpose-built exhibition spaces in the basement, overpowers the innocuous paintings that they display.
A larger selection of paintings are similarly bolstered in the downstairs Exhibition Galleries – two rooms with the acoustic and photic properties of a chilled meat cellar. Difficult to display in a wholly different way to the installation in the historic collection, huge swathes of fraying primed white canvas are attached to the walls, providing a softer, more sympathetic ground to the pairing of painting and furniture. As the white fabric hangings mirror the masses of silk upstairs, so do the flip-top tables mirror the many gilded bureaus, as well as two brass ‘lawn sculptures’ – akin to a Modernist-style weather vanes – one on the lawn in the Wallace Collection’s entrance, its sibling in the basement looking embarrassed in the harsh light. With each deliberate formal reference to the collection, content is stripped out leaving a shell that just about performs its intended function.
Viewing the paintings en masse one might glibly perceive the career of ‘the’ painter as monotonous, unexamined work such as that of the shoemaker forever resoling the boot. For better or for worse though, with their lack of definition and their murky faces, focus is redirected from fore- to background; attention is directed instead to the fixings. Ellis’ ‘intervention’ is a portrayal of indeterminacy, using the archetypes of studio practice and giving them a buff with the corner of his sleeve.
Institutions – especially those like the Wallace whose collections are fixed – continue to evolve programmes to make one ‘re-‘: reconsider, re-approach, re-examine. The afternoon tea partakers, online daters and business hobnobbers find an elegant backdrop to converse. Archives are made to speak new tongues in residency programmes. And museums of course depend on such ‘interventions’, franchises and pop-ups to survive – naturally finding themselves in the middle and between identities. Aside from unsettling dust – attempting to introduce a degree of uncertainty to staid convention – Ellis’ emptying of the Teniers painting to become vessel for pseudo-Sisyphean labour is perhaps also a wry assertion of the position of the artist when presented with the imperative to reinterpret.