The Kiss and the Dagger* : The Work of Sarah Tisdall

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We frequently find that it is the subtle metaphor which is the most effective: the realisation of what is meant dawns and that it is wrapped up in a successfully poetic metaphor can render meaning all the more poignant, or in the case of this artist, all the more deadly for it. Politics needs its metaphors, like religion needs its metaphors and like biography needs them too. Taken straight the message can be deadly dull. This artist’s work has always been metaphor dense: it has also (although this in the past has rarely been obvious on the surface) been quite charged politically. It has been highly charged psychologically and, now that I come to think of it, religiously charged too. It goes without saying then that much of it is also highly biographical.

I wrote an article in Modern Painters about an earlier exhibition, called Arranged Metaphors, I gave it the title of My Family and Other Animals. The reference of course was to Gerald Durrell’s book and conveys an unambiguous message in respect of the artist’s preoccupations. The family is viewed simply as an organism amongst others, regarded anthropologically and behaviourally and in terms of the artist’s objective scrutiny, as part of a spectrum and at one with the rest of the animal kingdom. It is to be dispassionately observed and although treated fondly not invariably treated kindly. This rigorous scrutiny the artist equally applies to herself; she is her own sternest critic and does not invariably treat herself kindly, nor is she completely objective either about herself, or her undoubted achievements as an artist. It is of significance to me that she spent much time after graduating from the Slade working with the artist Michel Martins in Belgium, where she still has friends. This is the country of Delvaux, Magritte and James Ensor and it seems that in her work there are elements of all three.

Much of Sarah Tisdall’s work has a theatrical aura: this is not simply because of her scale and technique but because her subjects so often appear as if in some theatrical mis-en-scéne. This compounds their surreal dimension and adds to their frequent atmosphere of dislocation and displacement. Latterly her work has become more directly political, as in her painting The Tower of Babel. This was her response to the World Trade Centre bombing: a suggestion of a falling tower seems superimposed on a composition more reminiscent of the Deposition in conventional Christian iconography. What is not conventional is the shower of US dollars that are also falling. It is interesting that she has anticipated an attitude to the Americans and all their works which is highly prevalent now but few dared voice in the sugary aftermath of the bombing!

Sarah Tisdall, although it is impossible to convince her of the fact, is one of the most ‘seen’ artists in England today. There has been a fair sprinkling of gallery exhibitions and, although she has done much to satisfy what William Morris called the "swinish luxury of the rich"- in the private commissions necessary from time-to-time for economic survival - its antidote is that her work is most frequently seen in public situations: hospitals, schools, sports centres and so on (The Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, Southampton University Hospital, Swindon Health Hydro). The relationship between this activity and the studio-produced works, is not merely of scale (she has often painted very large works) but there is a symbiosis in her approach to subject. In her environmentally scaled works there is generally a strong element of trompe l’oeil; she is highly responsive to the opportunities architecture (often architecture of the least distinguished kind) offers. Indeed she excels in obliterating the visual blight and even savagery, that characterises some public buildings in which she has worked in which determined pragmatism has evidently prevailed over any aesthetic concern. Her turning a particularly ugly pipe and cable laden waiting room at the Radcliffe Infirmary seemingly into a hot house for exotic plants, is one of the most successful schemes of its type anywhere in Britain.


Since the beginning of the new millennium there has been something of a sea-change in her ‘studio’ work. During the Nineties she carried out a large series of paintings in which the ornamental formal landscape garden was a metaphor. These had a pronounced surrealist element, in which with the vegetation master Ernst might have been seen to be joining the Belgians. Mythical and heraldic beasts cavorted amongst topiary work, which she also animated. Although she admits that these were done because of a reluctance to use human imagery, those culled from the media in particular, which she was tempted to but rejected as being too direct, they still were making socio-political points. Her treatment of animal imagery was highly anthropomorphic, although strictly she did not use recognisable animals but animations of faux-heraldic devices and armorial beasts. Their stances, variously couchant, rampant and recumbent, echoed those of heraldry but also the neo-classical herms, centaurs, sphinxes and griffins of the ornamental garden set amongst invented mazes, rills and all the other impedimenta of the landscapes of the privileged. There were also medieval religious references. It occurs now (but surprisingly didn’t when I wrote of this work at the time) that these references bring Sarah Tisdall full circle and that the anthropomorphism and quasi-animism is not surprising - given the influence of her godfather. He was the writer C.S. Lewis and corresponded with throughout her childhood. His Chronicles of Narnia and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are of course choc-full of just such creatures and it is unthinkable that she was not at least subconsciously aware of them when reaching for applicable modern metaphors. A strong recent influence was a major exhibition of Aztec art in London and again appreciated precisely because of just such dualities, those between life and death, man and animal, in particular.


Sarah Tisdall was brought up in what she has called "a slightly dysfunctional, albeit a literary and religious family" and this accounts for her work containing so much literary reference. As well as her godfather’s influence there was that of other reading matter, peculiarly High Anglican in flavour, with its mixture of Fabianism and fairy tales. The Romantic poets, J. R. Tolkein, Charles Williams and George McDonald were stuff of the every-day for her and magic, religion and metaphor as familiar as anti-apartheid and Austen, ‘risky’ French writers with their dangerous realism and any hint of sex, were determinedly overlooked!

In an earlier article about the work in Modern Painters, I wrote that Freud would have a field day and, in fact, one has to question whether the symbolism is not too dense, but even in asking this we get to the centre of things. The works are all about tension balance, equilibrium and particularly social appropriateness. It is not too fanciful, I think, to read them as metaphors for the family and the ghastliness of complexity and guilt for which that institution is often responsible.


The artist’s imagery and narratives in fact permit many interpretations, particularly so in the current emotional, political and imaginative landscape. She feels that she has a responsibility (indeed a need) to reflect on life as it is experienced in the present but avows her debt to both Surrealism and Symbolism. Her titling is important and provides considerable clues, leading the viewer into the works. Her aim is for this combination of titles and images to suggest ideas that the spectator can unravel and indeed add to.

In her literally catholic sourcing of imagery, she uses images from many cultures; one, the sphinx, was originally Egyptian. As in the cases of many other beasts and myths, it was adopted by Europeans and adapted as a decorative motif. The artist gives their accustomed interpretations a new and modern twist, to tell a modern, if not new story. In this she is highly conscious that the medieval artists of Europe, as do virtually all primitive societies and civilisations past and present, used the images of beasts and various plants to construct narratives and she is interested in the idea that by representing some characteristic of an animal, bird or plant, that some of its characteristics can be transferred. She has employed other ‘medieval’ visual conventions, that of simultaneity, as in the religious narratives of sacred paintings, where whole passages in the story of a saint, or a Biblical narrative, are shown at different and perspectively incongruous places within the compass of a single frame. There is no distinction made between cultural signs and symbols stemming from different cultures or conventions and no value hierarchy brought to them; she chooses whatever seems appropriate for the work on which she may be engaged and is optimistic concerning the viewer’s capacity for drawing out their own interpretations on the basis of her indications.



Hugh Adams, 2003


Hugh Adams is a Welsh writer who has written extensively on the visual arts and cultural issues.


* The title not only hints at dualities in Sarah Tisdall’s work, it is also reference to Lorca’s The Butterfly’s Evil Spell. The artist designed costumes for Rogelio Vallejo’s production of the play at Bristol University in 1986.