PRINT March 1998


Like willful charges who have somehow slipped the leash, Stephanie, Rohan, and Camilla enact their overwrought adolescent emotions. Made confidante, the viewer is nonetheless privy to no more than a fraction of their intimacies: there is always a residue, a narrative that both precedes and succeeds the image. Sarah Jones, to these English teenagers, is a witness before whom they pose, and for whom, because they remain callow, unaffected, they also do not pose. Between middle-class poise and juvenile posturing, the girls hesitate, unsure of their status, their rights within the privileged precincts they inherit—just as Jones’ work hovers between narrative certainty and uncertainty.

These immaculate spaces are the rooms of large English houses, each home to one of the girls. Jones depicts the rooms as exemplary sites of bourgeois ritual, and makes it clear that most are rarely entered, save to dust. Their apparent perfection also emphasizes their unfamiliarity and uncanniness. Not quite aristocratic mansions, the houses are nonetheless places of power and wealth, which at once construct and represent stability and social status. This is where the upwardly mobile mercantilism that has so structured the British imagination in the last two decades bred.

By focusing on these sites, Jones memorializes the overpowering retrospection and the adulation of aristocratic conventions that are the transcendent signifiers of Middle England. In Dining Room (Francis Place) (I), 1997, a portrait of an archetypal Victorian father glowers at the impudent intruders. He is bracketed by scenes of fox hunting, that lunatic sport of the English squirearchy. In such exhibitions of patriarchal tradition, both purchased and inherited, nostalgia for empire is never far away. We find it here in the fascination for Chinoiserie. In Dining Room (Francis Place) (II), the girls’ awed contemplation of a huge soup tureen suggests a close encounter of the highest order.

But it is they who are the aliens. Resplendent in their cheap-chic clothes, Jones’ subjects adopt an uneasy repose. Seemingly conscious of their intrusion into spaces designed to exclude them, they appear haunted by the burden of history. These houses were intended for “men of property,” not for women (except in the subordinate roles of wife and mother). You sense that such subsidiary positions will be insufficient for Camilla, Rohan, and Stephanie, the embodiment of a New England. (The rebellious placement of Camilla’s ear stud, visible in Dining Room (Francis Place) (II), suggests that nothing will ever be the same.)

In fact, it is difficult to ascertain who or what is haunting whom in these pictures. These girls reach back into the past as the past reaches forward to detain them. We seem to intrude upon an end-game between merit and birthright, which has dominated British culture for fifty years and recently been revivified by New Labour’s election triumph, and its uncanny replication of the language of the Left’s modernizing aspirations of the ’60s. Their intrusion into these spaces disrupts the infinite loop of class narrative in which power and responsibility emanate solely from family and gender. And, in fact, when Rohan, Camilla, and Stephanie are old enough to vote, theirs will be a country where fox hunting has been outlawed.

Camilla, Stephanie, and Rohan prolong their performances by exchanging clothes, confusing self and other, permutating identities as if they were simply disposable commodities. Divided by heavy, highly polished furniture, the rooms themselves return their poses, presenting them with what seem to be intolerable opportunities for reflection. Dining Room (Mulberry Lodge) (III) finds a solitary Camilla face-down on the reflective tabletop, literally mirrored in the surroundings she seems, at the time, intent on ignoring. If these rooms are not to destroy the girls, Jones seems to be saying, they will have to wreck them—by abandonment, neglect, or the simple expedient of calling in the decorators. Otherwise, the three may come to resemble the etiolated “Mother” portrait poised above the serving-hatch in Dining Room (Francis Place) (III).

In the twin motifs of the figure’s reflection and its disappearance into empty space, repeated throughout her work, Jones points to a narrative beyond the frame. This denies her work the genre-portrait status to which it might otherwise be consigned. With these settings, she gestures backward, too, to a childhood “uncanny” where the room becomes a spooked forest, the furniture moves its own hostile-spirited volition, and there is always some perilous space beneath the table which is best left unexplored. This sense of a haunting residue is perhaps the defining characteristic of Jones’s work. If the creased, stained psychoanalysts’ couches in her previous series Consulting Room, 1995, suggest that the subjects had already fled the scenes of their confessions, in her current House studies, we sense that the teenagers, their narratives half-told, half-stifled, are on their way.

Chris Townsend’s book Vile Bodies: Photography and the Crisis of Looking was published by Prestel earlier this year. He lives in Great Britain.