Hermione Burton, one hopes, would have loved it. Exhibited little in her lifetime, possibly in just one solitary show mounted in conjunction with her daughter at an unglamorous Wellingborough gallery, she would surely have been thrilled to have at last been afforded the opportunity to take to a bigger stage. Now, here she is at The Whitworth in Manchester, and as part of a national touring exhibition, no less.
That she has been afforded her place in the spotlight, some 30 years after the likely date of her death, is due in no small part to Andy Holden, the artist who has curated this thoughtfully-mounted collection of her surviving works, hung in a way that mirrors her own rather wishful Hermione’s Retrospective, as well as directing the empathetic film biography, Kingdom Of The Sick, which accompanies it. Like Hermione in her final years, Holden, too, is based in Bedford, a backwater somewhat adrift from the fast-flowing eddies of the metropolitan art scene.
It was there that, by chance, he happened upon her work, orphaned by a house clearance, cast off and overlooked in a local charity shop, their bold, forenamed signatures marking out the scattered paintings as the work of a single artist. There’s a case to be made that charity shopping is itself an art, locating the delight in the unthinkingly discarded, and there’s a sense that Holden, in identifying with Hermione, is not only bringing her to light but, with her, his hometown, and by extension himself. By ushering Hermione in from the margins, he asks, in effect, who defines the walls of the art world, who has the final say, not only as to what art is, but where it is.
Hermione, of course, would have had ideas of her own. Some of them she put down in Facets Of My Life, the catalogue which she produced for her Wellingborough show. In it, she sketches out an abbreviated life story, glossing over an early marriage while writing of the impetus to create her paintings, a desire to make “something permanent out of the transient’. Diagnosed with rheumatic heart disease, a condition for which she required surgery and ongoing treatment, placed in an induced coma following the birth of Jacqui, her only daughter, and finally enduring Jacqui’s early death, the result of the same inherited disease, Hermione would have been only too aware of impermanence.
Holden makes much the same points in Kingdom Of The Sick, the text of Hermione’s catalogue lip-synched by a red-bereted avatar with the voice of Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell. Intercut with this are the fond reminiscences of fellow members of the Bedford Arts Society, smiling wryly at her imperviousness to the rules of perspective, and Holden’s own hypotheses, as much speaking his own thoughts as ventriloquising the dead.
In some respects, it’s a shame that Facets Of My Life isn’t itself presented in its entirety, but Hermione makes herself known in spite of the paucity of her prose. The works themselves are her biography. Undated, the chronology is unclear, and yet their cumulative effect is akin to that of modernist fiction. Even those which are outwardly conventional have a dream-like ambiguity implying that Hermione’s interest is less in naturalism or realism but rather in bringing something of her inner life into the visible world. When this intention is fully realised, as in the way Did She Fall Or Was She Pushed anticipates the domestic uncanny of Twin Peaks, or Phoenix Rising From The Ashes feels wired directly into the neural electricity of the Collective Unconscious, the effect is entirely compelling, like catching someone’s eye and being unable to look away.
One of the Bedford interviewees hits the nail on the head: “She thought she was good and she was right.” In her silence, a little closer to permanence, Hermione has the last word.
Main image: Installation view of Andy Holden, The Estate of Hermione, 2021 © Hermione Burton. Courtesy Andy Holden British Art Show 9, 2021-22, the Whitworth, The University of Manchester. A Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition organised in collaboration with galleries across the cities of Aberdeen, Wolverhampton, Manchester and Plymouth. Photo © Michael Pollard.
The Estate Of Hermione, part of British Art Show 9, is on until September 4, 2022. For more information, click here.