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Mark Fairnington

The Collected Human: Paintings of the Henry Wellcome Collection in Storage


Created in the late 19th and early 20th century the Henry Wellcome Collection aimed to demonstrate ‘by means of objects….the actuality of every notable step in the evolution and progress from the first germ of life to the fully developed man of today’ It became a history of how the human body has been perceived, understood and studied in different cultures. It is a place where the histories of art and science criss-cross.  Wellcome’s collecting was on an unprecedented scale and at the time of his death in 1936 the collection was too vast and disorderly to be organised or researched. Over the next 40 years it was divided up and dispersed around the world, objects being gifted to libraries, museums, private homes, hospitals, charities, military units and churches.


What remains of the collection is now housed in a storage facility in West Kensington and is not accessible to the general public. I am researching this collection through a series of paintings that document, describe and reimagine some human images contained within it. The paintings will situate these images within the historical context of still life painting. Objects are housed as specimens in closed cabinets; wax heads sit next to anatomical models, real skulls and medieval sculptures. There are rooms of prosthetic limbs and shelves with plaster death masks of executed criminals. The figure is present here as specimen (shrunken heads, samples of tattooed skin) and image (wooden heads) and in the form of objects made to fit the body (a DIY iron lung made by a man in Cardiff for his Wife) and operate, injure, disguise, protect, embellish and contain it.  For me what makes it so compelling is the fluidity with which it shifts between medicine, art and anthropology, creating juxtapositions that are disturbing, unexpected and profoundly moving.


My paintings represent the objects in the collection, as they are in situ, contained but not curated. The paintings and paradoxically the fictions required to make them convincing, will generate representations of the collection abstracted from their context. Resituated within a poetic framework their emotive potential becomes articulated, hiding as it were, in plain sight.


Mark Fairnington, Reader in Painting at Wimbledon College of Arts, has shown extensively in museums and private galleries in the US and Europe. His practice is founded on painting as a primary method of research and his pictures; drawn from many sources, particularly photography, combine obsessive surface detail with sensuous precision. They examine how painting, as a meticulously constructed surface, can interrogate and re-present an image. The subjects of Fairnington’s paintings are made more singular through being painted. Whether it be large scale paintings of mounted insects, taxidermy displays of birds, portraits of prize stud bulls or the artistic and scientific language of flowers, his interest is resolutely in the eccentricities of the one required to stand in for all; the specimen. The natural world is like raw footage that the artist can script and reframe into a narrative of his own, using the syntax of the fantasist with as much veracity as that of the scientist. He has worked with the Imperial War Museum, the Natural History Museum the Horniman Museum and the Wellcome Collection. Fairnington’s most recent solo exhibitionUnnatural History was a retrospective at the Mannheimer Kunstverein and Galerie Peter Zimmermann in Germany.


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