Robert Holcombe in Burton on Trent

 

As something of an aside to the Write Here residency, I’d passed a group of framed Robert Holcombe collages to the artist and curator Julian Hughes for installation in a pub on Station Street as part of Burton on Trent’s contribution to the wider Format Festival taking place in Derby. On Wednesday evening I travelled to The Devonshire Arms to see the results and give a short presentation on the images and their context in a pub where Holcombe’s fictional works had replaced various traditional pub prints on the walls in the bar. 

 A small gathering of staff and students from Burton College joined a few regulars to hear the talk, which largely drew on a fictional Holcombe catalogue essay with some improvised elements and a question and answer session in which one participant noted that it seemed appropriate for these faked images (all purporting to have been made during the 1960s and 70s) to be on display in a pub context, given that many traditional pub furnishings were manufactured to appear Victorian or Edwardian while in fact being new.

 It seemed apt in other ways, too, since many of the Holcombe images are presented in mounts and frames bought at markets and car boot sales, often in job lots that were clearly being sold off as the remnants of pub refits. This meant that Holcombe’s images – while being interlopers in the bar and lounge areas of the venue – often seemed quite at home, and seemed to pass almost (though not quite) unnoticed: one lady from the group of regulars listening to the talk mentioned that they’d thought a few nights before that the pictures were a bit unusual, so was glad to have found out why they didn’t quite fit in with the framed beer-mats and neo-Victorian prints around them.

 For the moment, the Holcombe pictures remain on display at The Devonshire, and anyone passing the pub is welcome to drop in and try to track them down on the walls. Showing alongside them are a few other pieces by Burton-based photographers and part of the appeal of showing in this way, I think, is that the work blends into an everyday context where the usual preconceptions about viewing artworks cease to apply: when I’d first walked into the pub, Holcombe’s early Folklore Series image of a castle encrusted with bracket fungi was adding a neutral backdrop to a drinker reading his paper, while others hung above tables and fireplaces awaiting second glances from the regulars.

 If you’re in the area and fancy a look before the pictures inevitably come down, the selection of local and guest beers at the Devonshire Arms (and the very friendly atmosphere) can also be highly recommended. Altogether, an interesting experiment, though in Holcombe’s case slightly at a tangent to the ‘Right Here, Right Now’ street photography theme to be found elsewhere in Burton, and at the main Format venues in and around Derby.

It’ll also be interesting to see how the Burton on Trent branch of the Format Festival develops: it was making its debut this year as a collaboration between Burton College and the main Derby venues and suggests one route in which Format’s already ambitious programmes could be extended. Though with hindsight I think a bit of preparation on my own part to research the return train times would be handy if there’s a next time. We managed to miss ours by moments, which left us with a pleasant hour to spend wandering the streets in search of Chinese food before the next train arrived.

  

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