Legends Of The Dark And The Deep
A Dark And Mysterious Tale
Margaret Pomeroy was a woman of great beauty.
But I would know none of this, for many years to come......
It was 1972 and my Gothic Work was blacking out everything else. I created nothing else in that year. Just images of death, atmosphere and spirituality. Some might say an unusual subject for an artist just out of his teens, but these things fascinated me back then. And so it was that I loved to adventure, searching high and low for places of inspiration and beauty. Surroundings where I could just feel something.
Some days whilst out adventuring, I would take a different fork in the road, just for the hell of it. Just to see what was up there. One day in 1972 I discovered Berry Pomeroy Castle in this way. Or rather I discovered the entrance, for it had an unassuming gate. At first I thought I had drawn a blank and just sat there in the car, staring at the gate. But something in my head said "Try the gate" and so I did and amazingly, it wasn't locked. So I just drove straight in and on down the narrow road through the woods.
I kept thinking 'I hope I don't meet another car, as I would not be able to pass or reverse.' But there weren't any other cars. Or people. 'A long and winding way down', I thought and as I turned a corner, the woodlands suddenly cleared and there it was before me. An amazing, spell-binding, but long forsaken castle. I just left the car in the middle of the road and jumped out. I thought "Oh my God this is incredible!" I gawked for a while and then logic told me to shift the car. So, I parked up.
The castle was miles from anywhere and silent, save for the occasional squawking of the odd rook or raven and the distant hiss of a river. There wasn't a soul in sight, so I just wandered in and strolled around. I have no fear of ghosts or other strange goings on, as I don't believe in them. There is a side of me that wonders whether it is this firm disbelief, that keeps them from me, but that is a cerebral labyrinth and not something I shall dwell upon. Strange though, I thought, that most castles beam their impenetrability with pride from the highest of hills, whilst this one hides secluded, off the beaten track and down a long, winding road, obscured by vast woodlands. In the middle of nowhere! The atmosphere there was incredible and I thought "I will return."
The castle is incredibly old. The Pomeroy family - then de la Pomerai - arrived with the Norman conquest (1066 and all that). I won't dwell upon the history as this was my "siesta subject" at school. But briefly, the castle was built by the Pomeroy's in the 12th Century and the family occupied it until 1547 when it was bought by Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. Around 1700 the Seymours moved to their Wiltshire estate and the castle fell to ruins. Some say there was a fire.....
Anyway, I did return, later in 1972. I was just beginning to work with a girl called Trish as a model. It was early days and my style was just finding it's direction. Trish and I would go off to places I had discovered. Churches, graveyards, ruins and so on and I thought my new found castle would be an ideal location. The first image I ever shot at Berry Pomeroy Castle was called "The Veiled Silhouette" 1972 and features a silhouette of Trish in a long black dress, wearing a veil. The picture is dark and the moonlight shines from behind her head. It has a haunting timeless quality.
Ironically, it was shot from exactly where years later, the 'White Lady' would be standing. But this was all still to come. 'The Veiled Silhouette' was one of my early artistic triumphs along with 'Shapes', which was also taken later that year. I love the low angle in the "The Veiled Silhouette", which was made possible as the girl is standing up on the wall of the castle rampart, which is important, as we shall see later.
Two years later, I am in a serious relationship with a girl called Margaret. Otherwise known as Mars, a contraction of her Christian and surname. She was tall, busty and beautiful with very, very long legs and so became my model. At the same time, I had just been perfecting my Optical Light Masker. A brilliant new device I had invented and perfected, which with a little deft forethought, enabled me to remove specific parts of an image. I had just created "Remorse" with it, which everyone was fascinated by - not just emotionally, but technically too. And "Claustrophobia" also, to this day fascinates people in the same way.
Back in the days of film, people would swan around lip-synching the pub wisdom clichés: 'The camera never lies'. The camera has never really done anything other than lie and tell the truth in equal measure. The camera blends fact and fiction so seamlessly, that it's easy to forgive the 'camera never lies' cliché. But factoid it undoubtedly is, not a fact. Photography is no unerring ambassador of truth. It interprets with veracity according to the mind of the individual using it! This holds true whether it is an artist creating a photographic masterpiece or a cretin haphazardly snap shooting. Do not conclude for a moment that the latter is not controlling anything. The control is simply much reduced. Even picking up a camera, is a subjective decision. As is pointing it in a direction.
So people would look at "Claustrophobia", and it would throw them because it was clearly an impossibility! If ever an image lied and told the truth in the same breath, it was this one! And it made a mockery of people's misguided belief. "Claustrophobia", by the way, is not about claustrophobia. It's about me breaking out of the strictures placed upon me by society and my immediate environment. And of course, in parallel, me doing the same with the medium of Photography. Smashing through the barriers,
You must remember that in those days Photography was quite a "rigid" medium. Not at all fluid, like it is today, with the advent of digital imaging. It was back then, extremely difficult to manipulate and I was working very hard to change all that. I knew this was essential if Photography was to become a Fine Art form. I thought it would be a great idea to use my newly developed technology and go with Margaret to Berry Pomeroy Castle, perhaps creating a vision of a head floating through the ruins. The opposite of the usual headless ghost, I thought.
So in 1974 I returned to the castle with my model Margaret and I am setting up my huge tripod - essential for my light masker in view of the precision required - when suddenly a man appears. This was the first person I ever saw there and he introduced himself as the gamekeeper. He asked me what I was doing, so I told him. "You know the legend of course...." the gamekeeper said, presumptuously. I looked at my girlfriend and she looked at me, as couples often do when they check each other for affirmation. Neither of us knew.... "Uh... no, actually..... what legend?"
The gamekeeper replied, "Margaret Pomeroy........" and as he started to talk I was thinking "Great, he's not going to throw us out", but before I had time to dwell upon this, my girlfriend interrupted. "Margaret?" said she, "My name is Margaret." "Hmmm..." said the gamekeeper, "Margaret was locked in the dungeon by her jealous sister until she starved to death". "My God!" says I, aghast. "And she is seen to walk the rampart without her head." Fascinating I thought, as here I am right now, creating the complimentary reverse - a head floating through the castle grounds without a body and I knew nothing about this legend. Friendly fellow the gamekeeper was, and he bid us "Good-day" and was gone in a flash. I decided in that moment to dedicate the picture to the girl who had suffered such an awful fate. And so it was, that this image became,"The Picture for Margaret Pomeroy", of 1974.
Later I thought it would be great to do a proper, intentional elegy, so I returned to the castle alone with my camera. I often do this. I go to the scene, a day or so before the shoot, to check environmental issues. This takes some of the guesswork out of shooting on location. Control is essential to great art. There was a shot I wanted to do, but I couldn't back up far enough, as a wall blocked my way. "Damn! I need a wider, wide angle" I thought. In 1974, extreme wide angles of any quality were very, very expensive and I was penniless. They cost, then, what would today be thousands of euros or dollars. "One day", I thought.
The following year I bought my first 20mm Nikkor lens, which had a sweeping 94 degree angle of view. Almost double that of a normal lens. My dealer gave me 30% off and took five monthly, post dated cheques. I'd stare into the lens for hours looking at all the different colour coatings, on the various elements. Lenses were like jewels to me then. In 1975, lenses were state of the art engineering - objects of great beauty - precisely machined and all assembled, meticulously, with tiny screws. "Like watches" a friend remarked, and so they were.
I did not go back to the castle at once, as by 1975 my work was taking a very different direction. I was in creative overdrive and there were huge shifts in my thinking. It was the year of 'Metasphere' and other hugely creative pieces and my thinking was shifting away from the Gothic. But one or two of the old Gothic ideas just wouldn't go away. One of these was my intended deliberate elegy for Margaret Pomeroy. The idea which would later become 'White Lady In Ruins'.
It was very likely the pressure of knowing I would shortly leave Devon for good and go to live in London, that urged me to return to Berry Pomeroy Castle early in 1977. I had recently bought my girlfriend two beautiful cloaks in a fashionable shop in neighbouring Torquay. I would buy her things to pay her for being my model, which was not always an easy task. If I could also photograph the things I bought her, I liked it even more as I got a double bonus. Given the dire state of my finances in those days, this was not only a highly desirable proposition, it was my only option.
There was a white cloak and a black cloak. I thought the white one would photograph better, so having dyed some shoes white to match the cloak, one fine day we set off for the castle. The wide angle worked... just! Although I was right up against the wall and had to perform acrobatics, every time I came out from behind the tripod! Like a limbo dancer on steroids. The first attempt to create the image was a disaster. I shot nothing. The lighting was wrong and when it was right the exposure time necessary would have caused blur in the cloak which just would not stop moving! And with a barely perceptible breeze too! I thought nothing of this until much later, I read that many had experienced unusual winds in that area. But I don't believe in ghosts, so I just put that down to the weather and a ruins full of empty doorways and windows. It did on this occasion though, make it impossible to get beautifully arranged folds in the cloak. Essential to imbue the image with the stillness I desired. So I wrapped the shoot and said to Margaret, "Another day!"
Driving home though, I kept thinking about what a powerful image it was, so I decided to return soon. In the ensuing weeks I was out photographing elsewhere, and of course observing the breeze, as it was on my mind. Suddenly something occurred to me. I noticed that the wind was consistently dropping at the end of the day. News to me then, but apparently this is actually a known fact, the wind does frequently drop at the end of the day. "That's it!" I thought. "Choose a day with very little wind and shoot after sunset. The lighting will be perfect and the wind will drop." Which is exactly what happened and what I did, so 'Hey Presto!' my masterpiece! White Lady In Ruins" was created. A complete success.
The title just came to me, as titles often do and it is deliberately ironic and ambivalent, which again gives it mystery. It can be read as a white (Caucasian or dressed in white) lady standing in a ruins. This is the most obvious interpretation. Alternatively, it can be read as a white lady who is metaphorically "in ruins" - i.e. destroyed. Hence the mourning posture. This was a deliberate reference to Margaret Pomeroy. But it seems the title had another unintentional meaning.....
The story took a strange twist in April 2002, twenty-five years after I created 'White Lady In Ruins'. I wanted to double check that I had spelt "Pomeroy" correctly as ever since the printing press screwed up the English language, everyone has to check the use of double letters. The language of English is in itself full of errors and needs urgent attention, but let's not digress.
Whilst checking the spelling of 'Pomeroy' I was reading about the legend of the castle when I discovered as my eyes stared wide in amazement and my blood ran cold that there actually is a famous White Lady Ghost! - which legend believes to be the spirit of Margaret Pomeroy. I was amazed! I knew nothing of this! Even more extraordinary, it turns out that the Margaret actually was, Lady Margaret Pomeroy. I didn't know that either.
The girl in the picture is again called Margaret. She happens to be standing on what has become known as St Margaret's Tower. That was unknown to me too. The arch to the left of the picture actually leads down the stairs to the dungeon where Lady Margaret Pomeroy died. The White Lady ghost, it is said, has only been sighted in the vicinity of the tower and she also walks the castle rampart. Exactly where the picture was taken. And my earlier image 'The Veiled Silhouette'. It turns out there is another ghost frequently sighted in a blue cloak or cape. This ghost is known as the "Blue Lady".
My life has been plagued with these sort of coincidences. I am getting used to them. The actual picture of 'White Lady In Ruins' was only inches away from me as I discovered all this, as I happen to have one hanging in the computer room at Abbey Road.
Make of all this, what you will. I don't believe in ghosts as I said earlier. I am no longer a superstitious man, I don't believe in astrology or lucky numbers. I don't believe in heaven or hell. Or for that matter myths like the devil. But these incredible coincidences keep happening! Ever since I was almost struck by lightning twice in succession, at locations miles apart on the same day, at the age of 16.
Another weird one, was that on the day Dali died, my clock stopped at the time of his birth. A quartz clock stops about once every two years. Do the math. I was so freaked out by this that I called my partner Liz into the bedroom to look at the clock, as I knew no-one would believe me. Go figure. Mathematics tells us that these things can't happen, but they do happen to me a lot! I started making a list of them in 1984. I got to number 53 and gave up. I concluded that it is an easily observable phenomenon. There is something metaphysical going on, but it is totally inexplicable. But then, isn't life?!
The castle I discovered by chance. I have discovered now that even more disturbing things went on at Berry Pomeroy Castle, if that's is possible to imagine. Two brothers in armour mounted their horses and leapt from the castle rampart over the cliff to their deaths. From the depths of despair to the depths of the ravine, in an incredible suicide leap. Out of reality and into legend at a price never worth paying.
The scene of these suicides has become known as 'Pomeroy's Leap'. It gets worse. Incest, rape, an illegitimate baby strangled at birth. Acts of such unforgivable horror, that they beggar belief. If ever tragedy had a face, here it is in all its gory bloody glory. A movie if ever there was.
I went to grammar school at neighbouring Totnes which is only two miles up the road. In all of my five years there and all the people I met, no-one ever mentioned the castle. Even where I grew up, was only seven miles from the castle, but no-one there ever mentioned it either. It is not famous, locally. You could live in the area indefinitely and not realise it existed, such is its seclusion. And yet, it is famed as England's most haunted castle.
I considered changing the title of my first elegy, to "Picture for Lady Margaret Pomeroy" 1974. She was it seems, after all, a Lady. And a beautiful one at that. But I decided to leave the story intact and not tamper with it. It's far more interesting that 'White Lady In Ruins' was so titled inadvertently. And that the location was apparently coincidental.
By far and away the thing I love the most about 'White Lady In Ruins', is that I really have somehow captured some of the atmosphere I felt there. At that time, anyway, as in 1977 Berry Pomeroy Castle was a derelict ruins. Not at all, the tourist attraction it is today. In fact, restoration began there later in 1977, just after I shot my masterpiece. They were obviously politely waiting for me to leave.
Restoration is a fine thing, but in places such as this, along with it, are forever vanquished, the dark and haunting spirits that linger on the air. The feeling is forever lost, as if a dense, cold mist had suddenly lifted, giving way to the harsh, warm light of the sun.
Written by James Elliott 26th April 2002
© Copyright James Elliott 2002