In The Bedfords (2008), Henry Coombes re-imagines an episode from the life of the English landscape and animal painter Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873), in which Landseer visits his patron, the Duke of Bedford, at his estate in the Scottish Highlands. The film alternates oppressive, erotically charged indoor scenes with surreal and violent episodes set in a striking landscape. Inside the stately home, bodies are for the most part encased in 19th century finery and subject to a gripping formality, which accentuates the strangeness that seeps through its cracks. In the great outdoors, the undercurrents of violence that run through the subdued household find expression in the ritual abuse of animals and absurdist scenarios of men becoming animal. The Bedfords incorporates a number of themes common to Coombes's earlier work: the representation of class and family politics in Britain; the contrast between the grotesque and the refined; the comical disjunction between proper behaviour and bodily (dys)functions; and a keen sense of irony. The resulting film is a rich and bubbling stew of libidinal forces.
Landseer is an artist who has inspired Coombes's long-running fascination, though more on the level of the 19th century artist's biography than his art. Having been lauded from a very young age as an artist of great genius, Landseer nonetheless betrayed technical slippages in some of his paintings. For Coombes, these mistakes are indicative of the artist's troubled psychology, and provide an ongoing source of inspiration.
A seductive patina of decay runs through much of Coombes's work. It is visible in the deteriorating family structures in The Bedfords and in the materiality of his earlier installation Rutland Crumble (2006), shown upstairs at 176. Echoing Landseer's cluttered studio, which in The Bedfords may stand for the deepest recesses of the artist's unconscious, Rutland Crumble is a marker for the entropy that befalls even the most organised systems, revealing their tendency to settle into a state of disordered equilibrium. But this condition can be redressed; works need not remain in such a state forever. A case in point is Coombes's re-imagining of his own watercolours for A Tradition I Do Not Mean To Break. Coombes has created a new mise-en-scène for these works in response to the building at 176 and their presentation in conjunction with The Bedfords.