Northycote House and the philosopher’s paintbrush

A couple of weeks ago I attended a drawing symposium at Northycote House, near Wolverhampton as part of my studies at the University of Wolverhampton. The aim of this symposium was to respond to the location and draw. That was what I did. I decided at the time that I wasn’t going to relate what I did on the symposium to my studio practice.  I wanted a break from all that intellectual thinking. I wanted to just draw for drawing’s sake.

Until now, I believed that that is exactly what I did. But now I have spent some time reflecting on the three days and what I learnt and what I drew, and I realise that the experience of the three days was in fact quite closely related to my current practice. 

Northycote Farmhouse Image Credit © City of Wolverhampton Council


Northycote Farmhouse is a Tudor farmhouse which was built around 1600. It has had an interesting history, including being a place for keeping ‘war’ horses during the First World War before they got sent to the Western Front. It is a magnificent building: old, higgledy piggledy, solid and spooky. The surrounding countryside feels just as old and eerie. It was an amazing location to spend time in and respond to. The area is seeped in history.

Oddly, by the end of the three days I felt more emotionally charged and inspired by the physical objects themselves (the building, the grounds, the fields, the trees) than any drawings I made or any ‘progress’ I might have made in my drawing. In fact, I felt as if I hadn’t really made much in the way of progress. All I had to show for the time as a few sketches. I had taken some photos, gone for walks, wandered around the place, drank coffee, talked to people and made a few, mostly pen, drawings.

My sketch of the well

However, today, on reflection of the three days, I realise that there is more to the effect the symposium had on me than a chance to relax and draw for drawing’s sake.

The main farmhouse is a fascinating building. It is in quite good condition and many of the rooms have been mocked up to appear as if a lived-in working farmhouse from the past. However, the atmosphere that this creates is one of odd, uncanny ‘absense as presence’. There are forced ‘signs’ of human existence yet no actual signs of habitation. It is obvious that nobody lives there, yet there are ‘things’ carefully placed to suggest otherwise. The things do not work. The place feels off kilter. It is unsettling. The pretend habitation gives the place a ghostly feel. In fact, many of us that attended the symposium felt that the building was perhaps haunted, or at least felt so, should haunted be a real thing.

I’m not going to ponder here on the reality of ghosts. But I do know that certain buildings and locations give me a ‘feeling’ of unease for whatever reason. And this building was most certainly one of them. The room that gave me the most unease was the sittingroom. This room was dark, dingy, painfully quiet, freezing cold and void of life except by purposely placed objects. It reminded me of a soundproof room I visited once at the BBC in Manchester. That particular room was so eerie, being totally devoid of any sound, that it made me feel very anxious and eager to escape. I lasted less than a minute in that particular room. This sittingroom in Northycote Farm gave me a similar, albeit less extreme, feeling.

So on Day One of the symposium I decided to sit alone in that room and draw. I dared myself to see how long I would last. This is the room in question.

Does that look spooky to you?

I lasted about an hour before it got too tense. This is what I drew.

My drawings

The others attending the symposium agreed that I’d been brave to last that long on my own in there. We all, or the majority of us at least, seemed to have felt the same eerie sensation in that room.

On Day Three of the symposium we were given a tour by the ‘Friends’ of Northycote Farm who are responsible for the upkeep of it, the mock living scenes and the tiny museum in one of the rooms. As we entered the sitting room, the person giving us the tour told us that the part of the house where the sitting room currently is was actually destroyed in the 1980s (I can’t remember whether it was a fire or something else) and rebuilt. This knowledge made me look at the room anew. Why, then, I asked myself, was it so spooky? Was this ‘eerie’ feeling just my imagination based on the fact that I had been under the impression that the whole house was built in 1600, or at least any additions to it were still very old? Or, if the eerie feeling was genuine, does that mean that an eerie feeling, whatever the cause, is not attached to objects (i.e. walls) and can exist irrespective of objects (walls)? This would explain why a ghost hunter I once met told me about all the ghosts that live in Cineworld in Shrewsbury which is obviously a newish building.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, eerie feelings as something tangible or not, this is an interesting question. It brings to mind the dilemma of the philosopher’s paintbrush, or the Ship of Theseus to give it its proper name, or even Trigger’s Broom to give it it’s popular culture name. The question of the philosopher’s paintbrush is that if you own a most-favoured paintbrush, and you change the bristles one year, the metal band the next, the wooden handle the following year, and then the bristles need changing again, the metal again and so on, is that brush after so many years still the same brush as it was at the start? The obvious answer is ‘no’ as it is composed of parts that weren’t there originally. Some might say ‘yes’ basing their argument on that fact that only one part was changed at a time so the development of the brush was an organic process, each new part touching the old part, and it is in fact the same brush. I would argue that that doesn’t matter. The brush is the same brush whether you changed the parts one by one or not. It is the same brush because it feels the same. The ‘brushness’ of the brush transcends the physicality of it. The object isn’t just the object, it is the relationship the owner has to the object, that is important to the value of it. There may be infinite variations of the brush (it could be changed, built upon, developed an infinite number of times) yet it remains the same brush. The differences between each physical manifestation of the brush are what makes it the same object. I sense Giles Deleuze is smiling at me.

Douglas Adams faced the same conundrum when he visited the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Japan (which I have also been to – lucky me), which has been rebuilt and repaired many times. He was told that of course it is the same building. This is his response:

“I had to admit to myself that this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view, it merely started from an unexpected premise. The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself.”

—Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See, p. 149

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Japan

So back to the room. I think this is the same as that spooky sitting room. That spooky sitting room will always be spooky, however many times the walls are rebuilt. It might be a ghost, it might be something about the atmosphere created by the colours, light, the objects themselves. That doesn’t matter here. The replica of the room is just as valid as the original. And another replica if it were to be created would be equally as valid again. And again. And again. The room remains spooky. The ghost is smiling.


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2 Responses to Northycote House and the philosopher’s paintbrush

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