Henry Coombes explores hierarchy and power in the family and in wider society. He is particularly interested in the experience of the artist and how he must deal with the machinations of the art world. His work includes painting, collage, drawing and sculpture, but he is best known for his short films – character portraits for which he creates intricate sets that allow him to explore historical themes.
The Bedfords (2009) is a brooding re-imagining of the relationship between celebrated Victorian painter Edwin Landseer (1802–1873) and the Duke and Duchess of Bedford. Landseer, a prodigious artist known for his landscapes and animal portraits, had a long-standing love affair with the Scottish Highlands. It is in this landscape that we see Landseer’s romantic affair with the Duchess of Bedford and his subsequent psychological breakdown. Coombes’s most recent film, Two Discs and a Zed (2013), filmed partly within the National Galleries of Scotland, continues his focus on the work of Landseer and is part of an ongoing project to complete a feature film about the latter artist.
There is a fluid relationship between Coombes’s films and his work in painting and sculpture. He uses materials such as delicate watercolour, rough wood and bare plaster to create objects and images that slip between the naturalistic and the surreal. This unsettles our understanding of their function and role in the world – a sense that is heightened by the fact that the artist uses them in his film productions. Coombes has a peculiarly dark wit, seen throughout his work but perhaps best illustrated in his short, no-budget films, which are made on hand-held cameras. Every aspect of production is controlled by the artist and we see Coombes at his most caustic and self-deprecating. These short films act as sketches: vignettes that communicate subversive alternatives to the mundane and everyday. Often filmed from a window, commenting on action happening on the street below or within a domestic interior, they position the persona of the artist as at once commander of the landscape around him and at the same time as isolated eccentric, troubled by his own inability to navigate the world outside of the studio.