"Deadhouse" art show unites paintings, headstones

Tue Oct 2, 2012 1:30pm EDT
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By Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters) - Above ground Somerset House boasts one of London's most famous courtyards, a neo-classical gem used for film sets, fashion shows and a glamorous skating venue in the winter.

Beneath the spectacular square are little-known underground passageways called the "Deadhouse", which this week open to the public for the first exhibition of paintings ever to be held there.

Somerset House's resident artist Paul Benney is exhibiting his paintings in a free show running from October 4 to December 9, and in the dingy subterranean chambers they hang alongside the headstones of French courtiers buried there in the 17th century.

"This was a space that I had come across by accident as I was wandering about finding my way around and getting used to the building," Benney told Reuters in a dark vault surrounded by his works.

Traditionally, he would have held the exhibition above ground in a naturally lit gallery running along one of the four sides of the courtyard.

"It gave me the idea that ... this might be a better place to try to see whether it would work for my work, and as it turns out I think it does."

Benney, who has had a studio at Somerset House for 2-1/2 years, has produced a series of eerie, elemental images including a Pan figure floating above a forest, a naked man "emerging" from thick fog and a face whose shaved head has burst into flames.

"I don't set out to make eerie or unsettling work," said the artist, also a well-known portrait painter. "It does eventually come across as that, I think, as a coincidence, as a result of me finding imagery that makes sense to me.   Continued...

Snow in Jerusalem 2012 by artist Paul Benney is seen in this undated handout photograph released in London October 2, 2012. "Night Paintings" is a new exhibition at London's Somerset House staged in the underground "deadhouse" caverns and featuring the work of Paul Benney. REUTERS/Paul Benney/Handout