Wonderland – ‘The Ghost Swift’

The Ghost Swift ‘The Ghost Swift’
The Last Door of Autumn‘The Last Door of Autumn’

Once again, it feels like such a relief to finally be sitting here writing a new Wonderland entry. My progress with the series has been completely taken over by the recent exhibitions and the writing of endless letters to people about the future of the project. Getting back to my heart and soul, is where I am my most comfortable and happiest, and I’m determined to catch up on the backlog that’s been hanging over me. I have a further 4 finished pictures waiting to be shared with one tiny shoot to complete, before I can (at last) release the big scenes I have been sitting on for over 18 months. Progress is so slow some days I find it agonising, but there’s no way to create these images quickly, it is a labour of love and I just have to keep working until I make it to the end. In recent weeks at the exhibitions so many people asked me why I do this, why I insist on making it all by hand and spend months on just a couple of pictures. I found my only explanation was simply that my mother did the same for me and her pupils – except in her case it was years devoted to helping us grow and develop. I simply want to produce works that are truly precious, and reflect her investment of time and love, and I suppose without me even realising, this parallel between our relationship and my work is the ultimate one.

So anyway, now at long last I can finally introduce you to ‘The Ghost Swift’ whose close up portrait has become my new favourite image. She has been locked away in my head for over 20 months, and her costume has been under very slow construction since 2011. She has been a character I have constantly returned to over time, adding a little piece here and a little piece there, whilst her scene in my head has evolved from being relatively small to something much bigger. Her character represents a creature born from the essence of stories – a body of books and forgotten ripped pages, created by the natural elements and insects that surround her. I wanted her half human form to be the marriage of the earth and printed words; spun together by the moths and butterflies that shared the hollow she would spend her life guarding. I named her lair ‘The Last Door of Autumn’ …… an impassable place without the heavy iron keys in her hands. This farthest outreach of Wonderland is home to her, and a sister with a second key who will be coming soon. Both ruled by the White Queen, both instrumental in the ending of the series. For these scenes I wanted to create an image based on the trickery of tales, and so my choice to use paper was a direct link to the true story of the Cottingley Fairies which my mother told me about when I was young. I have been mildly obsessed with the history of the Cottingley photographs for most of my life, and the fact it was all a lie that the girls maintained till their old age both inspires and intrigues me. Personally I have never liked sickly sweet stories, it is the underlying darkness of folklore,…. the roses thorn, broken promises, and moonlit curses that make my skin prickle.  I loved the idea of creating a vision in the woods from paper – to indulge my own elaborate illusion for a photograph, and so I began collecting books of moths and butterflies from the same period as the original hoax. Once I had the illustrations I began building the costume from hundreds of paper cuts. I also designed embroideries based on scientific etchings of butterflies from the early 1900’s, which were sewn onto sheets of silk, and then cut and layered with glue to make 3D pieces. It took weeks to hand cut everything I needed – especially as almost all of the butterflies were double faced, so they could be viewed from all angles. The tiny prayer books were donated by a family whose grandmother had received them as gifts in memory of her husband after he had passed away. This mix of beauty and sadness felt right for the costume, so I embedded them into the bodice and varnished the handwritten messages to the front page where they would remain preserved and not forgotten.

My intention with her portrait was to create an encounter….. for us the viewer to happen upon ‘The Ghost Swift’, silent and asleep after years of being left undisturbed in the forest alone. Her hypnotic gaze…. a swirling blur of dark beauty and anticipation…. her awakening, and our apprehension. I feel the slight curl of her fingers and the parting of her lips leave us arrested, and for me, that is what I love the most. I actually discovered the name ‘Ghost Swift’ after coming across its description in one of the books I cut the illustrations from.  The name is given to a small British moth due to it having a white top wing with a dark underside, so when it hovers at twilight it seems to appear and disappear with each beat of its wing. It was perfect and magical, and instantly brought the character to life in my head. Moments like this give me goose-bumps, sitting on my kitchen floor reading the old book and discovering the Ghost Swift amongst the pages felt like it had been waiting for me all those years. I know I’m a hopeless dreamer and to most these are all just coincidences, but it’s these fine threads of belief and wonder that will always keep me excited, and drive me to follow my imagination to the next picture, and the next, and consequently the story it will eventually unfold……………….

The Ghost Swift’s costume (made almost entirely from paper)


The first of the five Cottingley Fairies photographs, taken by Elsie Wright in 1917, showing Frances Griffiths with the alleged fairies.

Varnishing the paper moth etchings (I lost count of how many I made !)

Wiring the finished paper butterflies and moths into the Ghost Swift’s lair

Elbie Van Eeden with model Daria Shipovskikh (Profile models) applying last minute make-up

The finishing touches

 Shooting Dasha’s close up

Finally I had to finish with this picture. I think it has to be one of my all time favourite behind the scenes images, it just looks so surreal its hard to believe its real life. As I said at the beginning of this post, so many people ask me why I do this, and why I spend so long on the photos …… I guess for me this answers that question in a heartbeat , and no more needs to be said.

Oh and one more snap ……. in case you missed the previous diary entries exhibition photos, here is a picture of Elbie standing next to the finished Ghost Swift picture in all its glory at 120cm wide :) I honestly love this one so much, I could just stare at it all day, I’m keeping this one for my house thats for sure !