Susannah Thompson: ‘The Female Sea: Notes on Distressed Genres’


Laurence Figgis, The Great Macguffin, 2005, ink, crayon, watercolour on paper, 82 x 353 cm

William Burges’ bedroom was famous for its monstrous frieze: mermaids and sea-monsters writhed and grimaced in and out of a Gothic arcade. [1]

It was here in his Scarlet Chamber that Burges played out the last act in his High Victorian Dream. To share these fantastic dreams demanded a willing suspension of disbelief and a taste for catholic collage.

The ensemble cast of The Great Macguffin could almost be the anthropomorphic players of a million Burgesian trophies (the fish plates of Lord Bute; a bronze table with cloven feet; a claret cup in the form of a sphinx). A fellow lover of fairytales, Figgis, like Burges, underlines the infinite flexibility of historicist modes, with a ‘distinct, sharp, and wirey’ wit [2].

Through his own ‘monstrous frieze’ the artist speaks in thrown voices and forked tongues. Though seemingly sequential and iconographic, the storyboard is composed of submerged and slippery narratives which fade and dissolve before our eyes as others appear in their place, lapping against the frame. If ‘subliminal reality paints numerous, divergent surfaces of the human enterprise to suggest subterranean roots of narrative potential’ this is surely Figgis’ own fakelore, the artist’s own subliminal realities at play? [3]

There are many things that The Great Macguffin is not and one might say that the Macguffin herself is defined by a sense of absence (‘there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands…’). But this is not, as we might suppose, pure fantasy. The device of personification, for example, is far from gratuitous or simply aesthetic (though aesthetics clearly play their part). In Figgis’ epic poetry personification serves to poke fun at human foible. Though informed and allusive, The Great Macguffin’s intensely subjective vision ultimately resists simple allegorical impulses, leaving close readers to fish through labyrinthine corridors in search of meaning. If the work appears vague, it is nouvelle vague – a disordered narrative, an enquiry into individualism, human absurdity and the jump cuts in between. And Figgis is steadfastly unconcerned with opacity for opacity’s sake, as elements of these dissolute fictions appear crystalline, diaphanous.

The Great Macguffin detail 1

Laurence Figgis, The Great Macguffin, 2005 (detail)

At either end of these fragmented stories, there is neither happy ending nor didactic closure (these are transgressive fairytales), but even in the subterranean gloom, ‘cheerfulness keeps breaking through’ [4].  Slapstick absurdity and empty speech bubbles mark the spot ‘when reality becomes too complex for Oral Communication’ but Figgis’ own ‘legend gives it a form by which it pervades the whole world’ [5].

Peopled by magically realist players carrying elaborate props which weigh them down (we call this ‘baggage’)  invented characters converge in The Great Macguffin as though invited to the grand intertextual dinner party of their omniscient Creator. The sublime and the transcendental endlessly clash with the ridiculous in the form of burlesque characters in pantomime fat-suits masquerading as operatic divas and prima ballerinas. The undaunted, indefatigable Schneewitten carries on regardless of her heavy burden, her crystal tomb and heavy legs seem a bantamweight albatross. The Sanctimoans belie the Wagnerian scale of their evil in cloaks of innocuous surburban architecture (the doodlings of a teenage Albert Speer). The abhorrent Monster of Virtue is unashamedly upwardly mobile, with all the ruthlessness of middle-management. His misplaced pride in the trappings of modest ‘success’ (and a suffocating work ethic) make him the Paglia’s conspiratorial ‘second in command’. Below, the subjugated Nordbergs, ghosts of the drowned Edna Pontellier, will never shape-shift from Yeats’ little silver trout to become a glimmering girl. Above, the Paglia sweeps her voluminous skirts in derision at all who dare cross her path, curling her eyelashes and combing her moustache in the Narcissus Washstand. All the while, Huck Finn transcends the conventions which try to regulate and silence him, casting aside his boy’s own attire for the costume of his sometime alter-ego Sarah Williams, and the wings of a dove. This time, Huck has ‘gone flyin’.


Susannah Thompson

1) J. Mordaunt Crook, William Burges and the High Victorian Dream, John Murray Publishers Ltd, London, 1981, p. 307.

2) William Blake, quoted in David Erdman (ed.), The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Doubleday, New York, 1997 (revised edition).

3) Robert T. Self, Robert Altman’s Subliminal Reality, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2001.

4) Oliver Edwards quoted in James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, 1750.

5) Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville quoted in Angela Carter, Expletives Deleted, Chatto and Windus, London, 1992, pp. 162-3.

This text was originally published in Laurence Figgis: The Great Macguffin, (Glasgow: Transmission, 2005)