The Heads' Lament (scroll pages left to right)
Painting of Neptune's head: Camilla Wilson
In the Undercroft to Queen Anne's Court at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich lies a collection of stone heads from the turn of the century. They mysterious heads, depicting Neptune and other denizens of the deep, were carved by Robert Jones of Stepney in the early 18th century and were intended for display on the south elevation of the Painted Hall.
I went down into the undercroft to meet the heads after the artist Camilla Wilson suggested I write a story about them for an exhibition at the Greenwich Heritage Gallery featuring her work. I found myself gazing mesmerised at their expressively wrought faces, wondering what that story might be. Lapidary worry is etched in their features and they are a little battered: a broken nose, here, a chipped veil there, their quiet rumination is a reminder of our final return to dust.
Seeking an idiom to capture their story, I sifted through a stack of 18th century chap books in the British Library, and was smitten by their rough hewn quality, the vibrant little yarns a gossipy playlets embellished with simple woodcut prints. My modern iteration of the chap book, The Heads' Lament, activates an imaginary WhatsApp conversation between the heads at another moment in our nation when we teetered on the cusp of profound instability. My daughters Yasmin and Rachel illustrated and laid it out, and the chap books were created on Risograph by Duplikat Press in Hackney.