Lisa Barnard

Chateau Despair:

Lisa Barnard’s project ‘Chateau Despair’ is cited on page 29 of the course materials. The series, shot in 2009, documents 32 Smith Square which was headquarters of the Conservative Party between 1958 – 2003 -and represents an important period in British political history. The building is indelibly linked to Margaret Thatcher – she was photographed smiling and waving out of the second floor window following election victories in 1979, 1983 and 1987. ‘Chateau Despair’ is how the occupants came to know the building before moving to new offices, Barnard summarises the building as:

“an archaeological ruin from the time of Thatcher’s reign…The layout of the building was like a rabbit warren, and it was thought to be partly responsible for the demise of the Conservative party at the time…Each room was painted a slightly different shade of blue which made the whole place feel very disjointed. The carpets were absolutely disgusting – very dirty, very stained.” (Partos, 2015)

Till (2013) remembers Smiths Square as synonymous with Thatchers three election victories:

“It was a setting we would become all too used to, with the repetition of wave, smile, hair, blue, absurd collars, Denis…”

With this connection he finds the squalid interiors of the building to be a revelation:

“They are like encountering a once dignified person who had descended to the gutter and comes back to confront one with their shabbiness, stains and smells.

The tawdriness, the lack of care, the pervasive sense of sadness. Now, it might be argued that all empty buildings give off this sense of loss, but the feeling is overwhelming here. The Tories themselves called it ‘Chateau Despair’ – an indication of the air of misery that the building imparted. One looks for any redeeming features, any joy, or places where one could possibly retreat for any comfort, but find nothing. Just bodge laid on bodge, in an accumulation of disregard.”

He argues that the strength of the work is that allows the viewer to fill the empty spaces with their own (false) narratives: “They are empty enough to allow the imagination of fill them with time, but provide just enough clues to give those narratives some semblance of reality.”

The project is broadly made up of three components – ‘spaces’ – photographs of the buildings interior that have the appearance of straight documentary or architectural photography and offer “an archaeology of the period” or perhaps more accurately, “an autopsy”. ‘Remnants’ – discarded ephemera found in the building and presented as if they are in a shopping catalogue. And ‘Maggie’ – found portraits of Thatcher that had become aged, distorted and damaged by damp. These images have a “combination of beauty and terror” that “exposes the photographs’ corrupted state”. (James, 2013) Houghton (2010) argues that Barnard does not linger on the aesthetics of decay, rather draws the observer’s attention to “the poetics of space”:

“It is as though Barnard is using documentary photography to take the observer beyond the real. Although on the one hand she is simply documenting the last vestiges of an old regime, yet in the same frame she is offering up the possibility that what she is documenting is not real, was never real, just a political chimera, all surface, no depth.”

It is the found photographs of Thatcher that are particularly fascinating. Barnard found in a cupboard a set of identical photographs from a conference with Thatcher alongside other dignitaries. Barnard chose to digitally remove these to both focus on Thatcher the icon and create a series of repetitive portraits that reference Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe series. The twenty images, originally identical but now transformed in unique ways as something had been spilled in them and the surface eaten away can have multiple readings: Thatcher is either “a phoenix rising from the ashes or she’s being consumed by the flames.” For Barnard, the images show the corrosive effect of politics after a long time in power. (Partos, 2015)


Lisa Barnard Website

Lisa Barnard Website – 32 Smiths Square

Gost Books – Chateau Despair – Chateau Despair (on Vimeo)


James, S. (2010) Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. Photoworks Magazine. Available at: [accessed 21st July 2019]

James, S. (2013) Maggie and the fairytale of the free market. Available at: [accessed 21st July 2019]

Houghton, M. (2010) Exit Ghost. 8 Magazine, Issue 27, Oct 2010. Available at: [accessed 21st July 2019]

Partos, H. (2015) Lisa Barnard’s best photograph: Margaret Thatcher found in a cupboard. The Guardian, 23rd July 2015. Available at: [accessed 21st July 2019]

Till, J. (2013) Six inches of power. Available at: [accessed 28th July 2019]