Ellen Harvey’s Archive of Lost Architecture

At The Turner Contemporary, Margate, the artist’s installation mournfully homages sites lost over time – such Coney Island Illuminations and London’s The Joiners Arms

BY George Upton in Reviews , UK Reviews | 30 AUG 21

Ellen Harvey’s The Disappointed Tourist (2019–ongoing) – consisting of over 220 paintings – is an archive of sites that once existed and now live on in collective memory. The individual locations – ranging from amusement parks to classical monuments – appear hung in an enormous grid in the artist’s solo show, ‘The Tourists’, at Margate’s Turner Contemporary. The impression is of something quite mournful, like a wall of faces of missing people after a disaster.

Ellen Harvey Turner Contemporary
Ellen Harvey, The Disappointed Tourist, 2021. Courtesy: the artist and Turner Contemporary 

Harvey has portrayed the sites – submitted via her website – in monochrome with oil glazes to resemble the tradition of tourist painting. Some evoke fond childhood memories, like Brandybucks, a Lord of the Rings-themed restaurant near Margate; others show monuments ravaged by conflict – such as the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria (destroyed by ISIS in 2015) and Hiroshima Castle (demolished in the US atomic bomb blast of 1945). 

Harvey has positioned works by J.M.W. Turner in dialogue with The Disappointed Tourist: sketches of Roman ruins (View of the Forum, Rome, with a Rainbow, 1819) and coastal views of Margate (The New Moon, c.1840). Turner’s works – whether memento mori of fallen civilizations or a fleeting moment in Margate’s history – emphasize how Harvey encourages a historical consciousness, an understanding of the present within the context of the past. 

Ellen Harvey Turner Contemporary
Ellen Harvey, The Disappointed Tourist, 2021. Courtesy: the artist and Turner Contemporary

Today we can visit the ruins of Palmyra – reconstructed in virtual reality – or be transported to the past through special effects (as in Mike Leigh’s Turner biopic Mr. Turner, 2014). But Leigh’s interpretation of 19th century Margate, and, indeed, Turner’s paintings, lack the multi-sensorial experience of walking through the town today. Harvey’s project reveals how these lost places become ghostly afterimages, resonating through memories or a yearning for an imagined past. As we emerge from COVID-19, it is a timely reminder to savour first-hand experience.

Main image: Ellen Harvey, The Disappointed Tourist, 2021, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Turner Contemporary

George Upton is a writer and editor based in London, UK. He is Deputy Editor of Port magazine and tweets @gaupton.