Satis House


Digital video (6’45) by Catherine Grant, first published in July 2020. First screened on 14 May, 2019, at the Paul Mellon Centre (London, UK) Research Seminar: Going with the Grain? Post-War British Film, Photography and Audiovisual Argument

Keywords: British cinema, childhood movies, curatorial knowledge effect, David Lean, ekphrasis, epigraphic videos, ‘forced marriage’, multiple screen, peripheralised spectatorship, repetition and variation, side by side, spatial montage, up and down,

Satis House is a multiple screen-based, videographic study. A kind of mini-puzzle film, it discovers or invents a spatio-temporal strategy for an audio-visual collection and juxtaposition of the eight sequences in David Lean’s 1946 film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel Great Expectations that depict protagonist Pip’s visits to the shadowy candlelit dwelling of Miss Havisham (played by Martita Hunt) and her ward Estella (Jean Simmons), first as a boy (Anthony Wager) and then as an adult (John Mills).

The video offers a concise and hopefully rich curatorial frame for a new comparative spectatorial experience of the meaningful work carried out by the many visual and narrative repetitions across these scenes. In so doing, Satis House helps to perform a powerful argument in favour of the complexity and purposefulness of David Lean’s narrative and aesthetic design as the film’s writer-director, following his witnessing of an abridged stage version of the novel in 1939, which had been adapted by Alec Guinness, the actor who plays Herbert Pocket in the 1946 film. The unfolding interaction of the video’s visual juxtapositions with the work’s musical sound track (by artist Circus Marcus) underscores the centrality of these sequences to the production of the melancholic affect of this film version of Great Expectations.

This video was initially inspired by (and quotes from) the work of cultural historian Lynda Nead, in particular her 2017 book The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Postwar Britain (London and New Haven: Yale University Press / Paul Mellon Studies in British Art, 2017).

Below, Professor Nead offers an insightful and generous reflection on the video, analysing how it engages with–and where it adds to–her work. I am very grateful to her for her brilliant research and writing, as well as for her expertise and keen interest in the form and scholarly potential of the audio-visual essay.

Thanks also to John Wyver, Andrew Moor and Tracy Cox-Stanton for their thoughts on this work.

Reflections on Catherine Grant’s Satis House

By Lynda Nead, Pevsner Professor of History of Art, Birkbeck, University of London

In my recent research I have been trying to capture the ‘atmosphere’ of post-war Britain and its expression in the art and culture of those years. Post-war atmosphere, I argue, is found in the impasto of painting, the grain of press photography and the chiaroscuro of cinematography. It is present in the patina of bombed buildings, in fog and dust, in sunlight and shadows. The objects of my study range from adverts and exhibitions, to fashion and film; from the photography of Bert Hardy to the films of David Lean. Reconstruction was the priority of post-war Britain and the image of the light, air and space of modern progress overcoming the darkness and ignorance of the nineteenth century was repeated across the visual media in the 1940s and 1950s. It is in this context that I have turned to David Lean’s 1946 film of Great Expectations, which I have described as an exemplar of ‘Dickens Noir’ – a form that shares the visual style of film noir but also belongs to a historical fascination with Victorianism in the post-war period. This Victorianism haunted post-war Britain through the charm of the past and its uncanny ability to disturb the equanimity of the present.

My discipline is the history of art, which, like other forms of visual criticism, is essentially and fundamentally a discipline about the relationship of word and image, and the use of the verbal to evoke the visual. In writing about Lean’s Great Expectations I was engaging in ekphrasis, a highly descriptive piece of writing that aims to evoke not only the appearance of the film, but also its atmosphere and the experience of viewing it. Ekphrasis is necessarily, therefore, an act of translation, a switch between modes of representation that has been described as ‘indifferent’, and ‘inevitably a betrayal.’ [1] Whilst I am not convinced that this descriptive act is necessarily a betrayal, it is true that videographic criticism of moving image media is free from this labour of translation or adaptation; there is a synergy between the medium of study and the medium of analysis. Moreover, as Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell have stated: ‘The most effective videographic works…those which produce the most potent knowledge effect – employ their audiovisual materials in a poetic imaginative way.’ [2]

Catherine Grant’s online audiovisual essay on Great Expectations can be approached through this concept of ‘knowledge effect.’ For me, it offers a new understanding of Lean’s film both through incredibly close looking at the original source and has a visual beauty of its own. Like Grant, I was drawn to the sequences in the film set in Miss Havisham’s terrible home, Satis House. It was in these episodes that I had the strongest sense of the moral corruption of the past as expressed through space, illumination and duration. Satis House is a place of deep, dark shadows; it is a mausoleum, frozen in time, from the moment that Miss Havisham was abandoned by her lover, on the day of their intended marriage. The overgrown garden, bolted doors and windows, dark corridors, cavernous, dusty rooms and the dry remains of the wedding feast and of the abandoned bride, Miss Havisham, are richly evoked in Dickens’s prose and find extraordinary re-presentation in the direction and cinematography of David Lean’s film. 

There is a simple but enlightening structure to Grant’s film. She has identified that there are eight episodes in the film when Pip visits Satis House; four times as a child and four times as an adult, following his social elevation. This symmetry enables the visual organisation of the screen, which is divided into eight frames of two horizontal rows of four. The longest of these sequences is also the occasion of Pip’s first visit to Satis House and his first meeting with Miss Havisham and Estella. The duration of this scene determines the duration of Grant’s film; it appears first in the top left hand frame and the subsequent visits appear in their designated frames in order of their length. Thus the seventh visit is the second to appear on the screen; Pip’s second visit, when still a child, appears third; his last visit, which is also the end of the film, when he returns as an adult, with new self-knowledge and leaves with Estella, appears as the fourth, until all eight frames are running their sequences of Satis House.

What is so visually interesting is that as the screen fills with the eight visits, there is more and more to watch; your attention is moved around the screen by different details, by moments of light or near darkness, of exterior shots in the garden, or in the darkness of Miss Havisham’s chamber. Rather than a visual cacophony, however, it is at this point that the viewer begins to see the structural and visual repetitions in the film; a certain kind of order begins to impose itself that derives from the mise en scène of Lean’s film. Repetitions that I knew were in the film, such as the still life of gloves and bible on Miss Havisham’s dressing table, or the stopped clock on the outside of Satis House, become visually emphatic. 

Certain formal devices become visible through the serendipity of Grant’s formal device. At one point, the third frame, depicting Pip’s visit as a boy to Satis House, and the seventh frame, representing the occasion of the fatal fire that kills Miss Havisham, are both dominated by the diagonal form of the banquet table, shot in sharp perspective and receding into the background shadows. In the earlier visit Pip is perturbed by the cobwebby remains of the wedding banquet; in the later episode he rips the tablecloth from the table as he attempts to put out the flames that consume Miss Havisham’s body. More than formal coincidence, this repetition shows the viewer how carefully composed these scenes are; to freeze them would be to create interior still-lives that emerge from the darkness into half shadow. 

Great Expectations is about time. A bildungsroman that follows the moral education of Pip from child to adult, it is concerned with memory (and, in the case of Miss Havisham, memory that is obsessive and destructive), generational difference and self-knowledge. For Miss Havisham, time is frozen by her betrayal and grief but is registered in the decay of her home and body. For Pip and Estella, their lives are transformed by the actions and misinterpretations of a previous generation. Pip’s aspiration to ‘great expectations’ is shown to be deceptive and untrustworthy, and it is only in the final scene of the film that there is any hope of redemption and a happy future. There is a real poignancy, then, in seeing in Grant’s film the visual echo of two key scenes in Satis House. In the second frame, the young Pip and Estella are shown at the large iron gates to Satis House, at the end of his second visit. She locks him out and Pip’s sense of his background as an obstacle to his love for Estella is sealed. At the same moment, in the eighth frame, we see the final time that Pip visits Satis House in what is also the final scene of Lean’s film. The camera follows Estella and Pip leaving Satis House forever and opening the gates together as the words ‘Great Expectations’ appear on the screen. The structure of Grant’s film enables the viewer to experience the narrative, the atmosphere and the aesthetic of Lean’s film and the way that duration weaves through every moment and every scene.

Visual convergences persist throughout Grant’s film; towards the end, the seventh frame shows the burning of Miss Havisham. Pip quenches the flames with the tablecloth and we see the smoke rise from her fallen body. Simultaneously, in the eighth frame, we see Pip’s symbolic act of defiance against Miss Havisham as he pulls down the wooden shutters and heavy curtains that enclose the windows in Satis House. Clouds of dust rise from the rotting materials. Smoke and dust are the visible signs of the corrupt atmosphere of this house and its owner and at this moment, post-war atmosphere is almost tangible. These junctures in Grant’s film have a very powerful ‘knowledge effect’; making visible narrative and aesthetic form and, I would argue, the atmosphere of post-war British culture.  

[1] W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994) p. 152; Jas Elsner, ‘Art History as Ekphrasis’, Art History, 33:1 (2010) p. 12.

[2] Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell, ‘The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image: A Pedagogical Essay’, in Christian Keathley, Jason Mittell and Catherine Grant, eds. The Videographic Essay: Practice and Pedagogy. Online:–image.