by Julian Jackson
Photographer Simon Marsden was haunted by ghosts. His father told him terrifying tales as a boy. His favourites were M.R. James and Arthur Machen, whose stories of the supernatural chimed with the young lad. “In later years I was to discover the works of Edgar Allan Poe, whose dark tales of decaying mansions and moonlit abbeys seemed somehow to mirror my own obsession with the ghosts that haunted them,” he said.
His photography is of “The Haunted Realm” – title of one of his books: eerie, ominous, monochrome images of ruins, graves, deserted abbeys, sinister statues. It seems like a portal into another, parallel spirit world.
Born into the English aristocracy, he was officially Sir Simon Marsden. He spent his whole life immersed in his unique genre of photography. Sadly he passed away in 2012 at the young age of 63. I met him on a few occasions and he was a lovely, charming man. Not some mad-eyed ghoul, as you might imagine.
Most of his photography was on infra-red film. A small amount was created using conventional B/W material. It is remarkable for its technical excellence and that, together with the hours in the darkroom, is what gives his images their ethereal quality.
During his lifetime he published 13 books, with titles like: The Haunted Realm: ghosts, witches and other strange tales (1986); Visions of Poe (1988); Phantoms of the Isles: further tales from the haunted realm (1990); This Spectred Isle: a journey through haunted England (2005); His final book was Russia: A World Apart (2013).
He was also active in producing book and album covers. U2 plagiarized one of his pictures for their album Unforgettable Fire. The supergroup settled out-of-court for a significant sum. Advertising work was offered to him, but he declined, feeling it would compromise the purity of his artistic vision. Not many people have the moral fibre to do this when Mammon calls.
After his untimely death, it seemed that his work might be lost or forgotten, but his widow Cassie decided to continue with The Marsden Archive as a tribute to his legacy. As lots of his images were uncatalogued and not available she has been wading through the mountain of material he left. There are a thousand images on the website, but he left somewhere between five and ten thousand prints which she is slowly going through, cataloguing, captioning and uploading.
He was totally dedicated in his working methods, being meticulous in his research. Cassie has numerous Ordnance Survey maps, each with little red circles, indicating where he photographed. He spent a long time in the darkroom, which he loved, making sure that the final prints were outstanding. She says, “Simon had a unique vision. He went to amazing places, and saw things other people didn’t see.”
In 2002 Marsden’s visits to spooky locations in Ireland were the subject of a documentary/drama film, The Twilight Hour, directed by Jason Figgis. “The most chilling sequence was the deeply disturbing and creepily atmospheric ruined Palladian mansion of Woodlawn House in County Galway,” Figgis recalled. “It was here that we heard the weeping of a woman in some distress. Upon immediate investigation we could find no evidence of anyone in the sprawling mansion.” Peculiar happenings seemed to occur when Simon was around.
Jason Figgis is currently working on a new documentary called Simon Marsden – A Life in Pictures.
Nowadays, The Marsden Archive is concentrating on selling Simon’s remaining original signed prints. Cassie says, “I have an art gallery background so this comes quite naturally for me.” She held a small exhibition in a quirky art materials shop in The Kings Road, one of London’s most fashionable areas, before Christmas. It was packed with people, some of whom had come from Dublin and Helsinki to attend the opening night. So his work has a core of people who appreciate it.
The website also licences images for publishing, and that is continuing. As she has all the original prints that were used in the books, she is planning to offer them as “boxed sets” which include the book, and the original images.
There are a couple of options for the future of the archive. Cassie is exploring the possibility of selling the archive to a collector or institution. I suspect she would prefer to keep it in the family. There is some talk of their daughter, who’s returning to the UK from Singapore, might become the curator. I think that the archive would be better off in the hands of someone who loves and treasures the images, than perhaps a more distant owner.
It is pleasing that these powerful images are continuing to reach an audience of people who appreciate them, whether or not you believe in anything supernatural. Cassie says, “It wasn’t luck that created these amazing photographs, it was a huge amount of dedication and professionalism. He was an extraordinary person who lived for his work.”
All Simon Marsden photos copyright The Marsden Archive.
Julian Jackson is a writer with extensive experience of picture research, whose main interests include photography and the environment. His portfolio is here: https://julianj.journoportfolio.com/ He also runs a Picture Research by Distance Learning Course www.picture-research-courses.co.uk . Linked-in profile.