A room of one’s own: Colin Pantall’s comforting sofa portraits

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Pantall’s latest book returns to his daughter’s childhood, presenting emotive images from a time of comfort and rest

In 1999, Colin Pantall and his wife were living in Asia. The pair, him a photographer and her a writer, travelled often for their work, covering stories of heritage and the environment. Then, in the year 2000, their daughter Isabel was born; her arrival changed everything.

“There was this intensity of coming home with a baby. You’ve had no training for it,” Pantall recalls. “As I was looking after her, holding her, co-caring, I would take my camera with me. I was photographing inside the home and, at that time, we had that sofa.”

© Colin Pantall

The sofa in question was, by Pantall’s own admission, a ragged and uncomfortable piece of furniture. However, worn out as it may have been, it soon became central to the lives of both him and his daughter. Isabel’s time spent curled there – watching, imagining, growing and, sometimes, recovering – was lovingly captured by Pantall and now, some 15 years later, will soon be published for the first time.

At just 84 pages, the aptly named Sofa Portraits is comparatively modest in size. However, its 36 images provide a touching – and typographical – record of Isabel’s childhood. Now studying art at university, the 21-year-old has contributed text and illustrations to the body of work which, Pantall says, she remains extremely fond of.

“I think we forget what goes on inside a kid’s mind. There’s a daydreaming world, a critical world, an escapist world and there’s the intensity of the emotions you have,” he says. “Isabel loves the images because they showcase these different states of being and, to a certain extent, she still has those states of being.”

“There’s freedom in a place of comfort, even when you’re young. It’s like a Virginia Woolf and A Room Of One’s Own

© Colin Pantall
© Colin Pantall

In one of her calmer, more tired states, Isobel lies atop a pile of cushions, her eyes glued to the television, her arm outstretched. In the caption she describes the sofa as a second bed. “It was like Tracey Emin’s bed but for kids, with all the toys and drawing stuff of childhood scattered around,” she writes. In another image she sits at a jaunty angle, holding a brightly illustrated mug aloft. The caption reads: “I look like I’m 25 and I’m sitting on the sofa with a coffee being like, ‘…and then basically this is what happened…’.”

It’s easy to understand why these portraits of her childhood continue to resonate with  Pantall’s now adult daughter. The images are simple and unassuming, they show a well lived-in home and a well loved place of comfort, a place where favourite television shows are watched – and watched, and watched again – toys are enjoyed and peaceful naps are taken. All familiar scenes which, for many, will conjure their own fond and peaceful memories.

The theme that unites all of Sofa Portraits’ images, and indeed much of Pantall’s wider practice, is their expressive depiction of what is usually a private interior life – and the safety that interior life provides. “There’s freedom in a place of comfort,” he says, “even when you’re young. It’s like a Virginia Woolf and A Room Of One’s Own.”

© Colin Pantall

Sofa Portraits is available to order now