Musician Richard Dawson and artist Matt Stokes have collaborated on This Liberty, a cinematic and audio installation inspired by the oldest purpose-built prison in England, Hexham Old Gaol.
Drawing from traditional border ballads, which were typically sung unaccompanied and used to tell stories, This Liberty is a set of five songs, each telling the story of a different character associated with the gaol.
The characters whose stories are told through the ballads are: John de Cawood, the first gaoler of Hexham who took up his post in 1332; a petty criminal, typical of many who were imprisoned there; a wealthy prisoner based on a notorious border reiver called Gerard ‘Topping’ Charlton who was imprisoned in the 1530s; a local citizen who visited the gaol and gave money or food to poor inmates; and a priest who would have looked after the spiritual needs of the prisoners.
Each ballad is sung by a person representing the contemporary equivalent of one of the people who had links with the Gaol – for example, a song about Hexham’s first gaoler, who was a barber by profession, is sung by someone embodying a present-day barber.
Matt Stokes explains: “Each of the songs tells people about something that happened within the prison walls. Hexham Old Gaol itself is a very strong and imposing building but the richness comes from its stories, some of which are hidden away.”
The lyrics, which are written by Dawson, are based on Stokes’ in-depth research into the gaol, its collections and the people who had links to it.
The ballads are presented through a cinematic film and audio installation in the 687-year-old venue, showing the music being performed in contemporary settings, drawing parallels between both the past and present, and socio-political climates of the times.
Visitors to Hexham Old Gaol, now a Museum and one of four managed by the Woodhorn Charitable Trust, will be able to see This Liberty from 22 August until 31 October 2017.
The project is part of Meeting Point2, a year-long project led by contemporary art agency Arts&Heritage. Leading UK and international artists have partnered with 10 museums in Yorkshire, the North West and the North East to produce new artworks inspired by the museums and their collections.
Rowan Brown, CEO of Woodhorn Charitable Trust said: “This project has been a wonderful opportunity to use ancient musical traditions to draw out some of the gaol’s fascinating stories and to present them with a contemporary twist. It is part of a wider transformation across the Trust as we explore new art forms and approaches to bring contemporary and local relevance to our historic collections. I am extremely grateful to Arts&Heritage and to Arts Council England for generously supporting this project and enabling us to work with the inspirational Matt Stokes and Richard Dawson.”
Funded by Arts Council England’s Museum Resilience Fund, Meeting Point2 presents artworks in unexpected places and supports small and medium scale museums to commission artists, who will create a piece of work in response to the venue.
For more information about Meeting Point2, visit www.artsandheritage.org.uk.