Hexham Old Gaol inspires modern-day border ballads

Hexham Old Gaol and some of its historical inmates are the inspiration behind a new film installation featuring modern-day ballads created by North East-based artist Matt Stokes in collaboration with musician Richard Dawson.

Drawing from traditional border ballads, which were typically sung unaccompanied and used to tell stories, This Liberty consists of five new songs, each telling the story of a different character associated with the 687-year-old building.

Matt Stokes explains: “Each ballad will be 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, will be sung by someone embodying a present-day barber.

“Each character will then be set within current surroundings, creating parallels between both the past and present, and socio-political climates of the times.”

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.

Visitors to Hexham Old Gaol, now a Museum and one of four managed by the Woodhorn
Charitable Trust, will be able to see the ballads performed within a cinematic film and audio presentation. This Liberty will be on show from 22 August until 31 October 2017.

Janet Goodridge, Museum Officer at Hexham Old Gaol, said: “The ballads are composed using Matt’s research into the gaol and its collections, including the Border Library collection and music archive which contains many examples of traditional border ballads.

“I hope everyone who experiences this music will be intrigued and will connect with the characters they’re hearing about.”

“Each of song will tell 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, many of which are hidden away,” added Matt.

Matt Stokes is a Gateshead-based artist whose work has been shown internationally, and Richard Dawson is a musician based in Newcastle whose music has received widespread critical acclaim.

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