Matt Stokes in collaboration with Richard Dawson at Hexham Old Gaol

This Liberty was part of the A&H Meeting Point programme, and displayed at Hexham Old Gaol (part of Museums Northumberland) in the North East from August – October 2017.

The project

Hexham Old Gaol wanted an artist to connect its visitors with the people who were once locked up in the Gaol, whether Medieval (1333 onwards) or Border Reivers (1500s). An artist who could explore and share the experiences of the prisoners, Gaoler and his family, etc.; the people who were locked up in the gaol and the ones who lived and worked there, for whom it was a home or place of work.

The brief was open to artists working in all disciplines and the museum was open to ideas and approach. It was hoped that the project would make the gaol more ‘visible’ to the local community and prompt their curiosity to explore further the shared rich history that is so important and integral to the border history of Hexham market town.

There were some challenges working with a scheduled ancient monument and it was worth noting that as a Scheduled Ancient Monument and a Grade I Listed building, the fabric of the building could not be changed in any way, nor any fixtures etc. If a proposed work might have physically altered the appearance of the building (temporarily) the museum would have had to consult with inspectors and/or planners, so it was asked for applicants to factor this into their timescale for project delivery.

Key objectives for the project were to:

  • Raise the profile of the site within the locality
  • Draw attention to the sites rich history and its value as a historical asset within the town
  • Provide a platform whereby future programming could be developed.

The proposal

“What immediately interests me about Hexham Old Gaol is that it revolves around the story of people. From those who oversaw the building and running of the Gaol, the various laws of the periods it has spanned, to the people interned in the Gaol and those who upheld their moral duties by visiting and feeding prisoners, as well as the families living in its shadow on the surrounding lands. Today, details of these stories seem incongruous to modern living and thinking. Attempting to bridge this historic and contemporary divide by drawing from and reanimating such narratives, provides a rich area to spur a new commission that will offer an engaging and unexpected perspective to visitors.

The knowledge of the staff and volunteers of the Gaol will be vital in helping to mould the content of the commission. Exploring the Border Library Collection and particularly the Border Ballads (and other sung and spoken literary forms) would provide an exciting starting point to seek out connections between the times, people and Gaol. Initially focusing on folk song seems apt to the setting, as it was such an integral means of expression in daily life.” – an extract from Matt Stoke’s original proposal

Outcome

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

Matt Stokes explained:

“Each song 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. Each character is then 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 songs 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
  • a priest who would have looked after the spiritual needs of the prisoner

The singers were Trev Gibb, Richard Dawson, George Unthank, Marry Waterson and Dawn Bothwell.

Impact

  • Nearly 4,000 people visited the museum and saw the installation – a significant increase on visitor numbers for the same period the previous year
  • 55 people attended a special performance at the museum

“Very interesting and enjoyable. Good clear exposition of the topic. We enjoyed the ‘This Liberty’ installation – very haunting.” – visitor

“A great gem. We have lived here’s for five years before we discovered it.” – visitor

In 2021, This Liberty was shown for the first time outside of the context of Hexham Old Gaol, as part of Matt Stokes’ solo exhibition at Workplace Gallery in London.

“Coinciding with a particular time in history during which all of us have experienced restrictions to our personal liberties as a consequence of the current global pandemic, this exhibition explores incarceration as a contemporary and historical experience.” – Workplace Gallery, 2021

About the Artist

Matt Stokes was born in Penzance, Cornwall and has lived, studied and worked in the Northeast of England since 1993. In 2018 he was the recipient of Paul Hamyln Foundation Award for Visual Artists and in 2006, was the winner of the Beck’s Futures Prize. Recent solo shows include a commissioned film installation as part of We The People Are The Work, Plymouth, 2017; Matt’s Gallery, London, 2015; Site Gallery, Sheffield, 2014; Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool, 2014; Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2012; De Hallen, Haarlem, 2011; Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, 2010. Stokes’s work has been exhibited in group shows at important institutions and biennials including: M_HKA, Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp; Lentos Kunstmuseum, Linz; National Galleries of Scotland; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Witte de With, Rotterdam, Netherlands; Dundee Contemporary Arts; ICA, London.

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