Marcus Coates at Cherryburn


Project Info


  • Marcus Coates


  • National Trust
  • Contemporary Visual Arts Network
  • Arts Council England

Marcus Coates was commissioned as part of a programme called Mapping Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience (MCAHE), to make a work in response to Cherryburn, birthplace of the Northumberland engraver Thomas Bewick, born in 1753.

MCAHE was an interdisciplinary research project from 2018-19 led by staff at Newcastle University in collaboration with the University of Leeds; as well as the following project partners: National Trust, The Churches Conservation Trust, English Heritage, Arts&Heritage, Contemporary Visual Arts Network, Arts Council England.

For MCAHE 2019, Marcus Coates took inspiration from the birds Bewick immortalised in his engravings and recorded in his ground breaking book ‘A History of British Birds’. Conference for the Birds brings to life Bewick’s work for visitors in a new and contemporary way; shining a spotlight on the historical significance of Cherryburn and challenges facing wildlife and nature today.

The birds, each researched and played by wildlife experts, discussed topics from migration to predation, with each species recounted their day-to-day experiences.

The birds and their players were:

Cuckoo – Helen Macdonald

Great black-backed gull – Sally Reay

Roseate tern – Tom Cadwallender

Tree sparrow – Muriel Cadwallender

Blackbird – Geoff Sample

Dotterel – Marcus Coates

Heron – Ceri Levy

Visitors were invited to take a seat among the birds for a unique insight into a bird’s perspective of the world.

By exploring the lives of the birds that Bewick studied and recorded, Conference of the Birds revealed how many of the experiences and challenges faced by wildlife relate to our own, and how relevant they are today as when Bewick’s book was first published over 200 years ago.

“I think there is value in this attempted shift in outlook as it creates unexpected lines of questioning and enquiry. This ‘play’ can also reveal just as much about us to ourselves than it does about the birds.” – Marcus Coates

“The discussions in the ‘conference’ are not so much a human enactment of bird concerns, as a set of reflections back to ourselves, which we may assimilate more readily when they emerge from these ‘othered’ voices.” – Dave Pritchard, Corridor8

Conference for the Birds was on public display at Cherryburn from 2 June – 4 November 2018.

You can listen to the sound work on Coates’ website here and watch a trailer for the project here.

Cherryburn is a small farmstead situated near Stocksfield, eleven miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne. Owned and managed by The National Trust, Cherryburn is the birthplace of the famous British artist and naturalist Thomas Bewick (1753-1828). Bewick is Northumberland’s greatest artist: a wood engraver who revolutionised print art in Georgian England. Today he is best known for his book ‘A History of British Birds’ (1797). Set in a tranquil position with views across the Tyne Valley, Cherryburn is still surrounded by the natural world that inspired Bewick’s work. The site comprises Bewick’s tiny birthplace cottage, a farmyard and a traditional 19th Century farmhouse – the later home of the Bewick family. The farmhouse is now a museum and print room with a collection of Bewick’s wood blocks. It also houses a library and an exhibition about the artist’s life.

The Artist

Marcus Coates was born in 1968 in London where he lives and works. At the core of Marcus’ work is a relationship to the unknowable. From his attempts to become animal to his vicarious experiences on behalf of terminally ill patients he seeks to uncover degrees of understanding and knowing, testing our definitions and boundaries of autonomy.

He devises processes to explore the pragmatism and insight that empathetic perspectives and imagined realities can offer. He explicitly addresses a need to create functional and inclusive languages where conventional strategies of understanding and rationalisation prove inadequate.

The form and purpose of his work continues to develop in consideration to society’s needs which he responds to by working with individuals, communities, institutions, organisations and the general public. In this way he sees aspects of his art practice as a necessary and pragmatic service.

Marcus has collaborated with people from a wide range of disciplines including anthropologists, ornithologists, wildlife sound recordists, choreographers, politicians, gallerists, curators, psychiatrists, palliative care consultants, musicians, primatologists amongst others.