- Sophie Dixon
- Grace Darling Museum
- Arts Council England
The RNLI Grace Darling Museum was one of six heritage sites selected by Arts&Heritage to take part in its Meeting Point 2018-2019 programme. PSVT took part in a series of A&H training workshops and visits, to learn how to successfully deliver a contemporary art project at the museum. The museum then developed their own Artist’s Brief, and presented this to 60 artists from across the UK at a networking event. From Expressions of Interest, four artists were shortlisted to draw up a more detailed proposal from which the museum selected Sophie Dixon for the commission.
Sophie Dixon’s film installation explored Grace Darling and her historic rescue of nine stranded survivors onboard the shipwrecked SS Forfarshire in 1838, on the 183rd anniversary of the rescue.
“Grace Darling’s role in the rescue of crew and passengers on board the paddle steamer Forfarshire is known all over the world, but for many people, that’s all they know about her. Inspired by various, often conflicting accounts, ‘Grace’ is a poetic exploration of Grace Darling’s life and the impact of her fame.” – Sophie Dixon
The work was developed using archival documents and digitised objects from the museum’s collection, as well as letters, factual records and reference photos from the Northumberland and Trinity House Archives.
Visitors were transported to Grace’s home on Longstone Island where digital reconstructions of items from the museum’s collections brought her story to life. Drawing inspiration from violin music belonging to Grace Darling’s father, an original score by musician Kathy Alberici weaved together his handwritten melodies with sounds of the Farne Islands and North East voices.
“It all takes place on a digital recreation of Longstone Lighthouse, which is where Grace Darling spent quite a lot of her childhood. You start at the beginning of the lighthouse and you work your way up through the lighthouse and in doing so you go through the story of her life.
You start with her childhood, through to the moment when she carried out her rescue and then through to her later life when she experienced fame and then through to her death.” – Sophie Dixon, interviewed by Jo Lonsdale for BBC Radio Newcastle
Grace was on show from September–October 2021.
A dedicated website for the film installation was created.
A&H commissioned a ‘making of film’ for Grace, capturing the artist’s process.
The RNLI Grace Darling Museum commemorates the life of Victorian Britain’s greatest heroine, who risked her life to rescue nine survivors from the wrecked SS Forfarshire on 7 September 1838. The Grace Darling Museum guides you through Grace’s upbringing and life in the lighthouse, the events of the rescue that propelled her into the limelight and her status as a national heroine. Visitors can learn about Grace’s story through her personal items, including letters, family portraits and the famous coble used in the rescue.
Chris Sharratt, freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow, visited Grace Darling Museum to view Grace, a Meeting Point commission by artist Sophie Dixon.
Grace Darling: heroine, celebrity, attention seeker, fake? In ‘Grace’, Sophie Dixon’s computer generated three-channel film, conflicting descriptions circle around the idea and reality of Darling – the lighthouse keeper’s daughter who went from nobody to national treasure after rescuing nine people from the wreck of the SS Forfarshire on 7 September 1838. At under 10 minutes, ‘Grace’ is concise, packed with historic visual references, and driven by a narrative that resists simple heroine worship in favour of something more nuanced and complex.
Darling died from tuberculosis aged 26, just four years after her act of bravery made her a household name. But the tragedy of her story begins much earlier, as the film’s voicing of archive material unequivocally reveals. As public fascination with this unassuming, private young woman quickly grew, her father wrote in a letter at the time: “You can hardly form an idea how disagreeable it is to my daughter to show herself in public.” The sense of Darling being both hunted and haunted by the scrutiny she received following her actions one stormy late-summer morning is intensely felt in the dark menace of the lapping sea that opens the film, the dimly lit interiors of her frugal lighthouse home, and the bright menace of the revolving lighthouse beacon.
Dixon’s digital rendering of the 19th century lighthouse, along with a script that gives voice to Darling, her family and the media commentary of the day, places the viewer at a time shortly after her death. Yet the film is much more than a piece of historical re-enactment, and it isn’t only the use of computer game technology to create this virtual world that makes ‘Grace’ so utterly contemporary. As a soundtrack that features words of praise and respect for Darling becomes interspersed with voices questioning her bravery and personal integrity – “There was no danger”; “Anyone could have done it” – the haranguing tone calls to mind a very 21st century scourge – that of online trolls. Then as now, there are always those who find something ‘wrong’ in someone doing the ‘right’ thing. Particularly when that someone is a woman.
While such gender bias is true of our world today, for Darling it would have been all-consuming – and key to why her selfless actions attracted such interest in the first place. Dixon highlights this sense of a young woman being seen and judged by the male gaze of journalists, portraitists and the public life of the time, in part by placing throughout the lighthouse interior digital copies of the many depictions of Darling held in the RNLI’s Grace Darling Museum. These paintings, sketches and busts were not only made immediately following the events of 1838 but also after her death, as she was further venerated and mythologised. What Dixon wants the viewer to think about, it seems, is not so much Darling’s deed and what it says about her as a person, but what the deeds of others in their memorialising of her say about them – and ultimately about us.
In ‘Grace’, we are submerged for a moment in an idea of heroism that endures like a lifeline to the past. But rather than just hold on tight to it, we are offered a brief but compelling opportunity to contemplate a deeper, more complicated story. One that can’t be contained within a stoic marble bust or a dramatic, spume-filled painting of Darling and her lighthouse keeper father.
– By Chris Sharratt, 2021
Sophie Dixon is a visual artist from the UK. Working across film, 3D technologies, and installation, her projects explore the themes of memory, history, and the boundaries between the real and virtual.
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