Susan Philipsz at Belsay Hall


Project Info


  • Susan Philipsz


  • English Heritage
  • Contemporary Visual Arts Network
  • Arts Council England

Susan Phillips was commissioned as part of a programme called Mapping Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience (MCAHE) and English Heritage, to create a work responding to Belsay Hall, an 18th Century Neoclassical building in Northumberland.

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 2018, Susan Philipsz filled Belsay Hall with her haunting sound installation, The Yellow Wallpaper. Song lyrics from a ballad titled The Unquiet Grave were heard emanating from the chimney flues within the rooms, while a separate installation, The Shallow Sea, was presented within the cellar.

“I’m interested in how sound can define space, and the architectural concerns of sound; how it can be a device to alter individual consciousness and how it can make you aware of the place that you’re in.” – Susan Philipsz

The disembodied voices drew on the themes of the famous short stories ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ by Edgar Allen Poe. Both stories deal with the haunting of domestic spaces, and Philipsz’s work likewise encouraged visitors to imagine the personal stories of loss and desire at Belsay that may never be told.

“The wallpaper reminded me of the story, The Yellow Wallpaper, where she begins to see someone trapped behind the wallpaper, this woman who is in a house not unlike this.” – Susan Philipsz

The songs themselves were based on local border ballads. Belsay is situated in an area once known as the ‘debatable land’: the disputed territories between England and Scotland where violence and lawlessness abounded. Tales of love, hate and longing survive through the ballads, and they are part of the living heritage of the Borders. In her sound installation, Philipsz sung versions of ‘The Unquiet Grave’ and ‘Oh Willow Waly’.

“The fireplaces themselves, perhaps like graves, are where flames of life once burned yet now only echoes remain.” – Dave Pritchard, Corridor8

The Yellow Wallpaper was presented from 20 July – 16 September 2018.

Click here to watch a film about the installation.

As part of Susan Philipsz’s project at Belsay Hall, young local artists were invited to make their own artistic sound response to their heritage landscape. English Heritage talked to them about their work and followed their progress from their early recordings through to the display of their final artwork in central Newcastle.

Listen here.

Belsay Hall is a Greek-revival mansion designed and built by its owner Sir Charles Monck between 1809-17. It was inspired by the architecture that Sir Charles had seen whilst on honeymoon in Greece and it has been described as ’a building of austere perfection’. The hall passed into the guardianship of the state in 1980 and, ever since then, it has been open to the public without being refurnished.

Over the past three decades Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens has been the inspiration for many contemporary artists and designers. This activity has been presented in a major programme of contemporary art in heritage projects: Living at Belsay (1996); Sitooteries (2000); Sitting Pretty (2002); Fashion at Belsay (2004); Picture House (2007); and Extraordinary Measures (2010).

The Artist

Susan Philipsz is a Scottish artist, now based in Berlin, who works with architecture and public spaces, narrative and sounds. Most of her projects use recordings of her own untrained singing voice, often reworking songs drawn from traditional folk or contemporary song lyrics. Philipsz has exhibited internationally, including commissions for the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. In 2010 Philipsz was the winner of the prestigious Turner Prize award.