‘Utopian Realism’ is an exploration of rural utopianism, idealism and industrialism in the North East of England and Mid Wales by the artists Mair Hughes and Bridget Kennedy.

Monday, 27 June 2011

A president long past

Recent Presidents (with room for more)

The Institute

There are many more things to be said about Sopwith and Allenheads but they will surface later.

For now I want to just expand further on mine and Mair's first shared experiences in the North.

The Mining Institute in Newcastle is going to host one of the creative outcomes from this project, so it is important to talk a bit more about what we discovered there.

As I mentioned earlier we looked at texts and maps, but the building itself is also very inspiring. Aside from the beautiful library there is an awesome lecture theatre which has photographic portraits of all the past presidents. It is a great place which we hope to use during the course of this project.

One of the texts Jennifer the librarian found for us was Sopwith's "Treatise on Isometric Drawing", the Institute have very kindly offered to scan this for us so we can refer to the diagrams in more detail. What Mair and I have begun to talk about is the various methods which Sopwith employed in order to understand his surroundings more fully and to convey these findings to others.

OK so I'm back to Sopwith again.....

He developed a simple surveying tool called the Sopwith Staff (Killhope Museum has three of them see pictures to follow), he developed a way of drawing the landscape that could be easily translated into three dimensions (Isometric Drawing) and he made models of these landscapes. I like the move between real and represented landscape together with the shifting between two and three dimensions: actual landscape, drawing, sculptural model. It is also something that Mair has explored in her work as she moves between drawing, sculpture and installation. More on this later.....

We also discovered a really amusing poem / set of verses by John Safe Esq from 1818. It's called "King Coal's Leeve" or "Geological Etiquette", we are having the whole pamphlet scanned so I'll be able to bring you more later. It is a great story about coal exerting it's power over the metals by melting them down.

Light on Byerhope Dam

Conversations with Mr Sopwith

Thomas Sopwith was a very well connected man, he was a member of just about every single society going. Although he became chief mine agent for WB Lead in 1845 and relocated to Allenheads, made sure he had enough time to pursue his numerous other interests and travelled regularly to London. He invited some of the great thinkers and doers of his time up to Allenheads, one of whom was Michael Faraday an eminent natural philosopher (chemist and physicist). To give you an idea of Faraday's importance in the history of science Albert Einstein kept a photo of Faraday on his wall next to a picture of Isaac Newton.

One of the things I am particularly interested in within my artistic practice is the idea of a sense of place. I find the extract below from Sopwith's diary wonderfully evocative. He talks of taking Faraday for a walk round Byerhope Dam, one of the many reservoirs in Allenheads which were constructed in order to service the lead mines.

" In the evening we walked and talked — a long walk and a long talk — to Byerhope Reservoir, and in the garden. Seated at the end of Byerhope Reservoir, the conversation turned on subjects which I had at that very place once discussed with Robert Stephenson, and it is a pleasing memory ever to associate with that spot that it has been the scene of philosophical disquisitions, in which the minds of Faraday and Stephenson were freely opened on some of the most curious and wonderful problems which philosophy has ever disclosed. If I mention that at this place and on this occasion Faraday unfolded in a clear, perspicuous manner his views respecting centres of force, the undulations of light, the difficulties surrounding the received theory of atoms, and other similar matters, it will be readily understood how full of deep and engrossing interest such a conversation must have been”.

Faraday was developing his research into electro magnetism, a process which must have seemed truely magical at the time. Sopwith was also very good friends with William Armstrong and Robert Stephenson both of whom he took for walks around Byerhope. Armstrong was developing ways of producing electricity by harnessing the power of water. He demonstrated this to Sopwith and Sopwith noted in his diary:

“The hair or fingers held in the jet of steam are brightly illumed with electrical light, and the effects are not less beautiful than curious, new, and important."

The photograph posted below was taken from the location around the dam that Sopwith describes in his diary, looking out over Killhope (the hill in the distance). I get a bit of a buzz thinking about all of this taking place within view of my sitting room.

Byerhope Dam

Saturday, 25 June 2011

model of the mine workings

As well as the model of the village there is a model of the mine workings in the Blacksmith's Shop. It shows where the veins of lead ore are located under the village and the various tunnels and shafts that were dug in order to extract it.

When we talked with Colin at the Mining Institute he told us how the mines were put to bed in the late 1800's. Cheaper imports of lead ore were coming into Britain from Northern Europe so it was no longer a profitable operation to extract lead ore at Allenheads and WB Lead withdrew from the area. However, they did not just up sticks an leave. Colin told us that underground machinery was carefully wrapped up. Copious amounts of tallow (animal fat) was applied to preserve metal from deteriorating in the wet conditions. At the time they must have thought this was just a temporary suspension of works and that the market might recover and they would recommence mining in Allenheads, little did they know that these mines would not be worked for lead ore again in their life times. In fact, apart form a brief exploration for Fluorspar by British Steel in the 1970's these mines have remained dormant for over 100 years.

Model of the mine workings

Refections on water

Water is another linking factor between the places we are visiting during this project, I've been recording water where ever I go.

The imagery from the Gin Hill Shaft made me think of a piece of writing I came across about Thomas Sopwith. He is reputed to have told his biographer WB Richardson that:

"the mountain led him towards the skies and made him familiar with the stars;

the earth kept him from being too aspiring, and in return made him familiar with the treasures of old which lie on her surface;

and the mine took him under the earth, a still humbler sphere, to seek out knowledge in darkness, and goods that are held in secret".

For a man with so many practical interests: geology, engineering, economics etc; Sopwith could be quite poetic.

The Gin Hill Shaft

Model of Allenheads Village

We seem to be coming across a lot of plans, diagrams and models of things in our research, which seems to make sense as both Robert Owen and Thomas Sopwith had big ideas that they wanted to convey to others or put into action.

The model of Allenheads is housed in the Blacksmith's Shop and it's is a beauty. The building is owned by the Allenheads Trust and its open to the public, although it's undergoing some restoration at the moment.

The model shows an Allenheads of the 1800's. It shows lots of features of the lead mining industry that dominated this village during that period.

The image below shows the building that is now the pub in the foreground to the left and to the right is the Heritage Centre, in the background is the mine yard where the lead or was processed once it had been brought out of the mine. Modern village life revolves round the pub and the Heritage Centre which hosts community events and also houses a contemporary arts space (see ACA link).

The wooden tower is a structure that no longer exists, it would have housed winding gear for the Gin Hill shaft. I have been really taken by the view down this shaft and managed to capture some of it on a small video clip (see a still from this in the next post)

Model of Allenheads Village

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Northern Highlights

Between Sunday 22nd May and Tuesday 31st May this year (2011) Mair and I spent time together in the North East of England, making a brief foray over the border to Scotland to visit New Lanark.

Below is a brief synopsis of our time together.

We kicked off with a rather wet, but none the less, interesting and informative guided walk around Allenheads. It was part of the North Pennines ANOB Northern Rocks Festival and couldn't have been more fitting for our purposes. Ian Forbes, our guide for the day, was focusing on Thomas Sopwith, his relationship with Sir William Armstrong and their impact on the village and the surrounding landscape.

Next we headed into Newcastle to visit the Mining Institute. No photographs can do justice to this architectural gem. Going in for the first time is a bit like unearthing a beautiful mineral. If you are ever in Newcastle near the central station I urge you to go, you will not be disappointed. It also contains just about anything you might possibly want to know about mining. We were delighted to find that our very own Thomas Sopwith had designed the furniture for the library. Call me strange but it tickles me to sit on a Sopwith chair at a Sopwith table reading about Sopwith, perhaps I'm loosing it. He came from a family of cabinet makers, hence his ability to realise many of his ideas in wood. The wonderful librarian Jennifer was able to summon up a choice selection of publications for us to peruse, but I left with that "tip of the iceberg" feeling and a large dose of the "biting off more than you can chew" blues. Here's where the beauty of having a partner in crime comes into it's own, on the way home Mair was able to talk me round, when you have been planning and thinking about something for so long it is really hard to just relax into. I soon realised I was just being impatient.

Mair also managed to talk me round to a trip to Scotland. As you will discover if you follow this blog we are also looking at the life and works of another nineteenth century gent, an incredible man called Robert Owen. His model workers village, New Lanark was the inspiration for this project. Mair had come across him a long way back, as he was born in her home town, Newtown in mid Wales. So on Thursday we set off over the border to visit New Lanark. We stayed the night there at the youth hostel and spent a happy two days looking round this World Heritage site. It is an inspirational place and we most definitely want to work with them in stage two of this project. In the meantime it provided us with many, many photographic images and video clips, which may develop into works during stage one.

On Saturday we had the pleasure of spending the day with several of the Friends of Killhope, a charitable organisation associated with Killhope Lead Mining Museum. I have a close relationship with the museum as I have worked there for 5 years as an information assistant. However, I had never really met any Friends of Killhope or fully understood what they do, so this is a great opportunity for me to find out more information which will be of benefit to me as an artist but also assist me in my "day job" too. Dick, Margaret and Shelagh very generously gave up their Saturday to show us numerous items for their extensive archive. They are also very well connected and gave us contact details for a host of useful people in the field of geology.

Finally on Tuesday, after a few days of digesting information and planning our next get together, Mair and I made our way back into Newcastle for a second visit to the Mining Institute. We had requested some maps of the Allenheads area to look at, these maps are quite lovely, I especially like the way the mineral veins are marked with gold. I also like how some maps are virtually bank with just a tiny bit of information in one corner. Once again we met some great people. Aaron is a photographer who is undertaking a commission at the institute. Colin is an ex mine manager who has travelled extensively and knows a canny bit about Sopwith.

At this juncture I am going to try to put together some images and pieces of text to reflect this experience. It is not an easy task as there is such a mass of varied information swimming round in my head. I"m hoping the act of editing for this blog will help clarify things.......

Historical links

I live in a small village called Allenheads in the North Pennines. It is situated in a designated area of outstanding natural beauty (ANOB) and has a rich industrial heritage. During the 1850's the North Pennines was one of the world's largest producers of lead and lead ore (galena). As part of this project I want to investigate the life and work of a man who had a great influence on Allenheads during this time of industrial prosperity and whose ideas on education and organisation can still been seen in the planning and architecture of the village.

This man was Thomas Sopwith.

He was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1803, he died in London in 1879. In 1845 he was appointed as mine agent by WB Lead and moved to Allenheads.

I must say now I am not an historian by any stretch of the imagination. If you want to find out more about Thomas Sopwith you might like to follow the link to the side of these posts to read extracts of his biography by B W Richardson. Sopwith kept an extensive diary for the majority of his life which he re-wrote in later life (burning the originals). I've been looking at these diaries on mirco film at the Robinson Library (University of Newcastle upon Tyne). They are fascinating as he had so many interests and socialised with so many of the important thinkers of his day. However, I don't want to get lost in the mists of time..........

You will see as these posts unfold how his ideas permeate my artistic practice. For now see below for a portrait of Sopwith with some beautiful wooden models that he designed and produced as geological teaching aids.

Thomas Sopwith with his geological models

Getting Started

Finally, after 8 months of planning and fund raising, the first stage of Utopian Realism is underway!

Mair and I have been fortunate enough to gain some funding from both the Arts Council Wales and the Arts Council England to help finance this project. So we are now able to travel between the North East of England and Wales and spend time together at a variety of locations in order to explore ideas concerning technology, co operative living and sustainability in relation to the geographical characteristics of these places and the people that live and have lived amongst them.

This blog will chart our journey from exploratory visits to the exhibition of finished art works. We are going to work very closely together on this project, producing at least one collaborative art work. We will both be making posts here so if you follow this blog you will be witness to the development of a collaborative practice. Part of my interest in contributing to this blog is to make our creative process as open and accessible as possible so please feel free to comment and enter into the discussion.