From emotional imagined last walks of First World War casualties to making music in the waters of the Swale, parts of North Yorkshire are being viewed afresh by a trio of artists.
The exhibition is the culmination of a project that has seen three artists in residence create a multimedia experience inspired by North Yorkshire’s historic archive.
Unfolding Origins has supported the creation of art and new ways for the public to engage with North Yorkshire’s archival collections from Selby, Richmond and Ryedale.
The artists began their research in the archive, seeing where the records took them.
Carolyn Thompson, the artist for Ryedale, became fascinated by the First World War appeal papers in the archive. These were from men appealing against their conscriptions to war based on their need to be at home working the land. Carolyn followed the stories of the men whose appeals failed and who ultimately lost their lives.
She took what would have been six men’s “last walk home” from their local railway station to their last known home on the anniversary of their deaths. Along the way, she recorded sounds and plants and has created drawings and sound works depicting each.
In Richmond, artists Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan’s produced a collaborative film exploring Swaledale, taking inspiration from the landscape, maps and waterways and how they have developed. Swalesong also features photographs by the Kearton Brothers, Swaledale residents and pioneering wildlife photographers of the early 1900s.
The film’s score was created by Sam McLoughlin, who recorded his river harp in the current of the Swale. The soundtrack also includes historic audio interviews with local people who remember Neddy Dick, an eccentric 19th century musician who was well known for instruments made from nature.
Lynn Setterington, the artist based in Selby, grew up in the village of Hensall in the 1960s and 1970s. Inspired by memories of Selby’s toll bridge and its queues of traffic, Lynn explored the archive for the bridge’s origins, looking at maps and ownership. Her work is a response to the 30th anniversary of the bridge being toll-free.
Margaret Boustead, Head of Archives and Record Management, said: “The archives held at the County Record Office tell an amazing story of the people and places of the county over many centuries. We want as many people as possible to experience the archive as a living record.
“This exhibition helps to do that by bringing a handful of the archive’s stories to life through fresh eyes. I hope many people are able to visit us at the County Record Office between now and 29 July to see the work for themselves.”
The exhibition is free to view at North Yorkshire County Record Office, Malpas Road, Northallerton, from Tuesday to Friday, 9am to 4pm, until 29 July.
The project is a collaboration between North Yorkshire County Record Office, Chrysalis Arts Development (CAD) and other partners, including Selby District Council, Ryedale District Council, Richmondshire District Council, ArtUK, Arts Council England and The National Lottery Heritage Fund.
“A lot of my art is place-based, so I was interested in the Ryedale residency,” she said. “I was also interested because I have worked in archives before, both as an artist and a digital technician, so I am really interested in archives.
“The beauty of this residency was that you could come into the archive and do research before pinning down what you were going to make. I had an idea about working with the landscape of the present combined with stories of the communities of the past.
“When I read some of the appeal papers, the stories and history behind them and the fact that we could locate people to the area I was looking at really interested me. I whittled down the papers to certain people who were exempt because they had been working the land, but as the war went on and more soldiers were needed, conscription changed.
“There were tragic stories. For example, there would be a farmer who had two sons and they were saying he can run the farm with one, so we’ll take one of the sons. Those people had been initially exempt and they were appealing. That tie to the land was interesting to me.”
The six people who are the subject of Ms Thompson’s work each lost their appeal, were sent to fight and died in the war.
“I thought the idea of walking them home across the landscape that they would walk every day was like a memorial to them,” she said. “Many soldiers returning from war would be given a ticket to their nearest railway station and would get home themselves form there.
“I found out where the train stations were and walked from the station to their registered address. That was where, strangely, the pandemic helped, because it elongated the project, which enabled me to do each of the six walks on the anniversaries of their deaths.
“I plotted the shortest routes and some of the paths were quite overgrown. There were points where it was very still and quiet. It did then feel like a memorial. It was such a physical and emotional thing to go through. I recorded the sounds and every wild flower in bloom along the walks, then drew the flowers as wreaths or posies.
“I hope I have shown how the archive can be brought out of the building that houses it. It is an amazing resource.”
In the County Record Office archives, she quickly found a map from the 1790s, pre-dating the original bridge, when a ferry crossed the river there.
“That was the hook that got me interested in researching more,” said Mrs Setterington, who is now based in Manchester. “On that 1790s map, the land where the bridge would go was owned by Lord Petre of Essex. I was curious about why a lord of Essex had land in that part of Yorkshire. I was telling one of my oldest school friends about it. She is a social worker and is now working for a company based at Ingatestone Hall in Essex, the ancestral home of Lord Petre.
“She put me in touch and I discovered that they married into a local Catholic family and that’s how they came to own the land in Yorkshire. So from starting with the bridge, you reveal this history of Selby that had not been given much attention.”
Dr Setterington works in stitched textiles. Her project work features the tollbooth and old maps of the location, some printed onto doilies bought in a Selby charity shop.
The original bridge was built in 1791 and the existing replacement in 1970. For many years it was a toll bridge. Lynn’s research uncovered the campaign to make it toll-free, which it became in 1991, so her project celebrates the 30th anniversary of that.
“I did research about people trying to make it toll-free,” she said. “It threw up lots of interesting leads and stories, about the empowerment of Selby in getting rid of the toll.
“I discovered that in September 1991, when it became toll-free, Barlby Bridge Primary School, which is next to the bridge, set off 100 balloons in celebration and a coach and horses came and someone paid a ceremonial final toll.”
Mrs Setterington worked with Barlby Bridge school and Barwic Parade Primary School, which is on Petre Avenue.
“The children are too young to remember the toll bridge, of course, but I liked the idea of them being able to talk to their parents or grandparents, sharing stories about this bit of history. The tollbooth is still there, so there is a physical remembrance of it.
“A lot of the work I do is about overlooked people or communities or things that have passed by, almost. People in Selby probably just take it for granted, but to me coming in again having been removed from it, it was lovely to walk on the bridge and by the river.”
“The archive is so vast,” said Mr Jordan. “I think there is something like eight miles of shelving, so we thought early on we’d try to narrow things down. The Swale emerged quickly.
“It appealed to us in terms of the history of place, of people and the river could become a symbol to thread things together. Our work often layers together natural history and cultural and social history.
“Initially, we looked at the river south of Richmond, but once we had delved further into the archive we decided to look at the source of the Swale. We started to research areas around the source and Keld became a focus point.”
This led them to a local history display in the village and a chat with the local archivist.
“That’s how we first heard about Neddy Dick, who lived there in the late 19th century and was well known for his musical instruments that he used to play sounds from nature, he used nature to create the sounds,” said Mr Jordan. “For example, he would wire up tree branches to his harmonium, and he made a lithophone, which was new to us. It is an instrument made from rocks that he pulled out of the Swale.”
At the County Record Office they learned of wildlife photography pioneers the Kearton brothers, who were born in Keld and were active around the same time as Neddy Dick.
The Swale, Neddy Dick and the Keartons became key elements in the film, supported by a natural soundtrack by the filmmakers’ friend, musician Sam McLoughlin, whose river harp was placed in the Swale to generate sounds, fitting neatly with Neddy Dick.
“None of this was planned,” said Mr Jordan. “Me and Jacob have an improvised approach. We try to keep an open mind and have an exploratory way of going about things. We try to respond to places, people we meet or material we find and look for surprises.”
Extracts provided by the Keld history group from interviews recorded in the 1960s were added to the soundtrack. In them, a man and a woman who recall Neddy Dick and his musical instruments.
“The other thing we were interested in was the apparatus of the archive itself, the microfiche readers,” said Mr Jordan. “They operate with film, so as filmmakers we loved using them. In our film, there are shots of the archive material being run through the microfiche readers. The archive is such a wealth of latent material waiting to be revealed. It was a case of trying to animate the content, but also the nature of the archive itself. We wanted to use the location as well and bring it into the film.”