Sound and vision blog

18 November 2021

Introducing the Collections in Dialogue commission with Leeds Art Gallery and the British Library

Written by Jill McKnight, Artist-in-Residence.

I am an artist based in Leeds working across sculpture, writing, installation, drawing and print and I’ve been selected as the artist in residency for Collections in Dialogue, a co-commission project by the British Library and Leeds Art Gallery. The project brief particularly interested me because it focused on cultural identity which is one of my central artistic concerns, particularly the representation of working-class people in Northern England and lesser-heard voices that would otherwise be lost or overlooked. This opportunity has been incredibly timely, enabling me to develop these interests through researching the Library’s and Leeds Art Gallery’s digitised collections. My research will culminate in an exhibition of new artwork at Leeds Art Gallery next year.

I am exploring specific areas of the two collections; World & Traditional Music and Accents and Dialects collections in the British Library’s sound archive and Works on Paper at Leeds Art Gallery. As both collections are vast – 6.5 million recordings in the sound archive, and over 10,000 works on paper – I established key themes to direct my research. As an artist working in the city, I chose to explore how people in the Leeds region have represented themselves and others in the two collections. Where there are gaps in representation in one collection, particularly of people traditionally underrepresented in the arts, I plan to bring them into conversation with representations in the other collection through my work.

Following meetings with British Library Curators Jonnie Robinson and Andrea Zarza and the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team, I have been searching the Library’s Sound & Moving Image Catalogue to identify relevant recordings.

The Opie Collection of Children’s Games & Songs fascinates me because rhymes passed down by word of mouth tell collective stories about society. Rowland Kellet was a folklorist born in Leeds, who I learned about from this collection. Kellet collected children’s games, songs and jingles from across the UK, including variations of the same song in different parts of Leeds. Although many different versions of folk songs exist, each version is unique to the performer. These communal songs share a relationship with work songs and folk songs, which connect with Leeds’ industrial history.

Kellett comments on the timelessness of these songs in his interview with Iona Opie, saying, ‘There is no life, there’s no deaths of these songs. To me they are eternal. You can’t kill them because, because if you try to kill it you bring a different variant of it.’ I have been fortunate to view some of Kellet’s paper archives held at Leeds Central Library, and will be listening to folk songs performed by Kellet, recently catalogued as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

Leeds is a city that has thrived due to the diversity of its population. In recordings like 'Conversation in Leeds about accent, dialect and attitudes to language', part of BBC Voices, six interviewees from Moortown, Leeds, talk about their own accents, Yorkshire dialect and the Punjabi language – one interviewee recognises both regions as being rooted in common industrial identities, saying, ‘you could say they were twin cities basically, twin states Yorkshire and Punjab.’

In 'Leeds - Millennium Memory Bank' six teenagers from South Leeds talk about being proud of working-class, with one explaining, ‘Even when my dad gives me pocket money I don’t like it, because you know like I ending washing up for him or something, because I like earning money because then I know I’ve worked for it.’ This same work ethic in 1999 connects with lines from folk song The Maid’s Lament, performed by Mrs Johnstone and recorded in 1967, by Fred Hamer.

Excerpt of The Maid's Lament sung by Mrs Johnstone [BL REF C433/7]

At Leeds Art Gallery, I chose to focus on the works on paper collection due to its range – from sketches to finished compositions; watercolours to photography; large quantity and conservation considerations that have meant some works have never been on display.

Works of art on paper spread out across a wooden table.            Selection of works on paper that I viewed in person at Leeds Art Gallery © Jill McKnight

I met with Assistant Curator Laura Claveria to discuss key words and themes, including working-class culture, women, children and Leeds-related artists, from which Laura sent an initial longlist of relevant works from the collection. From this, I made a shortlist to view in person. It was fantastic to see the works up close, where intricacies and details conveying the hand of the artist often jump out more directly than in digital form.

Artist sitting at a wooden table consulting paper files and writing with pencil in notebook.                 Researching Edna Lumb’s artist file archive at Leeds Art Gallery © Jill McKnight

So far I have discovered a number of artists unknown to me, including Edna Lumb (1931-1992) and Effie Hummerston (1891-1982). Both artists were born and studied in Leeds and went on to capture some of the area’s male-dominated industrial landscapes in their paintings. Edna Lumb’s work achieved national recognition during her lifetime. This is reflected in the large amount of material in Lumb’s artist file. However, critics noted that it was the scientific community, rather than artistic, who more frequently celebrated the work due to its realist depiction of industrial technology.

Painting of Tingley Gas Works in the distant horizon above green fields.                Edna Lumb, Tingley Gas Works, oil on canvas, 1964. © Leeds Museums & Galleries.

Another fascinating part of the collection are works on paper by seven artists that were ideas for a mural scheme for Leeds Town Hall, a commission in 1920 led by Michael Sadler, which was also intended as a commemorative response to the First World War. Artists selected were local and national including Percy Hague Jowett, Jacob Kramer and Albert Rutherston. The mural designs took into account the architecture of the Town Hall, with features such as doorways represented by blank spaces. The majority of the works feature industrial or pastoral scenes of Leeds, including woollen mills, the canal and Kirkstall Abbey. Perhaps this is how the artists thought the people of Leeds would want their city represented, however the designs were heavily criticised and the murals were never realised, providing an insight into the politics of that time.

My first few weeks of research have unearthed an abundance of stories, which I am now responding to through initial sketches and writing of my own. This will further direct my ongoing research and inform my final proposal at the start of next year for the exhibition in spring.

Collections in Dialogue

Collections in Dialogue is a new artist co-commission project between Leeds Art Gallery and the British Library.

It is formed around the commissioning an artist based in the North of England to work with collections at both institutions as a catalyst to produce new work that creates a dialogue between them. Following a recruitment process, the commission was awarded to Jill McKnight in summer 2021. The work Jill creates will be exhibited at Leeds Art Gallery from March – October 2022 with some digital elements shown online.

Collections in Dialogue is part of the British Library’s growing culture programme in Leeds and the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project.

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