Issue 217
July/August 2021


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Jul 29, 2021

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Northumberland Folk…

I'M NOT SURE I should be telling you about 'Northumberland Folk' or their strange and wondrous tales, as retold and recreated by illustrator and printmaker Jonny Hannah. They're hidden gems, you see, rather like one of the museums where you can see them and hear their stories, if you can find it!

But I'm uncomfortable, sitting on the horns of a dilemma, so will reveal all. I thought I must have imagined my first visit to Berwick-upon-Tweed's museum, years ago, drawn into another world, a brilliantly theatrical display of local life, complete with fishwives and jolly jack tars peering out of upstairs windows.

So thumbs down to Museums Northumberland for the minimal publicity, and a gentle wake-up call to them, English Heritage and Berwick Town Council to their get respective fingers out. If you want to encourage visitors to the town and its cultural delights, of which there are many, promotion helps, and Jonny's your man, with his delightful 'manicule', a stylish hand that could be replicated all over town, index finger pointing museum-wards, where else?

Museums, from the Greek mouseion, originally meant a philosophical institution or a place of quiet contemplation. Perhaps that's why Berwick's museum hides its light under a bushel in the Clock Block at the Barracks, built in 1739 from a design by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The earliest barracks in Britain, they reflect worry about a Jacobite invasion. It came about 250 years later!

Now, on high days and holidays, the town is full of relaxed Glaswegians from caravan encampments outside the ramparts. But thumbs and hands up to Jonny Hannah for his four exhibitions in Northumberland's museums. The others are at Woodhorn, near Ashington; Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum; and Hexham Old Gaol.

Jonny's brief, back in 2019, was to invite, research, collect and create his own artwork in response to stories and folklore about these places and people. A challenge made more complex by the pandemic, which delayed the exhibition until now. The response was brilliant, and he has done them proud.

Like his contemporary Mark Hearld, Jonny's illustrating and printmaking is influenced by the traditional hand painted signwriting and lettering of shops, canal-boats and fairground art, as well as work revived and stylised by artists like Edward Bawden between the wars.

He recognised that this genre, threatened by modern printing technology (and, now, computer graphics), embodied the hand-made craftsmanship, sense of place and timelessness of another, almost lost world. That dreamlike quality gives this exhibition an immersive feel, drawing you in, complemented by the permanent display, a 'Window on Berwick' that I remembered from my first visit.

As Neil MacGregor demonstrates so well in his Radio 4 series 'A history of the world in a hundred objects', the secret of a good museum is not just interesting artefacts, and their makers, but vivid storytelling.

This show is as much about Jonny, the illustrator with a great imagination, as it is about Hannah, the reporter, researcher, and teller of Berwick-upon-Tweed's folklore.

Sometimes the two get confused, and confusing. His work has a crude energetic, primitive, outsider art naivety, perfectly capturing the legendary spirit of the stories and their folk. That said, the pieces can easily appear a somewhat random and mysterious muddle without help, because the tales are quite complex, and, quite deliberately, there is little explanation or interpretation on display to dilute their otherworldliness.

Fortunately Jonny has produced a little green book, explaining the show, along with a short video.

Best of all, the museum staff offer regular short presentations to talk you through it. Our excellent guide brought one central theme in the show to life for us. It's all about an orphaned bear called Wotjek, adopted by his Polish soldier foster-parents, and his extraordinary adventures in wartime Italy, Berwick-upon-Tweed and Edinburgh.

So Wotjek, shop mascot, points the way, and, later we see his outsize bottle of ale (left). Beer, bears, and Berwick have made for a happy trinity since the middle ages. The theme of the whole exhibition is inspired by a Victorian receipt from 'The R Good Emporium, wholesale and retail grocer, oil and colorman', on what is now Marygate. Open the door of the famous R Good pantry to be rewarded with an illustrated alphabet of Good's goodies.

There's much more to see and celebrate, including feisty Northumberland women, past and present; salmon fishers of the Tweed; and the great Jimmy Strength, who carried his hoss across the bridge to save a toll, fathered more than forty bairns, and lived to be 115!

To get to the Barracks, head for the Parade car park, and walk towards the ramparts, keeping Holy Trinity Church (one of very few from the 1650s, and 'of quite exceptional architectural interest' in Pevsner's Northumberland) on your left. The Barracks are on the right.

If you don't want to visit them as well, explain to English Heritage's gatekeepers that you're heading for the museum and will pay there. It's good value – pay once and enjoy unlimited visits all year.

The exhibition runs until October 31. Usually open Wednesday to Sunday 10 - 4, but check!
www.museumsnorthumberland.org.uk/berwick-museum-art-gallery

NICK JONES


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