Historic happenings at Gloucestershire Archives

PUBLISHED: 10:21 12 February 2019 | UPDATED: 09:14 14 February 2019

Gloucestershire mosaic by TomatoJack Arts

Gloucestershire mosaic by TomatoJack Arts

Candia McKormack

As part of an ambitious ten-year project, Gloucestershire Archives is about to reveal its new identity as an exciting community-led Heritage Hub, with new buildings, digital preservation work and four specially commissioned pieces of artwork

I’m not sure if enough people are aware of the brilliant resource we have on our doorstep, tucked away off Worcester Street in Kingsholm, Gloucester.

I first visited Gloucestershire Record Office (as it was then) in the mid-80s working at Gloucester Folk Museum. I remember entering the gloomy corridors, feeling I was being given a privileged glimpse into secret documents; handling yellowing papers, easing open ancient books and looking at old newspapers under a microfiche reader. I wasn’t being given special treatment though, of course, as the archives were available for any member of the public to view then as they are now.

Fast forward 30-odd years, and you’ll find exciting changes afoot amid the twelve miles of shelving at the Alvin Street base.

Together with her team, Head of Archives Heather Forbes has been working for the last ten years on realising an ambitious plan to breathe new life into the Gloucestershire Archives, and now the ‘For the Record’ project is bearing fruit – with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund – in the form of a Heritage Hub, digital preservation work and new strongrooms. In her own words, the project is “about a collaborative approach to gathering, keeping and sharing the documented heritage of local communities in Gloucestershire and South Gloucestershire.”

Natasha Houseago working on her sculpture at Gloucestershire ArchivesNatasha Houseago working on her sculpture at Gloucestershire Archives

And community really is at the heart of every aspect of the project, including the wonderful Artists’ Project which has been a year-and-a-half in the making.

One of these impressive pieces is ‘The Archivist’ – a huge abstract piece inspired by the Archives and carved from green oak rescued from a country estate near Chipping Norton after the tree had to be felled due to decay from fungus. The artist behind it is Cheltenham-based sculptor Natasha Houseago, who visited Alvin Street on many occasions, exploring documents and watching the archivists at work.

“It was totally overwhelming entering the Archives at first,” she says. “but I was really struck by how passionate and happy they were in their work; it’s a lovely environment to work in.”

When Natasha was approached to take part in the Artists’ Project, she was given a brief of creating a piece, using the Archives as her inspiration.

Natasha Houseago's The ArchivistNatasha Houseago's The Archivist

“It’s very much about things in Gloucestershire that I find inspiring sculpturally. So, for me I love the aviation history, of Dowty and others, and the shape of propellors. I spent a lovely day at the Lilian Faithfull hub in Cheltenham working with the dementia group, and I created an abstract carving with pegs and invited the old people to talk about their memories.”

Natasha brought in old sewing patterns and maps – things that might trigger conversation – and she was struck by how many of the people there had worked at Dowty, in the propeller division, and so decided to make those an integral part of the sculpture. She has used this shape to form a central point around which to arrange peg holes housing memories, while the propeller on the other side of the sculpture has a time capsule from the local primary school of Kingsholm at its very centre.

Some of the archivists have embedded pieces that have an emotional connection to them; in one instance it’s a grandmother’s thimble, in another it’s a handwritten message. Natasha then hammered the pegs into the sculpture and worked them flush to make them look like rivets. It’s all very cleverly done.

Natasha has used this pegging process on a lot of her larger outdoor sculptures, and says it’s a way of bringing the sculpture to life. “It’s a magical process that comes from the African tradition of embedding medicines or magic in sculptures,” she continues.

Gloucestershire mosaic by TomatoJack ArtsGloucestershire mosaic by TomatoJack Arts

It’s a very generous thing for an artist to gift to the community; allowing them to add to the piece is a way of making sure it’s very much of the place and people, and will be so for many years to come.

“It’s a time capsule that’s there for future generations,” she continues, “for as long as the carving lasts.”

And Natasha knows the nuances of wood well – she has been working as a wood sculptor for many years now – so I was interested to know what challenges and rewards the 200-year-old green oak brought.

“This piece of wood really spoke to me,” she says, while stroking the sculpture. “Every evening I did drawings before heading out the next day to work on it, but as I put cooking oil on it the night before it was amazing to see the shapes revealed to me, and I’d know exactly where something had to go. It’s very much a collaboration; I form a relationship with each piece of wood I work with. I would never go against it and say ‘No, that’s a rubbish idea, wood!’” she laughs.

Gloucestershire mosaic by TomatoJack ArtsGloucestershire mosaic by TomatoJack Arts

A friend of Natasha’s has recently taken up surfing the Severn Bore. The fact that he’s in his seventies is almost by-the-by as it’s an astonishing thing to take on at any age. Inspired by this, she included a powerful wave in the piece, with canoes nestled in the form – one large and one smaller – suggesting a nurturing image of mother and child. And, although a totem form – as many of Natasha’s sculptures tend to be – may seem very masculine, there is definitely a feminine energy to her pieces.

Other elements brought into the sculpture are a buckle found in Huntley on an archeological dig; faces in profile, indicating family history; a hand holding an archive scroll; a magnifying glass; items representing the Forest of Dean’s mining heritage; the famous boat hulks at Purton; and an aerial view of GCHQ and the Gloucestershire Archives building itself.

Natasha’s sculpture is just one of four commissioned pieces of artwork by the Archives, with funding received from Arts Council England. The other works are: five digitally printed and hand-stitched linen wall panels by Julia O’Connell, two murals by Imogen Harvey-Lewis, and five mosaic panels suggesting a fold-out map by Angela Williams and Lynda Knott of Berkeley-based TomatoJack Arts. Both Natasha and TomatoJack’s pieces are sited in the new Community Garden, which will be revealed in the spring

As well as visiting the extensive archives themselves, all the artists visited Gloucestershire care homes, and talked to the Archives’ partners, including Gloucestershire Family History Society, Gloucestershire Constabulary and Gloucestershire and Avon Local History Association.

As with the Archives itself, the aim of all four pieces of public artwork is to tell the story of Gloucestershire’s history – its people, heritage and geography – by bringing together the local community, members of the Gloucestershire Heritage Hub network and the artists themselves.

And history, of course, is being created every moment of every day, so we’ll leave the last words with Heather: “This is about pride in Gloucestershire; we will continue to capture things in the future… we will always record things created now for future generations.”

Gloucestershire Archives, Clarence Row, Alvin Street, Gloucester, GL1 3DW, tel: 01452 425295, gloucestershire.gov.uk/archives.

To learn more about Natasha Houseago and her wood sculptures, visit natasha-houseago.co.uk.

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