My first week in Penrhyn Castle

Robyn Woolston, Artist in Residence Robyn Woolston Artist in Residence

After my first week resident at the castle I can safely say that stories emanate from just about every square inch of its fabric and formation. From the dis-used Keep with its extraordinary wall-papers and monumental fire-places to the chair store and its ghostly wrappings. Plus there is a truly extraordinary space above the Grand Hall in the form of the ‘Void’. A cathedral-sized attic of monumental proportions that reveals the carpentry and stage design of the Victorian/faux-Norman theatre below.

After beginning to familiarise myself with the lay-out of the building I spent some time with members of the conservation team joining a small group tour alongside inspecting some of the paintings and drawings in the collection.

In parallel my week involved an extensive exploration of the surrounding area including visiting the local quarry. Although I only spent an afternoon on-site at Welsh Slate I was amazed at the scale of the excavation works. From bright yellow plant machinery through to highly skilled manual ‘splitting’ the operation today works on a scale that ranges from hand-held to globally distributed.

The sites and sounds of the quarry resonate strongly with the history of the castle and its formation. Built upon sugar and slate, its presence represents a tumultuous historical relationship between power and production, the unions and the landed gentry.

I’ve been struck by the immense wealth held within the walls of the castle from it’s internationally renowned paintings, fabrics and exquisite finery to the human-scale quarrymen's cottages in Bethesda.

Cor y penrhyn in full flow during a rehersal I attended.
Penrhyn Choir practice session
Cor y penrhyn in full flow during a rehersal I attended.

The sounds of Côr y Penrhyn practicing also contributed to my first weeks research. Originally the choir drew its members solely from the quarry workers and during my research to-date I’ve managed to locate a member who worked at the quarry face ‘man and boy’ over a period of 40 years.

As I look towards my next weeks residency during January I’m very much looking forward to deepening my relationship with the quarry, the castle and the choir. A triumvirate that potentially holds the key to the residency question:

What are the accepted histories, and the hidden histories, of Penrhyn and its people, and how may these be re-framed for a 21st century audience?