Slate or State: New Artists in Residence exhibition unveiled

Published : 01 Jul 2017

Today (Saturday 1 July) the turbulent history of the Great Strike 1900-03 was brought by procession and performance right into the heart of Penrhyn Castle.

Slate or State, an art installation by Glasgow based artists Walker & Bromwich, features a 15-foot  sculpture of Bethesda Quarry and is accompanied by a 20 minute artists' film exploring the Great Strike of Penrhyn 1900-3 through the voices of people of Bethesda, the making of the great quarry sculpture and its procession to Penrhyn Castle.

The installation, which draws its inspiration from a highly romantacised painting of the quarry that adorns the walls of Penrhyn Castle, represents the longest running industrial dispute in British history and provides a focus for Penrhyn Castle to tell this emotionally charged story.

A painting tells a thousand stories: Detail of the Penrhyn Slate Quarry painting by Henry Hawkins (1820-81)
Penrhyn Slate Quarry by Henry Hawkins (1820-81) at Penrhyn Castle, North Wales.
A painting tells a thousand stories: Detail of the Penrhyn Slate Quarry painting by Henry Hawkins (1820-81)

To mark the opening of the Slate or State exhibition, the sculpture was transported by procession from Bethesda, along the same route the Quarrymen marched during strike action, up to the castle. There it was deflated and placed in the Grand Hall as the Penrhyn Male Voice Choir sang traditional songs, including 'Strydoedd Bethesda'  (The Streets of Bethesda) which describes the hardships endured by the quarrymen.

This installation, created with local artists and the Bethesda community, also marks the final year of Penrhyn Castle’s ‘Artists in Residency’ project, in partnership with the Arts Council of Wales.

A community ripped apart

It is over a century since 700 men begrudgingly returned to the quarry – while over 2,000 quit for the coal mines of South Wales - after a three-year strike over rights, pay and working conditions that split the community apart for decades to come.

The bitter memory of the Great Penrhyn Strike and what the castle still represents - a symbol of power and greed - has kept many in the local community from visiting.

Translated from Welsh: 'There is no traitor in this house'
An image of a card displayed during the Penrhyn Quarry strike 1900-1903. reads, in welsh, There is no traitor in this house.
Translated from Welsh: 'There is no traitor in this house'

The sculpture of the raw slate face of the quarry, set against the wealth and opulence that it afforded Lord Penrhyn, concludes a three-year Artists in Residence project with Arts Council of Wales, but is part of a longer plan involving the local community to tell the darker parts of the castle’s past.

Nerys Jones, General Manager at Penrhyn Castle said: “Penrhyn Castle is about more than extravagant architecture and fine art, under the surface lies a dark history of slavery and bitter industrial dispute that changed Penrhyn’s relationship with the local community forever.

“It’s time we discuss these stories openly in the castle and share the significance of our history with the local community and with visitors from all over the world. Over the coming years we will be exploring new and imaginative ways, like the Slate or State exhibition, to do justice to the Penrhyn story.

“Contemporary art has a role to play in presenting the past, helping us tackle difficult conversations, question our surroundings and express emotion by exploring stories in different ways. We hope that our visitors will find the sculpture thought-provoking as they discover more about this important part of Penrhyn’s past and its effect on the local community.” 

Côr y Penrhyn perform at the exhibition launch
Côr y Penrhyn perform at the sculpture launch
Côr y Penrhyn perform at the exhibition launch

John Ogwen, local resident and renowned actor whose family were quarry workers during the strike, once publicly vowed he would never visit the castle but has since changed his opinion.

He said: “It used to be difficult for me to visit the castle because of its history, but I was invited there to a book launch by Dr Dafydd Gwynn and the UNESCO World Heritage Site status bid for North Wales' slate industry and I saw that things were changing.

“I'm glad that the National Trust is talking about the castle's role in local history openly and that visitors can finally hear about the Penrhyn Lock-out or The Great Strike as it's known by many. It’s time to move on. It’s old history by now, but one not to be forgotten.”

Along with the sculpture, visitors will learn more about the strike through historical facts presented around the castle and a video created by the artists alongside the sculpture that uses local voices, poetry, choral singing and archive material to explore the story.

One of the artists behind Slate or State, Zoe Walker, said: “The history behind the strike and its influence, locally and internationally, is astounding and resonates with contemporary political issues and struggles between power, wealth and poverty. We wanted to explore this history and give it a place at Penrhyn, to tell the story within the walls of the castle itself and reflect on its relationship with the local community.”

Slate or State will be on display in the Grand Hall at Penrhyn Castle from 1 July – 5 November 2017.