Rebecca Chesney

Rebecca Chesney

Hidden from Light
Astley Hall 2022

In 2019 I was invited to be Artist in Residence at Astley Hall. Dating back to the 1570s, with major additions made in the 1600s and 1820s, Astley Hall is a magnificent country house located in Chorley, Lancashire. Featuring some of the most breathtaking mid-17th century plaster ceilings in the country, the Hall also contains rare painted panelling and a collection of very fine English oak furniture.

If you know where to look you’ll find a number of small taper burn marks on the wooden panels and beams around Astley Hall.
These teardrop shaped apotropaic marks are thought to have protected the inhabitants from evil spirits and were made by charring the wood with a candle or taper, gouging the charred wood with a tool, then rubbing with a finger to create the teardrop shape.

At the beginning of my residency I was given permission to take rubbings of the burn marks. Wanting to create a space of safety and protection I enlarged these rubbings and screen printed a number of them on to linen fabric to make new drapes and a bedspread for the four poster bed in the Oak Bedroom.

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Hand screen printed & hand embroidered linen 2022
Hand-embroidered tally marks edge the fabric representing ‘days’ ticked off, while medicine boxes with the same motifs have been placed beside the bed.

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Left image: Solace (detail)
Right image: Positive / Negative
Hand screen printed & hand embroidered medicine boxes 2022

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Plaster casts of mugwort, bittercress, fennel, greater plantain, nettle & apple 2021
To add further protection for the inhabitants of the Hall, I collected plants listed in an old Anglo-Saxon herb charm and made plaster casts of each. Not able to find all the nine species, I have made a charm that is incomplete.

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Remain Here Still
Hand engraved glass, wood 2022
One of the portraits hanging in the Main Hall was, until recently, listed as ‘Peter Brooke’s wife’.
Wanting to discover her name I searched through church records and documents at Lancashire Archives to discover that Peter Brooke was never married. He did have six sisters, but with only one making it to adulthood could this be who is depicted in the portrait?

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Similar to the other glass graffiti found on the Long Gallery windows, I hand-engraved the sisters’ names onto antique glass and have presented them in simple wooden frames on the window sill. Catching the light, their names faint, this artwork is dedicated to the girls who died in childhood:
Alice 1668-1672
Eleanor 1678-1680
Frances 1680-1680
Mabel 1690-1690
Mary 1690-1693
And Margaret, born in 1671, who made it to adulthood and is perhaps the unknown woman in the portrait.

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The Works of Mine Hands (Judith 13:4)
Steel, oak, resin, bramble thorn, enamel 2022
There is an example of Judith carved on the lefthand side of the fireplace in the Morning Room. She is lifting her skirt to reveal the severed head of Holofernes. In the Bible, the Book of Judith tells of how she seduced and then beheaded Holofernes, an Assyrian General, who was about to send his troops to destroy Judith’s home city. After a lavish banquet she waited for him to pass out in a drunken slumber then took his sword and cut off his head.
In the sixteenth century the Catholic Church appropriated Judith, with her heroism triumphant over unbelievers, and this is thought to be the reason for her depiction in Astley Hall.
In response to this story I have hand crafted a knife of steel, oak and bramble thorns in resin. This is a knife for Judith, to arm her in readiness for the task at hand, instead of relying on the knife of her enemy.

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My Guarded Heart
Porcelain thorns 2021
Thorns of porcelain have been placed in a number of the rooms to represent the presence of women and rules of etiquette they were expected to adhere to: the Inlaid Room (above), for example, is where only the men would retire after dinner to smoke.

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My Guarded Heart
Porcelain thorns 2021, installed in the Drawing Room (left) and the Stucco Bedroom (right).

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Life’s Cruel Deceit
Sound installation, 5 minutes 2022
In response to Eliza Finch’s cross stitch (above)

Same in birth different paths to tread
My hands are worn my thoughts never said
Life’s cruel deceit dealt me with this hand
Yet freedom of mind I demand

Taking these words from the cross stitch I have made a sound piece for the little side room in the servants quarters. The original cross stitch, made by Eliza Finch (aged 9), is located in the room nearby. Being a female servant afforded very few rights, however songs and verses like this were recited for personal comfort. It is thought that the birds on the cross stitch represent ‘freedom of mind’.

Grace Edwards has written a review of Hidden from Light for Corridor8


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