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History Behind the Wakefield Project

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31 May 2023

Inspired by public engagement sessions and research undertaken by Wakefield’s Historical Society and Civic Society, my illustrations aim to embody the identity and history of Westgate through the stories of its community. A thriving cooperative, a theatre full of costumes, an escaped bear or a famous local band: all are snippets of stories and details celebrating Westgate’s rich past.

Exhibited across five locations, the artworks focus on each building's heritage.

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Unity Hall had an incredible life. From fashions shows to wrestling, bustling shops to buzzing gig nights the building sat at the heart of Wakefield for generations. 

This enormous illustration is one of eight we installed there. The artwork is based on a photograph from 1901 of a crowd watching the laying of the Hall's foundation stone.

There is a bottle hidden away at the very top. Can you spot it? This is a reference to the time capsule they buried under the foundation stone. The shapes framing the composition also reference the stained glass windows at the front of the building.

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I loved working on this design. Details from their intricate clothing and hats made it a difficult but really interesting scene to work on. The majority of the composition is based on the photograph but certain characters caught my eye so I snuck them in. For example, in the crowd there is one man looking back… his eyes catching the camera… or the little child looking grumpy in his frilly collar.

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Every character in this crowd scene references a part of Unity’s past. 

For example, in the 1970s British wrestling was a big deal and there was a poster advertising Big Daddy wrestling at Unity Hall. Can you spot him in the crowd alongside Giant Haystacks? 

In the Unity + Heritage project, there was this amazing anecdote about the crowd going wild and little old grannies swinging their handbags - there is a hand clutching a swinging handbag hidden away in the artwork.

Below you can see more examples of the archival photographs I used.

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Unity in its later life became a wildly popular gig venue with a huge list of famous bands and performers visiting Wakefield! A photo of Ada Wilson and the Strangeways inspired my illustrations... I mean look at her outfit…

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As part of this commission, I held community engagement sessions seeking to showcase local stories. While at Art Walk people were encouraged to submit their stories on postcards. One of my favourite ones was from when Unity Hall was a nightclub... the story told of a drunk night ending with a snog with a man in a Mr Blobby outfit. I was so surprised and laughed out loud when I read it so that one definitely had to be incorporated!

As I was researching I found this gorgeously romantic photograph of an old couple dancing at a Tea Dance. I had this imaginary story in my head of the two first meeting at the social dances that were held at Unity, maybe even getting married there and then still coming back to the old building to dance together once again.

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Unity Hall has the most beautiful stained glass windows, these can be seen referenced in the artwork as well as the cooperative’s symbol - the beehive.

Unity’s façade still has typography referencing its days as a cooperative, text reads ‘carpets’, ‘boots & shoes’ and ‘butchers’. I found an old photograph of the butchers and felt this was a perfect way to tie the two together.

I based a lot of my research and found the majority of these photos from a great project called Unity + Heritage. Be sure to check it out if you are interested in learning more!

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Wakefield Floral Society held its annual tulip show in the Orangery's gardens. 1839 was described as the best due to the quantity and quality of the flowers and was elegantly decorated with tasteful bouquets. Later that year there was a second flower show - anyone was free to showcase their dahlias and carnations. These can be seen detailed in the design.

Although the Orangery probably never actually housed oranges I wanted to make an illustrative reference to the name through orange blossoms and oranges hidden amongst the other flowers.

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The Orangery is locally renowned for having a bear pit! Bruin the bear was a native of America and lived at the Orangery until 1841. Bruin would perform for visitors by climbing a pole up to 12 feet high! There was another story about a different bear but it was quite gruesome… so Bruin is instead the star of the show.

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We wanted to create a colourful installation that encouraged passers-by to visit the wonderful Gissing Centre (seen just behind). The Centre is housed in the childhood home of renowned Victorian author George Gissing. The team there were extremely helpful and welcoming!

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The composition is based on a photograph of George Gissing leaning over his desk, while further details reference the Gissing Centre’s research into Gissing and his family:

The portraits hanging on the back wall are illustrative references to photographs of Gissing’s parents and George as a small child.

George Gissing’s father, Thomas Gissing, owned a pharmacy where he sold Laudanum - medication that included opium, which was widely used to soothe children! Can you spot the bottle?

Thomas Gissing published a book on the ferns and flora of Wakefield. He often took George in search of specimens. The foxglove was his father’s favourite flower.

(Research pages from Phil Judkins’ ‘A Life’s Morning - George Gissing 1865.’)

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This artwork was all about the Theatre Royal. The wild and wonderful costumes are based on performances that took place at the theatre. There is a particular reference to Pantomime - when I was holding my community engagement sessions and asking people about their stories connected to the theatre the Pantomime cropped up time and time again - so it was a must! I had so much fun drawing the costumes.

The first performance was of the Beggar’s Opera in 1776 (you can see the original poster that inspired my work below).

In 1871 the landlord of the Black Horse bought the theatre and changed it into a beer house - can you spot the pint tucked away in the artwork?

Live theatre came back and continued until 1954 when the theatre was then converted into a cinema, the opening film being The Robe (a still from the film can be seen below).

1966 came and it reopened as a bingo hall! Can you spot the bingo card?

The first play to be staged in the theatre since 1954 was Hay Fever - performed in 1983 (you can see the reference below)

I have absolutely loved building these complicated and intricate crowd scenes!

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