Enlivening a historical tale for increasingly distracted viewers, practitioners Chris Alton and Liam Geary Baulch unite for the first time, curating an immersive display at serf, Leeds, which questions how a famous, mournful ballad resonates with socio-political events, past and present.
The original poem, written by Dante Gabriel and published by Kelmscott Press (1893-94), recalls how an English vessel carrying heir to the throne, William Adelin, sunk just off English shores on 25 November 1120. Becoming something of a legend over time, a different timeline of patriotism and anarchy becomes central to the exhibition, not only questioning the origins of hierarchy and power but also negotiating the role of storytelling and linguistics in society’s development and justification.
Legendary tales such as ‘The Ballad of The White Ship’ offer an idealistic version of reality in order to explore themes of authority, interaction and strife, crucial to structures existing within broader society. Alton and Geary Baulch incorporate vivid colours, simple motifs and craft materials to create their combined works, appropriating the fairy tale aesthetic to portray their layered reimagining of the ballad.
By using a mixture of simple textiles, coloured pencil and print, the pair creates a cohesive, tangible storyboard, forming the visual borders of the exhibition. Seven detailed illustrations are pinned around the gallery space, displaying a cloaked man in pursuit of a distant settlement. Seemingly taunted by a crowned sun and a mythical bird, the first six depictions, organised into two groups of three, present a kingly figure who slowly collects an abundance of royal qualities: strength – as he conquers a mythical beast – power – as he dominates nature – and most importantly handsomeness – as he sports a crown and a well-tamed beard. Although these initial scenes seem to outline monarchism, a wooden sword and a toy horse used by the man transform him into a caricature – a figure to be mocked and deemed unacceptable. The discovery of a seventh drawing, pinned close to the ground on an opposing wall – resisting the restraints of sequencing and any broader systems of control – confirms a desire for anarchy as the previously victorious king is beheaded by a jester.
Comparatively, a large, printed line drawing of a falling man, perhaps the soon-to-be beheaded royal or Adelin himself, directs our eyes above to note how serf’s ceiling is made from wood – the same material used to construct ship’s deck. The whole exhibition transforms into the upturned, sinking ship, working as a metaphor for the present day and recalling how the turmoil of The White Ship, and the monarchist context it represents, still remains.
Beyond this, the relationship between anarchy and monarchism is repeatedly explored as three key motifs – the uncontrollable earth, the sinking ship and the unidentifiable man – appear on artefacts of rebellion from specific periods in history. A trio of flags, detailing the sinking ship, echo the rise of various worker’s unions in the eighties. Whereas printed posters, found in serf’s toilets, note how a new language of design and emojis has altered the way protest is communicated in the modern day. Furthermore, the presentation stretches beyond the visible, utilising a punk-rock rendition of the original ballad, edited by the two artists, to pinpoint another period of rebellion – the popularisation of punk music in the seventies. By witnessing examples of real-life resistance inside the White Ship, viewers are reminded that although systems of control remain, protest and rebellion is crucial for long-lasting change.
Chris Alton and Liam Geary Baulch: The Ballad of The White Ship, serf, Leeds, 6 July – 21 July 2018.
Saffron Ward is a History of Art student and writer based in Leeds.