The meaning of tryst has evolved over time from “a mutually agreed meeting place” to exclusively meaning “a romantic liaison” thus losing its connection with the land. While very few of the trees or landmarks that were the mutually, formally agreed meeting places are still celebrated, folk songs somewhere must call to remembrance famed local trysting places. The associations we hold for natural places can run deep and experience of nature is often likened to being spiritual. The longing for a time and place where we exist in a harmonic ideal is behind many practices and is the basis of the exhibition TRYST.

HOME RITES – Cathy Ward

The old use of tryst conjures a strongly romantic and archaic notion; the works and events included in this exhibition are brought together in the suitably ancient Conquest House. The legendary site of the meeting of the four knights who would murder Thomas Beckett, the undercroft housed them with their weapons and servants. Each exhibition participant brings to this venue a particular view of the relation of individual memories with landscapes both real and imagined.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is Home Rites, an arrangement of corn dollies on a scarred and initialed antique table, which came from Wards’ community housing residence. The table sat for decades serving a host of transient residents waiting to be rehoused and many left their mark upon it. The corn dolly is part of a pre-mechanised harvest ritual where the last sheaf of grain is woven into a shape to be inhabited by the corn spirit where it will reside until spring planting. This pagan ceremony was enacted to ensure continued harvests. As industrialisation crept over farming practices and revolutionised the whole of society, the rituals of plow and harvest declined and the deeper needs that they once fulfilled were left to languish. Home Rites addresses this loss with the introduction of a mysterious set of neo-corn dollies. Each one seeming to represent an inner place that requires “holding-over” until some unknown golden spring of humanity arrives and we can again live without fear of an impending doom.

While Home Rites presents an explicit ritualised revival as an antidote for a modern malaise, the inclusion of Madge Gill shows another aspect of the same impetus, something others recognised when Ward was chosen as artist in residence for the exhibition Madge Gill: Medium and Visionary at Orleans House, Richmond. Working from her sitting room, Gills’ work centred on the home environment as the crucible of her creativity. The rise of spiritualism in England’s drawing rooms corresponded with the acceleration of scientific discovery and with the growth of dissenting religious, millenarian cults. Gill discovered drawing as a direct result of trying to contact her daughter and a son, who had died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Citing guidance by a spirit she called “Myrninerest”, she used her mediumistic art to salve her difficult life until she could be reunited with her passed children.

The speedy advance of science and its appearance as a kind of magic certainly fuelled interest in spiritualism. A bridge to the approaching future can be imagined when viewing Madge Donohoes’ ‘thought photographs’, a selection of never shown and rare works from Wards’ collection. Mediums claimed to be create them by projecting thoughts onto sealed unexposed photographic plates. Donohoe channeled the Pharaoh Amon as manifest in the form of “Golden Cloud”, an American Indian chief, transferring received messages to her “Skotographs”. The images she created were varied but included figures in idyllic scenes which no doubt were views of the blissful state of lost loved ones. Some others bring to mind Man Rays’ photograms with morse code like messages spelled out. Donohoe was leveraging the science of photography from her position at the end of the golden age of spiritualism and knew well the desires for a return to the past.