The next stage in our degree was to make work in collaboration with another person or organisation. They needed to be local, or getting the work installed would be very difficult. I wanted to pursue my cine film investigations.
Our local art-house cinema, the obvious place for me to approach, was embroiled in a monopolies and mergers investigation, and its future was in doubt. The East Anglian Daily Times were reporting about it. They were too distracted to collaborate with me.
After more head-scratching, I decided to make the most of where I lived, and keep the project geographically manageable, by trying to collaborate with Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds. Here is a movie about it! This museum has a really rich collection of social history – a multitude of narratives to tap into – so I thought it would be a great place to find sources for my project that extended what I’d begun with the cine film pieces.
I visited the museum to investigate and discussed my project with its staff. I was surprised to find no evidence of a 17thC coffee house I’d heard about, which had been run by women beside the town’s Great Churchyard.
I did more research. The Widow’s Coffee House was created by widow Mary Rookes, and continued by her daughters Letitia and Mary Rookes. They ran it from their home, wedged between the walls of St James’ Church (now Bury’s Cathedral) and the Norman Tower. The Rookes sisters are shown in a 1748 map of Bury either leaning from its upper windows, or imprisoned there. This image is taken through glass and therefore poor quality, but the map is too old to safely un-frame for this photo.
Rumours have persisted over centuries that these women provided other disreputable services as well as coffee. One even has it that when they died, because of their unsavoury lives, their bodies had to be buried half-in/half-out of the church.
The more I researched the coffee house, the more ambiguous the representation of the Rookes women appeared. It felt like an irresistible opportunity to continue working with multilayered narratives and build on what I’d begun with the cine films. The Rookes saw themselves as successful and respectable, whereas other people telling their story over time saw them very differently. Their building has long since been pulled down, but its site is open to the public, and seemed to be crying out for a site specific piece of work inspired by them. Here it is:
I discussed making work for the museum as well as the Great Churchyard site, the museum staff were really enthusiastic and helpful. With their help I got permission to make work for both locations. I needed to decide what to make.