Investigating the life of things across space and time

Northland and the Lays

‘In medieval geographies, Northland is a distant place located beyond the borders of the known world. It is variously agreed that it may be an island in the northern hemisphere, and that on the island lives a secretive colony of people called ‘the Lays’, half-creatures of tortured souls and lost dreams. Each is the only one of its kind...’

so begins the encyclopaedic entry for Northland…
Drawings, etchings, embroideries, animation, sculptural objects, texts
by Sarah Gillett

Northland and the Lays

Northland is my personal world-building project. It is my ongoing visual scrapbook, a constantly evolving collection of artefacts, an exposed archive of my process and practice documentation.

Northland and the Lays explores the landscape of the imagination. By appropriating fragments of myth and folklore, tales and traditions from family histories, cautionary tales, science fiction and material from antique reference books, Northland is a place to explore desire, fantasy and the unknown. In journeying there, new possibilities for adventure and discovery open up.

My initial experience of this world was through my drawings of the intricate studies of the inhabitants of Northland, the Lays.

I looked at the gestures and faces of people in allegorical scenes, painted by Renaissance Masters and other history painters, including Cignaroli, Bartoleme Esteban Murillo and John Hamilton Mortimer and in these saw an awakening of rapture, anguish and understanding. 

The characters in these allegorical paintings were in moments of transfiguration, being visited upon by something greater than themselves. The experience changed them entirely.

I combined these expressions with drawings from 19th century bronze sculptures and created the Lays – rapt, fearful, uncertain; caught in private moments of epiphany or transformation.

Each of the Lays has his or her own story to tell and are watched over by the island’s guardian, Miss Ethel Grimbaldeston, an enigmatic, stern seamstress who lives with her bachelor brother, Albert, who is the island’s registrar. Between them, they have the measure of the island’s people…

I come back to these stories and the wider landscape of Northland in drawing, printmaking, sculpture, animation, correspondence and professed ‘found objects’, both genuine and constructed, to build a framework for a body of work which challenges the line between fiction and fact.

Works in Northland and the Lays

More from Northland and the Lays

Nin: Pencil drawing of a bird woman with a long neck, her wings flapping as though she has just landed

Nin (2008-2012)

For Nin, poor Nin. For Nin neither.

So much for you to hear and fear, that owl hoot and dog bark is not for you. Come out from under your wing soft down. You are needed.

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A walk in the woods: a blue-legged figure with a dark cloth over their head and body stands against a brick wall with plants growing round it

A walk in the woods (2016)

This conversation between Sarah Gillett and the writer Amy Lay-Pettifer digs deeper into the artist’s relationship with Paolo Uccello’s painting The Hunt in the Forest (1470) and her wider art practice.

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Cleave: a black smooth board sits behind a blacker abstract shape with a red cloaked figure standing on a rock

Cleave (2016)

As if peering through a gap in the trees this art work focuses on the relationship between light and dark, quarry and hunter. The colour and form of the red figure references Uccello’s practice within the late Gothic tradition and reminds us that red is the colour of fairytales, representing blood (virginity, violence, death).

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long, grand room inside a stately home, with a red carpet and gold and white wallpaper, fittings and ceiling mouldings. At the far end of the room a dress floats in the air next to a large metal cone; on the right hand wall a drawing on black paper can be seen

The Flimsy Copy

Over a year in the making, this exhibition digs into the lives of Rockingham Castle’s female occupants throughout history and their continuing resonance against a patriarchal system.

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