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Song (After Nature) by Paul Rooney (Lindisfarne Castle)

24 October 2022

Susan Gray hears a sound installation

Graeme Peacock/Alamy

Lindisfarne Castle in Northumberland

Lindisfarne Castle in Northumberland

PAUL ROONEY’s sound installation at Lindisfarne Castle has proved so popular that it will run until the castle closes for winter at the end of October. With its haunting cello recreation of seal cries, seabird song, and howling wind, Song (After Nature) ties the castle’s history to Holy Island’s landscape in an unexpected and transporting way. Atmospheric sounds created by the Icelandic cellist Gyda Valtysdottir, mimicking field recordings by Chris Watkins, who has worked with David Attenborough, float along tunnel-style corridors and down staircases.

Reaching the heart of the artist’s work necessitates a journey, first across Holy Island to the castle’s rocky promontory, and then through the National Trust’s restaging of an Edwardian house party. In the late summer of 1918, the proprietor Edward Hudson, founder of Country Life, had invited his future fiancée, the cellist Guilhermina Suggia, and Lytton Strachey to stay for the weekend. Diary entries from Strachey suggest that the atmosphere was tense rather than restorative.

At the turn of the century, Hudson had commissioned Edwin Lutyens to remodel the castle, a 16th-century garrison, built from stones from Holy Island’s priory, into an Edwardian country house. The dining room and Ship Room — a sitting room with a ship suspended from the ceiling — are full of visual tricks to make the space more imposing. Vaulting raises the roof, tapered diagonal steps draw the eye into the interior, and tracery windows are positioned to maximise the view of the garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll. The garden’s asymmetrical boundary makes it appear larger.

Song (After Nature) becomes louder outside the guest bedrooms of Suggia and Strachey. Their styles juxtapose the guests’ characters: austere neutral tones for Strachey and flamboyant silks for Suggia. Augustus John did preparatory sketches for his celebrated portrait of Suggia in Lindisfarne’s music room. Suggia’s vivacity was the inspiration for Rooney’s work.

Arriving at Rooney’s installation of a wall of speakers, the speaker grilles acting as a visual representation of the sound that has permeated the castle, feels akin to the finale of The Wizard of Oz. At last, the presence of the spirit that has shaped the journey is revealed. The speakers are interspersed with nature prints from Lindisfarne’s collection, poetry extracts about the landscape, and projection of what the seals are “saying” about the dangers of climate change. Rooney says that his work is not explicitly religious, but is shaped by Holy Island’s spiritual significance, and millennia-long interplay between landscape culture and art.


Paul Rooney’s Song (After Nature) is at Lindisfarne Castle until 30 October. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lindisfarne-castle

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