Joe Hesketh retraces Witch Trials in A Pendle Investigation at Newman Street Gallery

By Ben Miller | 01 November 2012
A photo of a female artist in a flowery pink dress sitting in front of a portrait painting
Joe Hesketh traces witch trials in an exhibition which opened in London on Halloween© Courtesy Joe Hesketh
Exhibition Preview: Joe Hesketh – A Pendle Investigation, The Newman Street Gallery, London, until November 22 2012

Joe Hesketh considers herself a witch. So when the native of Pendle – the place where a set of infamous Witch Trials took place exactly 400 years ago – marked their anniversary by following the Purgatory Trail between the sites of those hearings, at Pendle Forest and Lancaster Castle, she was embarking on a personal journey and aiming to redress the tale of an area which is famed but misunderstood.

“Ulterior motives were at play throughout the trials,” explains Simon Desmond, the curator of the exhibition of Hesketh’s paintings, discussing proceedings which saw ten of the 12 suspects hanged.

“The line of accusation was taken against residents of a small patch of valuable land under the shadow of Pendle Hill. A Pendle Investigation is the unique response of a Pendle woman to the public executions of those accused of witchcraft.

“Hesketh belongs to a group whose belief system is one that has been likened to the ‘witches’ of Pendle.”

Nine women and two men were tried and, with fewer than 500 executions resulting from witch trials between the 15th and 18th century, the death toll accounts for a significant percentage of victims.

Fierce colours and heavy layering convey something of Hesketh’s feelings of depression and misery during her steps to retrace the path once trodden by women facing a grimly uncertain destiny.

A drunken jester represents the savage inhumanity she sees in those decision makers of centuries ago, and a floating clown’s head whispers false evidence.

Hesketh’s emotive response to this Arts Council-sponsored project is partly entwined in her own story.

Born locally with working-class roots, her parents divorced when she was nine, and her mother and stepfather refused her wish to go to Art College, meaning she had to wait until she was 23 to study art in Manchester and Blackburn.

She found refuge in the fantasy worlds of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and the escapism of films owned by her family, who ran a video rental shop.

As a mark of gratitude for her part in helping win funding from the BBC’s Restoration television series, English Heritage allowed Hesketh to occupy the main studio at Pendle’s historic Higherford Mill, where workshops were held to mark a Witches Festival this year.

For the artist, as in the exhibition, fairytale elements and a charged part of history make for a powerful combination.


More pictures:

A photo of a thick oil painting in vivid colours showing an abstract female figure
Joe Hesketh, Wicca (2011). Oil on canvas© Courtesy Joe Hesketh / Simon W Desmond Fine Art
A photo of a thick oil painting in vivid pink colours showing an abstract female figure
Joe Hesketh, Drunk (2011). Oil on canvas© Courtesy Joe Hesketh / Simon W Desmond Fine Art
A photo of a thick oil painting in vivid blue colours showing an abstract female figure
Joe Hesketh, Judge II (2011). Oil on canvas© Courtesy Joe Hesketh / Simon W Desmond Fine Art
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