A large, illuminated sculpture of a ghost ship is appearing at Preston Park Museum in Stockton-on-Tees, inspired by the story of one of the Borough’s most famous ship-builders.

Artists Stephen Dixon and Alison Welsh have created the sculpture, entitled Refuge, based on the journey made by Robert Ropner, who arrived in the North East in 1857 as a penniless teenager and went on to become a successful shipbuilder and the Mayor of Stockton.

Professor Stephen Dixon from Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University, explains: “Ropner was an orphan who arrived by ship in West Hartlepool, hoping to make a new life for himself. He settled in the region and made his fortune in the shipbuilding trade, as well as being elected to the local council and serving as Mayor of Stockton.

“Ropner is an important part the Tees Valley’s maritime history and his rags-to-riches story really fired our imaginations.”

The sculpture, which fills the Billiard Room at Preston Park Museum, has been constructed using steel, textiles and UV lighting. A pulsing soundtrack made from recordings of the sea and sounds on board ships fades in and out, evoking Ropner’s voyage from Germany to Hartlepool.

“It will be a glowing, mysterious and ethereal ghost ship which we hope will give people a sense of what it feels like to be on a long journey by sea,” said artist Alison Welsh, who is Head of Research at Manchester Fashion Institute, Manchester Metropolitan University.

The artists have been studying the blueprints for ships made by Ropner’s shipping company, which are held in the collection of Preston Park Museum.

Judith King, Co-Director of Arts&Heritage, said: “The artists have been able to work very closely with staff at Preston Park Museum to use the museum’s collections to help inform the sculpture and if people look closely at the ghost ship they’ll see details from the ship’s plans appearing in the fabrics.

“Positioned in the traditional surroundings of Preston Park Museum’s Billiard Room, Refuge certainly makes a dramatic sight.”

Councillor Norma Wilburn, Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council’s Cabinet Member for Arts, Leisure and Culture, added: “We are delighted to welcome Refuge to Preston Park Museum and commemorate the journey which Robert Ropner made to reach the Tees Valley.

“Ropner made a significant contribution to Stockton-on-Tees and to Preston Hall during his time there, adding the parkland, ballroom, the Billiard Room and the Winter Garden which visitors still enjoy today, so it’s lovely that Refuge is going to be part of that space. It’s going to be a magnificent sight and I would encourage everyone to come and see this wonderful sculpture when it arrives in October.” 

Refuge is on show at Preston Park Museum until 12 November 2017. www.prestonparkmuseum.co.uk and ropnership.co.uk.

Refuge is one of 10 contemporary art commissions as part of Meeting Point2, a year-long project led by contemporary art agency Arts&Heritage. Leading UK and international artists have partnered with the 10 museums in Yorkshire, the North West and the North East to produce new artworks inspired by the museums and their collections.

Funded by Arts Council England’s Museum Resilience Fund, Meeting Point2 presents artworks in unexpected places and supports small and medium scale museums to commission artists, who will create a piece of work in response to the venue.

For more information about Meeting Point2, visit www.artsandheritage.org.uk

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