Cornwall’s ‘greatest ever singer’ Brenda Wootton celebrated in new exhibition and film

The life and work of Cornish singer Brenda Wootton – described as “Cornwall’s greatest ever singer” – is to be celebrated in a public exhibition and film next month.

‘Mordonnow/Sea Waves’, from Penzance-based cultural production company BOSENA, will display highlights of a new archive created to document Brenda’s life, alongside the launch of a new audio-visual work from artist Florence Browne.

A Cornish cultural icon and ambassador, Brenda Wootton built an international touring career in the 1980s from her vocal performances, honed in the folk clubs of Penwith.

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Once a familiar voice on BBC Radio Cornwall, awareness of her achievements has dwindled since her death in 1994, and this long-overdue exhibition and archive project will shine a light on her story and bring her music and poetry to new audiences.

A new generation of singers are also shining a light on Brenda’s importance.

Celebrated Welsh/Cornish electronic singer-songwriter Gwenno performed Brenda’s Cornish language song Clegh just this week at Kresen Kernow in Redruth, where she described her as “Cornwall’s greatest ever singer”.

Gwenno told CornwallLive: “I’m in complete agreement with so many people across Cornwall that she’s Cornwall’s greatest singer. Her music and voice are both life-affirming and comforting, it’s so exciting that there’s a new exhibition and film on the way. She broke a lot of glass ceilings throughout her career, it’s a huge cause for celebration.”

Brenda Wootton grew up in West Cornwall in the 1930s, and with no formal musical training developed a later-life career as an international touring celebrity, especially in France. An unlikely star, by the 1980s she would be recognised by fans on the streets of Paris, though her fame never reached the same scale back home.

She left a considerable legacy of songs, many written by close collaborator Richard Gendall and was also a familiar voice to many through her popular Radio Cornwall show ‘Sunday Best’.

Brenda Wootton singing with equally celebrated Cornish folk musician John The Fish
Brenda Wootton singing with equally celebrated Cornish folk musician John The Fish

Her daughter, Sue Ellery-Hill, is a key contributor to the new Brenda Wootton archive, which forms the basis of the autumn exhibition.

She said: “My mother always regarded herself as a Newlyn maid, and that was certainly where her heritage lay – but from about 1960, Penzance was our home town, which I still see it as, with St Just running a close second for me now. And St Just, specifically Botallack and the Count House, became such an important part of her story. It was where her professional career can be said to have started – where she first found the confidence to get up on a stage and sing in front of an audience, and where she first realised that her voice, and her charisma, her personality, her memories, her history – the whole package – was so significant, and of such great interest to others, whether at home or abroad.”

Sue added: “Penzance was definitely home territory – when my mother’s career turned stellar, she needed to return to Penzance just to keep her feet on the ground. When her singing took her so far away, for so long, she dreamed of coming home, just to walk up Market Jew Street, see the old faces, meet old friends and have a bit of yarn, catch up on the gossip and to hear what her father Angus and the other old boys at Newlyn used to do – out along the gow.”

The exhibition will be open to the public from 10.30am to 4.30pm from October 2 to 6 in the Redwing Gallery, Penzance, and October 8 to 11 at the Count House, Botallack.

Members of the public are encouraged to bring their own photos and memories of Brenda to the venues, where these can be scanned into the archive. There will also be a month-long digital version of the exhibition hosted online, with the moving-image work and selected images available to view.

Musician Hilary Coleman will be leading workshops for children, drawing inspiration from the exhibition content and Brenda’s songs. ‘Brenda has been such a strong influence on all of us that love to sing Cornish songs. I know she used to hugely enjoy working with children, so it is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to pass on her songs to a new generation, who I hope will gain greater understanding and love of their heritage.’

‘Mordonnow/Sea Waves’ is a new project from Bosena, a cultural start-up led by Denzil Monk. Newlyn-based artist Florence Browne, who has a background in music and film, will be drawing on the newly formed archive to create a moving-image work as part of the autumn exhibition.

Florence said: “It’s such an exciting project to be working on. Although I never had the pleasure of meeting Brenda, her personality comes across so vividly in the video archive we have. She was obviously such a natural musician and performer, and her stage presence is something I wish I could have experienced myself.”

The exhibition is supported by Arts Council England, the National Lottery and FEAST.

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