Pop-up exhibition on Cornish traditions in Penzance

The Cornish Culture Association have created a pop-up exhibition on Cornwall’s traditions and customs. Housed on the ground floor of the former Causewayhead Furnishings shop opposite the cinema in Causewayhead, Penzance, the exhibition presents many of the wonderful costumes and artefacts used at occasions throughout the year such as May Horns, Guldize and the midwinter Montol festival.

Part of the exhibition within the former Causewayhead Furnishings shop opposite the cinema in Penzance

Part of the exhibition within the former Causewayhead Furnishings shop opposite the cinema in Penzance

The history of our winter tradition of Guise Dancing, famous for its wonderful and colourful costumes at Montol, is explored in the exhibition. Costumes from the “guise guilds” are on display, including those from The Ancient Company of the Corn Market, The Glorious Company of the Egyptian House, The Splendid League of Physicians, and The Noble Company of the Turks Head. Guise dance “beasts” – typically skulls on poles – can also be seen in a rare outing outside the winter months.

The misconception that these are pagan activities is challenged in the exhibition through newspaper reports from the 19th and 20th centuries. They show that guise dancers were often members of churches and chapels. The same is true today. These are civic traditions practised by people of all faiths and none.

The Cornish Culture Association are people from all kinds of different backgrounds. Some of us are Cornish, many of us are not. We embrace everyone in our community and want to give each other the chance to participate and have some fun at the same time.

Tehmina Goskar, chairman of the Cornish Culture Association, said:

“The CCA Summer Exhibition is a showcase of the wonderful costumes, masks, props and other objects handmade by our members and volunteers for the different traditional events we hold throughout the year.

We have on display a history of Guise Gancing – an ancient Cornish civic custom leading right to the present day. Hopefully local people and visitors will learn more about why they sometimes see strangely dressed people in the streets and pubs playing music, singing and fooling about at different times of the year, and be inspired to join us.”

Simon Reed, Director of the CCA said:

“This exhibition is an opportunity to see the hard work people put into the various customs that punctuate our calendar and an opportunity for local people and visitors to learn more about Cornish traditions. I would like to personally thank all those who have supported our work and encourage those who have yet to experience it to actively seek it out and give it a try.”

The exhibition is free and open from 10am-4pm most days until the end of August. Donations are welcome, with all contributions going towards making Montol happen again this year. A number of daytime and evening events will take place, including traditional Cornish music and displays of fabulous guise dance costume. These are listed below. Please check Twitter and Facebook for updates and additional events.

The exhibition space was made possible with the support of Pop Up Penzance.

Do you fancy Guise Dancing for Montol 2016?

Programme of events

13th August  Saturday Traditional Cornish music: 12pm: Tros an Treys. 4pm: Raffidy Dumitz Band.

5pm: Exhibition Launch Party, with Raffidy Dumitz Band, Golowan Band, Tros an Treys and Salt and Sky

15th August  Monday 2pm Talk by Simon Reed FRSA – What is Guise Dancing?
16th August  Tuesday 3pm Guise Beast demonstration. See the fearsome beasts that parade the streets during the midwinter Montol festival
17th August  Wednesday 2pm Guided Tour of Exhibition by Dr Tehmina Goskar
18th August  Thursday 2pm Making session – Making a ‘Cornish Bunch’ for Christmas
19th August  Friday 2pm Guided Tour of Exhibition by Dr Tehmina Goskar. 8pm Informal Cornish Music session
20th August  Saturday 2pm Edward Williams – Storytelling session. 3pm: Traditional Cornish music with the Raffidy Dumitz Band
22th August  Monday 1pm Talk by Simon Reed FRSA – What is Montol? Find out about the festival celebrating Cornish midwinter customs and traditions.
24th August  Wednesday 2pm Guided Tour of Exhibition by Dr Tehmina Goskar & Performance by GurdyBird
26th August  Friday 2pm Guided Tour of Exhibition by Dr Tehmina Goskar
27th August  Saturday 3pm Finale: Guilds and Guise Dancing Show; Raffidy Dumitz Band and others. Traditional Cornish music, singing, and costumes

Notes for Editors

The Cornish Culture Assocation is registered charity No. 1159615. Joining the CCA supports our work and is just £10 per year to join, either online or in person at the exhibition. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more information.

A Brief History of Guise Dancing

In West Cornwall there is a wonderful tradition called Guise Dancing that happens during the darkest weeks of winter. It brings fun, music and mystery to the people of our towns and villages.

Throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries our local newspapers reported on the bands of people disguised in fabulous costumes entertained their communities.

Guise dancers didn’t always dance. They paraded in their varied and often outrageous costumes, cross-dressed, played music, performed plays and occasionally indulged in good-mannered mischief. They visited houses, pubs, and even churches.

Between 1804 and 1950 there are nearly 100 articles featuring guise dancing in newspapers such as The Cornishman, Royal Cornwall Gazette, West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, Western Daily Press, Western Morning News and the Cornubian and Redruth Times.

“There was another custom on Christmas-eve. Young men dressed themselves in grotesque costumes and came about nine p.m. to the houses of the chief inhabitants; they were called ‘guise dancers,’ and they sang and danced and demanded largesse.”

(“Penzance 50 Years Ago” by Rev R. Malone, The Cornishman, Thursday 24 November 1904)

After the First World War, guise dancing was fading away. In 1920 the performance of an old guise dancer’s play inspired the creation of the first Old Cornwall Society in St Ives. By 1925 guise dancing was underway again.

Today, Guise Dancing is alive and well, once more a living tradition. Hundreds of guise dancers can be seen on the streets of Penzance at Montol, the celebration of Cornwall’s midwinter customs. They can also be seen in St Ives.

It is the hope of the CCA that this exhibition will encourage more people to participate in guise dancing, and revive it in their own communities.