Research into Matchstick Art: Koestler Trust


“We’re the UK’s best-known prison arts charity. We’ve been awarding, exhibiting and selling artworks by offenders, detainees and secure patients for over 55 years. Our awards receive over 8,000 entries a year – inspiring offenders to take part in the arts, work for achievement and transform their lives. Our national exhibition attracts 20,000 visitors – showing the public the talent and potential of offenders and people in secure settings. We have no endowment or capital – our work depends entirely on donations.”

Every year, the Koestler Trust invite volunteers who have an interest in the arts to come in for a few hours on a weekday over the summer  and give written feedback on the artworks sent in.  They then invite a well-known artists to select pieces for a summer exhibition that takes place in London each year. Judges have included artist Jeremy Deller, Grayson Perry, Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, representatives from the Victoria & Albert Museum, the British Council.

My piece referencing the Stature of Liberty entitled When Things Come Apart is based on matchstick model kit  and following my research into the history of matchstick model making having its roots in art produced by prisoners I came across an organization called the Koestler Trust. I had never heard of them before  I started my project though I did know that model making was a pastime of inmates.  I had initially emailed them in the hope they could help with my research yet their email back to me suggested I come in and volunteer to give feedback on the art work that had been sent into them. On their website, they describe themselves as:

Volunteering today not only gave me an opportunity to do some depth research into matchstick art but also gave me an opportunity to give back.

Housed in a building next to Wormwood Scrubs, every room on both the ground and the first floor were full of racks with every shelf packed with artworks sent in from all around the UK.  I learned that that they split the artworks into 51 categories ranging from ceramics to sculpture, fashion to soap carving, painting to paper cutting and of course matchstick art.


I spent the day reviewing the matchstick art though I could have chosen any category I had wanted. The opportunity to do this kind of research was invaluable as the history of matchstick appears  its  roots in art made by prisoners was because,  matchsticks are cheap, versatile and are a readily available material.Directed to be encouraging at all times we were also encouraged to apply some critical theory when evaluating the work, explaining what we had observed about the work. Suggestions on how people might make different choices next time, and if appropriate,  suggesting other artists work they might like to look at to help broaden their ability to be critical about their own work going forward.

“Feedback from experienced artists/writers is very valuable because it’s genuine, practical and focused. It’s not sugar-coated or a platitude. In many ways it’s the best thing about the scheme.”
— Koestler Awards Entrant.

I was very focused on saying positive things, (and there is not a lot of space to write much at all) but I do feel I was able to  offer some constructive feedback.



There were many observations I made about the work I saw that day. Time featured a lot in the work by way of clocks, many of which worked but had had the batteries taken out of them. Some of the entries came with supporting documents stating what had motivated them to make what they had made.  Reasons were driven by fantasy of what it might be like to own that boat, that car, that truck. The objects chosen often represented freedom. One entitled Rebirth understood symbols of an egg and a butterfly and another Keyhole showed great use of colour, with the outside world, the world viewed through the keyhole appearing in technicolor.



Yet the one that struck me the most and almost certainly because of its connection to my work was a jewellery box, but not the box itself it was the supporting document that came with the box and explained how it had come to be. The booklet it came with written by the prisoner told of how his wife had bought him a  Matchitecture kit of a motorbike kit. It was by building this model that  his understanding of how to make things from matchsticks began and had resulted in the jewellery box he gave his wife made with the skills he had honed by making the matchstick motorbike kit.

It is something I will definitely do next year. The summer exhibition takes place in London at the Royal Festival Hall from mid September to early November. More information here.