journal of museums aotearoa
The Clark Collection / Creative New Zealand Scholarship provided me with the opportunity to travel to the UK to attend the Atthingham Trust Summer School, and to spend a week each at four cultural organisations – English Heritage, The Royal Collection, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Trust. Based around a summer school dedicated to the study of the English Country House, and as a curator working with contemporary decorative arts and design, I thought my application would be a long shot. I am eternally grateful to the selection committee who saw the potential of the scholarship to adapt to my interests, and my ability to fi nd the opportunities.
The scholarship provided an unparalleled opportunity to consolidate my learning, and to bring into the round a wealth of cultural production that largely resided in words and reproductions. While the scholarship was historically based, 20th and 21st century elements constantly jostled alongside the past, satisfying my historical and contemporary leanings and demonstrating a continuum.
₤2 SHOP WARLORDS IN THE DINING ROOM - ENGLISH HERITAGE
Anthony Gormley’s towering sculpture Angel of the North greeted me as I arrived in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne for my posting with English Heritage. I was bound for Belsay Hall, an empty Greek Revival villa built in 1807. Belsay was momentarily the home of an exciting contemporary exhibition - Picture House - Film, Art and Design at Belsay. The exhibition was part a unique curatorial programme within English Heritage to “interpret Belsay in a different way, breathing life into its empty and stark interiors”(1). The Hall’s former owners had stipulated that the hall was never to be refurnished – a clause that cut across the common practice amongst English Heritage and The National Trust curators of recreating interiors.
The Belsay programme, which began in 1996 with Living at Belsay, is led by Martin Allfrey, English Heritage’s Senior Curator, in collaboration with freelance curator Judith King (2). While the programme was initially met with resistance and skepticism within English Heritage, high visitor numbers and a strong media profile has ensured on-going support. Following the success of FAB – Fashion at Belsay in 2004, an external advisory panel and a formal partnership between English Heritage and the Arts Council, were established (3).
For Picture House, Judith King invited practitioners from film and theatre, music, fashion and the digital arts to respond to the history and atmosphere of Belsay. Conceptually, the most successful installations drew directly on the history of the house and its inhabitants, both above and below the stairs, and offered a critique. Geraldine Pilgrim, in her magical Dreams of a Winter Night imagined the anxieties of a well-to-do young girl anticipating a stifling future – of endless ‘at homes’ and cups of tea (figure 1). Hew Locke populated the dining room with a council of savage war lords dripping in exotic spoils - faux jewels, furs and trophy heads - while Kandis Cook and Nicholas Till questioned the ethics of gentleman collector/plunderer. Simpler works such as Victor & Rolf’s gleaming silver dipped mannequin and dress provided sure crowd pleasers.
Hosted by Martin Allfrey, I was able to gain insight into the workings of English Heritage and its challenges, especially in regard to the presentation and interpretation of sites, and the unique opportunity that Belsay offered not only English Heritage but also the arts community in the north of England. I was fortunate to spend time with Judith King, a representative from the Arts Council, and artist Geraldine Pilgrim. Based in Brighton, Geraldine directs Corridor, a company specialising in creating site-specific performances and installations in unusual buildings, often with young people, older people and arts and community groups working alongside professional practitioners. Conversations on the structure of the Arts Council, the threat of the 2012 Olympics on the arts, and changes that a Gordon Brown-led Government might lead to provided an insight into arts funding and politics in the UK. That New Zealand’s Prime Minister was also the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage drew gasps of astonishment.
At Belsay I was asked to review the current interpretation and to make recommendations for the future. During my week at Windsor Castle, under the auspices of the Royal Collection, I was asked to work on a similar assignment - a comparison of the Windsor visitor experience with English Heritage and National Trust sites. The latter is still in preparation. My time amongst Windsor Castle’s rich interiors proved to be great preparation for Attingham.
THE LOBSTER TELEPHONE AND THE ENGLISH COUNTRY HOUSE - THE ATTINGHAM TRUST SUMMER SCHOOL
As my English Heritage experience was mediated by contemporary art, Attingham began with the Lobster Telephone. In the midst of the exhibition Surreal Things: Surrealism & Design at the V&A I came across the interior schemes of Edward James (1907-1984), Salvador Dali’s collaborator on the Lobster Telephone and Mae West Lip Couch. James was also responsible for transforming his family estate West Dean into an educational trust to preserve artistic knowledge. Offering courses in fi ne arts and conservation, West Dean College was to be home for the first week of Attingham. In a multi-layered environment of faded tapestries, stuffed animals and Surrealist paintings we met our fellow students, a noisy mix of curators, directors, academics, dealers and architects from England, the United States and Europe, with a four-strong contingent from Australia. The 2007 school was under the direction of Lisa White, a furniture historian, and lecturer at the Universities of Bath and Bristol. An engaging lecturer herself, she coordinated an excellent programme of guest speakers, whose knowledge and enthusiastic delivery ensured that nightly post-dinner lectures were something to look forward to.
Speakers included food historian Peter Brears, textile expert Annabel Westmann, Tim Knox, Director of the Sir John Soane’s Museum, Sarah Staniforth, compiler of The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping, and Dr Rosalind Savill, Director of the Wallace Collection. The programme was skillfully orchestrated over the 19 days to ensure a careful layering of information and provocations.
Our first week was spent in Sussex, where we were introduced to the pros and cons of different modes of ownership and visited properties belonging to private trusts, the National Trust and a local body. England’s most fantastical construction, and challenging conservation project, the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, brought the week to a flamboyant close (figure 2). From Sussex we headed to Derbyshire, trading in the tranquility of West Dean for the Notthingham University Halls of Residence. What the university lacked in charm, the great houses of Derbyshire made up for in quality. Derbyshire boasted Robert Adam’s neo-classical masterpiece Kedleston Hall, the bachelor eccentricity of Calke Abbey, the sheer magnificence of Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall, Elizabeth Shrewsbury‘s audacious statement of female independence and success in Elizabethan England.
East Anglia was our final destination. Highlights included visits to the National Trust Textile Conservation Studio, Sheringham Park designed by Repton, and the magnificent rival halls Holkam and Houghton, built by Sir Robert Walpole. Attingham provided an extraordinary array of intellectual and sensory experiences, from the spectacular theatre of Kedleston’s architectural and decorative programme to a walk through Houghton’s park in the company of a herd of ethereal white deer (figure 3). To experience, rather than imagine, the picturesque was sublime.
The school certainly fulfilled my wish to consolidate my knowledge of English decorative and architectural traditions that provide the basis for so much contemporary work; to experience cultural production in their original settings, and to develop new professional networks. What I found even more rewarding were the unanticipated outcomes. These include:
- A more open-minded approach to conservation practices and to the location of authenticity
Employed by an organisation that is avowedly business friendly and has “entrepreneurial” as a key value, the trusts, their values, and business acumen were of great interest. The implementation of the National Trust’s green policy was particularly inspiring. A range of stimulating opportunities to view 20th century art and design in the context of the country house, such as:
FROM COUNTRY LIFE TO YOUTUBE - THE VICTORIA & ALBERT MUSEUM
The Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A) provided another lively meeting place between the past and future. The V&A was founded to inspire creativity. TheNewDowse’s aim is to stimulate creativity. As such there was much in common and much to learn, despite differences in scale and history. Based in the Furniture, Textiles & Fashion Department, I met with staff across a wide range of areas including:
Gail Durbain, Deputy Director of Learning & Interpretation in a meeting regarding the V&A’s success in building online communities, including blogs, Flickr, Facebook and most recently YouTube.
Eithne Nightingale, Head of Access, Social Inclusion & Community on the V&A’s disability and social inclusion policies and the success and scope of their community programmes.
Gareth Williams, Curator for Furniture and Design since 1900, on the V&A’s contemporary collecting policy.
As TheNewDowse moves towards broadening its collection policy to include manufactured items and international practitioners, this was particularly useful. I was also able to use my time at the V&A to pursue areas of interest piqued during Attingham, namely the work of John Fowler and David Mlinaric, and to enjoy the work of Brazilian design duo, the Campana Brothers who had just completed an installation in the V&A’s garden.
A MAORI MEETING HOUSE IN SURREY - THE NATIONAL TRUST
I shaped my week with the National Trust around properties associated with William Morris and 20th century architecture, collections and artistic communities. I visited The Red House which was designed by Philip Webb for William Morris in 1859. It was the house that prompted Morris to ask the question “How should we live?” and inspired the foundation of Morris & Co. I followed Red House with Wightwick Manor, a house decorated by its owner Theodore Mander with Morris & Co wall hangings, W.A.S Benson metal work, William de Morgan tiles, and stained glass and a spectacular carved frieze by Charles Kemp based on Hardwick Hall’s. It also boasts a collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings collected by Rosalie Glynn Grylls, a Pre-Raphaelite expert who married into the Mander family.
In keeping with the theme of collaborative decorative schemes, I returned to Sussex to view Charleston, the former home of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Quentin Bell (4). Their creative output - lyrical wall paintings, tapestries, fabrics and ceramics – enliven every nook and cranny of this modest farm house.
In London I visited architect Erno Goldfinger’s modernist apartment in Hampstead, a one-time artistic hub. The furniture and art works that adorned the Goldfingers’ apartment testified to their progressive circle, which included Surrealists Max Ernst and Hans Arp, and British Modernists such as Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, and Barbara Hepworth, all of whom lived in the area. To experience art history played out in small towns and neighbourhoods, and view to domestic-scale works insitu by such a range of great artists was a rewarding experience.
Like my predecessors I visited Clandon Park, a Palladian house built in 1730’s for the 2nd Lord Onslow. In its garden sits the Maori meeting house brought back in 1892 by the 4th Earl of Onslow, Governor General of New Zealand. I went to Clandon primarily to see the John Fowler interiors dating from 1968 to 1971 that the National Trust has decided to preserve as part of its own history. Fowler’s contributions include curtains made from blankets, Laura Ashley style prints and bows, rush mat flooring and an outrageous installation of ceramic birds gifted by a Mrs Gubbay. Riddled with the problems implicit in a house furnished with disparate collections and in search of a point of difference, a quirky madness purveys Clandon. With a reminder of home in the garden, it was a delightful way to conclude the scholarship.
The programme offered by the Clark Collection / Creative New Zealand Scholarship was hugely energising. I am in no doubt that the experience will greatly enhance my work in the field of decorative and fine arts, directly and indirectly, and contribute significantly to our conversations around the redevelopment of the Petone Settlers Museum as an historic site. While the experience provided many answers, more signifi cantly it prompted new questions and areas of inquiry, both direct and tangential.
Te Ara - Journal of Museums Aotearoa; Volume 32; Issue 1 & 2; December 2007
Figure 1. Dreams of a Summer Night , Geraldine Pilgrim’s installation at Belsay. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: CLAIRE REGNAULT
Figure 2. Exotic rooflines of the Royal Pavillion, Brighton. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: CLAIRE REGNAULT
Figure 3. The herd of ethereal deer in the deer park at Houghton in Norfolk. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: CLAIRE REGNAULT
LAST UPDATED: 28/06/2010