Waddesdon Manor

Mixing heritage with Hockney

Susannah Glynn explores the modern arts phenomenon that is sweeping through our country houses

If you keep half an eye on the heritage world you might have noticed something a little different about some of our most revered historic properties this year. Contemporary art, once the preserve of the sterile white space, has been blazing a trail through the parks and gardens, the drawing rooms and the outbuildings, of some of England’s finest statelys.

At the forefront of the charge has been the National Trust, which this year rolled out Trust New Art, a programme held in partnership with Arts Council England. This has seen a host of contemporary installations at places such as Kedleston, in Derbyshire, where Susie MacMurray has created Promenade, a shimmering maze structure formed by thousands of golden threads spun between the pillars of the Great Hall (on show until 29 September), and Croft Castle, Worcestershire, which is the location for Tell it to the Trees (until 15 September), an exhibition of sculptural installations and painting inspired by man’s relationship to trees.

Did you catch the Royal Academy’s major environmental arts show, Earth: Art of a Changing World, last autumn? If not, don’t worry; Marcos Lutyens and Alessandro Marianantoni’s installation CO2morrow, which emits blue or violet light depending on the level of C02 in the atmosphere and which spent the duration of the exhibition clamped to the upper story of the Academy’s Burlington Gardens facade like some giant alien limpet, is now in situ at Seaton Delaval Hall, the Northumberland house recently rescued by the Trust after a major publicity campaign. The work was commissioned especially for the RA exhibition by the Trust, to commemorate its work in reducing the environmental impact of Trust properties as well as its new contemporary art programme. Its relocation to the grounds of Seaton Delaval is peculiarly fitting: from the earliest stages of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, the family at the house were heavily involved with the coal mining industry. Today the grounds overlook a line of wind turbines, developed by one of the many new green technology companies who have clustered around the nearby town of Blyth.

For more environmentally themed works look no further than the Tatton Park Biennial (on until 26 September), a precurser to Trust New Art and now an established fixture on the emerging contemporary arts calendar despite launching only in 2008. Among the works created by over 20 artists are A Weight of Ice carried from the North for You, by Neville Gable, which constitutes two tons of Arctic ice framed in a glass structure which was specially developed with the Renewable Energy Research Department at Southampton University to keep the contents frozen using solar power and pond water, and East of Charlotte’s Lawn, an assemblage of ‘leaking’ oil drums by Jimmie Durham, which reference land claims from the Cherokee amidst the ongoing drive for oil.

Of course, the concept of contemporary art at country houses is hardly entirely new, after all, how many of these houses were actually built in order to house great art collections of the day?  With large amounts of space and with curatotorial staff on hand the locations are ideally suited to staging exhibitions – or indeed absorbing new work into an established collection. At Waddesdon, a manor originally built to house a collection of Sevres, the curatorial staff have seen a steady arrival of contemporary artworks for years thanks to the benevolent management of contemporary art collector Jacob Rothschild. In the grounds these have included Terra Degli Etruschi “Earth (or Ground) of the Etruscans, by Stephen Cox, Sarah Lucas’ horse and cart, Perceval, and A Couple of Differences Between Thinking and Feeling, Angus Fairhurst’s bronze gorilla. Inside the house, a blue egg by Jeff Koons is on long loan from an anonymous benefactor and currently nestles among the green fronds in the conservatory.

To anyone who queries introducing contemporary art to an historic setting I would say this: once the art is in place it is quickly becomes apparent that the transaction is two-sided. The modern art might add a splash of exciting contemporaneity to a house locked in another age, but in so many cases the house also offers the art another set of dimensions. Until 31 October, visitors to Waddesden will also be able to see works by the Campana brothers in situ in the Blue Dining Room (as well as in a ‘formal’ exhibition in the Coach House, newly renovated for the purposes of using it for shows (a collection of portraits by Andy Warhol is next in line). Brought together in this magnificent setting, the curiousness of a group of chairs, vases and their trademark Esperanca lamp is heightened so much more than it ever would be in the sterile environs of a gallery. The same could be said of Past Present, which ran last year at Nunnington Hall in North Yorkshire. Here works by the likes of Yoko Ono, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas were installed in the same way as everyday objects in the rooms once lived in by members of the Fife family. The results were intriguing: how much more immediate was Yoko Ono’s All White Chess Set, conceived as a pacifist statement directly related to the room the family would gather in to play games.

There are a lot of National Trust properties on this list, but of course it is not only Trust properties taking up the initiative. The record for the most long-running relationship between contemporary art and country house probably goes to family-owned Harewood, in Yorkshire, which has displayed works by David Hockney, Sophie Lascelles and Mark Wallinger – among many others – over the 21 years since its Terrace Gallery was first opened. The house is currently hosting ‘Twenty-One’(until 19 September) an exhibition of works by leading artists created in response to the collections at Harewood to celebrate the gallery’s coming of age. And if you fail to catch the September closing dates (or even if you do) in November another privately administered house, Compton Verney, in Northamptonshire, will be the location for an exhibition by contemporary Chinese photographer Kurt Tong.

This article first appeared in Country Life Magazine

Susannah Glynn is the features editor of Phaidon.com and writes on arts and culture for a number of publications including Country Life. She was previously Assistant Editor at Bonhams Magazine

Above image: Ingo Maurer, Porca Miseria, 2003. Waddesdon, The Rothschild Collection (Rothschild Family Trust) The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor. Photo by Rob Judges