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Beth Dawes

“Let your imagination run free”: Lord Whitney talk creativity, childishness and mindfulness in Upon a Christmas Wish

Amy Lord and Rebekah Whitney

Amy Lord and Rebekah Whitney. Photo by Tom Joy

Lord Whitney is the the Leeds-based creative studio behind Upon a Christmas Wish at Harewood House. Led by Amy Lord and Rebekah Whitney, it is an innovative artist-led studio creating immersive experiences and spaces that spark wonder and inspire curiosity. They build cinematic worlds that allow audiences to journey into their imagination, see things differently and explore the possibilities.

We sat down with Amy and Rebekah to chat about the studio’s origins, their inspirations, and the importance of unlocking your inner child…

Thanks for making time for us – it’s been a very busy few weeks installing Upon a Christmas Wish at Harewood! To start, can you tell us how Lord Whitney came to be?

Rebekah: The two of us met at university in Leeds many moons ago, on a graphic art and design degree. We had a similar aesthetic, but we were working on opposite sides of the studio – I was all about illustration while Amy was more into photography. Our tutor noticed the similar themes in our work and put us together – and we instantly hit it off. We found we had the same mind’s eye. We’d talk about an idea, go away to develop it, and when we came back together we’d have drawn the same picture of how we wanted it to look.

Amy: It was the worst timing though! It was practically the last week of our third year, all our work had been handed in, and only then did we find eachother. We were so excited to have finally found something that made us giddy. It felt like we were playing as children again – time would pass so quickly and the security guards kept having to kick us out of the studio at night.

Photo by Tom Joy

I love that phrase, ‘the same mind’s eye’. How do you two see the world?

Rebekah: I think we’re able to return to being kids, and see things as a child would – just letting your imagination run free. It turns out we were basically the same child, both enjoying taking things down to set them back up again, and now we’re able to do that as adults. I think that if you can tap into the thing you enjoyed as a child, you’ll probably enjoy it as an adult.

Amy: Definitely – that’s an important message we have in a lot of our work, things that gave you joy as a child will give you joy now.

Returning to the origins of Lord Whitney – you’ve graduated, having only just found eachother as creative partners. What happened next?

Amy: We didn’t set up Lord Whitney straight away – we both had a few years trying things out and feeling quite lost, not knowing if or how we could get a creative job in Leeds. We’ve both worked in film and TV, festivals, children’s workshops, photography… we’ve been on a journey, and all those different experiences feed into what we do now. It makes us unique!

It’s actually really interesting to note that we’ve had our studio for 10 years now, having started up after the last recession; and we’ve met lots of other creative businesses who are also 10 years old. There was clearly a phase when lots of creative people decided they wouldn’t get a job through someone else, so they may as well do it themselves! And now, after the initial shock of the Covid pandemic, we’re seeing people do the same thing again – new creative businesses are springing up all over.

Rebekah: Creative minds will thrive in a crisis – we’re problem solvers!

The Lord Whitney team install Upon a Christmas Wish. Photo by Paul Craig Photography.

What’s Leeds like as a base for a creative studio like Lord Whitney?

Rebekah: It’s great! There are so many more opportunities than when we first started and we have an amazing studio that we couldn’t afford in London. It’s the same in Sheffield and Manchester. In fact we haven’t done a London job in a while. We did plenty when Lord Whitney first started, and we never made it an issue, travelling to London several times a week. I’m glad we did that, because it encouraged London brands to look further afield for their creative work. But we love Leeds – we did consider moving in the early days but just couldn’t give up the north!

Let’s chat about Upon a Christmas Wish, the remarkable experience that you’ve created for Harewood. What was behind the concept of the House telling the story of a little girl’s Christmas wish?

Rebekah: Last year was awful, very traumatic and difficult [Upon a Christmas Wish was originally planned for Christmas 2020, and had to be postponed due to Covid restrictions]. When we began thinking about it in the first lockdown, we had a conversation about doing something positive. It was a scary time – like everyone we were navigating our business and worried about family and friends, but we were starting to see creatives trying to do positive things in their communities. So what could we do to create a moment of respite? How we could create an experience that helped Harewood’s visitors to feel relaxed or try to forget what they were going through?

Amy: When we started talking about positivity, we quickly got to how Bek felt being a mum, and specifically reading to her kids. We talked about the lull of a story – children don’t necessarily understand the words or meaning but when stories are read out loud they are really calming. Stories were so important to us as children, and still are now. In our work, you can see bits of Narnia, bits of Peter Pan… all these references peeking through. So we wanted to use a story to help people reconnect with their inner child and imagination, and make something relevant for adults and kids.

The Lord Whitney team install Upon a Christmas Wish. Photo by Paul Craig Photography.

How did the work develop once you’d had the concept?

Rebekah: There was a lot of research, working with the Harewood Collections team. They dug out articles and artefacts relating to Christmas, and we pulled out gems and nuggets to be included in the fictional story, like the Christmas theatrics. We also spoke to David Lascelles, Earl of Harewood, who remembered amazing Christmas parties when he was a boy, with plenty of merriment and Christmas cheer.

Amy: Absolutely, the research phase is so important. You come with an idea but the project is Harewood specific, so it has to be developed in its own context.

We wanted a strong narrative, so we found an amazing collaborator in Toby Thompson, the poet and writer, and got Buffalo on board for sound design early on. We love collaborating, it adds such strength and creativity to a project.

Rebekah: Obviously we did have to consider how to create an immersive experience during a global pandemic! Everything had to be spaced out, you can’t touch anything – so voice and sound was really important to make a safe, immersive show.

What’s your favourite part of Upon a Christmas Wish?

Rebekah: The toy room really excites me. That room in particular is a moment for children, and for the adults who remember setting up the games. When I was little I had a book called iSpy Christmas, which was full of detailed photographic spreads – you had to spot the tin soldier or the bear playing a drum – and that book heavily inspired this room. The toys have come alive and they’re setting up games for Sophie to play. And I love the big moon for the moment of calm and stillness.

Lord Whitney work on the toy room in Upon a Christmas Wish

Amy: I like the dining room because of the contrast to the previous room. You’ve started the experience in the music room, with a film and audio – it’s clear what’s going on. But then you step into the dark dining room as if you’re stepping into Sophie’s imagination. It’s unexpected and we like to challenge people’s expectations!

What would you say to someone about to enter Upon a Christmas Wish?

Amy: Let everything go and step into it with an open mind. We thought a lot about mindfulness and healing in creating this piece – we tried to create moments of mindfulness even if people don’t realise they’re having them. So really, we’re interested to see what people feel like when they come out!

Rebekah: If people feel a sense of wonder, like you feel as a child, at any moment, then that’s fantastic – job done.

 

Upon a Christmas Wish by Lord Whitney is open now at Harewood House. Christmas at Harewood tickets include timed entry to the House, as well as Harewood’s beautifully decorated gardens and grounds. Pre-booking is essential at harewood.org/christmas.

In 2021, as in 1850: Christmas Trees at Harewood

 

This week, nine huge Christmas trees have been delivered to Harewood, ready to be decorated by our brilliant volunteers for the festive season. Seven will stay outside, but two will stand in the House: one in the Entrance Hall, one in the Gallery among Upon a Christmas Wish. Getting a 15ft Nordmann Fir through several 3ft-wide doors and rooms full of priceless furniture and interiors is certainly not a piece of (Christmas) cake…

But first, let us take you back a few weeks to 10 September. At Stockeld Park, a few miles from Harewood, two members of the Harewood House Trust visitor engagement team are traipsing back and forth in a field of thousands of Christmas trees. We’re wearing winter jumpers in honour of the occasion – choosing the biggest, bushiest trees to decorate Harewood later in the year – unfortunately it’s nearly 20°C and we’re roasting!

Christmas tree shopping
“Are those two the same height?”

We push on nonetheless, looking for several pairs of trees. We need good matches, as they will be standing in pairs at the Arch, the Courtyard and on the Terrace; we also need them as tall as possible, so they don’t get lost in the grand surroundings of Harewood. This is surprisingly difficult, and we definitely get our daily step-count in as we walk to and fro to find matching trees! Once we’ve picked a tree, it gets a reservation label, ready for felling and transporting to Harewood later in the year.


Labelled and reserved for Harewood

On Tuesday, it was time for a team of several staff to get two Nordmann Firs into the House.

Dust sheets were wrapped around each tree, then ratchet straps drawn around the bundle to reduce the width, but without snapping any branches. It was then a case of carefully lifting each tree through the front door (the easy, wide one) and then, for the Gallery tree, through several further internal doors, only three feet wide.

Many pieces of furniture and ornaments have been moved out of harm’s way, but it’s still a tense process for the House Collections team, as the tree squeaks past 250-year old wallpaper, paintings and mirrors. “My only consolation is that it’s been done this way since 1850!” laughs Rebecca, Harewood’s Assistant Curator and Archivist. “Even though it makes us really anxious, the process makes you feel linked to all the Harewood staff who have been through exactly the same emotions over the years.”

We can infer that stress from the first reference to a Christmas tree at Harewood (that Rebecca has found so far), in the ‘Came and Went Away’ book – which was like a House visitor book, usually used to record all the family members and their guests arriving and leaving the house. It lists New Year’s Eve of December 1850, possibly referring to the tree being ‘taken away’, having been in the House through the Christmas period, though it may be that the tree was only in the House for one day. We do know that Christmas trees were popularised amongst the wealthy by an engraving that appeared in the London Illustrated News in 1848, of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family stood around a Christmas tree. Harewood’s tree may well have been responding to this new fashion.


Reference to the Christmas tree in the Came and Went Away Book

“The Christmas Tree entry in the Came and Went Away Book was probably written by a member of staff like the Butler,” explains Rebecca. “Perhaps he decided to record the occasion of bringing in a tree because it was such novelty, and undoubtedly quite a physical (and messy!) challenge, just as we’re experiencing today.”

Despite the arduous process, in 1850 and in 2021 the trees were successfully brought in. They now stand ready and decorated, to be enjoyed by all the visitors to Harewood this Christmas season.

 

Book your tickets now to see Harewood’s Christmas trees and enjoy all the festive season has to offer.

Arboriculture in Action

If you’ve visited Harewood this week, you’ll have seen that part of the Lakeside Walk is closed as some arboricultural work is done on a beautiful beech tree on the path.

Arboriculture – or the cultivation, management and study of trees and shrubs – is a constant feature of life at Harewood, with thousands of trees within the grounds that need careful attention for the tree’s health and for visitor safety. This beech is rotting, so it’s being reduced by 40% to keep it standing and alive for many more years.

The beech from the other side of the lake – the tallest tree in the centre of the image.

Examining the beech tree

This particular tree is a beech, Fagus sylvatica, approximately 300 – 350 years old. Toadstools (which are the fruiting bodies) of the fungus Pholiotus, ‘Shaggy parasol’, which grows on rotten wood, began to appear on the tree, which prompted us to look deeper into the tree’s physical state.

PiCUS tomography measures sound waves as they travel through the tree. The solidity of the wood dictates how fast they travel, allowing us to see a cross section through the stem.

The brown on this tomograph shows good healthy wood; green is wood in transition; and purple & blue shows rotten/dead wood. A tree can still be very stable if it has at least 70% brown around the outside, but as we can see, our beech has gone beyond this point.

This is a resistograph, showing the results of drilling into the root buttresses with a very fine, long drill. The amount of resistance the drill encounters gives an idea of how solid the wood is, up to a metre’s depth.

A further proof of the tree’s internal rooting is the Ganoderma fungus, ‘Beech heart-rot’ – this has just started to show on the surface, and has caused the dead wood inside.

Reducing the tree

We were advised to reduce the height of the beech by 40%. This reduces the weight that needs to be borne by the rotting stem, as well as mitigating the ‘wind sail’ effect. The smaller tree should stand for many more years; without the reduction, we might have seen the tree fall across the path within one or two years.

Arborists who have taken care of Harewood’s trees for many years are on site this week. They have rigged up an ‘English Reeve’, a rope system, between our beech and a large tree a few metres down the path (requiring around 500m of rope!). This will allow them to move the cut branches at canopy level, then drop them onto a clear section of path, to avoid damaging any smaller trees under the beech.

The beech with its rigging

The view across the lake may look slightly different, but we’re glad that this work will keep a beautiful tree standing for years to come.