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Behind the Scenes

Personal, surprising and optimistic: what you can expect from Radical Acts, with curator Hugo Macdonald and Trust Director Jane Marriott

Two people central to Radical Acts are Jane Marriott, the Director of Harewood House Trust, and Hugo Macdonald, the exhibition curator.

We sat down for a chat with Jane and Hugo, to look back on the evolution of Radical Acts and find out what visitors can expect.

Thank you both for finding the time to chat, especially in these busy two weeks before Radical Acts opens! Where did the idea for the Biennial come from?

Jane Marriott: Harewood House Trust is a charity and a museum, and it’s been set up as such since 1986. Our purpose is to conserve the House, the gardens and the wonderful collections. But more than that, we want to create exhibitions that excite our visitors, introducing them to new things, new artists, new ideas.

And so back in 2018 we decided that we wanted to do an exhibition about craft. It’s really interesting how many people have become interested in craft, in thinking about materials and in showing their support of local makers and artists. And of course, Harewood House, built in the late 1700s, has the most incredible craftsmanship from Chippendale furniture, to Robert Adam interiors. to John Carr architecture. So we thought Harewood is the perfect place to continue that great tradition of craftsmanship. When we started talking about the exhibition, we got brilliant feedback from people in the field, saying that makers and crafts in this country need that platform.

How did Hugo become involved?

Jane: What was really refreshing in the first conversation I had with Hugo was that, because his background is in writing, he puts craft within the context of how we live today. From that first conversation, I knew that he wasn’t just a wonderful curator, just picking beautiful objects; we’d be working with someone who would really take a step back and challenge us to think about craft in a different way. And so that’s when we invited Hugo to do the first Biennial, Useful/Beautiful, which was shown in 2019.

Hugo, can you tell us what you thought of Harewood when you first arrived and what inspires you about Harewood?

Hugo Macdonald: On my first visit I was overwhelmed, just like a lot of people probably are when they first come to a property of such magnificence. Every time I visit, I feel like I learn something new. There are so many layers not just to what you see, but also what you discover about people who have lived and worked in the House. The craftsmanship has been added to over decades and generations, centuries even. That’s where I find the challenge in curating the Biennial צ how do you introduce a contemporary layer that makes sense for what exists there already, but also brings something of today into the mix? How can we help people understand Harewood’s historic stories, but also put them in the context of contemporary life? How do we keep Harewood feeling alive?

How did you decide what to do for the second Biennial?

Jane: It’s not a case of saying, here’s what we want, Hugo, can you please do that? It’s a series of conversations. For the first Biennial, we invited multiple makers to respond to the House; we agreed that the format worked, but that this time we wanted to focus on a smaller number of really special makers. We also decided to exhibit pieces outdoors as well as indoors.

Our discussions began pre-Covid, thinking about the environmental crisis and what the role of these great estates can be in helping with that; to give this platform to great makers to talk about how craft can make a difference with sustainability, regenerative design, those sorts of topics. And then, of course, Covid came along and whilst we didn’t shift from those themes, we created a more nuanced response, which Hugo is very well placed to talk about more.

Hugo: The world was changing quite quickly, and our Biennial was an opportunity to address other connected subject matters that were coming to the surface. For example, how we think about well-being on a personal but also social and environmental level; and Black Lives Matter. The murder of George Floyd was a catalyst for many more conversations about racial and social injustice and given Harewood’s origins, we really wanted to include that as part of our exhibition. A lot of these subjects are things that craft deals with in a very open way, and craft can help ask important questions.

With that in mind, we decided to highlight people and projects who are engaged with asking questions about climate change and about society: how we relate to ourselves, the environment, each other. We called it Radical Acts because the word radical comes from the Latin word radix, which means roots; and each of the projects in the Biennial explores how things from the past can be a way of understanding the present. We have some very big names in the world of craft and we have some graduate students; it’s important to us that we are a platform that celebrates people at the top of their game, but also emerging interesting voices too.

Jane, what has surprised you about how Radical Acts has come together?

Jane: Probably how the makers bring such a wide variety of stories – very personal stories.

For example. we spent several hours speaking to Fernando Laposse, who talks about this incredible cooperative that he’s worked with in a village in Mexico, which is where he was born. He works with women who use the waste material from growing heritage corn to make these incredible luxury objects which are sold all around the world. His passion for the story and the women and this incredible cooperative really struck a nerve with me.

Then there’s Eunhye Ko, who is working with us as a younger maker coming into her career, with objects such as hair dryers and everyday electrical items. And you think, well, how on earth is that going to fit into a Biennial? Why will anyone be interested in that? But she works with them in in a very personal, creative way to challenge perceptions of things that we would throw away or replace much more quickly, like hairdryers or hoovers or everyday electrical items.

So I think the surprise for me is the variety, how personal those stories are and how we can relate to them. And I think people will really, really enjoy these 16 different stories from makers and feel a lot of empathy with them.

Hugo, how do you want people to feel when they visit Radical Acts?

Hugo: It has always been very important to us that we create a positive exhibition, an optimistic exhibition that feels entertaining and interesting, and that makes people feel like we can all do small things that join together to make a big difference to help address some of these challenges that we face in life. It is, like Jane says, a surprising exhibition, but we’re not telling people what to do. We are inviting people to come and see how these crafts-people are working in different ways to think about possible futures. And each of the exhibitors has a simple message behind their work that we hope will connect with visitors to Harewood, that visitors will take these ideas back home and think about how they relate to their own lives.

So, for example, Good Foundations International says water is precious. We mustn’t take it for granted. Good Foundations International go into communities who don’t have fresh water and help them to discover local sources, then build skills and businesses in the community to make ceramic water filters, which is an ancient technology for cleaning dirty water. Good Foundations International see firsthand what the impact is on people’s lives when they don’t have access to fresh water, and they alert privileged people to the fact that it’s a resource that should not be taken for granted. That’s one example of a simple message that we hope will connect with people because most of us switch on a tap without even thinking about it.

Hopefully people will reflect on the exhibition for a long time afterwards, and it might influence the small choices we make every day.

Hugo: Absolutely. I feel like exhibitions should be starting points rather than something that begins and ends. I want to open people’s eyes and minds to think about things slightly differently, or to understand how things connect; and to always feel included in that discussion. Never to feel like they are being lectured at or told. We really want to use the Biennial as a way of inviting people into Harewood and making them feel as welcome as possible. And like I said before, to introduce stories into this environment that are surprising, but also very relevant.

What would you say to each visitor as they view the exhibition?

Jane: I encourage you to experience the exhibition as a set of very personal stories, that will talk about that person or that studio’s approach to craft and what’s important to them. What you will hear is those makers saying it in their own voice. I suspect it will surprise a lot of people. I hope some of the choices seem quite bold and some will be quite poignant and quite thoughtful, like Mac Collins and his very personal response to the house and his own history and heritage. But there are also moments of just sheer joy and beautiful objects that are a window into it that particular maker and their achievements.

If I saw the visitor afterwards, I’d remind them that we’ve also got several podcasts and films with the makers – so you can return to those craftspeople who really stuck in your mind and inspired you to do something.

Hugo: One of my favourite things in the exhibition is actually not an exhibit. We have built a blank wall in the Servants’ Hall where we ask the question, What is your radical act? We hope this will encourage visitors to think about what they do in their day to day lives, and that could be something as simple as having a reusable shopping bag or reducing car journeys. That’s what I hope people will be thinking about as they move around the exhibition.

One thing people might be inspired to do is get hands-on with craft-making, and for that they can look forward to our Make it Harewood weekend in July. There will be workshops, music and food, all to show that everybody can be involved in craft and everybody can benefit in some way. It’s a wonderful recurring theme throughout the show, that working with your hands makes you feel happy. It improves your well-being mentally, physically, psychologically and Make it Harewood is a wonderful opportunity for people to have a go. So visit the website for more details on when that will be and who will be involved.

Thank you both!

 

 

“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.

Gathering Dust – Monitoring Dust on the State Floor

With the House opening for a new season, after almost seven months closed, the welcome return of visitors and staff means higher levels of dust.

Collections Care Assistant, Amy, is therefore working on a programme of dust monitoring across the State Floor to highlight how frequently objects need cleaning, so the team can effectively allocate resources, and establish the impact high visitors numbers, the grass being cut, or rock salt in the Winter months has on the levels and types of dust found. On your next visit to the State Floor, well-trained eyes may spot some of the two types of monitoring stations.

 

A Microscope Slide placed on the State Floor

Microscope slides have been placed on flat polished surfaces to establish how many days, on average, before the dust build up obscures the glossy finish and needs gently removing. Whilst dust can attract pests and become fixed to the surface if it is left, frequent cleaning can also cause damage, especially to delicate surfaces or areas of existing damage.

 

A sticky dust monitor that has been placed on the State Floor.

 

Sticky dust monitors have also been placed around the State Floor. These are made from archival grade, acid free board, with double sided sticky tape, and are 2cm by 2cm to make them as small and inconspicuous as possible. After a variable amount of time the sticky dust monitors will be collected in and analysed under a microscope.

 

Over the past few months, Amy has created a reference guide with microscope images of all the textiles and fibres that can be found across the State Floor, as well as the floors, the Collections Care black jumpers, pollen and grass outside, and hair and skin flakes. When the sticky monitors are analysed under the microscope the guide will help establish what is causing the dust and whether any extra measures can be implemented to minimise the dust. Here’s just a few things that have been found under the microscope…

 

Dry Soot and Rainwater.

Underlay Fibres

and even a Booklouse !