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In Focus

Preparing for Winter and Beyond. Sustainability in Harewood’s Gardens.

Photo credit Trevor Nicholson

Harewood’s Head Gardener Trevor Nicholson takes us through new processes and methods being implemented across the Gardens, as Harewood looks to the future and more sustainable ways of caring for its Gardens and Grounds. 

As autumn gives way to winter, the Grounds and Gardens teams have been very busy, ably assisted by our loyal and enthusiastic band of volunteers. For the grounds team this means the removal of a huge quantity of fallen leaves from Harewood’s verdant lawns. The collected leaf litter is a valuable source of leaf mould for the gardens.

Having made the decision a few months earlier to change the way we grow our vegetables in the Walled Garden to something approaching the ‘no-dig’ system, every leaf – in fact, every scrap of green garden waste – has become significantly more precious to us as a renewable source of organic matter to be re-purposed as a growing medium.

Although we’ve been making compost for many years, the real difference is in the way we now apply it – and why. Call it what you will: ‘no dig’, ‘no till’, ‘reduced tillage’ etc, there are numerous labels; but they all mean pretty much the same thing: put away the spade and stop turning over and chopping up the garden soil year after year!

Photo credit Trevor Nicholson

Regularly digging over and breaking up the soil impacts on the soil ecosystem by disturbing complex ‘food webs’ – interrelations between a multitude of soil organisms and mycorrhizal fungi, which live symbiotically with plants. Leaving the soil undisturbed and placing organic matter onto the surface not only prevents stored carbon from the soil being released into the atmosphere through digging, it also provides optimum conditions to enable the community of soil organisms to flourish.

The beneficial effect of these soil organisms includes increasing the fertility of the soil and improving its structure. One of the most important environmental benefits of adopting this method of surface ‘mulching’ is the retention of soil moisture, which not only saves water, but also reduces soil erosion and helps prevent the silting up of rivers and drainage systems.

Another added benefit to the gardener of applying organic matter to the soil as a surface ‘mulch’ is the control of weeds. This method need not be confined to the vegetable garden. We are experimenting in some areas of the Himalayan Garden with the use of waste cardboard re-purposed as a biodegradable ground cover, which is being placed between plants and topped off with sieved leaf mould.

The composting of our green garden waste and the recycling of biodegradable materials really underpins much of what we are doing in the gardens – now and in the future – as we set our focus on working in ever more sustainable ways and having environmentally considered methods at the forefront of our  thinking.

Object in Focus – Harewood’s Dining Room Chairs

 

This chair, part of a set of 20, was made by Thomas Chippendale for the State Dining Room at Harewood House, delivered in around 1771. Its design represents the height of fashion in mid-late 18th century English dining furniture, with a neo-Classical frame decorated with carved ornament such as acanthus leaves, fluting and bell flowers. The seat is upholstered in leather, often utilised on dining furniture for its durability and practical qualities. 

The frame of the chair is made of mahogany – a popular material used for furniture-making in England from the 1720s, highly prized for its naturally rich colouring, fine figuring (graining) and strength. Mahogany is particularly workable, allowing cabinet-makers to carve intricate designs into its surface, lending itself to the highly decorative cabinet-making tradition of the 18th century. 

But the procurement of this versatile and beautiful material came at a human cost, and its history is intertwined with that of the transatlantic slave trade. Following the arrival of the first European colonists in the West Indies and Central Americas in the early 17th century, huge swathes of native timber was felled across the region. Initially this took place to clear land for sugar plantations, but the inevitable recognition of the remarkable qualities of mahogany generated an export market for the raw material itself. 

The significant amount of labour needed to log mahogany trees came from enslaved Africans brought to the West Indies and Central America by European traders. It was dangerous and physically brutal work. Working in groups of between 10-50, enslaved woodcutters would embark upon forest expeditions to cut and log trees, clear roads and transport raw material back to coastal ports via rivers. A description of the logging process of Honduran mahogany written in 1873 by a British cabinet-maker paints a bleak picture of the working conditions for the individuals involved: 

The labour of loading and driving, on account of the intense heat of the sun during the day, must be performed in the night-time, and by torch light…[T]he great number of oxen—the half naked drivers, each bearing a torch—the wildness of the forest scenery—the rattling of the chains, and cracking of the whips—and all of this at the hour of midnight, present…the sober industrial pursuit which has fallen to the lot of the wood-cutters of Honduras. (1)

There were also devastating ecological consequences to the extensive deforestation of the Caribbean region. As a direct result of large-scale sugar production and the systematic exploitation of slave labour, numerous West Indian islands experienced the swift extinction of mahogany and other native trees. Diverse forests were replaced by agricultural monocultures and microclimates that would go on to cause severe problems with drought and erosion. 

When studying Harewood’s history and collection, it is important to consider and reflect upon the devastating socio-economic context that it was a product of. Despite their elegance, Harewood’s dining room chairs – as well as the many other pieces of mahogany furniture designed to sit alongside them – are inseparably linked to Britain’s merciless colonial past. To find out more about the building of Harewood House and its links to the slave trade, visit our Building Harewood digital guide. 

 

(1) Thomson, The Cabinet-maker’s Assistant: A Series of Original Designs for Modern Furniture (London: Blackie and Son, 1873), 28-29.

Botanical Sketches Inspire Contemporary Products

Harewood_House_isabella _crathorneHow sketches of botanical plants by Isabella Crathorne have inspired an entire range called the Bloom Collection in the Harewood Shop.

A range of skincare products designed by Yorkshire-based maker Nathalie Bond is packaged in a gift box decorated with botanical sketches by Isabella Crathorne in 1787.

These delicate and detailed sketches come from a bound album of her work entitled Specimens of Botanical Plants held in Harewood’s libraries, containing 160 hand painted flower drawings. Complete with a full index, each entry is classified according to plant taxonomy and includes additional information, such as the location of the specimen and date of the find. Isabella did most of her collecting in North Yorkshire and occasionally Northumberland.

Botany emerged as a fashionable past-time in 18th century England, and was a science that women, in particular, had relatively easy access to: it was possible to collect plants, name them, draw and study them, all from the comfort of your own garden. Many women cultivated in-home herbariums and others, like Isabella, emerged as accomplished botanical illustrators.

Very little is known about Isabella, but her artistic skill was recognised in a portrait of her and her husband, Thomas Crathorne of Crathorne Hall in North Yorkshire, where she is depicted holding a pencil alongside an open sketchbook.

But how did Isabella’s album get to Harewood? Unfortunately the story here is not precise, however it is likely that there were familial links between Isabella and the Lascelles family. Isabella’s brothers, Henry and Edward Swinburne, as well as her nephew, Sir John Swinburne, were artists and patrons of contemporary art, commissioning individuals such as JMW Turner, Thomas Girtin and John Sell Cotman to paint their ancestral home. This is in much the same tradition as Edward ‘Beau’ Lascelles and the 1st Earl at Harewood, and as such the two families were moving in the same artistic circles. It is almost certain that they would have known each other and it is quite possible Isabella’s album came into the collection through their shared love of art, as well as botany.

Visit the Harewood Shop to see the collection. 

There are many fascinating gardener pictures to celebrate National Gardening Week on the  Harewood servants database

Menagerie: An experience, by Kate MccGwire

Kate_MccGwire_Harewood_HouseJust over four weeks ago, my team and I were walking out of Harewood House, having just finished installing my latest exhibition, Menagerie. We knew then that the exhibition was unlikely to open as planned, but we had no idea quite what we’d be walking into.

We’d spent the last five days in an 18th century architectural bubble, the ideal place to unintentionally self-isolate. The house was shut to the public and operating a skeleton staff – as is usual for the early months of the year – so we were arguably in the safest place in Yorkshire. The install experience was unique and surreal, not just because of the stunning location, but because COVID-19 was unfolding outside the grounds and across the world as we worked.

We tuned into BBC News and listened to the updates echo around the vast rooms, wondering what would be on the other side when we finished. It felt like the beginning of a film: the air was ominous and full of tension, but the plot was yet to unfold. Day by day things seemed to escalate; we spoke to loved ones on the phone and tried to stock our cupboards remotely, but the gravitas of the situation and our surroundings made it seem dreamlike.

Harewood_House_Kate_MccGwireThe exhibition had been years in the making; there was months of planning, of collecting materials and fabrication – all supported by a team of Harewood House volunteers who had meticulously prepared thousands of feathers. I’d borrowed works from collectors, experimented with new techniques and created new work in the studio. It was a great communal effort, and then…

On 17th March we finished placing my new installation, Cavort, it’s a vast sitespecific pheasant feather piece that now lays dormant in the Yellow Drawing Room. I walked around the empty house, passing Anima and Stifle in the Dining Room, Viscera, Turmoil and Quandary in the Gallery and my earlier installation, Discharge, specially adapted for the Main Library. Behind me, security guards closed the shutters, switched on alarms and prepared for a full lockdown.

I was left wondering if it had actually happened, or if the whole thing was an illusion. My work, so often described as uncanny, was the most normal part of this experience. For me, it was the familiar that was made strange.

Menagerie can be visited at Harewood once the House reopens to the public. For more information on the exhibition, read more here and visit Kate MccGwire’s website, www.katemccgwire.com

Harewood_House_Kate_MccGwire

Reviving the Art of Letter Writing

Harewood_House_PrincessMary_LettersHow to keep in touch when you can’t physically see each other? In this world of hyperconnectivity, are people picking up their pens again and writing letters?

Rebecca Burton, curator and archivist, looks at a more romantic method of communication: handwritten letters.

Preparing for the new exhibition in the House, Becoming the Yorkshire Princess, I have been incredibly fortunate to work with a series of heartwarming letters written by HRH Princess Mary and some of her closest family members.

Princess Victoria Alexandra Alice Mary of York (1897-1965) was the only daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York, later King George V and Queen Mary. During Mary’s childhood, her parents were often away from home touring what was then the British Empire, in their roles as the Prince and Princess of Wales. They wrote frequently to one another, often enclosing personal mementos with their letters, such as photographs, pressed flowers and postcards (which Mary collected and compiled in large albums, encouraged by her father).

“Many thanks for your dear letter and the nice piece of white heather which I shall keep…..I hope you have put all the postcards I sent you in your book, I thought they were very pretty.”
Prince of Wales (later King George V) to Princess Mary, 1903

Harewood_House_Letters_PrincessMary
Mary’s childhood letters – written in both English and French, give us a window into the daily routine of a royal child (which included lessons, riding and plenty of outdoor activities) and illustrate a rich picture of family life at Sandringham. Whilst Queen Mary’s distinctive joined-up handwriting can at times be hard to decipher, her letters to her daughter offer a personal, vivid and often amusing account of her and her husband’s travels abroad.

“Here we are in Cairo which is a most interesting place with many different things to see….Today we saw the Colossus of Ramesses II, a huge statue which unluckily has been broken and now lies on its back – we also saw some wonderful tombs. Only think, I actually rode a camel and rather liked it.”
Letter from the Princess of Wales (later Queen Mary) to Princess Mary, 1906

Mary’s father’s notes tend to respond more directly to Mary’s own correspondence, reflecting on her hobbies as well as encouraging academic progress. His writing is often succinct but his language personable and cheerful in tone, inscribed in a script that is more cautious and much less conspicuous than his wife’s.

“I was delighted to get your letter this morning…Your French is beautiful and your writing much improved. I am also pleased to hear that Mademoiselle is quite satisfied with you and that you are getting on well with your lessons…I am sure you could easily beat me at golf now as you have been playing so much lately.”
Letter from the Prince of Wales (later King George V) to Princess Mary, 1905

Throughout all the correspondance, there is a real sense of warmth and affection on both sides and we get access to emotion that is rarely observed in Royal sources (or any other kind of object for that matter).

“I hope you are quite well dear Mama, we shall be so pleased when you come home, we are going to hang our flags out of the house windows the day you come home. I send you and Papa a bear hug and a fat kiss.”
Princess Mary to the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary), 1901

Despite this family’s extraordinary position within society, it would be hard to tell that this correspondence was written by a princess and a future king and queen; their words such that could be written by any daughter, mother or father, and their themes universal.

“Thank you very much for the postcards you sent me. I have got a lot now…Georgie sends you and Papa a kiss, we are all quite well, with lots of love and kisses, from Mary.”
Princess Mary to the Princess of Wales (later Queen Mary), 1906

What Mary’s letters offer also is a contrasting perspective to traditional historical narratives. Mary’s father in particular, who has often been described as a strict and undemonstrative parent, is shown in quite a different light.

Irrespective of their authors, handwritten letters are physical remnants of personal relationships and human connections. And as such they are undoubtedly some of the most rewarding historical material that I am lucky enough to work with. Despite the fact that Mary’s letters, both sent and received, were often unceremoniously and incongruously stashed away in old, used envelopes by their recipients, for me they are amongst some of Harewood’s most precious objects. I am reminded often, through a private joke or a doodle in the margin, of their intensely personal nature and the responsibility that comes with caring for and studying them.

Becoming the Yorkshire Princess a new exhibition about Princess Mary, will remain in the House this year and available to view as soon as Harewood is able to open. Read more about the exhibition here.