The National Trust, the organisation responsible for preserving the UK’s heritage, does not immediately spring to mind when considering contemporary art commissions. The, largely true, perception of the organisation is that they cater primarily to an older, white audience looking for a quiet day out at a historic country house, presenting a fairly static, traditional version of our nation’s history. Perhaps partly to challenge this perception, Trust New Art, the National Trust’s ongoing arts programme, has developed a strand of artist residencies and commissions as part of a larger cross-arts programme, allowing for contemporary artists to respond to historic sites. While developing the potential to attract new audiences, ‘Trust New Art’ also seems to read as a plea to the established National Trust demographic, to literally trust contemporary art; to sincerely engage with it and allow it to open up new ways of examining UK heritage.
The recent furore around the National Trust’s LGBT pride badges (the Trust initially insisting that public-facing volunteers had to wear them as part of the Prejudice and Pride event at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk, then backed down to after complaints from volunteers and pressure from right-wing elements of the press) highlights the fact that adapting and changing for modern times, or telling the nation’s history from new angles, isn’t going to be easy for the organisation. Contemporary art may then inhabit a tenuous position within a conservative organisation, with a predominantly conservative audience. At the same time, it could provide a fruitful avenue for the National Trust and its audience to think more progressively about the UK and its history, or at the very least, to consider new ways of thinking about heritage outside of the traditional mechanisms of historical display. In turn, the Trust can provide new platforms for contemporary art, largely produced and displayed within urban contexts, to demonstrate its relevance and engage with rural surroundings and new audiences.
Across England and Wales, Trust New Art, run by the National Trust in partnership with Arts Council England and the Arts Council of Wales, has worked with over 200 artists at myriad Trust properties since the programme’s inception of 2009. Four residency-based commissions across the North of England showcase how the Trust is working with contemporary artists: Scanner (aka artist and composer Robin Rimbaud) at Little Moreton Hall, Karen Guthrie at Acorn Bank, Juneau Projects at Cherryburn, and Lucy Harvey at Quarry Bank. These four projects demonstrate the National Trust’s sincere engagement with contemporary art, as well as the variety of the Trust’s properties, and how this affects the nature of the commissions, and the circumstances within which the artists have had to operate.
The project that slots most seamlessly into its environment is Rimbaud’s The Dreamer is Still Asleep, situated in the gardens of the Tudor manor house Little Moreton Hall. Consisting of a sound recording, the work sits in an alcove on in a typically ignored corner of the exterior of the house, now fitted with a bench upon which the work can be peacefully experienced. The artist has taken inspiration from sleep patterns in the Tudor period, particularly those of the house servants who would have been on call twenty-four hours a day to meet their employers’ needs. Taking their restless, interrupted sleep into consideration, Rimbaud produces a soundscape to replicate the feeling of being half awake, in which the waking world and the dream overlap. The piece is inserted sensitively into the site, with clear ties to the house’s history, yet asks something different from visitors by presenting them with a quiet, contemplative listening experience. Rimbaud is less concerned with the historical facts than connecting the listener to the past via the shared experience of sleep.
Juneau Projects and Lucy Harvey similarly ease their work into a heritage environment, both being familiar with working in such environments (Juneau Projects are in fact National Trust members) and in both cases the work was tied more specifically to the history of their respective properties and the individuals that lived in them. With Juneau Projects, it seems to have been a natural fit, given their established interest in nature and printmaking, to produce work informed by the legacy of Thomas Bewick, naturalist and pioneer printmaker, born on-site at Cherryburn. For Birds Want You to Listen to Their Songs, Juneau Projects have produced their own series of prints, as well as printmaking kits for use by visitors, developed while in residence. Easily the smallest of the four properties, it would have been easy for Juneau Projects to overwhelm the limited display space, but as with Rimbaud’s soundscape, they have been respectful to the intimate dimensions of the site.
Drastically different in scale, the expansive Quarry Bank hosts Lucy Harvey’s Mutual Improvement Society, for which Harvey has inserted three sculptures throughout the grounds of the former mill and country estate. With the specific brief to produce work relating to the original owners of the property, Harvey has focused on the hobbies of the Greg family, considering how hobbies can function as self-education, leading to a better understanding of the world. Particularly standout is her sculpture ‘The Cave’, with rock specimens occupying the arms of a device resembling old-fashioned models of the solar system. Naturally framed by an actual cave on site, Harvey’s piece vividly evokes the idea of the amateur gentleman-scientist.
The commissions highlight the differences between National Trust properties, with Cherryburn dwarfed in scale by the vast operation at Quarry Bank, which is host to significant visitor numbers and is a popular destination for school groups. Quarry Bank comes across as slickly professional compared with the idiosyncrasies of Cherryburn, which may explain the strict terms of Harvey’s project brief. Another apparent restriction of the commissions is a lack of dedicated studio space to be used during the residency period, which is the case at both these sites, despite Quarry Bank’s ample buildings and grounds. These different briefs and provisions indicate that the National Trust is still learning how best to work with artists, and that while there is enthusiasm, there is also hesitance on the part of venues to adapt to new modes of contemporary practice.
With The Years of Magical Thinking, Karen Guthrie is the only artist to demonstrate some degree of conflict with her site (Acorn Bank), and the way the National Trust presents its history. The site of the house can be traced back to the Knights Templar, and it is no surprise that this legacy is put to good use by the volunteer guides. For a twenty-five-year period ending in 1996, however, the property was used as a Sue Ryder nursing home. Touring the property, this period of the building’s history is largely glossed over, perhaps because it does not fit a desired historical narrative. Yet history is not static, and Acorn Bank’s time as a nursing home is an equally valid part of the site’s history, and deserving of inclusion within the broader narrative. Guthrie sets about doing just this with her commission, for which she has produced a fountain made from the pale green ‘Beryl’ crockery associated with institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes since the 1930s. Cementing the connection with the property’s wider history, as well as stimulating the viewer’s personal memories, Guthrie has created various ‘hydrosols’ – fragrant liquid distillations – to run through the fountain, activating the room with the aromas of the plants found in Acorn Bank’s gardens.
With Trust New Art, the National Trust are showing promising signs of developing exciting contemporary art commissions within rural heritage locations, and, with bold leadership, it could provide a vital avenue for the Trust to progress and adapt to a society that is learning to increasingly question the static and often nationalistic ways that the UK’s history is presented.
Trust New Art projects reviewed: Lucy Harvey, Mutual Improvement Society, Quarry Bank, Wilmslow, Cheshire (23 September – 19 November 2017); Scanner, The Dreamer is Still Asleep, Little Moreton Hall, Congleton, Cheshire (28 July – 29 October 2017); Juneau Projects, Birds want you to listen to their songs, Cherryburn, Stocksfield, Northumberland (1 September – 30 October 2017); Karen Guthrie, The Years of Magical Thinking, Acorn Bank, Temple Sowerby, near Penrith, Cumbria (10 August – 29 October 2017).
Tom Emery is a curator and writer based in Manchester.