Gathering Dust for the National Trust



Acorn Bank 11

 You can view a walk-through film of the finished exhibition by clicking here.


I have begun work on what I hope will become an installation for Acorn Bank, a beautiful National Trust house and garden in Cumbria. The red sandstone house is set in the lee of the Pennine Hills with views across rolling countryside to the Lakeland Fells. The early Georgian frontage masks the fact this is a 16th century manor house which can be clearly seen around the sides and back of the building.


Acorn Bank 2



We have visited the beautiful gardens many times but the house hasn’t been open to the public until last year when guided tours were offered. We were shown around on a cold and dark November day by custodian Sara Braithwaite who is keen to use the empty rooms for events and exhibitions. Upstairs the interior is a strange and eerie blend of faded grandeur and dusty institutionalised decor – the rooms were used for many years as a nursing home by the Sue Ryder Foundation.

I am aiming to make a series of moth-related pieces for the rooms which evoke the forgotten history of this special place. Traditionally moths were regarded as lost souls cast out into the darkness, ghostly presences tapping at night windows. The plan is to set up moth traps in the gardens and grounds throughout the summer months to capture and record whatever is out there, haunting the dark. The resulting collection will be metaphorically ‘brought inside’, shadows of former lives reintroduced to rooms and corridors, cupboards and dressers, gloomy corners and alcoves.


Acorn Bank 7

Acorn Bank 8

Acorn Bank 10

Acorn Bank 5


6th July 2013 – Moth Trapping

Joanne Day, the Ranger at Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve , set up two light traps in the gardens on Saturday night. The weather was warm and dry and 49 different species were recorded hiding amongst the egg cartons next morning:

Peach Blossom
Green Carpet
Red Carpet
Silver Y
Common Rustic
Elephant Hawkmoth
Peppered Moth
Spinach Moth
Angle Shades
Ni Moth
Ingrailed Clay
Double Square-spot
Small Magpie
Mottled Beauty
Willow Beauty
Barred Yellow
Dark Spectacle
Small Angle Shades
Gold Spangle
Broom Moth
Large Yellow Underwing
Lesser Yellow Underwing
Poplar Hawkmoth
Green Arches
Grey Arches
Dark Arches
Common Emerald
Wood Carpet
Light Arches
Beautiful Golden Y
July Highflier
Clouded Drab
Hebrew Character
Burnished Brass
Barred Red
Grey Dagger
Silverground Carpet
Pale Shouldered Brocade
Dark brocade
Garden Tiger
Buff Ermine
Heart and Dart
Pale Tussock
Scarce Silver Y
Garden Tiger

Garden Tiger

Burnished Brass

Burnished Brass


8th August – National Moth Night


Moth Trapping_edited


I spent a magical night with three moth traps set up around the gardens to mark National Moth Night. The weather has been warm and sunny and the evening was beautiful but dark clouds rolled in over the Lakeland mountains and by midnight it was pouring with rain.


Moth Trap_edited


By dawn the rain had cleared and there were quite a number of moths in the traps, despite the wet conditions. We now have a total of 83 species, a good number to work with. Many thanks to Sara, Chris and Joanne of the National Trust for their help and hospitality.


Hummingbird Hawkmoth (as reported by Sara)

Purple Thorn

Canary-shouldered Thorn

August Thorn

Bird-cherry Ermine (micro moth)

Mother of Pearl (micro moth)

Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing

Common Footman

The Flame

Antler Moth

Common Wainscot

Rosey Minor

Ear Moth

Large Ear

Flame Carpet


White-spotted pinion

Grey Chi

The Fan-foot

Oak Nycteoline

Dusky Brocade

The Snout

The Brimstone

Silvery Arches

Scalloped Oak

Striped Wainscot

Small Fan-footed Wave

Common Carpet

Mouse Moth

Flame Shouldered


September 2013



We have been in Venice visiting the Biennale (the highlight of which, apart from free cups of tea at the Jeremy Deller exhibition in the British Pavilion, was Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere’s “Cripplewood”). We spent a glorious day on the tiny island of Torchello, Venice’s Lindisfarne.

Although it is only a 40 minute vaporetto ride across the lagoon it couldn’t be more different to the bustle of the city. In the 5th century Torchello was the most heavily populated island but frequent outbreaks of malaria coupled with an increasing need for greater security eventually resulted in a shift to islands closer to the mainland, the site of present day Venice. Torchello now has a permanent population of around twenty souls (plus thousands of migratory birds) and all that remains of the ancient settlement is the magnificent 11th century basilica and monastic site.

The church is decorated with huge mosaics, in the apse a Virgin surrounded by an acre of gold and on the rear wall a beautiful and highly complex Last Judgement. I was particularly struck by the floor, an expansive arrangement of marble tiles, stones from across the ancient world, a geological carpet.






This has got me thinking about ideas for a piece for Acorn Bank. As a historic National Trust house there are strict limitations on what you can do – for instance you are not allowed to attach anything to walls. What I have in mind is a floor piece made up of a large collection of small tins, each group representing one of the moths from the garden survey, each containing a deposit of a mineral pigment akin to the moth’s wing coloration.


November 2013 – Gathering Dust

The history of the house and estate is an interesting one. The Dalston family owned much of the lands around Temple Sowerby and came to prominence during the Civil War period when John Dalston joined the Royalist Army. On the execution of King Charles I John played his hand carefully and managed to placate a Parliamentary enquiry into his role arguing that, although he had been an officer in a regiment of foot he hadn’t actually taken part in any fighting. He got away with a large fine and on the Restoration was rewarded by Charles II, becoming MP for Appleby in 1661. The estate passed down through family lines until the 1930’s when it was acquired by the poet and writer Dorothy Una Ratcliffe.




Dorothy had a long and colourful life, married to the heir of Leeds chemical magnate Lord Brotherton, from whom she inherited Acorn Bank, and later to Noel McGrigor Phillips, with whom she travelled around the world. On Noel’s death in 1940 she married for a third time, this time to longtime family friend, photographer Alfred Vowles.

She wrote poetry in Yorkshire dialect and developed an interest in Gypsies and Romany culture. The great gathering of travelling people takes place every year at nearby Appleby Horse Fair and Dorothy was a great supporter and protector of this ancient event. Dorothy held the fanciful belief that she had Gypsy ancestry and shared her passion with others in the literary and artistic community of the time, notably painter Augustus John whose full length portrait of his common-law wife Dorelia in Gypsy dress once hung on the staircase at Acorn Bank. Dorothy’s collection of Romany art is now held by the Brotherton Library at Leeds University and the painting is at Temlple Newsam House.




Dorothy was a keen naturalist, bird enthusiast and gardener and much of the garden’s present layout is down to her. She passed the estate onto the National Trust in 1950 after which the part of the house was leased by the Sue Ryder Foundation for use as a nursing home which eventually closed in 1996.




I am planning to use four of the first floor rooms which have remained empty since the Sue Ryder patients moved out. The walls and floors still show the scars of occupation where large Georgian rooms had been divided up into small cells, now removed to reveal duck-egg blue paintwork beneath. My aim is to make drawings and objects which reach back into the unrecorded history of these rooms, using moths as a metaphor for the forgotten lives of the occupants. There is a gloomy, dusty melancholy to the place which I want to amplify.




To provide materials for the work I have been excavating, gathering dust from around the house and grounds – the powdered remains of the old ash floors still under the layers of fireproofing hardboard and oak floorboards, ancient soot from chimneys, crumbling plaster and red sandstone from the walls, red clay from the flower beds and ashes and charcoal from garden bonfires.

I have also discovered a less well known industrial past to the site where gypsum was once mined from deep drifts cut into the hillsides and riverbanks. Gypsum is a white mineral salt which was used in brewing and baking and as a constituent of plaster. It is still mined on an industrial scale just down the road at Kirkby Thore where it is used to manufacture plasterboard. I have collected some samples from the old drifts and will be experimenting with the mineral to see how it might perform as a paint.




January 2014- Moth Deposition



I have been grinding up the materials gathered around the house and grounds to use in the piece “Moth Depositions” which will form the mineral floor mosaic or earth carpet in the fourth and final room. The gypsum (above), soils, stones and ashes have given me a palette of browns, greys, reds, oranges and whites which are mixed with gum arabic and water and poured into burnt and rusted tins. As the water evaporates a geological deposit is laid down in the bottom of each tin. Each set of four tins represents the fore and hind wings of each moth recorded in the survey – 332 tins/wings in all.
Moth Depositions
The method mimics the natural processes of erosion of rocks and soils on mountains and hillsides through the actions of wind, ice and water and the transportation and deposition of muds and silts on the beds of flood plains, lakes and seas. Evaporation leaves behind layers of deposit which can form new soils, rocks and minerals. This has been especially pertinent  in recent days with the flooding of large areas of South West England. The initial problems of water inundation are followed eventually by the inevitable clean-up of deposits of mud and effluent in homes gardens and pastures. A less obvious but extremely serious after-effect of flooding is the erosion of fertile soils, a problem made more extreme by modern farming methods (see George Monboit’s Guardian article).
The painting in progress in the background is one of the “Vignettes”, a series of watercolours of apple trees in the orchard made using ground up meteorite. I wanted to use local space dust which Chris is collecting for me in the garden (it falls to earth in raindrops and can be gathered by dragging a magnet across the sludge which collects at the bottom of a rain barrel – another process of deposition), but time is against us so I have had to use meteorite imported from the Algerian desert. The paintings will hang on the walls of Room 1 and act as a scene-setter for the rest of the installation.
February 2014 The Sleep of Reason
When we did the moth trapping back in August Jo brought along her bat detector which picked up the ultrasonic calls of bats flying in the night skies. Each species makes a distinct series of noises which are out of range of human hearing, designed as echo-locating pulses to detect obstacles and prey, notably moths. There is a life and death dogfight going on in our summer night skies – some moths have developed counter weapons to jam bat radar, others daring flight patterns to dodge and evade, but bats still take large numbers for food.
I visited the stores of the Great North Museum in Newcastle in September to photograph their bat collection – that’s where this beautiful Long-eared Bat comes from. Bats specimens are pinned and dried very like moths, before being vacuum packed into plastic bags to protect them from infestation. I also came across  a number of Pipistrelle bats that were discovered in a bricked-up chimney at the old Newcastle police station. I have been using the images as a part of the installation to go into room 3.
Bats in bags
Goya has always fascinated me. I first saw his so-called “Black Paintings” in the Prado many years ago when travelling around Spain and Portugal. Franco had died two years previously and Spain was still recovering from the damage done by his repressive regime. The contrast crossing the border from prosperous France was quite marked – in many ways this was still Goya’s Spain.
The paintings are big, dark and profoundly disturbing, the painting loose and audacious. I bought a book of his etching series called “Los Caprichos”, published in 1799 as a cruel and damning criticism of Spanish society and the Catholic church. The demons which haunted him and which would eventually drive him over the edge into madness are brought to life in the most famous print entitled “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” . Here Goya sleeps at his desk, exhausted by his labours, his rational mind abandoned to a sleep haunted by the monstrous creatures of the night – bats, cats, owls, but sadly no moths.
The plan for Room 3 is for an evocation of night, a bedroom for troubled sleep.
Sleep of Reason
March 2014
Ice Bird1
With the advent of better weather I have been working outside. Frosty mornings and sunny days mean that Spring has arrived, as has our crop of purple sprouting broccoli (which you can see behind an ice-bound “Garden Birds”). It has taken almost as long to grow as the gestation and development of “Gathering Shadows” – the seeds were sewn last March!
The steel locker doors are to be used in a large piece which will dominate Room 3 – a screened off bed, a slab of deep darkness. They are ex-colliery lockers which I had shot-blasted some years ago and they have been rusting away nicely ever since. I have been coating them in a layer of coal dust which you would think would make them jet black, but because the steel continues to rust, small traces of orange and brown leach through the coal seam, contaminating the surface with a fine, lichen-like patination.
Locker Doors1 Detail
A number of pieces have now been framed and I’m hoping to experiment with a provisional hanging in the next couple of weeks. They include “Pieces of Falling Sky” painted using soot and ground meteorite. Like the “Pieces of Sky” made for the Wirksworth Festival, it includes the collected shadows of all of the moths recorded flying in the summer night skies above the gardens and orchards.
Pieces of Falling Sky Detail
April 2014
I have been working on pieces to be shown in the final room in the installation, a series of watercolours in red sandstone and meteorite made using folds of paper, blot printing symmetrical images reminiscent of Rorschach tests. Herman Rorschach was a Swiss psychologist who developed the so called ‘inkblot test’, publishing his theory just before his death in 1922.
His idea, later taken up enthusiastically by fellow psychologists, was that patients were stimulated to impose meaning upon the symmetrical images, responses which gave insight into psychological make-up and possible personality disorder. The images created by this simple technique are primordial, sometimes threatening, reminiscent of natural symmetrical structures found in the anatomy of plants and animals.
Fearful Symmetries Detail
Gathering Dust Installation
The past week has been spent installing the work ready for the exhibition opening to the public on 10th May. It has been a great privilege  to work so intimately with this ancient house whose dusty corners have gradually revealed all sorts of ideas and possibilities. Although I began with a plan the rooms told us where to place things.
Installation 5
Installation 2
Installation 3
Installation 1
Installation 4
Many thanks to Sara and Chris and all of the National Trust staff and volunteers at Acorn Bank for their help, understanding and hospitality.
You can view a walk-through film of the finished exhibition by clicking here.
The exhibition was seen by thousands of visitors during the season and many left very kind messages written on luggage labels tied to the furniture and staircase on the way out. Thank you to all.



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