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.
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.
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:
8th August – National Moth Night
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.
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)
Bird-cherry Ermine (micro moth)
Mother of Pearl (micro moth)
Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing
Small Fan-footed Wave
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