For the past few years I have been following the progress of the Unravelled Arts group who first came to my attention back in 2010 when they undertook a project in conjunction with Brighton and Hove City Council called “Unravelling The Manor House”. This project featured various interventions throughout Preston Park Manor House in Brighton, each by a different artist drawing on some aspect of the history and function of the house. This sparked a further series of “Unravelling” of three National Trust properties in the South East – Nymans Gardens, The Vyne and finally Uppark, the property I visited today to see the latest offering by Unravelled Arts.
Uppark House as seen from the Dairy
As we had arrived a little early for the house to be open we opted to take the ‘basement’ tour which allowed access to the house just prior to opening. Our tour guide showed us round the Still Room, the Butlers Pantry and the Housekeepers Room, and while not a great deal of information about the rooms was imparted, she did regale us with anecdotes and tales about the previous owners of the property. The problem with Uppark is, that while it is an historic house, it is equally also a ‘new build’, having been virtually destroyed by fire in 1989. The rebuild recreates the house as it was the day before the fire, and while it is a huge credit to the skill of all the craftspeople involved with the recreating of plaster mouldings, carpets and wallpapers, somehow the house for me feels a little sterile, as the inevitable patina and damage that occurs with great age is missing. Obviously this is a difficult area for an organisation such as the National Trust – Restoration or Preservation, and is a question I am sure the Trust has to keep asking itself in relation to all of its properties.
The 13 artists selected to be this property’s ‘Unravelled’ group spent time researching the various occupants and uses of the house since it was built in the late 1700’s, and I felt that on the whole they have come up with an interesting selection of artworks which highlight and raise interesting questions about the house and it’s people. On entering the house, the front facade has two niches which have been filled by a pair of steel rod ‘drawings’ b the Art Blacksmith, Agnes Jones. Called Io and Euthenia, it shows two Greek Goddesses representing two women who had a lasting effect on Uppark House – Emma Hart (later Emma Hamilton, consort to Lord Nelson) and Mary Ann Bullock, the dairymaid who married the titled owner of Uppark House. What was a huge shame is that one of the house volunteers had parked their car right outside the front door in front of one of the artworks.
Euthenia and Io
really irritating and inconsiderate volunteer car parking
Sadly Uppark does not allow photography inside the house, so I am unable to show the settings for the individual pieces of work. My particular favourites are the woven ceramic dish titled “Dish of the Day: chicken in a basket” by Robert Cooper and Stella Harding , and which plays with the meanings of the word ‘dish’ , the connections of’ loose women’ and fast living at Uppark during Sir Harry Featherstone-Haugh’s tenure and the current issues of ‘slavery’ through trafficked women and manual workers. The whole being woven into a dish resembling a Sceaux faience basket collected by Sir Harry.
Steven Follen’s piece ‘Trade’ shows a set of folded metal boats sailing across the carpet, underneath a delightful Chinese cabinet laden with spices and teas from the Far East – a reference to the source of the Featherstone-Haugh wealth as major shareholders in the East India Company as well as the giant Dolls House in the basement of the house.
Ceramicist Zoe Hillyard has chosen the fire of 1989 as her point of inspiration, and more specifically the decision to restore the house the as it was “the day before the fire”. Her delicate fabric covered ceramic fragments hand stitched together the recreate the original vessels celebrates the painstaking effort of the recreation of the house by the temporary community fo skilled craftspeople.
By far my personal favourite piece is a set of crystal glass cubes with etched lines. Titled “Quartet” by Simon Ryder, the piece brings the songs of four birds heard in the grounds of the house inside the house. The etched lines are the digital plotting of each bird song – some elements last less than one tenth of a second and are beyond the range of the human ear, which when overlaid form an undulating landscape, which is marked into the crystal glass by a laser. I like the idea of bringing the birdsong into the bedroom as well as turning something which would only normally be experienced audibly into something that can be appreciated as a physical and visual entity.
On the whole it is a good show with a broad mix of artists and media. inevitably there will be disappointments and this time I was disappointed by the collaborative work by Alice Kettle and Helen Felcey, called House of Eloy, it draws its ideas from H G Wells’ book “The Time Machine” (Wells lived at Uppark as a child while his mother was housekeeper and makes many references to the house and grounds in his works), and while I could see what was going on, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed at the finished piece. This is a shame for me personally, as I have long admired the work of Alice Kettle. Still, I suppose everyone has off days!
Sneaky photo of “House of Eloy” at Uppark
stairs down to the underground passages linking the house to the servants quarters and stables at Uppark
Is this the longest ladder in the world?
Sadly, the two most disappointing works for me were outside. “A Milkmaid’s Song” by Gen Doy is a sound installation in the dairy which recalls the singing of the dairymaid who would become Sir Harry’s wife. Unfortunately the most dominant sound was the constant slapping of what was supposed to be butter patties forming butter while the maid sang – yet her song was almost inaudible. The maid’s place was represented by a loudspeaker behind a table covered in a white cloth. If it had been me, I think I would have played down the butter slapping, played up the singing a little and piped it through an invisible sound system to give the feeling of ghostliness. The second most disappointing piece was Caitlin Heffernan’s “Remnants”. Piles of straw and hay support partially charred fabrics recovered from the 1989 fire to make the partially formed shape of horses. Two young children were visiting at the same time as I was and their comments were interesting “is that a dead horse?” and “I don’t like it, it’s scary” (this second accompanied by some sniffing). I understand the artist’s statement about responding to the history fo the space, kits markers and traces left by former occupants, but I also feel that it is a lazy piece and poorly constructed.
On leaving the house we stopped at the gate to purchase an ice cream seeing as the day was quite warm. One of the gate keepers was keen to find out what we thought of the exhibition, but mistook my hesitation before replying as being a negative response. It is true that my husband was less enamoured than I was, but this chap was away on his hobby-horse about the dreadfulness of modern art! I always find that it is best to let people like that just ramble on, there is nothing anyone could say that would change their mind although I did point out that purporting not to like modern art is not new; when the Impressionists first unleashed their works on the world their work was seen as shocking and ‘not art’, yet today they are lauded the world over commanding millions of pounds at sales.
If you should find yourself in the vicinity of Uppark House in West Sussex this summer, do take some time to visit and see the Ravelling Up of Unravelled, you won’t be disappointed.