By Finn McCahon-Jones, Associate Curator Applied Arts & Design, Auckland War Memorial Museum, and recipient of the 2013 Clark Collection scholarship to Attingham Summer School.
We’re staying in West Dean College, Sussex, England. I have never been to England before. The weather has been absolutely marvellous, every day bright blue cloudless skies with a gentle breeze, which has made visiting country houses and standing out in the landscape an absolute treat; it is hard to imagine the grey wet English days that I have heard so much about. My room is on the top floor overlooking the old chapel and the woods at the back of the property. One morning, I had my window open and was listening to the birds singing – thrush, blackbird, dove, skylark – when I realised they all sounded very familiar in a foreign landscape. I know these birds were imported to New Zealand for home-sick settlers to have familiar sounds in an unfamiliar landscape. Strangely I am having the same response; there is something nice in the familiar. However this isn’t a strange landscape, I recognise the trees and the rolling pasture, the sheep and cattle the structures. I realise just how much the English aesthetic has penetrated the New Zealand landscape.
My sense of time and scale has been altered since coming to England. Some of the families we have met have been living in the same house for 400-500 years, and many of the sites have been operating with houses on them for 1000 years.
Since many of these houses have been continuously occupied for such a long time, the layers of history are very present. The interiors are peppered with objects from the medieval period to now; all happily coexisting together and interlinked with changes in family history and architecture. This makes interpreting the spaces quite difficult as there are many layers and ways to narrate and present the dynamic history of the place.
I have found the experience of visiting these country houses to be very theatrical and rhythmic. We arrive to each house by coach, and having no idea where I am I keep an eye out for visual clues. As you near the house the frequency of cottages gets less and less, beautiful old stone walls start cropping up, farms start to expand in all directions. Then you usually pass through a forest; which as you travel thins out until you find yourself in a picturesque grassy landscape punctuated by little groves of trees. Hills part or roads bend to reveal the house which seems to sit alone floating in the landscape as if has always been there. The view towards the house is equally spectacular as the view away from it. Looking away from the house the eye is carried up valleys and over trees to vast fields and landscapes beyond. All that you can see belongs to the estate – grasslands hills, forest and fields all constructed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to enhance the view.
Yesterday we visited Hardwick Hall, which was built by Elizabeth Shrewsbury know as ‘Bess of Hardwick’ in 1599.
The house was not hidden in the landscape. It sat up on the ridge of a hill with its crenellations in hard contrast to the trees around it; there was no missing the house – especially Bess’ giant ES monogram emblazoned on the roof. This house had little Cavendish snakes placed around the architecture as well as her emblem, so you knew exactly who lived there even before you arrived.
In this house I had a very cinematic experience – We entered the house heading through the front central door which opened into the great hall. From here we walked out into a corridor and up a narrow flight of stairs to a landing, then up another flight and another. Every corner we turned we thought we had arrived to our destination. After about 6 flights of stairs the hall started to widen and the side of the staircase dropped away to let more light enter into the passage. In front of us another stone staircase swirled upwards in front of us with even greater frequency and pitch until we arrived at the landing outside the high great chamber. All ~48 of us gathered on the landing outside the large panelled door which was surrounded in imagery of riches and importance.
The door opened and the most cavernous room appeared before us. As we crossed the threshold the sweet smell of rushes filled the room as your field of view was filled with the sight of a large canopy and two heavily upholstered chairs completely surrounded by huge tapestries which engulfed the space. The whole room was lined with a mat made from rushes in the style of the time. Above the tapestries were life-size plaster figures in a forest scene depicting the story of Diana, and the most imposing heavy stone fireplace surmounted by the Queen’s coat of arms. It was incredible how the room just gobbled you up as soon as you walked in. I felt as if I had suddenly shrunk whilst being transported into a new world.
We have been very spoilt on the Attingham Summer School. It is like being given a back-stage pass at a concert. The velvet ropes are cast aside so we can have free access to get up close to objects and interiors while having an expert talk to us enthusiastically about their specialism. I am very tired and very happy.
Everyone told me that the English summer was in name only. This trip has been hot and sunny every day so far. I have another week and about a dozen houses remain to be seen.
In 2013, the Clark Collection scholarship was supported by Errol Clark and National Services Te Paerangi.