In 2019 I was invited to work with the Portland Collection based in the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire. This project was supported by the Arts Council England through a DYCP grant. The research explored the relationship between creating histories and narratives through the selective display of collections. The project also explores the desire both to acquire artefacts and to exhibit them and the decisions which start at the point of acquisition and end in the final presentation. At this time I had also begun to create my own artefacts in response to collections, landscapes and my own manufactured narratives. This project and a final exhibition at the Harley Gallery, which sits adjacent to the Portland collection, was a perfect ground for testing this multifaceted conversation between artefacts, display and the interpretive control the curator of such collections holds. In addition the history of the estate and landscape provided a substrate in which to analyse these themes, with the paintings unearthing palimpsest layers of history within the landscape.
Materials & Methods
Welbeck is an estate within Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire which encompasses the Portland Collection and the Harley Gallery. The Portland Collection displays a selection of fine art and decorative design collected over a period of 400 years by the inhabitants of the estate from 1755 – 1977.
The grounds of the estate contain hidden tunnels and overgrown gateways, constructed during John Bentick, 5th Duke of Portland’s time at the estate. The collection includes paintings by Anthony van Dyck and John Singer Sargent alongside Sèvres ceramics produced from the 1760’s onwards as well as a large collection of miniatures.
The estate is set in parkland on the edge of Sherwood Forest. It was founded as a monastery in 1153 before it became a Cavalier residence and then went on to become a country seat to a succession of Dukes of Portland. During the First World War the estate formed a base for an army hospital and then it became an army training college from the 1950s through to 2005 and is the current residence of the descendants of the Cavendish family.
In 1607 it was purchased by Sir Charles Cavendish, the youngest son of Bess of Hardwick. Since then, the estate has been handed down through the generations with family members, including the 3rd Duke of Portland, who was twice Prime Minister, and Sir Edward Harley, whose extensive collection was the foundation for The British Library. The underground tunnels are a legacy of the 5th Duke of Portland or the ‘burrowing duke’ who commissioned the tunnels in order to move about the estate unseen.
Research and Collaboration
The DYCP funding allowed for a number of collaborative engagements throughout the project. I worked with collage artist and art handler David Orme to consider ideas of curation and display, and we discussed this in a feature for the Contemporary British Painting Society. The PDF of this discussion is added at the bottom of this page. I was also able to undertake mentoring with Duncan Hooson, lecturer at UAL and Co Director of Clayground Collective. This brought about many changes in my ceramic practice, particularly in the use f glazes and considering the cultural signifiers implied in these. I also had the opportunity to meet with Hannah Maples (Historical Costume Interpreter at the Portland) who was an expert in the fabrics depicted in the 17th century portraiture displayed in the collection, unfurling narratives, politics and ideologies set with linen, lace, cloth of gold, shot silk and kid leather. These insights were held within the folds of many aspects of the project, encasing ceramics and unravelling in the folds of paintings.
Postcards, Drawings and Pulhamite
I explored much of the landscape and history of the estate through vintage postcards and created new postcard sized works and drawings to begin to create and authenticate new topographies. The postcard has long been employed in my practice as both source material and painting ground. Vintage postcards are prepared and primed and sit heavy with paint, alongside, and in conversation with, their soft and papyrus thin ancestors. In this project these postcards were interspersed with fragile drawings and sketched imaginings to tunnel mouths and trees within which one could crouch. Some of these drawings were made with clay, pooling and motile and ready to become invisible; pulhamite drawings swimming between perception and material.