Contemporary Visual Arts Programme
Essay by Morven Gregor and Sophie Crichton Stuart
Mount Stuart, the nineteenth-century neo-Gothic mansion on the Isle of Bute, built by John, 3rd Marquess of Bute, contains generations of collections from the Crichton Stuart family. Collectively known as The Bute Collection, it includes eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portraiture, Italian masterpieces from the sixteenth century, Dutch and Flemish old masters and extensive archives and libraries. An examination of Mount Stuart – house, gardens and archive – presents a strong familial identity and legacy of patronage. Key relationships include that of the eighteenth-century portraitist Alan Ramsay and John, 3rd Earl of Bute. Bute’s exquisite collections acquired for his various homes and libraries sit amalgamated at Mount Stuart. Within this context and following the establishment of the Mount Stuart Trust in 1989, Sophie Crichton Stuart founded an annual contemporary visual arts programme in 2001.
The architecture and the eclectic decoration of the nineteenth-century house present the rich collaborations between the third Marquess and the architect William Burges, craftsmen including William Frame and the artist Horatio Walter Lonsdale. In key respects the Visual Arts Programme can be seen as continuing this legacy. Its aim is to commission and make accessible new work of excellence, to provide a platform and a resource for contemporary practice to develop.
On arriving at Mount Stuart for the first time many visitors are overwhelmed by the size and opulence of the house. For contemporary visual artists invited to make a creative response not only to the house but also to the grounds, collections and archives the sensation can be overpowering. Accepting the challenge has resulted in nearly two decades of innovative exhibitions by internationally renowned artists in what has been described as ‘one of the nation’s most vibrant and innovative art venues’.1
One artist open about the scale of the challenge was Anya Gallaccio; she concluded that her intervention should be both new and discreet while capturing the original energy of the creation of Mount Stuart itself. Inspired by the collecting spirit embodied in the Victorian pinetum and her own working interest in landscape, Gallaccio selected a fully grown conifer to be transformed through silver leafing into the work titled Begin again to the summoning birds. Among other immense trees, many with naturally silvery trunks, Gallaccio’s transformed tree drew attention not only to itself but also to its neighbours, raising questions of the exceptional and the ordinary (fig. 1).
Even though it was installed in 2005, the work remains visible today – not preserved as when first made but weathering, growing and changing. It embodies themes recurrent throughout Gallaccio’s work, namely the impact of time and natural cycles. She noted, ‘I establish the formal parameters, the rules, and then see what happens’.2 The fascination of Begin again to the summoning birds lies in this experience of ephemerality within a living collection.
Considering time past and time future, Kate Whiteford’s project Archaeological Shadows was the inaugural exhibition of Mount Stuart’s Visual Arts Programme in 2001 (fig. 2). The land work Shadow of a Necklace built on her investigations into generational impacts of human habitation on landscape. Referencing a Bronze Age jet necklace found in an ancient burial site on Bute, the work comprised an immense drawing made with white sand on the front lawn of the house. The process and resulting work have been described by Yves Abrioux as ‘a second archaeological operation [which] revives the memory of a find that had all but slipped into oblivion. In so doing, it hands the necklace back to the people of Bute’.3 After the exhibition, the channels cut into the grass to contain the sand were re-laid with a different type of grass from that of the surrounding lawn. Consequently, although the metaphoric gift described by Abrioux was no longer so clearly visible, it did remain as a shadow of what had momentarily been made obvious, which with passing time receded again through strata of vegetation and soil. Nonetheless, in certain conditions of light, growth and weather, the necklace remains discernible to the keen eye today.
These temporal works aside, the general trend with the Visual Arts Programme has been one of changing display, championing surprise and delight over permanence. As the name suggests, the programme is not a collection. Most works leave with the artist at the end of the exhibition. Although each new visiting artist finds their place among historic art works, intricate decoration and the natural, living collections, they do not have to negotiate spaces among works by their contemporaries.
Two exceptions are notable. In 2016 the fifteenth year of the programme was celebrated through a retrospective, That Which Remains. In addition to celebrating Gallaccio and Whiteford’s interventions, it explored what remains of previous exhibitions in popular memory, as well as inviting artists to re-lend works and present them in new or different ways. The other significant work that has remained at Mount Stuart is the installation by Langlands and Bell, Re Awakening (fig. 3). When commissioned in 2004, Langlands and Bell came across a small but unused private chapel designed by William Burges, one of the few rooms to have been saved when fire destroyed the original Mount Stuart house. The artists decided to re-awaken the space, to celebrate its spiritual intention and its artistry. To achieve this, they lined the floor of the chapel with mirror, thus presenting visitors with an actual leap of faith as they step into a disconcerting space where the arched ceiling becomes a visually cavernous floor, and phenomenological questions rebound.
Mining the Museum was the title of an influential exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, in 1992 by Fred Wilson. Working as artist and curator Wilson explored archives and stores in order to reveal the hidden histories on which the museum was founded. To varying degrees and each with their own critical lens, the contemporary artists invited to work at Mount Stuart can be seen to have mined the extensive collections there.
The Turner Prize nominee Nathan Coley’s 2006 project exemplifies this approach. One element of Coley’s exhibition involved the location and subsequent display of an object that had been stored for a hundred years: this was the silver casket used after the death of the third Marquess in 1900 to transport his heart to Jerusalem for burial. A beautiful object in its own right, the heart-shaped box was designed by the artist Horatio Walter Lonsdale and made by the goldsmith Charles Krall. The lid of the box is engraved with a depiction of the Crucifixion and a quotation from St Bernard (fig. 4). The casket is fastened with two tiny padlocks for which there are no keys. Tradition suggests that Lady Bute wore the keys on a necklace which she never removed. Coley chose to place this totemic object in the centre of the Marble Chapel, a resting place appropriate if not for the man who envisaged the chapel then for the emblem of both his body and spirit.
The stories of faith, romance, travel, history and artistry redolent in the casket serve as a counterpoint to the other works in Coley’s exhibition, the six-metre illuminated sign There Will Be No Miracles Here and the hardboard models, Camouflage Church, Camouflage Mosque and Camouflage Synagogue, works which pose questions of faith and practice, the seen and the unseen (fig. 5). As Andrea Schlieker has noted, by showing the previously hidden empty casket, Coley created an ‘elegant essay about . . . the poetics of the invisible’.4 Since the end of the exhibition the casket has remained on permanent display in the house.
This approach of bringing attention to unseen or unnoticed aspects of the collection can also be found in Sarah Staton’s 2007 exhibition In situ ex situ. She focused on the living collection and in particular the Bute family’s role in establishing the International Conifer Conservation Programme in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (fig. 6). Through wall drawings, sculptures and paintings, her detailed observations and playful re-working of found objects directed attention to the dual nature of wood as a living organism requiring conservation and as a material used in both fine art and in everyday domestic objects.
The shift from collected object to inspired art work is clearly realised in many of the Visual Arts Programme’s projects. Resonances to particular personal lines of enquiry lie dormant in such wide-ranging collections, only to be realised when one artist encounters the appropriate seam.
Christine Borland’s encounter with botanical drawings by John Miller commissioned by the 3rd Earl for his nine-volume Botanical Tables resulted in a wall painting as part of her 2003 exhibition (fig. 7). Her exhibition entitled An Hospital considered the transformation of Mount Stuart into a naval hospital during the First World War. A theme throughout was the vulnerability of human flesh contrasted with the imposing stone and marble architecture of the house, reflecting Borland’s interest in and artistic responses to medical and forensic practice. One particular drawing of crimson seaweed reminded Borland of the anatomical illustrations of the human nervous system and consequently her wallpainting re-imagined the human form as comprised of seaweed veins.
In 2018 Borland was invited to revisit this history on the centenary of the First World War Armistice. The resultant exhibition, to The Power of Twelve, transformed the interior of the house, focusing on the rooms which themselves had been radically re-purposed during the hospital era. Accordingly, the Marble Hall, a ward for up to fifty sailors in wartime, was the location for two companion works, to The Power of Twelve and Moss Pillow (fig. 8). This sculpture measuring six metres wide, while visually delightful with its bright pink circle encasing 444 reflective glass spheres, referenced a bomb crater Borland had visited in Flanders. The art work itself was one twelfth the size of the actual crater, which is now filled with water and maintained as a pool for peace and contemplation. Borland’s layering of detailed research with a sculptor’s sensibility for material and space demonstrated in these works continued throughout the exhibition. Among the other notable pieces were Moss Depository, a sphagnum moss-filled parachute hung like a tear-drop from the ceiling of the glass observatory, formerly used as the operating theatre. China Harvest covered a five-metre oak dining table in the shards of 144 exploded ceramic feeder cups arranged in waves of explosion strength. The installation Witness Boards II comprised photographic portraits of each of these cups before they were exploded (fig. 9). These images had also been included in the explosion chamber and their torn and holed remains were displayed on functional Perspex panels. As the writer and researcher Rebecca Gordon notes, embedded in all these works is a duality where ‘vulnerability and protection sit hand-in-hand’.5 Within the context of collection and display, Borland’s exhibition reminds us of the fluidity of history, of the family home as fully functioning hospital and of its extensive collection cared for alongside fragile people.
The artist Steven Claydon directly addressed questions of collecting and collections in an exhibition in 2017 entitled The Archipelago of Contented Peoples: Introduced Species. He actively sought to introduce sculptures that included elements from Melanesian cultures in direct contrast with the predominantly Western art works in the house. Claydon challenged audiences to reconsider the many spontaneous assumptions we make at first, casual glance (fig. 10). By working with materials that are not always what they initially seem (cast foam appearing as wood, for example) or using precious materials in unexpected ways (plastic barrels covered in gold leaf), Claydon asked if we could really believe our eyes. If initial assumptions are to be doubted, what other cultural structures and assumptions should we also be questioning?
By making a gift of a silver-plated cast Hawaiian stick/pocket god, Akua Ka’ai (Shrouded), to the Mount Stuart Trust and the archives in the Bute Collection, Claydon leaves these questions with us and imagines ongoing synergies between this work and other collected objects, as it becomes part of the process within the taxonomy of an archive (fig. 11).
Most recently, in 2019 the Mount Stuart Trust commissioned Martin Boyce to create a major outdoor work, An Inn For Phantoms Of The Outside And In. As with the work of Whiteford and Gallaccio, this work extends the display beyond the confines of the house walls to the grounds (fig. 12). On first encounter, the visitor sees what appears to be some kind of sports ground surrounded by chain-link fencing nestling between venerable oaks. Stepping closer, this ‘abandoned’ playground is far from what it seems: the posts that might have held a tennis net hold nothing, the sky-high poles balance steel flower heads, not floodlights, and, more disconcerting still, the fence is misaligned to the court surface. Other sculptural objects sit within the space. On crossing the threshold one enters a strangely out of kilter zone, where teenagers might have illicitly hung out or phantoms might well have already passed through (fig. 13).
A fascination with abandoned tennis courts meant that on an early site visit, Boyce was intrigued when he heard that for a short period there had indeed been a tennis court at Mount Stuart. An Inn for Phantoms Of The Outside And In is his response not to the actual court but to the memory of it. This simultaneously playful and inquisitive approach to memory and time echoes the eclectic architecture and the collections of Mount Stuart, raising questions such as what was here before? And what might come next? Such queries turn thoughts to the natural environment within which the work sits and to the visible signs of the passage of the seasons.
There are, however, no easy answers in Boyce’s work; the ‘nature’ surrounding the work is carefully managed parkland, every bit as designed as the work itself. Boyce’s signature shape vocabulary (visible in the doors, lanterns and posts) is inspired by the concrete trees designed by Jan and Joël Martel in the 1920s. Between the pine poles supporting the flower-head lanterns, industrial cables dangle. Even in a rural idyll infrastructure is visible (fig. 14), just as the beautiful coast around the island of Bute is marked with telegraph poles and signposts.
Much to Boyce’s delight, there are signs of unmanaged change around the work. His instruction not to weed or sweep the work allows falling leaves to gather and draw their own wind-shaped patterns, while irrepressible brackens and grasses break through the unseen membrane, bringing vibrant greens into the otherwise calming neutral colours. Embracing these changes, An Inn for Phantoms Of The Outside And In will be at Mount Stuart throughout 2021, giving the artist and visitor the opportunity to see what further changes to the work will come.
In addition to working with established artists, the programme maintains an educational remit. To this end, in 2018 the programme hosted its first new short residency for emerging artists practising in social engagement. This development extends the reach of the programme by providing opportunities both for artists at a crucial early career stage and for members of the local community who will be directly involved in artist-led projects (fig. 15).
Linking and underpinning the main exhibition and the emerging artist residency is a wide-ranging programme of educational and outreach activities, spanning artists’ talks, master-class workshops, family summer activities, school, college and university visits; from young critics to evening courses; from specialist tours to in-house trails, the programme aims to spark interest in and enhance understanding of contemporary visual art in visitors regardless of age or experience.
The unique collaborative process undertaken by artist, audience and organisation adds a further dimension to the collections and display, teases out and highlights strands of stories and histories, prompts conversation and conservation. In reciprocal relationships Mount Stuart nurtures artistic practice and careers – reciprocal because each project invigorates the context and provides a new view. Working with artists enables the organisation to engage in contemporary culture and discourse and continue the rapport Mount Stuart has fostered over generations.
In this time of COVID-19, Mount Stuart, as with many other country houses, had to close its doors, sadly postponing our 2020 plans. Looking forward with optimism, 2021 will be the twentieth anniversary of the Contemporary Visual Arts Programme and we are delighted that our invited artists for 2020 have been able to re-schedule their exhibitions. We look forward to celebrating our special year with an exhibition by Ilana Halperin, There Is A Volcano Behind My House, and a new project by Abbas Akhavan.
Ian Gale, ‘Shedding Light on Questions of Faith’, Scotland on Sunday, 28 May 2006.1
Anya Gallaccio, Anya Gallaccio, London: Ridinghouse, 2013, p. 239.2
Yves Abrioux, ‘Shadowing Mount Stuart’, in Kate Whiteford Archaeological Shadows, Isle of Bute: Mount Stuart Trust, 2003, p. 8.3
Andrea Schlieker, ‘Negotiating the Invisible: Nathan Coley at Mount Stuart’, in Nathan Coley, Isle of Bute: Mount Stuart Trust, 2006, p. 20.4
Rebecca Gordon, ‘Singing Dichotomies’, in to The Power of Twelve, Isle of Bute: Mount Stuart Trust, 2018, p. 17.5
- by Morven Gregor and Sophie Crichton Stuart
- 20 November 2020
- House Essay
- CC BY-NC International 4.0
- Cite as
- Morven Gregor, Sophie Crichton Stuart, "Contemporary Visual Arts Programme", Art and the Country House, https://doi.org/10.17658/ACH/MSE602