The hottest exhibition to launch this spring in Britain is a paean to avant-garde design. American supercurator Glenn Adamson has assembled pieces in crystallized resin, curvy carved travertine and faux fur by top names. Creative polymath Ini Archibong will be in the house, along with Fernando Laposse, who designs with plant fibres, and Faye Toogood, who assembles raw materials into furnishings with primitive forms. Yet the pieces won’t be seen in any London gallery or design-forward museum.
Instead, they’ll sit within the Baroque rooms of Chatsworth House, a stately home built in the 17th century for the first Duke of Devonshire, and spread out across the surrounding acreage, designed by Capability Brown, go-to landscaper of the 18th century. Located in rural Derbyshire, the house isn’t a natural destination for people from either city, let alone London, two hours away. And yet when Chatsworth puts on a show, they line up down the sweeping drive.
The house is a worthy attraction in its own right: memorable as the setting for Pride & Prejudice starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, and stuffed with tapestries and Old Masters. The third Duke was a tireless collector of Palladian furniture; the fifth’s wife sat for Gainsborough and Reynolds. “Everything in the collections was new at some point,” says Jane Marriott, appointed director in January. “Chatsworth has always been a centre for ideas and creativity, and there is definitely a willingness to try new things, and reach new audiences.”
Just not always in a style that pits crafty glass and steel against a George II gilt armchair. Chatsworth’s 126 frescoed rooms are hardly hotbeds of progressiveness – there weren’t even bathrooms until the 1950s. Only in the past several years has the Duke offered up the collection for public viewing. What began with a taste of modern British painting by the portraitist Lucian Freud evolved into larger-than-life sculptures such as Leaning Fork with Meatball and Spaghetti II by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. Last year, he and his family hauled in five recycled-glass Elysian Towers by the Los Angeles artist Shrine as part of a tribute to the sculpture of Burning Man, the annual arts-festival-on-acid in Nevada. In 15 years, visitor numbers have grown by 200,000 annually.
The current Duke, known as “Stoker,” and his son William, the heir apparent, share their ancestors’ passion for collecting art – if of a slightly more sensational flavour. They recruited Marriott specifically to broaden the arts offering – to deliver “a compelling creative programme to reach and engage new audiences in the U.K. and globally.” As William says in the press announcement, “Jane’s experience and achievements in the arts, culture and heritage arenas make her the perfect person to lead an ambitious new chapter of growth and development.”
In her last role at the stately home Harewood House, Marriott oversaw a showcase called Radical Acts, where craftspeople explored current political issues through the prism of the house, built with profits from the slave trade. Harewood’s permanent contemporary gallery has displayed ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) video art and “haunted” doll’s houses – tied to the history of the manor, to the relief of traditionalists.
It’s not easy to keep track of the British manor houses turning to contemporary art for added value. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, the Tudor castle Sudeley, deep in the Cotswolds, worked on its new “safari” of life-sized rhinos and elephants created from plant matter. This year, Mount Stuart, a Neo-Gothic mansion west of Glasgow, will give its marble floor over to performance artist Monster Chetwynd, who’ll use costume and mise-en-scène to reference the climate crisis. Next week, Pitzhanger Manor, built by British legend Sir John Soane, invites sculptor Anthony Caro, another national treasure, to mount his works in Perspex and steel against the stained glass and Regency brick of the building.
Houghton Hall, a Palladian manor near the Norfolk coast built for Britain’s first prime minister, is arguably more famous for its superlative sculpture park. Its owner, the seventh Marquess of Cholmondeley, effectively launched it when, in 2000, he invited artist James Turrell to install one of his mesmerizing Skyspace viewing chambers in the formal gardens. An aperture in the ceiling directs the eye upward to the sky, which offers differing “canvases” to contemplate throughout the day.
Another thing these houses have in common? The need to create serious revenue.
Living in a stately home – those country piles typically passed from landed gentry to the eldest scion – is no longer for layabouts and ne’er-do-wells. A century has passed since aristocrats financed their lifestyles with government stipends or rent from tenant farmers. Since the advent of estate taxes, land taxes, inheritance taxes and massive insurance premiums, houses worth millions cost millions to maintain – particularly if the house is on the National Heritage List, which most built before 1840 are. Often a sense of duty outweighs, or adds to, the burden. A stately home that’s been in the family for nearly a millennium is not for selling off. What if it’s been painted by J.M.W. Turner? What if granny is buried in the chapel?
The organization Historic Houses, set up decades ago to support homeowners with names like Spencer, Churchill and Holland-Hibbert, reckons its members have five-, six- and even seven-figure running costs. Together they face a backlog of £1.5-billion in essential repairs, lest the electrics catch fire or the kitchen floods.
Not surprisingly, the number of historic houses has dropped from nearly 5,000 in the mid-19th century to about 3,000 today. And those, says Historic Houses director Ben Cowell, “deserve to be much better known.”
Living a semi-public life has long been necessity for owning families, who typically camp out in a private wing so the grand halls can accommodate visitors – because, says Cowell, “owners can avoid taxes by keeping houses open to the public.”
Yet young, diverse crowds need more than powdered-wig portraits and rose gardens to draw them in. Diversification is the answer. Diversification can mean holding an electronic music festival, if the owner has a passion for amateur DJ-ing, or a historic re-enactments, if they’re into cosplay. Currently, though, contemporary art outshines them all.
A decade ago, Houghton Hall diversified by welcoming in the public to view that James Turrell. The family acquired more site-specific works – among them a granite monolith by Anish Kapoor and giant sphere of steel refuse by Ryan Gander – to set off Houghton’s strict Georgian symmetry. Gradually the typical visitors began to include not only garden-rambler and architecture buff but also art aficionado.
“Without doubt, such exhibitions attract a new audience of people who travel here specifically to see the spectacular art interacting with the historic landscape and the architecture of the house,” says the marquess, Lord Cholmondeley. “However, we always see an uplift of visitors when we hold a new exhibition, with numbers more than doubling in recent exhibition years, compared to those when we have not held one.”
He says Houghton has already had “overwhelming interest” in a coming show of paintings and Murano-glass sculptures by Irish artist Sean Scully, to span the grounds and interior spaces this spring.
And while Lord Cholmondeley’s story is a success, some of the luckiest aren’t even “lords” at all. Take Robert Wilson, who in 1999 purchased Bonnington House, a Jacobean manor near Edinburgh, with the fortune he created running the homeopathic medicine giant Nelsons. When his wife, Nicky, began collecting outdoor sculptures – first commissioning a neo-burial mound by landscape architect Charles Jencks that sets off the 100 rolling acres – Robert was the philanthropist who made it possible.
The couple launched Jupiter Artland a decade later, so guests could roam Bonnington’s grounds like treasure-hunters, spotting a diaphanous steel matrix by prolific sculptor Antony Gormley in a wildflower meadow, or a concrete and scrap-metal “sky frame” by sculptor Phyllida Barlow in concert with the gnarly beech trees. What sets Jupiter apart is the family’s total devotion to contemporary art over heritage – the private interiors of Bonnington are not part of the package.
But the views tell a similar story: of an ancient landscape indelibly marked by the passage of time. The cultural landscape will never be the same again.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly located Chatsworth House. This version has been updated.
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