Harlaxton Manor – where Americans learn about the Brits

The histories of the US and the UK are closely intertwined. Some might call it a love/hate relationship, but in truth it’s characterised primarily by confusion. I mean, why do the Brits drive on the wrong side of the road? And why can’t Americans learn to spell like the English? These are good questions, and hark back to the misunderstandings that arose during the Second World War when US troops based in the UK prior to D-Day were widely resented for being “overpaid, over-sexed and over here.”

Harlaxton Manor, built between 1832 and 1854

In a noble, but in all likelihood doomed attempt to bridge the great divide, the University of Evansville (Indiana) delivers an immersive British Studies course out of the architecturally splendid Harlaxton Manor, which lies deep in the verdant countryside of the county of Lincolnshire. The Harlaxton College website describes the course in these terms:

British Studies is a Harlaxton signature program, taught by British professors. It is a multidisciplinary program comprising two course options unified by a focus on the issues, historical and contemporary, and cultural trends, that both create and dislocate a sense of national identity in modern Britain. 

Harlaxton College website, retrieved 29/07/22

It must be a brain-frying experience for young students from the US to spend two semesters based in a building as extraordinary as Harlaxton Manor, but I hope they don’t think it’s in any way indicative of the way real Brits live, or have ever lived. Harlaxton is a fairy tale, simply one man’s breath-taking fantasy cast in stone, courtesy of the vast wealth at his disposal.

A potted history of Harlaxton Manor

The man responsible for Harlaxton Manor was one Gregory Gregory (1786–1854). That’s not the name he was born with, but he adopted it anyway, suggesting to me that he was at least one card short of a full deck.

Rear view

Gregory evidently came from a wealthy family. He inherited the land on which the Manor now sits, as well as an earlier Harlaxton Manor House dating from the 14th century. He was rolling in money – his inheritance included holdings in various canal and railway companies, as well as a number of coal mines.

So what does a man do when he has more money than good sense? What he does is to let the manor house he has inherited go to rack and ruin, and commission in its place perhaps the most extravagant English country house of the 19th century.

Gregory spent much of the 1820s attached to various British embassies overseas, although exactly what he was up to isn’t clear. But what is known is that during his time away from the UK he spent a fortune buying up works of art. He clearly had a burning passion for European art and architecture, and the money to indulge his obsession.

On returning to his native land Gregory wanted somewhere appropriately palatial to display his acquisitions, and thus was the Harlaxton Manor project conceived. He also had a grand vision, to fuse Elizabethan and Jacobean architectural styles with Baroque, and he hired some of the finest architects of the early 19th century to help him achieve it.

Is Gregory’s Harlaxton Manor a bold, imaginative and ground-breaking masterpiece, or simply an act of narcissistic self-indulgence by a wealthy man possessed of a somewhat delusional mind? Well, I guess the jury’s out on that one. But he was clearly making a statement, something along the lines of I’m so wealthy I can afford whatever I damned well like. Live with it! Modesty, subtlety and restraint were evidently not Gregory Gregory’s strong points.

The Gold Room

For what it’s worth – and I confess to knowing nothing much about architecture! – for me the design lacks coherence and perhaps a degree of good taste. Opulence in excess can be oppressive, and jumbles of monumental, bright and shiny stuff are not necessarily beautiful. Sometimes less is more, but Gregory Gregory would never settle for less when he could show off his wealth and status by having (a lot) more.

Having said that, Harlaxton has the wow factor and don’t we all need a bit of wow in our lives sometimes? But I wouldn’t want to live there, even if you paid me!

Work started on Harlaxton Manor in 1832 and ended with Gregory’s demise in 1854. After his death it passed through several owners. During the First World War, the grounds were used to train soldiers in trench warfare, and during the Second World War the Manor was requisitioned and used as the officers’ mess for nearby RAF Harlaxton. Three years after the war ended, the then owner Mrs Violet Van der Elst (inventor of the world’s first brush-less shaving cream!) sold Harlaxton to the Society of Jesus (Jesuits).

The Gold Room

The Jesuits’ intention was to use the Manor as a novice centre, where recruits new to the faith would be housed and honed. But things did not go as planned. The anticipated number of 200 novices on site proved wildly optimistic, and when numbers dropped to around 50 the Jesuits decided to cut their losses.

Harlaxton reprieved: the Americans save the day

In 1965, the Jesuits leased the Manor to California’s Stanford University, making it the first American university campus in the UK. Stanford remained at Harlaxton for four years, before moving their “Stanford in Britain” programme to another, less provincial part of the country. It was at this point that the University of Evansville stepped in, leasing the Manor from the Jesuits and opening its international study centre there in 1971. Sixteen years later, in 1987, the University acquired outright ownership and quickly set about making it their own.

The Morning Room

Today, during the regular academic year, Harlaxton College hosts over 300 students from the University of Evansville and various other US colleges and universities. During each summer around 1,000 further people attend summer schools, short courses and conferences, and a few lucky couples (loaded with cash, I imagine!) even get married there. Once or twice a year the College holds an open day when locals, and travellers from further afield like Mrs P and I, can visit and gaze in bewildered awe at Gregory Gregory’s architectural excesses.

Harlaxton was buzzing with visitors when we visited earlier this summer, our last trip out before succumbing to Covid. Everyone having a whale of a time. The open day was, as you would expect, impeccably organised and the hosts – all proudly sporting their college shirts – were unfailingly polite.

The Great Hall

At one point I fell into easy conversation with one of the Harlaxton crew, a young intern from Charlotte, North Carolina, pointing out to her that the signage directing visitors to the toilets referred to them as “restrooms.” I explained to my new friend that this twee euphemism is a North American confection, and would never, ever be encountered in a genuinely British public building.

Harlaxton Manor may be an extravagantly over-the-top British building nestled deep in the English countryside, but the signage, politeness and organisational polish on show that afternoon made it absolutely plain that we were on US soil. And it felt good!

British Studies? Good luck with that, guys!

My academic life ended many decades ago, but I can’t help but be intrigued by Harlaxton College’s British Studies course. What are they telling those poor American kids about us? Is any of it true? And who is to say what is true, anyway, in these days of division, disharmony and unprecedented change?

The Great Hall

The College website proclaims (boasts?) that the course is taught by “British professors.” That sounds like a good thing, but being British and bright doesn’t mean you necessarily fully understand Britishness…my passport proves I’m British and my Cambridge University degree suggests I’m quite bright, but have I totally nailed the essence of Britishness? No, probably not. Maybe I should sign up for the course!

But if I did take the course, I’d appreciate some foreign perspectives on Britishness as well those of the – doubtlessly estimable – “British professors.” Maybe we Brits are just too close to the subject to fully understand what’s going on here.

The Long Gallery

To its credit, Harlaxton offers a “Meet a Family Experience”, enabling students to get to know some ordinary Brits. In this way they are able to get up close and personal with aspects of British life that might be challenging to convey in erudite College lectures. If we lived closer than a two-hour drive from Harlaxton I’d be tempted to sign up, and then bore some poor unsuspecting youngster rigid with my limited, flawed insights on being British in 2022. I might even try to explain to him – or her – the rules of cricket, but only if I were feeling particularly mischievous.

I’m glad our American cousins, in the guise of the University of Evansville, stepped in to help save Harlaxton Manor, which, for all its architectural excesses, deserves to be saved. I’m also glad that the University is using the Manor as a base to increase mutual understanding between our two great nations. God knows, we both need all the friends we can get right now, don’t we?

Ante Room ceiling

But I fear that, however hard Harlaxton tries, the mysteries of British driving and American spelling will be with us all for some time to come!

The lost summer: catching Covid is the final straw

This should have been the summer of the new normal, when we finally put the pandemic behind us, got on with life and had some fun (ah yes, fun, I remember that…I had some once!) Only it hasn’t worked out like that. Describing the last few weeks as “the lost summer” may sound melodramatic, but although there have been a few highlights – the Burning Man sculpture trail, for example, and our visit to Pensthorpe Natural Park – overall I’m left with a nagging sense of regret for what might have been.

Wardrobe woes last for weeks

The project to replace our bulky freestanding wardrobe and sundry other old, tired pieces of furniture with a suite of new fitted units in a splendidly redecorated bedroom should have taken just five or six days. In the event it ended up taking five weeks. Five miserable weeks during which we camped out in the spare bedroom with our clothes and various other possessions scattered chaotically throughout the rest of the house! Five tedious weeks when we waited at home expectantly, day after day, hoping something would happen, only to find nothing ever did.

Our woes began when we decided this wardrobe needed replacing!

Don’t get me wrong. Now that the job is complete we’re pleased with our new bedroom. It looks great, and we’re pleased we had it done. But although the destination has proved agreeable, the journey was an unmitigated nightmare. Never again!

Hot! Hot! Hot! Temperature records tumble

Once the bedroom project was done we were determined to get out and about, to escape into the local countryside and relax a bit. But it didn’t turn out that way, courtesy of climate change. There are those who claim climate change is fake news, the invention of mad scientists or duplicitous politicians. Now, some scientists may be mad and many politicians are clearly duplicitous, but here’s the thing guys: climate change is real, as we were reminded to our cost a few weeks ago.

IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Raphael Wild on Unsplash

Pretty much immediately after the bedroom was finally fixed, climate change flexed its muscles and the UK was hit by an unprecedented heatwave. Records tumbled like the walls of Jericho, and we spent our days indoors, hiding from the sun and emerging only late in the evening to water the tomatoes and the beans. Mrs P and I are not built for hot weather, and having fun was out of the question. Our ambitions extended no further than desperately trying to stay cool.

What a waste, but on the other hand what was the alternative?

The final straw – Covid catches up with us at last!

All things must pass, and so it was that eventually the torrid temperatures gave way to something less unbearable. At last, an opportunity to escape the house! Just a few days after the heatwave broke, Mrs P spent a morning at a craft workshop, indulging in a hobby that has been an important part of her retirement. Unfortunately, one of her fellow crafters must have been suffering from Covid, and a couple of days later so was Mrs P. And just 48 hours after, I was showing all the symptoms too!

IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Ever since the pandemic started we’d been cautious, behaved responsibly and avoided unnecessary risks. Mr and Mrs Platypus are also known as Mr and Mrs Sensible. Boring we may be, but the aim was always to stay healthy and enjoy the benefits that good health brings.

Of course it could have been worse, much worse. We have lived to tell the tale, after all. And, thankfully, we’ve now tested clear and are feeling quite a lot better. Although we’re not yet firing on all cylinders, there’s no indication so far that “long Covid” has got its claws into us. But it was bad enough while it lasted, which was nearly two weeks. Two weeks of wearying, aching, cough-crazy self-isolation, confined to Platypus Towers when we should have been out enjoying ourselves.

Worst of all, probably, was the impact on our sense of taste and smell. It wasn’t that we were unable to taste anything at all, but rather that everything tasted wrong and a lot of it tasted horrible. Mrs P and I both enjoy cooking, and during our two weeks with Covid we had plenty of time to devote to culinary endeavours. But what would have been the point, given that everything we prepared tasted like an unfortunate accident in a badly-run food warehouse?

IMAGE CREDIT: dronepicr, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Realistically, I suppose it was inevitable Covid would catch up with us in the end. That, after all, is the nature of a pandemic – the disease is everywhere and one day your luck runs out, however careful you may be. And I suppose we should be grateful: in the two years since Covid first hit the variants of the virus have become less serious, and the vaccinations we have had may also have helped reduce the severity of our symptoms.

The good news is that, finally, Covid is behind us. We’re doing our best to make up for lost time, but the last few months still feel like the lost summer.

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Postscript, 10 August: I drafted this post a few days ago in a spirit of hope and expectation, immediately after we tested clear of Covid. Since then, however, a second horrible heatwave has descended upon this sizzling nation, and once again we are stuck indoors, hiding from the sun.

And we both continue, in our different ways, to feel below par, not seriously sick but definitely a trifle unwell. Maybe it’s the heat, or maybe it’s the after-effects of Covid. Or a combination of the two? Who knows? But whatever the cause, I’d like to put on record here that I’ve had enough. Roll on, winter!

Update, 16 August: Well, at least the heatwave is beginning to lose its venom, but an official drought has been declared in this – and many other – parts of the country. Our rivers and reservoirs are running dry, and the measly amount of rain that’s fallen in the past 24 hours won’t even begin to sort out the problem. This is a summer I’d dearly like to forget, but sadly I don’t think that will happen any time soon. Woe is me!

One of the new fitted units in the bedroon. Never again!

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The Burning Man comes to Derbyshire

The local arts and culture brigade got very excited recently, after news broke that we were to be treated to a Burning Man Sculpture Trail on parkland surrounding Chatsworth House in our home county of Derbyshire. The sense of anticipation was understandable: Burning Man is a huge annual event in the Nevada desert, and has never previously been seen in the UK.

Burning Man started on a California beach in 1986, when artists set light to an 8 feet (2.4 m) tall wooden man. This act of “radical self-expression” caught the imagination of the local artistic community to such an extent that the burning was repeated the following year, when the effigy had almost doubled in size. By 1988 it was twice as tall again, reaching a height of 30 feet (9.1 m).

In 1990 the event moved to a location in the Nevada desert, and began to grow rapidly. In 2019, the last year before the Covid pandemic, participants in the Burning Man event numbered nearly 79,000 and the effigy had grown to 61 feet (19m) in height.

The stated mission of the Burning Man Project is:

“to produce the annual event known as Burning Man and to guide, nurture and protect the more permanent community created by its culture. Our intention is to generate society that connects each individual to his or her creative powers, to participation in community, to the larger realm of civic life, and to the even greater world of nature that exists beyond society.”

Source: Burning Man website, retrieved 22/07/22

The Chatsworth estate

Chatsworth House, built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire. In 1981 the house, many of its contents and 737 hectares (1,822 acres) of the surrounding landscape were leased to the Chatsworth House Trust, and the family now pays rent to the Trust for the apartment they occupy. The current (12th) Duke and Duchess work with the charity and others to welcome visitors to Chatsworth.

Be in no doubt, Chatsworth House is a big business. According to its 2018 annual review, in 2017/18 the house and gardens welcomed a little over 600,000 visitors, generated income of almost £15m and employed 366 people, including 114 full-time posts.

Covid hit Chatsworth hard, so there’s ground to make up. In that context, securing an exhibition linked to Burning Man, a brand with a global reputation, was a real coup. Although access to the sculpture trail itself is free, parking at Chatsworth certainly isn’t, so the Trust is doubtless laughing all the way to the bank. But that’s OK, they deserve credit and a bit of profit too, for having the vision to host Radical Horizons: The Art of Burning Man.

Wings of Glory, by Adrian Landon

The first sculpture we spotted after parking our car was Wings of Glory, inspired by the Pegasus myth and sculptor Adrian Landon’s fascination with horses. Fashioned from metal and standing around 20 feet high, the sculpture is appropriately located close to Chatsworth’s former stable block. Every hour, with a painful clanking and grinding sound of metal-on-metal, it languorously flaps its wings and puts on a show. The giant Pegasus appeared at Burning Man in Nevada in 2019.

Mum, by Mr & Mrs Ferguson

Perhaps because we have enjoyed seeing bears in the wild on several occasions in North America, Mum resonates deeply with us and is one of our favourite sculptures on the Radical Horizons trail. A bear cub climbing on its mother’s back can’t help being cute, but look closer and you can see that the bears’ coats are fashioned from around 55,000 US and Canadian pennies embedded into a polystyrene and concrete body. Mother and cub were born in California, where they were created exclusively for the Burning Man at Chatsworth exhibition.

Coralee, by Dana Albany et al

The ethos of the Burning Man is underpinned by 10 Principles. Two of these, “Communal Effort” and “Participation”, seek to encourage everyone to get involved in the production and appreciation of works of art. These Principles are reflected in Coralee, which was created by artist Dana Albany working with children from Spire School in the nearby town of Chesterfield.

Coralee, which for artist Dana Albany symbolises female strength and good luck, depicts a mermaid and is based on a local Derbyshire legend. On the face of it this is a bit crazy, given that this landlocked county is many miles from the sea, and therefore not an obvious haunt for mermaids! However there is a small lake in Derbyshire’s Peak District that was popular in ancient Celtic water-worship rituals. It’s known as the Mermaid’s Pool.

The waters of the Mermaid’s Pool are believed to offer healing qualities to those mad enough to bathe in them. At Easter, in the dead of night, a mermaid is said to appear in the pool. If she likes the look of you she will grant you immortality. But if you don’t take her fancy she will pull you beneath the icy water, where you will inevitably drown. It is, I have to say, one of the most unexpected and bizarre Derbyshire legends I have ever encountered, and it’s good to see it given a new lease of life in this piece of contemporary sculpture.

And what a wonderful, uplifting piece of artwork it is. The body is fashioned in part out of recycled metal artefacts including spoons, springs, sprockets, hinges, bicycle chains and assorted pieces of wire, while the mermaid’s tail features fish scales made from recycled glass. The focus on recycling reflects a concern for the environment that is implicit in Burning Man’s Principles of “Civic Responsibility” and “Leave No Trace”.

Coralee is without doubt my favourite of all the pieces that make up the Radical Horizons sculpture trail. I do hope that it lives on somewhere, whether that be at Chatsworth or elsewhere, once Radical Horizons comes to an end in September.

Elysian Spires, by “Shrine”

Artist “Shrine” worked with children from the Derbyshire Virtual School to produce Elysian Spires. The School seeks to “enhance the life opportunities for Derbyshire children [living in the care of the County Council] by supporting and promoting the importance of their education, and enabling them to achieve the best they can be.” Created with the participation of this community of young people, and celebrating the turning of non-precious objects – in this case hundreds of donated glass bottles – into treasure, Elysian Spires is clearly in line with the guiding Principles that also underpin Coralee.

Flybrary, by Christina Sporrong

Flybrary dominates the view as you drive to the Chatsworth car park. Books fly from the 20 foot high rusty metal head, books which for artist Christina Sporrong represent a flurry of ideas. She invites viewers of her sculpture to let their imaginations run wild, and asks “what’s on your mind?” And isn’t that the point of the whole Radical Horizons exhibition, that it stimulates the imagination and encourages unfettered thinking. Great stuff!

Lodestar, by Randy Polumbo

Lodestar features the shiny fuselage of a World War II jet plane that went by the same name. Its nose touches the ground, while a flower blooms from its tail. Away from the world of aeronautics, the word “lodestar” is a star (especially the Pole Star) that is used to guide the course of a ship, and this prominent, eye-catching sculpture certainly acts as a marker for anyone seeking to navigate their way around the Radical Horizons exhibition.

Transmutation, by Arturo Gonzales and Maru Izaguirrre

Transmutation is inspired by the brightly coloured Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures known as alebrije. In this case, a colourful sabre-toothed cat sporting both antlers and wings takes to the air above Chatsworth, and encourages the viewer to wonder “what if…?”.

Wings of Wind by Bryan Tedrick

Wings of Wind is another sculpture that is made in part from reclaimed materials. It is moveable and rotates slowly in the wind, or when pushed by eager visitors who are also allowed (encouraged, even) to clamber over it. As it spins, different parts of the landscape are framed by the steel hoop upon which the two wings are hung. In this photograph, it frames a distant view of Chatsworth House.

Murder Inc., by Charles Gadeken

Murder Inc. is unlike any of the other sculptures in Radical Horizons. The rest are monumental in scale, but with Murder Inc. it is not size but quantity that counts. This work comprises exactly one hundred separate pieces, and as artist Charles Gadeken is keen for us to know, each one is different.

The crows of Murder Inc. are life-sized and life-coloured (black!), and show the birds going about their normal daily business. At a glance, and before you clock that they aren’t moving or making any noise, it’s easy to believe that this is a flock or living, breathing birds.

Crows feature heavily in folklore, both in the UK and in many other parts of the world. Often regarded as symbols of death, the collective name for crows is “a murder” which is clearly the inspiration for the title of Charles Gadeken’s work.

Q: When is art not art? A: When it’s a horse jump!

Our morning spent viewing the Radical Horizons exhibition at Chatsworth was inspiring, demonstrating clearly that in the 21st century art comes in all shapes and sizes. In fact it’s sometimes difficult to know just where art ends and real life begins.

As we were wandering through Chatsworth’s parkland, seeking out the various sculptures that make up Radical Horizons, we came across the impressive piece of work shown in the photograph above. It was pleasing to the eye and sat comfortably in the surrounding landscape. Anxious to know more we checked out the trail guide, but were puzzled to find it wasn’t listed.

Not to be defeated, we searched high and low around the work to find an information board that might tell us about the artist and the title of his sculpture. Still no joy. And then, suddenly, we twigged, finally understanding what was going on. This isn’t part of the Radical Horizons Sculpture Trail at all. Rather, it is simply an elegant horse jump, one of many scattered about the Chatsworth parkland.

But who is to say that the horse jump doesn’t also constitute a work of art? Art really does come in all shapes and sizes!

An architect unchained: celebrating Augustus Pugin’s masterpiece

Architects have a frustrating life, don’t they, forever constrained by the briefs and the budgets of their paymasters, always wondering how much more they could achieve if their clients would only interfere a bit less and pay a bit more. But just occasionally, when the stars are in alignment and the gods smile benevolently upon him, an architect is given a free hand to express himself.

At 61m (200ft) Giles church is Cheadle’s tallest building

Augustus Pugin was one such architect, and when the chains were removed he built his masterpiece, St Giles church in the Staffordshire town of Cheadle. Otherwise known as Pugin’s Gem, St Giles is a Grade I listed Roman Catholic church built in the Gothic Revival style. With a spire standing 61m (200ft) high, it is by some way Cheadle’s tallest building, and is – in my humble opinion anyway – absolutely spectacular.

Looking down the nave towards the altar

If you’re not from the UK you almost certainly have never heard of Cheadle. I’m guessing most Brits aren’t familiar with it either. This is a humble West Midlands market town of around 11,000 people. For hundreds of years the main industry in the Cheadle area was coal mining, but the mines have all closed now and the town’s main employer (JCB) makes mechanical diggers and excavators. It’s a remarkably unremarkable little place, and would be instantly forgettable were it not for the efforts of Mr Pugin.

The arches, walls and pillars are covered in decorative stencilling

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812-1852), the son of a French draughtsman and designer, was a prodigiously talented and prolific architect whose output included the interior designs for the Palace of Westminster, and over one hundred churches and cathedrals. He also managed to find time to pen eight books on architecture and design before dying at the age of just 40, succumbing – it is believed – to the effects of syphilis that he first contracted in his late teens.

View across the nave towards the pulpit. To the right of the pulpit is the rood screen, intended to protect the altar from irreverent gaze! Above the rood screen is Christ on the cross, with figurines of Our Lady and St John on either side.

Pugin’s patron in the building of St Giles was John Talbot, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury (1791-1852). In 1829, two years after Talbot succeeded to the title, Parliament passed the Catholic Relief Act, better known as the Catholic Emancipation Act, 1829. This important piece of legislation allowed Roman Catholics to become Members of Parliament and to occupy all but a handful of public offices at a stroke, overturning restrictions that had been in place for hundreds of years.

Shrewsbury’s principal residence was at Alton Abbey – which he renamed Alton Towers – just 6 miles (9km) from Cheadle. The Earl took a keen interest in the spiritual welfare of Catholics in the town, and, emboldened by the Catholic Emancipation Act, he engaged Pugin to build a church there. Pugin, himself a Catholic, had previously undertaken an architectural commission for Shrewsbury at Alton Towers, and had impressed the Earl with his contention that Christian (or gothic) art and architecture could be a powerful weapon in the re-conversion of England to the Catholic faith.

The pulpit is carved from a single block of stone and features images of four saints

It was a marriage seemingly made in heaven. The Earl had the money, Pugin had the creative talent and the pair of them shared a passionate commitment to the Roman Catholic faith. Cheadle’s Catholic population was modest in size, but Pugin’s design was the opposite: extravagant, exuberant and extraordinary.

When St Giles was consecrated in 1846, the service was attended by Bishops, Archbishops and overseas statesmen, as well as the great and the good from the world of architecture and design. Cheadle had never seen anything like it before, and probably never will again.

Between the arch and the roof is a Doom Painting, a representation of the Last Judgment.

When we visited St Giles last year, I didn’t know quite what to expect, but insofar as I had expectations, Pugin’s Gem exceeded them one hundred fold. It is a breath-taking creation, all the more so for being located in this small and otherwise insignificant Staffordshire town. To describe it as totally over the top does not adequately describe its impact on the visitor, but you probably get the general idea!

The altar and reredos are carved out of alabaster. On the front of the altar are angels playing musical instruments. On the reredos the angels hold torches and censers.

I can’t agree with Pugin that architecture alone is capable of inducing religious conversion: in the 21st century such views are either wishful thinking or a dangerous delusion, depending on your point of view. My own spiritual beliefs were utterly untroubled by his masterpiece, but St Giles church remains clear in my memory, monumental and magnificent, a vivid testament to what can be achieved by an architect unchained.

Saving Heage windmill

Back in the early 19th century around 10,000 windmills graced this green and pleasant land. These days they’re pretty thin on the ground, but luckily my home county of Derbyshire boasts one fine example: Heage Windmill. Just a couple of miles up the road from Platypus Towers, it is a sturdy, reassuring presence in the local landscape, popular with locals and tourists alike.

Sadly, however, looks can be deceiving, and not for the first time the mill is currently in danger. Major repairs are urgently needed, so it’s all hands on deck to raise the money needed to get it fixed.

* * * * *

The village of Heage (pronounced heej) lies 13 miles (21km) north of Derby. The name is a corruption of ‘High Edge’ and comes from the Anglo-Saxon Heegge meaning high, lofty and sublime. It’s therefore an ideal spot to locate a windmill, a fact that did not go unnoticed by an enterprising businessman in the late 18th century.

Reports in the Derby Mercury imply that construction of Heage Windmill began in 1791, and was completed by 1797. It had four sails, and as such differed little from a host of other windmills scattered throughout Derbyshire at the time. The local population was expanding rapidly in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and with it the demand for flour. In the circumstances it seemed certain that the new mill would enjoy a long and busy working life.

But any structure that is deliberately located to catch the wind is inevitably vulnerable to being wrecked by it, so it should come as no surprise that in February 1894 the cap and four sails were blown off in a violent storm. Repairs were soon underway and Heage Windmill was reborn with its now familiar six sails, which would have provided more power to the millstones than the standard four sail configuration.

The repairs were doubtless well made, but the wind kept on blowing and in 1919 Heage Windmill was once again severely damaged by a howling gale. This time there were no repairs: the country was in a financial mess as it sought to recover from the horrors of World War 1, and wind power was in any case regarded as outdated technology.

The mill languished, unloved and unlovely, for some 15 years before being sold for £25 (USD 33). However, its milling days seemed to be over for good: the tower was used only for storage and fell into ever greater disrepair, a situation made even worse in 1961 when it was struck by lightning.

Heage Windmill’s fortunes began to change in 1966, when a legally-binding Building Preservation Order was placed on it. Two years later Derbyshire County Council stepped in to buy it for the princely sum of £350 (USD 456). Although this meant the mill was now in public ownership, finding the money to restore it to working order was – inevitably, I suppose – beyond the Council’s capabilities. The sails would only turn again a generation later, when the local community and a motley band of mill enthusiasts took up the challenge.

In 1996, with the Council’s support, the mill’s supporters formed a charitable trust with the aim of getting it going.  Hope at last! But just a year later, as Heage Windmill Society was finalising its plans, lightning struck the tower once more. The mill’s supporters were devastated, their dreams seemingly in tatters.

Luckily this time the damage done by the lightning strike was not serious, and work to restore the mill soon recommenced. It was an expensive project, but the Society rose heroically to the challenge, raising nearly £450,000 (USD 588,000) from various sources. Their efforts, together with the hard work of countless volunteers, prevailed and Heage Windmill finally opened to the public on 1 June, 2002.

Job well done, you might think. And it was, but of course nothing lasts forever. In 2015/16 severe rot set in, and a major fund-raising effort was needed to sort it. The money poured in and Heage Windmill was saved again. I guess the Society thought it could finally relax, but it was not to be. Earlier this year further structural defects were identified, and they need rectifying urgently. It feels like we’ve been here before!

* * * * *

Heage Windmill officially opened for the 2022 season just a few days ago, and there was a good turn out to see local television personality and celebrity auctioneer Charles Hanson cut the ribbon. But although the weather was uncharacteristically balmy and a fine time was had by all, everyone “in the know” probably had just one thing on their mind: how do we, once again, raise a vast sum of money to save our precious windmill?

It sounds daunting, but this is no time to be downhearted. Like Lazarus, Heage Windmill has a track record of rising from the grave. It’s an iconic landmark hereabouts, and as the only working six-sailed stone tower windmill in England it is also a building of national significance. Losing it is unthinkable. This iconic mill has survived countless misfortunes in its 225 years of existence, and given the scale of support that was evident at the official opening I’m confident it will be saved again.

In a country churchyard

Mrs P’s father has set himself the challenge of photographing every Anglican church in our home county of Derbyshire. It’s a big ask – there are several hundred places of worship that meet his criteria – so we’re helping out when we can by snapping churches we come across during our travels.

Church of St Peter and St Paul, Old Brampton

Derbyshire churches come in all shapes and sizes, the good, the bad and the ugly. But the exterior view of any church is always improved by an interesting churchyard. When we drove up to the church of St Peter and St Paul, Old Brampton in the north of the county a few weeks ago the daffodils were in full bloom. The earliest parts of the church date from the 12th century, although the current vista owes much to a major restoration carried out in 1868. With the churchyard paths lined with daffs, it looked full of character.

Some of Derbyshire’s churches might be described as being located “in the middle of nowhere”. All Saints church, Ballidon, for example, sits in a field several hundred metres from the tiny village whose name it bears, a village way too small to support a church of its size. Once the rural population here must have been much larger. Records of the church date back to the year 1205, when it was described as a chapel-of-ease (in other words, an outlier) of a church at Bradbourne, some four kilometres (2.5 miles) distant from Ballidon. The church is much altered from its 13th century form, having been restored in 1822 and again in 1882.

Ballidon church, “in the middle of nowhere”

Today, although still consecrated, Ballidon church is no longer used on a regular basis. It is owned and managed by the charitable organisation Friends of Friendless Churches. The churchyard is a little overgrown, but the church itself appears in good condition, and is a dignified presence within the wider agricultural landscape.

Another place of worship to have been substantially remodelled in the latter half of the 19th century is Holy Trinity church, Ashford in the Water, which has its origins back in the 12th century. Ashford is a famously pretty, “chocolate box village” in the heart of an area of Derbyshire known as the White Peak, and is visited by many thousands of tourists every year. Although the Grade II Listed church is not the major attraction, the building and its ample churchyard definitely add to the village’s visual appeal.

Holy Trinity church, Ashford in the Water

Derbyshire’s most famous village, however, is Eyam, which is known the world over for the sacrifices its residents made to protect surrounding areas from the Great Plague of 1665/66. I summarised the main events of that tumultuous period in this post, written when our very own Covid pandemic was in its infancy.

When plague erupted within the village the local clergyman, William Mompesson, was instrumental in convincing his flock that they should isolate themselves from the outside world and confine the disease within its boundaries. To further suppress the spread of the infection Mompesson also abandoned religious services within the church, holding them instead in the open air.

Church of St Lawrence, Eyam. Services were held in the churchyard – and not in the church – during the Great Plague of 1665-66

Today the church of St Lawrence, Eyam is a bit of an architectural jumble, boasting a Saxon font, Norman pillars, a nave built around 1350, a 17th century tower and sundry additions and changes made during the 19th century. But it’s not unattractive – quite pretty, in fact – and the churchyard setting oozes tranquillity. It’s therefore difficult to imagine the fear and despair that must have gripped the congregation when the plague was at its height.

However, look closely in the churchyard and the clues are all around, in a series of “plague graves” dating from the terrible 17th century epidemic, when death stalked an otherwise green and pleasant land. Amongst the graves dating from this era is that of Catherine Mompesson. Neither her husband’s devotion to God nor his instinctive understanding of epidemiology were enough to save her, and she sadly succumbed to the plague in August 1666.

One of Eyam’s “plague graves”, a sombre reminder of the terrible 17th century epidemic

Another churchyard boasting a monument that tourists flock to see can be found in the north of Derbyshire. The church of St Michael and All Angels, Hathersage dates principally from the 14th and 15th centuries, and like so many Derbyshire churches was substantially restored in the mid-19th century.

St Michael and All Angels is not without architectural merit, which is reflected in its Grade I listing. However its main claim to fame is to be found in the churchyard, in the form of the alleged grave of Robin Hood’s ironically named sidekick Little John.

Church of St Michael and All Angels, Hathersage

The evidence is somewhat scanty: in 1780 one James Shuttleworth claimed to have unearthed in the graveyard a thigh bone measuring 72.39 centimetres (28.50 inches). This would have made its former owner nearly 2.5 metres (8 feet) tall, and as Hathersage lies fairly close to Sherwood Forest – the fabled hangout of Hood and his merry men – Shuttleworth concluded the giant outlaw’s mortal remains were buried here.

As theories go it sounds to me like utter rubbish – or, as the brilliant writer Douglas Adams would have put it, a load of dingo’s kidneys – but why let the truth get in the way of a good story? And anyway, the grave is planted with lots of colourful flowers and does a good job of brightening up the churchyard, so maybe just this once we can all forgive a little bit of fake news!

Allegedly the grave of Little John (who may not even have really existed!) in Hathersage churchyard

Although views of the churches I’ve so far featured in this post are generally enhanced by the churchyards in which they sit, the buildings themselves have significant merit in their own right. The same cannot be said of St James the Apostle, Temple Normanton. However glorious its setting (and let’s be blunt, that’s nothing special either) the church building at Temple Normanton will always be an architectural eyesore.

It wasn’t always so. The current building is the fourth church on this site. The first originated in the 12th century, but was rebuilt in 1623. However this replacement was undermined by subsidence due to coal mining and was in turn replaced by a wooden church in 1922. Sadly, this incarnation was wrecked by severe winds in the 1980s, and this time – out of desperation, or maybe penury – Anglican decision makers opted in 1986 to erect a cheap and cheerless utilitarian fibre-glass monstrosity.

St James the Apostle, Temple Normanton – a cheap and cheerless utilitarian fibre-glass monstrosity, much admired by Mrs P

I can safely say I’ve never see another church like the one at Temple Normanton, and I rather hope I never do so again. Having said that, Mrs P likes it and spluttered indignantly when she proof-read the draft of this post, demonstrating once again that beauty is truly in the eyes of the beholder!

* * * * *

And finally, while we’re on the subject of country churchyards, I invite you to listen to Chris de Burgh singing about that very subject. Chris de Burgh (b 1948) is a British-Irish singer-songwriter who found fame internationally with his 1986 #1 chart hit Lady in Red. However Mrs P and I have seen him perform live several times and know him to be a good deal more talented than might be suggested by that one song, which was much beloved by the late Princess Diana and the Duchess of York and much-derided by popular music critics of the day. In a Country Churchyard is a gentle, thoughtful love song that shows de Burgh’s talents as a lyricist at their best. Listen and enjoy!

Let your love shine on,
For we are the stars in the sky,
Let your love shine strong,
Until the day you fly...fly away ...

Yorkshire Sculpture Park again: Damien Hirst, handbags and hats

Yorkshire Sculpture Park is the gift that keeps on giving. Although it’s featured in two previous posts – you can read them here and here – there’s still more I need to say about YSP. Our latest visit was in September last year, when we explored parts of the park that had so far eluded us. In the process we got acquainted with the work of Damien Hirst, not to a mention a monstrous handbag and a plethora of hats.

Let’s start with the handbag. Bag of Aspirations by Kalliopi Lemos (b. 1951 in Greece) is fashioned from steel, although it’s painted to look like leather. Here’s what the YSP website has to say about it:

Bag of Aspirations is a vastly scaled-up version of the famous Birkin handbag made by French fashion house Hermès. This expensive and highly sought-after bag has become associated with luxury and exclusivity, and embodies the values and desires of a consumer culture. Lemos often investigates how such trends in society affect and frame women in particular, exploring the way femininity is constructed and defined by narrow and restrictive ideals of beauty and behaviour

Source: YSP website, retrieved 28/03/22

Bag of Aspirations by Kalliopi Lemos

So, far from being frivolous, this monstrous handbag is making a serious point about 21st century society. Who would have guessed? Not me obviously: I saw the piece and just couldn’t help grinning. You see, Mrs P recently downsized her handbag but ever since has complained that it’s simply too small to hold all those bits and pieces that a girl just has to have with her at all times. I took one look at Lemos’s big beast of a bag and thought: there’s your solution Mrs P, but good luck carrying it!

But enough of this handbag nonsense, let’s move quickly on to Damien Hirst (b. 1965). Hirst rose to prominence in London in the late 1980s, and is one of the most notorious artists of his generation. He’s also said to be the UK’s richest living artist. His reputation precedes him: any man who displays whole animals pickled in formaldehyde and calls it art inevitably courts controversy, so we were intrigued to see what all the fuss is about.

First, it should be noted that no animals were pickled in the creation of Hirst’s works on display at Yorkshire Sculpture Park! However, they do make one hell of an impact. Standing 10 metres high, the Virgin Mother looms over the landscape in which it stands, and given that the skin has been peeled back from half the torso to reveal a foetus curled within the womb it’s also very hard to ignore. The pose reportedly echoes that of Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. However, unlike Hirst’s sculpture, Degas’s piece is fully clothed, has no skin hanging off and doesn’t appear to be with child, so the resemblance – in my humble opinion, anyway – is somewhat superficial!

Virgin Mother by Damien Hirst

Do I like Virgin Mother? Strangely, I think I do, even though on one level it’s macabre, even a little grotesque. For me it argues that beauty is only skin deep, and that if we are truly to understand what is before us we need to be sure to look beneath the surface rather than rely on what is in plain sight.

On a somewhat similar theme, Myth enables us to see beneath the skin of a unicorn. And we learn that even iconic mythological beasties depend on a framework of bones, tendons and muscles in order to do whatever it is that unicorns do. Again, Hirst reminds us not to be seduced by appearances, however romantic, and to look instead for the earthy reality that normally lies hidden from view.

Myth by Damien Hirst

Altogether more challenging is the statue of a disabled child that Hirst calls Charity. The 7 metres high, painted bronze sculpture may look oddly familiar to anyone who was out and about in the UK in the 60s and 70s, being based on the Spastic Society’s charity collection boxes that could be seen at that time on high streets up and down the land.

But times change, and so too do judgments as to what society does – and does not – find acceptable. The word “spastic” is today regarded as grossly offensive, and the charity that bore its name is now called Scope. And the design of its collection box also looks as if it comes from another, less inclusive age, an age when disabled people were regarded merely as objects of pity, poor vulnerable souls totally dependent upon the charitable handouts of others.

One may question why Hirst chose to imitate a negative image of disability that many people now find offensive. Crucially, all is not as it seems. Seen from the rear we notice that the gigantic collection box has been broken into, with coins scattered around and a crowbar left behind. Clearly this is not in any sense an homage to the original collection boxes, but an invitation to think about how society views disability.

The break-in fundamentally affects the meaning of the sculpture. For me it says that the negative portrayal of disability inherent in the original collection boxes – which reflected views that were widespread within British society at that time – was in itself an act of theft, stealing the dignity and self-esteem of the very people the boxes were designed to support. Other interpretations are possible, and Hirst’s piece remains controversial within and beyond the disabled community. But although it’s not a comfortable image, if the artist’s primary intention was to stimulate debate and reflection about disability Charity certainly succeeds.

The Hat makes the Man by Damien Hirst

Another painted bronze by Damien Hirst – The Hat Makes the Man – is altogether more playful, suggesting that, although he normally keeps it well hidden, the artist does have a sense of humour. This bizarre, disjointed piece was apparently inspired by a tiny Max Ernst drawing dating from the 1920s. It features a plethora of felt hats, interspersed with the occasional straw boater and random sawn-up pieces of wood. Sigmund Freud, the famed founding father of psychoanalysis maintained that hats are a symbol of repressed male desire, so I’m not quite sure what to make of the fact that – although I haven’t a clue what it means – this sculpture really appealed to me!

Network by Thomas J Price

Another of the sculptures that I liked a lot was Network, by Thomas J Price (b. 1981) There’s been a lot of controversy in the UK recently about who is – and is not – represented in public art. In particular, there have been loud protests that although sculptures of men who made huge fortunes from the slave trade in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries can still be seen, their victims are invisible. For this reason Price’s three metres tall sculpture of a casually dressed man of African (Caribbean) heritage studying his mobile phone seems to hit just the right note.

One of Mrs P’s favourite pieces was Wilsis by Jaume Plensa (b. 1951 in Spain), one of a series of heads of young girls from around the world, with eyes closed in a contemplative state. Intriguingly the view from the front appears traditionally three dimensional, but viewed from a different angle it’s plain that the statue is almost flat. Standing at over 7 metres tall, Wilsis makes a stunning impact within the lightly wooded landscape.

Next on this whistle-stop review of our most recent visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, consider The Garden of Good and Evil by political activist Alfredo Jaar (b. 1956 in Chile) . It references secret one metre square detention cells (aka “black cells”) reputedly used by the CIA around the world. It is partially hidden within a lake, reflecting the fact that these secret centres are also hidden.

The Garden of Good and Evil by Alfredo Jaar

The Garden of Good and Evil makes uncomfortable viewing once you understand what has inspired its creation. But let’s end this post with a feel-good sculpture. Sitting, a monumental work by Sophie Ryder (b. 1963) is fashioned from wire and divided into two sections by a split that is clearly visible from the side. The anthropomorphic figure combines the head of a hare with a body modelled on Ryder’s own, and dominates the surrounding parkland.

Sitting by Sophie Ryder

Ryder is fascinated by hares, and features them frequently in her work: you can read more about what they mean to her here. But while I fully understand that for her the piece has great symbolic significance, for me the main point is that Sitting is exquisitely beautiful. This plainly isn’t true of all the sculptures at YSP, some of which are more intellectually challenging than aesthetically pleasing. And it is this sheer range of artistic endeavour that makes Yorkshire Sculpture Park such a great place to visit. so Mrs P and I will be making another return trip very soon!

FOOTNOTE TO REGULAR READERS OF THIS BLOG

Spring is in the air, the days are getting warmer and my excuses for not painting the bedroom and tidying up the garden are wearing a bit thin. So, for the next few months, I intend to post on this blog every 14 days – rather than weekly as now – publishing early on Wednesday mornings (UK time). Weekly posts will resume in late autumn…always assuming, of course, that I’ve finally finished decorating the bedroom!

Three songs for Ukraine

Events in Ukraine continue to dominate the news, and my thoughts inevitably drift to the anti-war movement and the peace songs of my youth. I am, at heart, a child of the 60s, and the anthems of those heady days still resonate with me. In those far off times we were convinced that the world could be a better place, if only those in power would listen to our pleas and give peace a chance.

We were, of course, hopelessly naïve in the belief that our message would be heard by those in a position to make the necessary changes. Fifty years on the world is a very different place, but as recent events demonstrate, not a lot better.

Photo Credit: by Miha Rekar on Unsplash

Don’t get me wrong, I believe absolutely that, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, culture, religion, gender or sexuality, the vast majority of human beings are fundamentally decent people. But not everyone, and when bad people get into positions of power, bad things can still happen. The evidence is all around us right now.

Much of the anti-war sentiment that prevailed as I grew up in the 60s and early 70s came from the conflict in far-off Vietnam, but for many Brits memories of WW2 were also raw. I remember my father telling me of the occasion when his unit came under intense aerial bombardment and one of his terrified buddies completely lost his mind, leapt onto the bonnet of his jeep, shook a furious fist at the attacking planes and screamed “Death, where is thy sting?” The poor guy found out soon enough.

And I recall, too, my mother’s horrific account of how the family house was destroyed in one of the first air-raids of the war, and of how she and her parents were forced to flee across London to her auntie’s home with all the possessions they had left in the world bundled up in a single tattered bedsheet.

In the circumstances it is no surprise that, when I first heard Edwin Star‘s rendition of War I immediately felt a connection with his words, including:

 War, I despise
'Cause it means destruction of innocent lives
War means tears to thousands of mother's eyes
When their sons go off to fight
And lose their lives
I said, war, huh (good God, y'all)
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing...
War can't give life
It can only take it away

In fact, the song wasn’t written by Starr himself, but was penned instead for the Motown label by Norman Whitfield and Barret Strong. Although first recorded by The Temptations in March 1970, it was Edwin Starr’s powerful version three months later that took the anti-war movement by storm, reaching #1 for three weeks on the Billboard Pop Singles chart, and #3 on the equivalent UK chart (see note #1 below).

Sadly, War’s lyrics seem just as relevant today as they did when I first heard them half a century ago.

The invasion of Ukraine has brought to mind other anti-war songs from the same era. Bob Dylan‘s Masters of War, for example, an angry attack on those who seek to profit from conflict without any concern for the suffering of those caught up in it (see note #2 below). Can you spot the connection with recent events in Ukraine? No? Then look harder!

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly...

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins

And finally, my mind turns to John Lennon, who told the world in 1969 that we should Give Peace a Chance. A couple of nights ago we changed television channels a little early to watch the evening news, and caught some tail end coverage of a Rugby Union match. The game itself was over and the studio pundits were raking over the embers, as they always do. And in the background was John Lennon with his Plastic Ono Band, belting out his anthem for peace across the stadium’s sound system.

It can’t have been a coincidence: whoever chose to play that track at the end of that rugby match must have had Ukraine on his mind. And my overwhelming reaction was one of immense sadness, sadness that, nearly 50 years after Lennon laid the track down, we still feel the need to play it.

All we are saying is "Give Peace a Chance"
All we are saying is "Give Peace a Chance"

___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

Note #1: Other notable covers of War include recordings by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1984: YouTube link here) and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (1986: YouTube link here). YouTube also boasts compelling amateur footage of the Boss performing the song live alongside Edwin Starr: enjoy it here).

Note #2: Notable covers of Masters of War include a recording by The Flying Pickets (1984: YouTube link here) and this acoustic YouTube version by Ed Sheeran (c.2013).

The Burghley sculpture garden

Back when I was a lad, if you wanted to see sculptures you had to go to an art gallery, or maybe a museum. True, if your interest extended no further than humanoid figures you could reasonably expect to see statues of former monarchs, politicians and sundry other ne’er-do-wells in civic spaces scattered throughout the urban landscape. But if your tastes ran to something less formulaic and more creative you were pretty much confined to museums, galleries and similar indoor areas.

And then, thankfully, some bright spark came up with the idea of sculpture gardens.

Vertical Face II

A sculpture garden, and its big brother the sculpture park, is an outdoor space dedicated to the presentation of durable, three dimensional works of art in landscaped surroundings. In galleries and museums sculpture is contained, hemmed in by walls and ceilings, often difficult to fully appreciate.

In sculpture gardens and parks however, sculpture sits comfortably within a spacious, natural environment, with room to breathe. And the sculptures and the landscape in which they sit enhance one another: the gardens and parks frame the sculptures, while the sculptures become visual anchors within their surroundings.

Held

Sculpture parks can now be found throughout the length and breadth of the UK, and visiting one can be an uplifting experience. Last week I wrote about our visit to Burghley House, a grand mansion dating from the late 16th century. In total contrast to the baroque excesses of the house itself, one of the joys of the parkland at Burghley is an excellent sculpture garden featuring a variety of contemporary and modern pieces.

Burghley’s sculpture garden dates back only a couple of decades, but is situated in an area of the grounds originally fashioned by the famed late 18th century landscape designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown. It combines a scattering of works on permanent display with an annual themed exhibition. The theme when we visited in 2021 (carried over from 2020, due to Covid) was ‘House‘, originally conceived to honour the 500th anniversary of the birth in 1520 of Burghley House’s founder William Cecil. 

Cornu Cecilium

One of the most striking pieces on permanent display in the sculpture garden is Vertical Face II by English sculptor Rick Kirby. Works by Kirby are on display in various parts of the UK, and if Vertical Face II is typical I can see just why: it’s a haunting, enigmatic creation.

Equally serious – or, to be blunt, downright spooky – is Held by Anne Gillespie. The body of a man, folded into a foetal position and entombed in a rock wall, is not an easy piece to view, and is laden with hidden meaning. But what, exactly? I know what it means to me, but your interpretation may be totally different. And in the end that doesn’t really matter, the point is that we are required to exercise our brains and think about it…which, after all, is surely one of the purposes of art?

Trojan Horse

But art, and sculpture, doesn’t always have to be deep and meaningful: it can also, quite simply, be fun. The colourful sculpture of a snail, Cornu Cecilium by Pete Rogers, plainly fits into that category. However there is more to this piece than initially meets the eye. Commissioned for Burghley’s 2021 themed exhibition House, the shape of the snail’s shell echoes the grand octagonal towers of Burghley House.

I was also taken with the Trojan Horse. Fashioned from logs and standing several metres high it’s a quaintly rustic piece, and seems to be completely at ease in the lightly wooded landscape in which is stands.

Teddy bears’ picnic

Talking of wooded landscapes, if you go down to Burghley’s woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise: a family of whimsical bears enjoying a picnic, including mama bear in a faded blue dress. Again, there’s no great depth of meaning here, but it’s fun, isn’t it.

Also at home in the wooded landscape are the snowdrops of Everlasting Spring, another Pete Rogers creation. Snowdrops are “here and gone again” in the blink of an eye every spring, but thanks to Rogers they last all year long in Burghley’s sculpture garden.

Everlasting Spring

Italian artist Michele Ciribifera’s Elicoide BG is definitely eye-catching. Elicoide translates from the Italian as “spiral” or “helical”, and this gleaming metallic piece stands out boldly in the verdant landscape of grass and trees. Maybe there is a hidden meaning here? Or is it simply intended to please the eye? Personally I’m inclined not to overthink it: the latter explanation works just fine for me.

And finally, in this whistle-stop tour of a few of the sculptures we saw at Burghley last year, is City Cuts by sculptor Paul Cox. Inspired by the 2007/08 world financial crisis, a handsaw is seen slicing into a swanky city skyscraper. This one is rather poignant for me. At the time of that economic meltdown I was working as a senior public service manager, and found myself forced to make massive cuts to stay within my greatly reduced budget. I was compelled to wield not just a saw, but an axe too.

Elicoide BG

Several of my staff, including friends whom I respected and admired deeply, sadly lost their jobs in the dark days and months that followed. Seeing this stark piece at Burghley certainly gave me cause to think about my own very small, local role in dealing with the impact of the global financial crisis all those years ago. It was not a particularly happy part of my life, but life’s not meant to be easy all the time, is it?

City Cuts

Thankfully those days are over, and because I’m retired I don’t have to worry about how to navigate my service through the new financial crisis brought about by Covid. So, while my unfortunate successor wrestles with that impenetrable problem, I have time on my hands to visit some more wonderful sculpture gardens, like the one at Burghley. Don’t they say that good things will eventually come to he (or she) that waits?

Visions of heaven and hell: the Burghley prodigy house

Have you ever heard of prodigy houses? No? Me neither until very recently, but although the terminology was foreign to me the buildings themselves are achingly familiar. I’ve trudged around numerous examples over the years, my eyes goggling at the ostentatious excesses to which previous generations of the idle rich would resort in order to show off to their peers. None, I would suggest, is more ostentatious than Burghley House.

Burghley House is striking, a frantic skyline crowded with cupolas, turrets, and chimneys

Prodigy houses were large, extravagant country houses commissioned by the English aristocracy and noveau riche, particularly between about 1570 and 1620. They were the projects of families that had thrived under the Tudor dynasty, and were built with the intention of impressing visiting monarchs.

And yes, if you were a prominent, rich English subject your king or queen might well come a-calling. At this time in our history the sovereign, sundry family members and a large entourage of flunkies and hangers-on were in the habit of touring the realm every year on journeys known as summer progresses.

The Great Hall lives up to its name

During these elaborate processional trips through the English shires Elizabeth I, and her Stuart successor James I, demanded to stay in the homes of their most wealthy, high status subjects. They expected to be entertained in the lavish style to which they were accustomed, and to avoid the risk of social humiliation – or perhaps much worse – their hosts invested in elaborate prodigy houses that simply oozed with the wow factor.

And nowhere did the wow factor ooze more copiously than at Burghley House, situated on the northern tip of Cambridgeshire close to the boundaries of Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire. It was built and mostly designed by William Cecil (later Baron Burghley, 1520 – 1598), who looked after the royal finances for many years as Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I.

The rows of servants’ bells hint at the huge number of ordinary men and women needed to deliver the lifestyle demanded by the House’s owners and royal guests.

The main part of the House has 35 major rooms on the ground and first floors. In addition there are more than 80 lesser rooms, as well as numerous halls, corridors, bathrooms and service areas. William Cecil may have been dimly aware of the concepts of modesty and frugality, but plainly wanted nothing to do with them.

The exterior of Burghley House is striking, a frantic skyline crowded with cupolas, turrets, and chimneys. Its intention is clear, to communicate a blunt message to anyone approaching the vast mansion: here lives a family that has more wealth, power and influence than you can possibly imagine!

The Bow Room was the 5th Earl of Exeter’s State Dining Room

Burghley’s interior, much of it remodelled during the late 17th century, is every bit as grand as the exterior promises. The Great Hall, for example, lives up to its name, while the rows of servants’ bells hint at the huge number of ordinary men and women needed to deliver the lifestyle demanded by the house’s owners and royal guests.

But it’s the painted ceilings and full height murals, many of them depicting scenes from Roman mythology, that really take the breath away. The Bow Room, for example, the work of the French painter Louis Laguerre (1663 – 1721) in 1697, is stunning. But can you imagine eating your dinner beneath that gaudy ceiling and surrounded by those huge, lurid murals? Plainly the 5th Earl of Exeter, a descendant of William Cecil could: it was his State Dining Room!

The Heaven Room is considered to be Antonio Verrio’s masterpiece, painted around 1697. In the centre of the room is a Queen Anne oval wine cistern dating from 1710

Meanwhile, another of the impressive state rooms, known as the Heaven Room, is reckoned to be the greatest masterpiece of the Italian artist Antonio Verrio (c1636 – 1707). It depicts a classical view of heavenly life, one in which countless fit, scantily clad gods and goddesses spend their days lounging around having a thoroughly good time.

Verrio was also responsible for the ceiling of the Hell Staircase, but its subject matter is altogether more sombre. Here we see the tortured souls of the damned being dragged into hell through the mouth of a devilish cat. Definitely the stuff of nightmares.

The Hell Staircase, ceiling by Verrio, Murals by Thomas Stathard added later.

I really don’t know what to make of Burghley House, but maybe – just like Verrio’s ceilings – it is a vision of both of heaven and hell. On one level the building and its contents are undoubtedly magnificent, and although much of it isn’t to my taste I can appreciate the quality of the artwork.

But on the other hand, isn’t it all a bit over the top, just too excessive to take seriously? Restraint, subtlety and simplicity are in painfully short supply, and may indeed be altogether extinct at Burghley. Less is sometimes more, and if there’d been a bit less of it I would probably have appreciated it even more.

Detail from the ceiling of the Hell Staircase, depicting tortured souls of the damned being dragged into hell through the mouth of a devilish cat.

However there’s more to Burghley than just the house, thanks to an inspiring sculpture garden in the surrounding parkland. The contrast between the overblown baroque excesses of the house and the pared-back, thought-provoking and sometimes witty and whimsical sculptures is stark. Taken as a whole, the combination of house and sculpture garden is enticing, and make Burghley well worth a visit.

In my next post I’ll take you on a whistle-stop tour of Burghley’s sculpture garden. Meanwhile, here’s a taster to whet your appetite: