Saturday, 3rd August 2019 – Harewood House, Harewood, Leeds
I’m sure I must have been to Harewood House at some time during my years growing up in Yorkshire, though I have no memory whatsoever of doing so. We had relatives in Leeds, and visited frequently from Hull, but as I say I have no recall at all. Last weekend we were staying with friends who live a 10 minute drive away, and as it was a nice, sunny afternoon between restaurant visits, we saw no reason not to.
It’s not exactly cheap to get in at £15 per adult, but then again it’s still in private hands and I seriously doubt it’s cheap to maintain either. We handed over the cash, parked up under a tree so that hopefully the car would be cooler to come back to later, and walked up to the main entrance of the house. The facade is most elegant, a work by John Carr, who was also the architect of Basildon Park which we visited last year en route to the south of England. Harewood is one of his true masterworks, and it seems no expense was spared to build it.
The house belongs to the Lascelles family, and was built at the behest of Edwin Lascelles, starting in 1759, employing the finest craftsmen he could muster, including Carr, Robert Adam for the interiors, locally-born furniture maker Thomas Chippendale, and Lancelot “Capability” Brown to landscape the gardens. The money to do this came from the sugar trade, so it was undoubtedly dirty money, no matter that Edwin was not the one running the business, which was in the hands of his brother.
You can wander in from the servants’ quarters at the side of the house or through the main doorways into the posh bit of the house. We did that, starting in the Entrance Hall that contains a startling piece of art in the form of a very striking sculpture by Jacob Epstein. “Adam” is made out of a single block of alabaster, and clearly offended some sensibilities back when he was carved between 1938 and 1939. Epstein’s agents didn’t want to exhibit him and he ended up being sold to Tussauds before being bought by the 7th Earl of Harewood in February 1961. He’s a hulking great object and a bit in your face, but it does seem a bit prudish, even for 1939! In 1976 he was put on display in the Entrance Hall after the floor had been reinforced to take the considerable weight of that amount of alabaster. I quite liked him…
The entrance hall itself was somewhat obscured behind various banners to do with this year’s exhibition (the house is also a museum and is obliged to hold exhibitions regularly to retain that status) but it does fit the description of “heroic” with splendid columns, ceilings, friezes and chimney pieces, the stuccoists Joseph Rose and William Collins decorating the whole to show the wedding of Neptune and Amphitrite over the fireplace with the Chariot of Phaeton opposite. I was slightly more intrigued by the rather deranged umbrella stand.
We moved through in the order decreed by the guides, and were next in the Old Library. I was intrigued to find out that this is one of three libraries in the house. Now pretty much every stately house in the UK has a library; it’s a given and every aristocratic gentleman would have one. Having three suggested someone was actually quite keen on books and learning! It was completed in the late 1760s and has remained relatively unchanged since. It has the most wonderful neo-classical, marquetry library steps! They fold down to become a bench and I was most taken with them.
We also started to look closely at the various exhibits in the Useful/Beautiful: Why craft matters that is currently on display in the house, both above and below stairs. Apparently this is the very first Harewood Biennial, and aims to challenge preconceptions about the role craft can play in culture, identity and society. Some things were more obviously useful and/or beautiful than others, but it was fascination to see what the curators felt was valid to get their message across, with everything from wool shirts to Japanese pottery featuring. The China Room, which came next, contained the really rather wonderful “Big Vase” designed by Max Lamb and made using the slip-cast process by 1882 Ltd. They seem very tactile, but had big notices around them ordering us not to touch, which was somewhat sad but understandable.
Princess Mary’s Dressing Room was next up, a smallish room dominated by the exhibit of several embroidered panels, and an Erdem dress by Jenny King. The room itself was redesigned in 1929 for Princess Mary, who married the 6th Earl, and came to live at Harewood then. The rooms were redone by Sir Herbert Baker (Edwin Lutyens’s assistant on the New Delhi project) and is done in a “Robert Adam revival” scheme, incorporating features taken from Harewood House in Hanover Square, in London, which had been demolished.
We passed along the corridor, passing Princess Mary’s Bathroom where Juli Bolaños-Durman’s “Glassworks” were on display These are works inspired by a series of perfume bottles that belonged to the maker’s grandmother, and are made from a combination of blown and found glass.
Next up is the East Bedroom, which was Edwin Lascelles’ bedroom. It is hung with Chinese wallpaper that was originally in the Chintz Bedroom (not open to the public) in 1769, but that was removed some time in the first part of the 19th century, when it was cut down, rolled in linen and stored in an outbuilding for nearly 200 years. It survived in near perfect condition and is amazing to look at (but it was too dark to photograph without a flash and flash is not allowed)! There was more glass here, this time by Jahday Ford, who records the sound of his breath and then uses it digitally to create a 3D mould into which the glass is blown. I particularly admired these, which were well-lit enough to photograph.
The Watercolour Rooms, which were once a bathroom and dressing room, were adapted in the 1990s to display selections of Harewood’s collection of watercolours. Right now they feature jeans by Hiut Denim, and shirts by McNair Shirts, which are part of the Useful/Beautiful exhibition. We moved on from there to Lord Harewood’s Sitting Room, a room that now reflects the tastes of the latest Earl and Countess, David and Diane Lascelles. She is an artist, and thus has some very interesting artifacts from their private collection on display. The ceiling, fireplace and door frames are all by Robert Adam.
The next room is the breathtaking State Bedroom, which was converted into a sitting room in the Victorian age. The bed was taken apart and put into storrage, and was rediscovered in the 1970s. Once funding was in place (in 1999) the restoration of the Chippendale bed began, the craftsmen and historians having to try and figure out how it fitted together (there were no drawings, and Chippendale never made another piece like it). They’ve done an incredible job on it. It is also being used to display the rather more up-to-date “Modern Love”, a hand-printed silk bedspread, designed by the print and textile studio, Timorous Beasties.
On the way in, in the Ante Room, I’d spotted the really strange, and really beautiful, undercover series: “Island”, “Undercover XIII” and “Undercover XV”, by Effie Burns, the pieces all being miniature landscapes of glass objects cast from vegetables. They are decidedly odd.
The opulence continued in the Spanish Library (that’s library number 2), which makes sense as it was originally the State Dressing Room, before Sir Charles Barry, best known as the architect of the Houses of Parliament, transformed it into a Victorian library. It’s been used for a number of purposes, but is back to being a library. It’s called the Spanish library because of the 17th century wall-coverings which are of Spanish leather, though apparently it comes from the Netherlands not Spain! Brilliantly it has two “secret” doors disguised as bookshelves, one between it and the State Bedroom and one in the far corner to the left of the fireplace. It’s also got the lion’s share of the 11,000 books in the house.
It has great views over the gardens too.
It also had a trio of leather vases (“Wing Form Wide”, “Wing Form Tall”, “Wing Form Long”) made by boiling and hardening leather in a technique that dates back centuries. These are the work of Simon Hasan, who created them following a period of research at RAF Halton.
Next to the Spanish Library is the Main Library, formerly the Saloon, which is full of fabulous Victorian mahogany bookcases, also designed by Sir Charles Barry. The original Robert Adam ceiling, together with his chimney pieces and plaster over mantels with their round, sculptured reliefs, work perfectly with this modernisation, and this now tends to act as the central living room of the house as well as being a repository for thousands of books.
Here the exhibits were a pair of paper sculptures, made by Andy Singleton, and manipulated by hand. If there was anything I wanted to snatch up and bring home it was one of these.
I was pretty sure the next room would be called the Gold Drawing Room, but was much more prosaically, the Yellow Drawing Room.
Its original carpet is currently out of commission, so a rug by Max Lamb is covering the floor at present. It was made using surplus wool from the Yorkshire carpet trade, and hand dyed naturally from bark and foliage collected during a foraging visit to Harewood. It was commissioned for the house, and shows Max’s passion for nature, materials and techniques.
The Cinnamon Drawing Room used, as with so many of the rooms in the house, to be know as something else, this time the White Drawing Room when it was decorated with white damask. The white silk was later replaced by green, which gradually faded until it was removed and replaced with a cinnamon background, the better to show off the family portraits that hang in this room. My favourite, and I should imagine many other people’s too, was the full length portrait in oils of Lady Worsley by Joshua Reynolds. It’s less to do with the actual painting, though that is good, but more because of her story. I’ll quote directly from the official guide: “Seymour Dorothy Fleming, daughter and co-heiress of Sir John Fleming, married Sir Richard Worsley on September 15, 1775. The marriage however was not to last. In 1781 Lady Worsley eloped with George Bissett, a Captain in the South Hampshire Militia, hoping that her husband would initiate divorce proceedings. Instead, Sir Richard brought a case of ‘criminal conversation’ against Bissett, suing him for damages of up to £20,000. There followed a trial in which Sir Richard hoped to prove that damage to his wife or “unlawful sexual intercourse” had taken place, in which various witnesses were called to testify including servants and hotel staff who may have witnessed the elopement. Although Sir Richard looked to have a strong case, Lady Worsley resolved to prove that she was unworthy of this large sum by exposing the secrets of her marriage and her husband’s voyeuristic tendencies. The defences’ intention was to demonstrate that Sir Richard’s property had been damaged long before Lady Worsley’s affair with Bissett, and secondly that Sir Richard was partly to blame for her conduct by encouraging and even exciting in her behaviour. A number of Lady Worsley’s lovers were called to the stand to give evidence of their relationships, but a clinching piece of evidence came from a woman who worked at a bathhouse in Maidstone. She claimed that Sir Richard had helped Captain Bissett spy on Lady Worsley whilst undressing in the bathhouse, allowing him to climb onto his shoulders and peer through a window. The Jury awarded Sir Richard only one shilling.” And he could consider himself lucky to have got that much, I’d say! You can read more about her here.
And then, to my delight, I discovered that they have a Long Gallery! I love a Long Gallery (Hardwick is a particular favourite)… and this is a good one too, if somewhat shorter, and is 76 feet 10 inches by 24 feet 3 inches, 21 feet 3 inches high. It’s been remodelled more than once, but in 1990 the chimney-piece was restored to its original position and some of the pillars and pilasters were put back where they were supposed to be.
It also contained a selection of works by Faye Toogood, and curated by her to show more than 30 elements of design and clothing, intended to provide a comprehensive survey of contemporary British craft skills.
In addition it houses the families collection of medieval and Renaissance paintings.
This was another room remodelled by Barry, when in 1840 he raised the ceiling and changed the shape of the room. It still contains the original Chippendale furniture, a set of dining room chairs and two side-tables, urn-topped pedestals and a wine cooler. The wine coolers and urns are lined with lead and the pedestals conceal racks to keep plates warm.
There were also the clever but slightly disturbing pieces by Anna Barlow, made in ceramic and titled “I’ll give you everything” and “Miss Super Glut”. They are both fantastical and theatrical, but I’m just not sure if I liked them or not.
The final room of the main house that you can visit is the Music Room, which is “considered to be the most complete example of Adam’s interiors at Harewood. The circular design creates a sense of movement and melody which is enhanced by Joshua Reynold’s Mrs Hale as Euphrosyne lightly dancing into the room… Princess Mary and the 6th Earl purchased the Steinway grand piano in this room which is one of two in the house. Princess Mary was an accomplished pianist and the 7th Earl wrote: ‘There was a pianola roll of an arrangement of the “Prize Song” from Mastersingers which I discovered had a particular significance in my parents’ courtship – precisely what I never knew.’”
And if I’d thought the ceramics in the dining room were creepy, they were nowhere near as disturbing as what was in here. A selection of pointe shoes, on their toes, in a circle, from Freed of London who are famous for their ballet and dance shoes. I don’t really know why, but it was just odd and unsettling. It might just be me, of course, but somehow I doubt it.
We’d taken around an hour and a half to get this far so it was definitely time for coffee and cake! We wandered the corridors looking for the cafe (you have to go through the gift shop, which was not obvious), snagged some suitable cake and then lasted around a minute on the terrace because it seemed to be infested with wasps that wouldn’t leave us alone. We found a table inside instead and enjoyed a brief pause, and some very nice Victoria sponge cake.
After that we nosed around the below stairs section of the house, where you can open cupboards to admire the glassware and porcelain that belongs to the house. There were also further exhibits, most of them practical. The umbrellas in the corridor were rather fun. They come from Fox Umbrellas, a company that uses an 80 year old model for that has stood the test of time.
In between umbrellas we admired the bell arrays for summoning servants to various parts of the house. There seemed to be an awful lot of them.
In the Old Kitchen, there was a display of iron cookware from Netherton Foundry. They make traditional iron cookware, some of which was on sale in the gift shop, at fairly eye-watering prices.
They weren’t as eye-watering as the price of Leszek Sikon’s cable knives, bespoke knives created from discarded metals using traditional methods. These were made out of old steel cables reclaimed from Felixstowe shipyard, which he had pattern-welded into knives. They are beautiful things, and they sell at around £400 to £600 each! He also had some pieces in the Garden Room, this time a series of garden tools with hickory handles, made from steel reclaimed from wartime ammunition.
In the Pastry Room were some fabulous ceramic pieces, by Reiko Kaneko, in an installation called “This place grew along a coal seam”. The installation explores different forms and techniques, including a poetic collaboration with playwright Chris Thorpe. Words from Thorpe’s play “The Stoke Mysteries“ are painted on a series of fine bone china platters, displayed on wall racks, and there were also bowls and this.
After we finished inside we headed out to the formal garden at the front of the property. There are extensive grounds for visitors to potter around in, but we only managed to get to the terrace and its fountains. It is lovely, and the multitude of plants were in full flower on the day we were there. The terrace is described as “commanding breathtaking views over idyllic countryside… one of the most beautiful Victorian formal gardens in England.” It is a lovely, lovely thing, built in the 1840s by Sir Charles Barry. It was restored in 1994, with financial assistance from the European Union. The restoration included the original elaborate flowerbed designs which had been grassed over in 1959 because they were too labour intensive.
The terrace is on two levels and the Parterre comprises stately fountains and symmetrical flowerbeds outlined by clipped box hedging over a mile in length and containing more than 20,000 plants and bulbs, creating a mass of colour from spring to autumn. The stone statues in the fountains at either end of the Parterre are part of Barry’s original design, but the bronze figure in the central fountain (“Orpheus” by Astrid Zydower) was added in 1984 when the original statue collapsed.
Below the terrace is a south facing border backed by the 15ft high sandstone wall of the Terrace. This area was originally used for archery practice, but is now a border which is over 100m long and 5m wide.
From there we walked down to the Bird Garden which houses a collection of over 40 species of birds from around the world, including the critically endangered Bali starling, a variety of colourful parrots, a colony of Humboldt penguins, and several owls. We did pass through the Farm Experience on the way but most of the animals were not on display because of vets’ orders, so it was on the smelly side but very empty. Some of the birds were quite keen on hiding as well, though the Kookaburras were kicking up the most almighty ruckus whenever they thought they were on their own.
As soon as anyone got close, they went very quiet. We spotted a variety of birds, some odder than others. This is a palm cockatoo (also known as the Goliath or great black cockatoo). It’s got a terrifyingly large and sharp looking beak, and one hell of a squawk, can live up to 90 years in captivity, and lays only one egg per clutch, which is why it has one of the lowest breeding success rates reported for any species of parrot. Harewood has managed to produce a chick, born in 2015.
Later we found the Greater Vasa Parrot, which is even stranger. The skin of both female and male vasas turns yellow during the breeding season and there is often feather loss, resulting in complete baldness. Clearly at least one of them reckoned it was the breeding season.
The Eurasian Eagle Owls were having nothing to do with anyone, but we did find a Burrowing Owl.
And just for good measure one of the pair of Snowy Owls was hungry and had decided that one of the dead chicks in its enclosure was what it needed there and then. I considered this very obliging of it, because it had been skulking behind the information plaque at the front of the enclosure prior to that.
It’s rare to be in absolutely the perfect spot at the perfect moment, but for once, I was.
On the way out we stopped briefly by the penguin pool, where feeding time was also happening, though with perhaps less dead chicks and more dead fish. One of them kept insistently following the keeper about, demanding more fish.
It was getting close to closing time by then, so we skipped getting the ferry over to the walled garden, and headed back to our friends’ place to get ready to go out in the evening.