In May of this year, I will be placing a series of ceramic patchwork pieces in the elegant Georgian red drawing room of Uppark, a beautiful National Trust property in West Sussex. I will be exhibiting alongside ten other artist's, all making work in response to the history of the property and the stories that surround the personalities who lived there. It will be part of Unravelling the National Trust, a series of exhibitions that aims to showcase extreme or conceptual craft in a site-specific context, showing in three different National Trust venues across the south east from 2012 - 2014.
I have chosen to look at the property’s more recent history. In 1989, devastation was wreaked on the property when a fire, which started on the roof, ended up gutting much of the house. As the fire burnt downwards, a desperate race began to remove as many of the artifacts, paintings, textiles and furniture from below. Chains of Trust staff, firefighters and volunteers passed precious items out of the rooms and onto the lawns. Eventually ceilings and fireplaces caved in, plasterwork and remaining items were smashed and all ground floor rooms were left exposed to the sky. Some family members still lived in the top floor rooms and the remains of their possessions fell down to mingle with the rest.
In the aftermath of the fire, four foot of damp ash and rubble lay in the rooms. This was gathered and stored in regiments of black dust bins out on the lawn, waiting for their contents to be painstakingly sieved and sorted. A decision to restore the house to 'the day before the fire' was made by the National Trust and before long, a community of specialist craftspeople took up residence in makeshift workshops and offices in the grounds of the property. Old skills were rekindled and expertise shared. Old fragments were mixed with new replacements and slowly Uppark was rebuilt. Tides of people came and went in the six year process, insurance estimators, builders, craftspeople and conservators until finally Uppark reopened to the public in 1995.
Whilst many of the original fragments eventually went back into the house, being “far more precious than a replacement” (Peter Pearce, the National Trust’s Managing Land Agent for its West Sussex properties at the time of the fire), many ceramic and plasterwork fragments remain stored in a room, stacked high in bread-trays. Grouped by artifact, the pieces are discoloured, still sooty and showing bubbled distress marks of the searing temperatures they endured. This series of photographs share some of the gems I found in preparation for making the new work.
Uppark is the third exhibition of the Unravelling the National Trust series and is due to open on May 2nd 2014 and will run for 6 months till 2nd November 2014.
|This fragment illustrating Uppark is from the last private owner's personal dinner service. It survived the fall from the top floor where famly members still live.|