Event: The Harley Gallery presents Bompas & Parr’s Taste-O-Rama, Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, March 5 2011
“Everyone here has a 5th Duke Story,” says Lisa Gee, Manager of the Harley Gallery, which sits on the fringes of the former estate of the Dukes of Portland at Welbeck Abbey. “But he didn’t write what he was doing in a diary - he just did it.”
It was the eccentric 5th Duke, William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, who in the 19th century just went ahead and built a series of underground passageways and tunnels stretching for miles across his Nottinghamshire estate. They still lead into the very heart of an impressive mansion still lived in by descendents of the Cavendish-Bentinck family.
Sadly the house and the tunnels are not generally accessible to the public, but the reclusive Duke’s unusual life story, famously fictionalised in Mick Jackson’s novel Underground Man, continues to enthral.
Now a lucky 500 people are about to get access – of sorts – to Welbeck’s mysterious and labyrinthine world courtesy of a Museumaker-sponsored culinary film extravaganza conceived by artist duo Bompas and Parr.
© Richard Moss
The pair, who are also known as the Jellymongers, have concocted a one-off art experience that bizarrely uses the archaeology theme of Indiana Jones and a feast that will give visitors a heightened and choreographed experience of this remarkable space. All of it will be served up within a historical narrative based on the Abbey. And yes, for one night only, the tunnels – and jelly – will be playing their part.
“It has been quite testing and no-one here has ever worked like this,” admits Gee, who is currently developing plans to begin opening up more of Welbeck Abbey.
“We’re accessing the tunnels so there are all kinds of health and safety and access issues. At one point we were looking at having the last performing elephant on site, so we’re pushing the boundaries. I think it’s like a lot of Museumaker events in that respect.”
In many others it's a massive departure from the craft-based programme. Visitors will park ten minutes from the house and make their own way down the long gravel driveway into the heart of Welbeck’s mysterious house and grounds. Guided into the early 20th century sunken garden, they will be conducted by an exotic menagerie of performers and artistes into one of the infamous underground spaces – the 5th Duke’s sunken ballroom.
But they won’t see it. Plunged into complete darkness, they will experience it by feel and sound rather than sight. If they survive this leap of faith they will eventually be led through another passageway filled with smoke and subdued lighting.
© Richard Moss
“For me that’s why we’re doing this with Bompas and Parr,” says Gee, “because that’s such an imaginative take on how to experience this space.
“We wanted to do something that was ephemeral and would allow us to play with different art forms and different ways of describing things. Bompas and Parr are the right people for this because they’ve got the commitment to historical accuracy – they’ve been doing Victorian breakfasts and banquets – and most of all because they are fun.”
With a reputation for food-based extravaganzas – previous projects have seen them create Wonka-style chewing gum and all manner of avant-garde jellies – the culinary aspect is key to the whole performance. Eventually visitors will find themselves in the former library at Welbeck, where they will be shown the film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
At key moments in the movie, including the chilled monkey brains scene, they will be served a variety of exotic dishes.
On the menu will be sheep's eyes and simian korma curry, shaped into blancmange brains fashioned from moulds sourced from the Natural History Museum in London.
“They came up with the idea and the food element referenced the Harley Gallery’s current exhibition, Dinner with the Duke, and the work that the historian Phillipa Glanville did to peel back the documents and evidence of dining over the years at Welbeck Abbey.
“In some ways you could just take it as an entertaining event in which you get to experience the underground space,” admits Gee, “but Bompas and Parr are quite serious about it. They have put a lot of thought into how food was served back from the 17th century onwards – why it was served and who it was served to here.”
Playful and absurdist in equal measure, it will be interesting to see how each visitor responds to this adventure into art, cinema, food and folklore. For some it will be a comical journey for others it will offer a chance to become part of an ambitious sculptural installation.
“I wanted something witty that would engage with many people,” says Gee. “Something magical and unexpected. The fun of it is not knowing what’s going to happen.”
With the intervention of Bompas and Parr and the reputation of the 5th Duke, it looks like the myths and mysteries of Welbeck Abbey are set to continue.
- Dinner with a Duke: Decoding Food & Drink at Welbeck, 1690 – 1910, curated by Philippa Glanville is currently showing at the Harley Gallery.
- Museumaker is a scheme working to unlock the creative potential of collections through imaginative interchanges between the heritage and contemporary craft sectors. See www.museumaker.com for more information.
- For more on Bompas and Parr see www.jellymongers.co.uk