Paul Rooney, WrongWoods, Nous Vous and Fragile Stories mark 250th birthday of Harewood

By Ben Miller | 09 April 2010
A photo of a man standing on the roof of a huge country house

(Above) Northern Art Prize winner Paul Rooney's Bellevue is one of the highlights of the celebratory new season at Harewood House

Exhibitions: Fragile Stories; Paul Rooney – Bellevue; Richard Woods and Sebastian Wrong – WrongWoods and Bricks and Mortar; Nous Vous – Awesome Moment/Fantastic Motion, Harewood House, Leeds, until June 13 2010 (Bellevue until June 20)

On the 250th birthday of Harewood House, it's easy to look back and feel the ghosts of history echoing through the Leeds country mansion.

Furniture forefather Thomas Chippendale filled the grand State Rooms with some of his first and finest furnishings, globally influential architect Robert Adam designed the ceilings and interiors, and contemporary 18th and 19th century artists competed in the surroundings of the opulent, sprawling space.

"Those are big shoes to stand in, aren't they?" concedes Kerry Harker, who recently became a permanent curator for the House after starting out as a freelancer in late 2008.

“Chippendale and Adam and so on, these are extremely renowned people. The foundation stone was laid in 1759, everything was brand new, and all the most exciting people of the day were here.”

A photo of a group of young artists working at a table inside a gallery

Young Yorkshire collective Nous Vous have taken a playful approach which should appeal to families and art lovers

Taking a suitably ambitious approaching to embellishing this legacy, the House launched four exhibitions last week to mark the 21st anniversary of the site’s Terrace Gallery, which became the first dedicated contemporary art space in a country house when it was created in 1989.

The likes of Mark Wallinger, Marc Quinn and Andy Goldsworthy have all exhibited there, and this quartet of shows features Fragile Stories – tracing beautiful ceramics from the porcelain origins of the Far East to the catch-up job later achieved in Europe – as well as the premiere of Bellevue, Northern Art Prize winner Paul Rooney's new film about a failed alcoholic jazz musician who winds up acting out scenarios from a 1930s psychiatric institution in the grounds.

Harewood, unsurprisingly, looks "fantastic" in the piece. "We've got very extensive land around the house," says Harker.

"There's a walled garden which has had artwork, and a church, so we try to use all of the locations. It's a fabulous playground."

A picture of a square sofa with a grey and black brick design colouring it and a square seat with a red and white brick design colouring it

Richard Woods and Sebastian Wrong combine for WrongWoods and Bricks and Mortar, one of four new shows at the House running until June

Plenty of artists fancy taking their work to the prestigious pad, although Harker's selection process, she explains, is also about "having an ear to the ground in terms of seeing who's out there doing what".

"We've got a very diverse and broad offering for our audience, because we need to cater for families and contemporary art lovers and so on," she says, having invited hotly-tipped Leeds collective Nous Vous to display their colourful pencil drawings and installations in the Terrace space.

"They're really playful and quirky. They're up-and-coming, definitely ones to watch, and I think it's quite a big deal for them to have a show in quite a big venue.

"The Terrace gallery is a sort of blank canvas – basically anything can be proposed and is possible. I think they've responded really well to that."

A photo of a set of miniature porcelain figures

Fragile Stories charts the history of ceramics across the world

The unusual setting is full of challenges, but the rewards are worth it. "We're a designated museum with a world-class display throughout the House, so there's a lot of sensitivity around how you treat those works and what you put alongside them," she points out.

"The idea is that if you place work alongside historic collections it helps to enliven those and cast fresh light on them."

It also keeps regular punters guessing. "We like to change things around so that people look quite differently at things that they probably know quite well," says Harker.

"I think some of them are very unexpected. I mean, most places don't engage with art to the extent that Harewood does. Other historic houses dip their toe in the water, but here it's a very coherent presence."

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