Unravelled plans conceptual craft shows for three National Trust Properties

By Mark Sheerin | 14 December 2011
Colour photo of a room in a stately home with stuffed cloth animals draped over poles
Beautiful site-specific work by Caitlin Heffernan, a Co-Director of imaginative new intervention project Unravelled© all rights reserved
When is a pipe not a pipe? Well, clearly if it features in one of the famous works by Magritte it may not be. But equally, models fashioned in glass by Louise Batchelor could defy the definition. Yet the first example is art, the second is also craft.

Batchelor’s glass pipes were a standout piece from 2010 show Unravelling the Manor House at Preston Park Manor in Brighton. One of several craft pieces installed in the stately home, they rendered transparent the line between contemporary art and craft.

The pipes conjured up a life of impossible privilege in a way that furnishings alone somehow fail to. Craft intervention makes for historical evocation. And the formula has proved so strong the National Trust has bought into it.

Unravelling the National Trust is a three-year project which kicks off in May 2012 with a show at Nymans House and Gardens in East Sussex. The Vyne in Hampshire and Uppark House and Garden in West Sussex are the future venues slated for 2013 and 2014.

Colour photo of a tea cup and saucer made out of glass
Louise Batchelor has made both pipes and tea cups out of glass© all rights reserved
Arts Council England are funding the South East focussed programme to the tune of £122,000. The Headley Trust is donating £10,000. And £12,500 is coming in from each of the properties. The project offers professional development for artists, just as much as an improved experience for visitors.

Unravelled artist and co-director Caitlin Heffernan explains one of the major factors in the success of the previous show: “A lot of people were discovering Preston Manor in a new light and experiencing the history of the building and the people who lived there in unusual and new ways.”

Once again it is past inhabitants who have inspired the work at Nymans. “[previous occupant] Oliver Messell was  an acclaimed theatre and set designer,” says Heffernan. “The family used to stage lots of plays so in a way it's like a stage set.”

With fellow directors Polly Harknett, and Matt Smith, Heffernan has been sifting through applications from more than 170 would-be unravellers from all across the UK, some from even as far away as the US. Together they’ve drawn up a list of 12 makers and artists.

Heffernan says: “We wanted to bring back some of the fun elements of the house and there were a lot of things hidden away from the public which we wanted to bring to life.”

Colour photo of a dining room with a french dresser filled with ceramics
Matt Smith is another artist who featured at Preston Park in Brighton© all rights reserved
There may be a thin line between the worlds of art and craft, but Brighton-based artist Heffernan says: “We are really interested in bridging the two.”

“I think we are interested in an engagement with materials which we’re firstly drawn to. But we are also interested in an idea and a conceptual framework, in particular working with collections and site specific contexts.”
Handling the project for the National Trust is Tom Freshwater, Contemporary Arts Programme Manager, who set out his vision for the project at Nymans: “It is continuing the story of art which is already part of Nymans. And I think if it has a place in the history of design then there's every reason to continue that story.”

Freshwater explains that within the Trust it is the properties who put themselves forward to host the art.  “Rather than being centralised and top down, I act as a central co-ordinator," he says, "so the individual properties decide whether they want to be involved.”

And he points to a lasting effect of such interventions: “The permanent impression has been cultural in that everybody has wanted to come back and discuss how they might do it again in future.”

When asked about the difference between art and craft, Freshwater is as keen to talk it down. “I think we’re probably quite relaxed about the differentiation,” he says. “As an organisation we have a lot of amazing fine art and a lot of applied art as well."

But he does concede: “We think one of the ways craft might be more approachable is because it's very tactile.”

If so, that’s something which many a contemporary, conceptual artist might want to put in their (glass) pipe and smoke.
Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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