Ahead of the opening, curator Hugo MacDonald explores the role of making today
Harewood House, 15 minutes north of Leeds, is already a fascinating repository of British craftsmanship. With the launch of The Harewood Biennial it is soon to become an active platform for debate about contemporary craft too. Commissioned in the second half of the 18th century by Edward Lascelles, the first Earl of Harewood, the house is now a charitable trust open to the public.
The Lascelles family have been courageous commissioners and collectors of craft for generations. At Harewood you find some of Robert Adam’s finest ceiling designs, Thomas Chippendale’s largest commission of furniture, a staggering collection of Italian Renaissance paintings and Sèvres porcelain, watercolours from a young Turner and Jacob Epstein’s magnificent alabaster sculpture of Adam, which stands proud in the entrance hall. Visitors gaze out over Charles Barry’s Victorian terrace across to Capability Brown’s Arcadian landscaping. Harewood House is one of the 10 ‘Treasure Houses’ of England, and truly it is a house full of treasures.
As the curator of Harewood’s inaugural craft biennial, I have thought carefully about what craft means in the context of this spectacular Georgian stately home, but also about what craft means today. From the outset, my challenge
has been to curate an exhibition that forms a dialogue with what exists at Harewood already, while simultaneously educating visitors about contemporary craft and demonstrating that it plays a vital role in our lives and in society. Our exhibition title – Useful/Beautiful – pays homage to William Morris as the pioneer who shaped our understanding of craft in the 19th and 20th centuries (whether you’re a fan or not). The subtitle is ‘Why Craft Matters’. This is a question I have asked each exhibitor because I believe we are living through times when we would do well to be more vocal and articulate about the value of craft in contemporary life. This is the message at the heart of the exhibition.
We have brought together 26 diverse makers, each presented in a different room of Harewood on the state floor and below stairs. Their exhibits respond to each location. In places the link is explicit, in others it is subtler and more playful. Timorous Beasties is re-upholstering Chippendale’s magnificent State Bed in a bold new design, inspired by an 18th-century voile that tells a cautionary tale about promiscuity. Netherton Foundry will display the process involved in its spun iron cookware in the Old Kitchens, surrounded by hundreds of original spun iron and copper items, formerly used by the house. Local Harrogate artist Andy Singleton’s ethereal paper sculptures will be suspended in the Main Library.
Throughout the house, the rhythm of exhibitors is broad, ranging from graduates to names of global renown, from experts crafting exquisite items by hand for daily use (Fox Umbrellas and Freed ballet pointe shoes) to brands combining craft with industry to produce precious objects at a larger scale (Hiut Denim and 1882 Ltd ceramics). There are one-off works that push material and technique to surprising limits, such as the glass vessels by Manchester graduate Jahday Ford. Ford uses CAD software to turn the sound of his breath into a 3d mould, which he then blows glass into – the vessels are a material embodiment of the craftsman, frozen at the point of making.
We have commissioned Max Lamb to design and make a rug for the Yellow Drawing Room. Lamb is hand-dyeing the rug naturally, using vegetation he harvested from Harewood’s grounds with Trevor Nicholson, the head gardener. Faye Toogood is combining her studio’s fashion, furniture and object archive to fill the Long Gallery as a celebration of the diversity of contemporary British craft skills. Graphic artist Anthony Burrill is installing a four-sided, six-metre-high tower in front of the house with a sequence of bold messages, encouraging visitors before they enter to consider what craft represents, and not just what it looks like.
In every case, makers have been selected based on their skill, vision and the integrity of their practice. It is clear that there is purpose in each person’s craft. The objects themselves might be useful and/or beautiful, the process
and technique might be skilled and fascinating, but there is more to craft than form and practice – and this is what I have asked our makers to consider by questioning why craft matters to them and why craft matters today. In times when we can find things labelled as ‘crafted’ all around us, from galleries to catwalks to gift shops to supermarkets, it is crucial that we don’t let the important substance of the word get subsumed by advertising and marketing teams.
Why does craft matter today? Our makers’ answers are diverse: from the sublime to the heroic to the practical. Many point to the dearth of craft education today, and the knock-on consequences of what happens at a local and national level when skills are lost for good. There is a common optimism, however, that general public awareness of provenance and quality are gaining traction. Frequently mentioned is a widespread fatigue with mass-consumption, disgust at landfill and ocean plastic, and growing recognition that personal choices can scale to have significant impact on global issues. There is an understanding that the current status quo is unsustainable and that the system, practice and ideology of craft contains valuable learnings that might help address a more sustainable alternative.
There is a social anthropological response, too. As we advance into the next revolutionary age of automation and artificial intelligence, general consensus is that we must hone our creative thinking and sharpen our human faculties. Craft is a powerful way of connecting us physically: to materials, to our bodies, to our minds, to our senses. Craft communicates intangible human qualities that cannot be measured: pleasure, care, pride, beauty, satisfaction, respect, tolerance, resilience. These qualities aren’t just valuable but vital.
Useful/Beautiful: Why Craft Matters at Harewood House, Leeds, LS17 9LG, 23 March to 1 September 2019.