By Frances Guy
Catalogue essay for Promenade
Kedleston Hall, July 19th –September 30th 2010
I am on tenterhooks.
As I write I have not seen ‘Promenade’ for it is yet to be realised, but Susie MacMurray’s proposal for Kedleston Hall promises to be no less than I have come to expect from her practice: transformative, thought-provoking and sublimely beautiful.
Sir Nathaniel Curzon’s ‘Temple of the Arts’ will entertain a very different event to the balls and soirées that used to occupy the formal rooms of the upper floor. In the Marble Hall, where guests would stroll prior to the dance in the Saloon, pausing to admire Robert Adam’s show-stopping stopping interior and to appreciate the collection of classical statuary, a team of volunteers is now preparing to execute a strange gavotte. Passing cones of metallic embroidery thread between them as they weave a figure of 8 between the alabaster columns, they will build up a mesh of gold to capture the light falling from above: a shimmering cat’s cradle that will envelop latter-day visitors in its labyrinthine folds.
I first encountered MacMurray’s work on a visit to Manchester Art Gallery in 2005 where I saw a short film documenting the installation of ‘Flock’. The piece had been commissioned the previous year and MacMurray had covered one of the galleries entirely in hand-dyed black turkey feathers, corner to corner and floor to ceiling. At the time I was the Curator at Pallant House Gallery and on the lookout for an artist to make a new work for the stairwell of the 18th century townhouse. The first installation had been a pure, abstract painting by artist Paul Huxley made directly on the walls. But what could a textural piece bring to this unique, historic interior?
After my visit to Manchester I was on my way to York Art Gallery where, by coincidence, ‘Flock’ was enjoying its second incarnation under the curatorship of Caroline Worthington. In the flesh it was even more powerful: an iridescent mass redolent with funereal associations yet oddly compelling and irresistibly tactile, and I was convinced that I should approach MacMurray for the commission.
‘Shell’ was the result. MacMurray’s installation was a response to the intriguing story behind Pallant House, the first building of its kind in Chichester that lent the City its Georgian character for which it was to become known. The sole progeny of the marriage between Henry and Elisabeth Peckham, the house was a testament to their wealth and ambition, and to a union that lasted only a couple of years beyond the completion of the building and their acrimonious divorce. MacMurray’s proposal was to smother the walls encompassing the handsome oak staircase – the singular most expensive item and centerpiece of the 18th century house – with 20,000 mussel shells, each stuffed with a luxurious tuft of crimson, silk velvet: an impassioned foil to the loveless marriage, or “alarmingly sexy” as one reviewer put it.
Working with MacMurray on this project highlighted the importance and relevance of materials and process in her practice. Her decision to use shells was based on the findings of the archaeological dig on the site of the gallery’s new wing where hundreds had been uncovered, the remains of the staple diet in the medieval period. For MacMurray these empty husks came to serve as a metaphor for the exterior of the 18th century house, shielding a vulnerable inner life. MacMurray sorted, scraped and cleaned thousands of mussel shells before bringing them to the Pallant House. There she and a team of five volunteers, over a week of 14-hour days, finished them with velvet and worked on scaffolding to place them side-by-side in rows that hugged the contours of the staircase. As MacMurray commented, this ‘labour of love’ was “akin to the obsessive attention the Peckhams lavished on the house when it was first built”.
‘Promenade’ is a similarly considered response to a particular history and location, that of Sir Nathaniel Curzon and Kedleston Hall, another building – albeit on a much grander scale – designed to serve as a status symbol. It was intended to rival the family seat of the Dukes of Devonshire at nearby Chatsworth, the a pogee of English Baroque architecture. When Curzon finally inherited his father’s wealth in 1758, his first act was to demolish the modest brick building that had st ood there since the beginning of the 18th century. The original architects of the new scheme, James Paine and Matthew Brettingham, started to build Kedleston in the manner of the Renaissance architect Palladio’s villas in the Veneto. However, Sir Nathaniel, keen to keep his finger on the pulse of contemporary taste, chose the then relatively unknown Robert Adam to complete the building in the up-and-coming Neo-classical style more directly inspired by the monuments of antiquity. Both, as educated gentlemen, had taken part in the Grand Tour although, whereas Adam journeyed across Europe to Italy and Dalmatia in search of the art, culture and roots of Western civilization, Curzon only got as far as Belgium before returning home.
However, prior to his abridged Grand Tour, Curzon had already cultivated a passion for Italian art and architecture and, together with his wife Caroline, had started to collect paintings and sculpture with the intent that they should be shown in the family home. Kedleston was to become an opulent treasure house worthy of displaying his collection that would also flaunt his learning, ambition and wealth. As Adam noted, Curzon “resolved to spare no expense”.
The Marble Hall was the centrepiece of the building and, as at Pallant House, it was designed to inspire a sense of awe in the guests visiting Kedleston on formal occasions. Adam designed a Roman-style atrium featuring innovative skylights letting the light in from above and flanked by twenty fluted columns made of alabaster mined from the family’s quarries. In between these columns Curzon placed his casts of famous antique statues, representing ideals of beauty and figures from classical mythology. Surely it cannot have been coincidence that Mercury, the messenger of the gods and also the god of abundance and commercial success, stood guarding the entrance? None of this would have been lost on the 18th century visitor and the effect must have been impressive and not a little intimidating.
MacMurray has chosen to create her installation here as a 21st century riposte to the extravagance of Curzon and Adam. ‘Promenade’ inhabits and enhances those features of the Marble Hall that make it unique. The golden thread weaves between the columns to create a web that ensnares the downward-spiraling light. MacMurray brings more gold into Kedleston, already famed for its lavishly decorated furniture and where even the window frames were once gilded. The choice of material is an intrinsic part of the narrative she weaves.
Volume is also an important characteristic of her work and the process required to create such complex installations is fundamental to their meaning. MacMurray’s practice is born out of a craft tradition that is essentially female and also feminist, but it is also linked to her past career as a musician and the repetitive routine of practice associated with the profession. 20,000 mussel shells were used at Pallant House and at Kedleston, MacMurray has calculated that ‘Promenade’ will require 170,000 metres or 105 miles of gold thread. A mesh running 2 metres high will be woven upwards from floor level, requiring the volunteers who install it to hold the thread high above their heads whilst still keeping the line taught, an act that will require a degree of physical endurance. The physical act of making ‘Promenade’ replicates the activity that used to take place in the Hall where guests would stroll, admire their surroundings and be admired. Surrounded by statues of Greek mythology, the story of Theseus and the Minotaur readily comes to mind, where the hero of Athens used a ball of string to find his way through the labyrinth to kill the Cretan monster. The Hall becomes a stage-set for the many narratives that MacMurray’s work encourages us to construct as she subtly teases out the histories and associations contained within Kedleston.
MacMurray is also an accomplished draughtswoman and perhaps ‘Promenade’ could be seen as a three-dimensional drawing suspended between the columns. Her meticulous and exquisite pen and ink works capture moments of fragile beauty such as a scrap of gauze bandage or a hairnet, materials that often feature in her installations. They have an ephemeral quality that is a significant aspect of many of MacMurray’s works. At Kedleston, the play of light and shadow on the golden thread will create the effect of an insubstantial haze.
There is a further reference to the history of Kedleston in MacMurray’s work, more recent than the story of the building of the Curzon family home. The golden thread of ‘Promenade’ is a reference to the Peacock Dress, one of the best-loved treasures of the Eastern Museum that stands in its case beneath the Marble Hall. It is indeed appropriate that such a dress should have inspired MacMurray, for it recalls the sculptural garments that are an established part of her practice. In ‘Gladrags’ (2002), now in the collection of Pallant House Gallery, fuschia-pink party balloons festoon a magnificent ball-gown, whilst in ‘A Mixture of Frailties’ (2004), rubber household gloves, turned inside-out, form a wedding dress worthy of a princess. In the most recent of the series, ‘Widow’ (2009), a dress that appears to be made of luxurious fur is in fact a bristling, prickly carapace formed of thousands of steel dressmakers pins pierced through black leather. The dresses, displayed on tailor’s dummies, invite you to imagine what it would be like to be clothed in them and to carry the weight of their meaning.
The Peacock Dress was made for Mary, the first wife of Lord Curzon (1859-1925) who was appointed the Viceroy of India during the heyday of the Indian Raj. Embroidered by Indian craftsmen in metal thread on cloth of gold in a pattern of peacock feathers, this spectacular dress, designed to sparkle in the light emitted from electric lamps, was made for the evening ball following the Delhi Durbar to mark the coronation of Edward VII. For MacMurray, it is as if Lady Curzon, who died just three years after the event, has wandered through the Marble Hall whilst her dress has caught and unraveled behind her. This was the last generation of the Curzon family to enjoy the wealth of generations before the political and social upheaval of the two World Wars spelled the downfall of many of Britain’s country estates. The deconstructed dress serves as a metaphor for their decline.
I cannot help but think that Sir Nathaniel Curzon would have approved of this glittering addition to his ‘Temple of the Arts’. As the legend above the south front declares, this work is to be enjoyed and admired by all who visit Kedleston this summer. ‘Promenade’ will eventually be dismantled but, like the lavish entertainments that graced the rooms at Kedleston, it will resonate in the memory long after.
Frances Guy is Head of Collections & Exhibitions at The Hepworth Wakefield.