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An artistic vision for an historic house
Something is afoot at Nyman’s. Stone cherubs have been kitted out with slingshots and toy rifles, the fireplace is decked in sequins and one of the statues is dressed in a flamboyant furry hat.
The National Trust property, at Handcross near Haywards Heath, is the latest to be “unravelled” by a collective of artists who aim to show its history and former inhabitants in a new light.
Nyman’s is the historical home of the Messel family – Oliver, who is recognised as one of the 20th century’s foremost interior designers, and Anne, who was the sixth Countess of Rosse. Set in the High Weald, the garden is a series of experimental designs, full of intimate and surprising corners.
The house was transformed into a Gothic mansion in the 1920s but burnt down shortly after, leaving romantic ruins.
The remaining rooms give a taste of what once was and are filled with flowers from the garden as Anne liked to have them.
Under the project, ten artists and makers have responded to the house and drawn out different strands of its story. Drawing on the creativity of the Messels and their extended family – among them architects, photographers, painters and cartoonists – the artists have created work especially for Nyman’s.
Sally Freshwater and Gavin Fry are among those who took inspiration from Oliver Messel’s work as a theatrical designer. Freshwater has used vintage fabric flowers to make a striking fireguard, while Fry has woven a footstool from hundreds of beads and gems donated by a couture maker who had collected them over many years.
Matt Smith, meanwhile, has created several elaborate costumes which he has used to dress the house’s various statues, in reference to Messel’s costume designs.
Alec Stevens is the artist responsible for giving the cherubs catapults and for placing hand-carved toy rifles around the house – a nod to the period in the Second World War when dozens of children were evacuated there.
David Cheeseman’s installation also references the house’s history, focusing on the fire that sadly ruined part of the house and destroyed books of valuable botanical drawings. His work is a large Perspex globe decorated within by large botanical illustrations drawn in soot.
The lives of the house’s staff – some of whom spent almost their entire lives in the service of the Messels – are also highlighted, in Lucy Brown’s eerie hair pieces and an intricately embroidered tea towel.
Leonard Messel’s love of collecting plants and fans is celebrated in the porch, where Steve Follen’s light fitting mirrors the shape of a monkey puzzle tree pine cone, but is in fact made up of small, laser-cut wooden fans.
Caitlin Heffernan, artist resource manager at Fabrica gallery in Brighton, founded Unravelling The National Trust in 2009, with fellow artists Matt Smith, of the University of Sussex and Polly Harknett, formerly of Brighton & Hove Museums.
After launching at Brighton’s Preston Manor in 2010, the project, which is backed by the Arts Council and the National Trust’s Trust New Art scheme, has announced a continued three-year programme which starts at Nyman’s and moves on to The Vyne, in Hampshire, in 2013 and Uppark, near Chichester, the following year.
Each house offers a very different set of challenges.
With Nyman’s, Heffernan says they were keen to draw visitors into the house, rather than just focusing on the theatrical and striking gardens.
The Messel family provided a lot of inspiration for artists, she says. “They were this incredibly flamboyant and creative family and fantasy and play was at the heart of family life there so, for us, it was about going in with artists’ eyes to draw out new stories and themes.”
Matt Smith adds: “What excites me most about this project is the chance it allows for some of the less wellknown histories associated with the properties to come to life using artist interventions. Showing, for a brief period of time, some of the complexities and contradictions that make up their pasts.”
The group worked closely with staff at the house, many of whom have worked there for several decades and, Heffernan says, have a great love and respect for the family and for the property.
“They were very generous with their time and were able to fill us in on Oliver Messel and his family and allow us to access archives and collections.
It’s been very much a collaborative process, with lots of research.”
For artists, Unravelled offers a fresh way both to produce work and to exhibit it.
“It’s about taking risks to a certain extent and challenging yourself to work in a different way,”
says Heffernan. “Some of the artists are established, others emerging, but they are brought together by the challenges of responding to a house.”
Tom Freshwater, contemporary arts programme manager at the National Trust, said: “Working with contemporary craft is very important to the Trust New Art as it shows how our fantastic places and collections can inspire creative people now.
Not knowing what these talented makers will produce is exciting. We know that Unravelled will help them create something new to intrigue and delight our visitors.”
Their work at Nyman’s would surely meet the approval of the Messels.
“I think Oliver and Anne would be very pleased with what’s happening,” says Heffernan. “I think it’s quite a celebratory approach to the house and to their lives.”
* Unravelling Nymans is open until October 4, every day between 11am and 3pm. For more information visit www.unravelled.org.uk or www.nationaltrust.
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