Your sweetest empire is to please by Fiona Curran

Fiona working on her art at Gibside

Delve into Gibside’s past through a new and exciting installation by mixed media artist Fiona Curran and visit her architectural folly by the Orangery.

From Saturday 12 May to Sunday 30 September, you can discover Fiona’s Your sweetest empire is to please, sitting alongside Mary Eleanor’s original orangery within the gardens at Gibside.

To coincide with a year celebrating women and power, Fiona has focused on Gibside’s heroine Mary Eleanor Bowes by exploring her interest in botany and the role that it played in women’s education and the gendering of knowledge during the eighteenth-century.

" During the eighteenth-century common conceptions linking women with flowers and notions of purity, beauty and fragility, were rife. Botany was seen as a genteel feminine pursuit that often served to reinforce these associations. However, knowledge of plants, their medicinal properties and use as dyes, had long been the traditional preserve of women contributing to an early tradition of female science."
- Fiona Curran

The creation is an architectural folly based on a nineteenth-century Wardian Case – a plant and seed transportation box derived from earlier eighteenth-century experimental transportation boxes.

The structure will house a series of brightly coloured artificial ‘exotic’ plants which will be defiantly emerging from the roof.

It will be of significant scale and visible from other points in the garden such as the Chapel and Column to Liberty. The intention is to offer a dramatic presence within the landscape that will provoke discussion and enable some of the hidden histories of Gibside to emerge.

Similar to a rare and exotic plant, Mary Eleanor was viewed as a particularly prized ‘object’ due to her large inheritance, which would transfer to her husband upon marriage.

The horrific story of her mental and physical abuse at the hands of her manipulative and selfish second husband, who tricked her into marrying him to acquire her fortune and social status, highlights some of the difficulties encountered by women at the time.

The fact that women received little protection legally only compounded the abuses that many suffered.

" Women were excluded from pursuing botany as a serious form of scientific endeavour. They were denied access to university education at that time and also from being members of institutions like the Royal Society that gave public validation to new theories and discoveries. Women were therefore restricted to the role of hobbyists or amateurs."
- Fiona Curran

Your sweetest empire is to please is part of 'Mapping Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience’. A research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

For more information visit

An artistic drawing of Fiona Curran's creation

Read Fiona Curran's blog

There's been lots of exciting snippets going on behind-the-scenes and one of the best ways to find out more is to read Fiona's blog. Here, you can read her inspirations, thoughts and even see some fantastic pictures too.