The making of A Woman’s Place at Knole
This year the National Trust is exhibiting the work of six specially commissioned, contemporary women artists to recognise and celebrate the hidden stories of the fascinating women who have helped to shape the history and spirit of Knole.
The installations in the house and grounds explore the themes of gender, love, class, inheritance and betrayal through a range of mediums including sculpture, film and online content.
A Woman’s Place is part of the National Trust’s programme Women and Power, which has joined other cultural institutions to celebrate the centenary of the first women to gain the vote in the UK.
The contributing artists are CJ Mahony, Lindsay Seers, Emily Speed, Alice May Williams, Melanie Wilson and 2017 Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid. A Woman’s Place is curated by Day + Gluckman.
Collars and Cuffs and Flag for Grace
Lubaina Himid has produced two thought-provoking works that celebrate the lives of women who lived in the background and served at Knole. Himid, who won the prestigious Turner Prize in 2017, focuses on Grace Robinson, a laundry maid who lived at Knole in the 17th century at the time of Lady Anne Clifford. Grace is one of the few women of colour to have worked at the house and is referred to by the term ‘blackamoor’ in 17th century inventories.
Lubaina has produced a Flag for Grace with a red, white and blue African-inspired print to fly from the flagpole of the Gatehouse Tower. Her second work, Collars and Cuffs, is a series of small portraits and motifs fixed to the drainpipes that lead down from the ornate guttering in Stone Court. These link Grace’s work to the water and air that would have dried the clothes she washed. Both works conjure her presence in spaces a servant would not have been allowed to access.
Lubaina lives in Preston and is Professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire. She is known for her prints, drawings and installations that celebrate black creativity and challenge institutional invisibility.
Women of Record
This emotive audio drama is inspired by the lives and letters of Lady Anne Clifford and Lady Frances Cranfield who both lived at Knole. Using the house as a touchpoint, Melanie’s work compares their lives with those of women living in contemporary Britain.
Extracts from Clifford’s autobiography and Cranfield’s letters are used alongside first person recordings from contemporary women whose experiences echo those of Anne and Frances. Visitors can listen through headphones as they walk through the house and grounds, experiencing the soundwork in seven parts.
The sound recordings are accompanied by an original musical score to make a rich sound installation that connects the listener with the enduring female spirit across the ages.
2052 selves (a biography)
Knole holds the original handwritten manuscript of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, often described as a ‘love letter’ to Vita Sackville-West. The relationship between the two women is the catalyst for this digital book incorporating text, spoken word, music and film. Visitors can watch and listen to the work before, during or after visiting Knole.
Seers interweaves Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West and actor Sara Sugarman throughout the work to create a new biography from thoughts inspired by the paintings, objects, rooms and rhythm of Knole.
Lindsay is a British artist working in London and living on the Isle of Sheppey. Experience the four chapters of her online artwork at www.2052selves.com
Alice May Williams
By The Accident Of Your Birth
The video By The Accident Of Your Birth takes its title from Vita Sackville-West’s book The Edwardians and considers primogeniture (inheritance by a firstborn son), which has determined so much of Knole’s history.
The work is inspired by Vita’s disinheritance when the house passed to her cousin Eddy. She was devastated by the loss of Knole and felt the disadvantages of being female strongly.
Alice May’s work explores how our background, genetics and chance shape our lives - through gender, sex, nationality and family. Vita and Eddy are key characters in the work. They both flouted the traditional gender roles to which they were assigned through cross-dressing and same-sex relationships, thereby taking back some control of their lives, despite the ‘accident’ of their birth.
Still Life, Still Waiting
CJ Mahony’s sculpture examines the nature of ownership by exploring the women whose sense of belonging was tied to Knole, despite the fact it would never belong to them.
A central stained glass panel depicts the Gatehouse Tower in the hands of a woman, giving Knole to those who could never own it. Mahony draws on the historical convention of stained glass windows depicting owners of buildings holding miniature versions in their hands.
Vita Sackville-West was deeply affected by the loss of Knole as it passed to her cousin Eddy. She wrote: “Knole is denied to me for ever, through a technical fault over which we have no control.”
Different aspects of the sculptural work are apparent from different angles – the screens surrounding and supporting the glass suggest the tension between public and private life of those who lived at Knole. There is also the suggestion of inaccessible interior spaces, which allude to class and power behind closed doors.
Emily Speed explores the complex mother-daughter relationship between Victoria Sackville-West and her daughter Vita against a backdrop of their shared love of gardens and their sense of privacy in a public space.
Her sculpture Innards is on display in the Orangery and takes the form of a dressing table - normally a private space but made public by this work. Water, architecture, gardening and intimacy are combined to represent important elements in these women’s lives.
A water fountain forms part of the sculpture, which echoes Victoria’s energy and the installation of running water, electricity and telephones which she oversaw at Knole. The pink plant heliotrope signifies Vita’s later career as a gardener and was also the base note of Victoria’s favourite scent.
The work acknowledges the complexities of mother-daughter relationships and of finding time for moments of self care while being a ‘lady’ of Knole.
Inspired by Victoria’s passion for stationery, Emily has created a bespoke calling card, which can be downloaded by visitors for their own use at www.emilyspeed.co.uk/letter