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 Lucy Day and Eliza Gluckman for A Woman’s Place Project.
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 within its collections the original handwritten manuscript of Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando. This provided the impetus for a digital book and film, presented online, and to be experienced in four chapters episodically throughout the duration of the show.
Orlando was a gift, ‘a love letter’, from Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West. The book is often described as a biography of Vita, and of the house in novel form. Seers interrogates this idea by interweaving Woolf, Sackville-West and actor collaborator Sara Sugarman through the work. She creates a new biography from the thoughts inspired by the objects, paintings, rooms and rhythm of Knole.
Partly shot during the winter months, whilst the house was under wraps 2052 selves (a biography) provides an extraordinary sense of Knole being utterly present in several centuries simultaneously, edited and highlighted by objects and characters both celebrated and forgotten.
An Encounter acts as an introduction to the wider themes of 2052 selves (a biography), Seers’ main work for A Woman’s Place. Shot on location at Knole it includes a conversation with Robert Sackville-West about the nature and notion of biography. It touches on his own books Inheritance and The Disinheritance and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and talks of the ‘presiding spirits of the house’: the women who have shaped so much of Knole’s history.
Experience the four chapters of 2052 selves (a biography) and An Encounter 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’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. She draws on the historical convention of stained glass windows depicting owners of buildings holding miniature versions in their hands.
A stained glass panel depicting the Gatehouse Tower in the hands of a woman is surrounded and supported by screens, evoking the tension between what is hidden and what is revealed in public and private life. The suggestion of inaccessible interior spaces alludes 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