seeds of hope
Celebrating the centenary of the end of the First World War, and working in the same Walled Garden as their forebears, Harewood House Trust have launched a new exhibition which will explore life on the estate in 1918 – through the eyes of the gardeners


Until 4th November, visitors to Harewood House will be able to explore some never-before-seen areas of the estate as part of the new, immersive exhibition Seeds of Hope. 

In an innovative and unusual twist on the traditional exhibition experience, Seeds of Hope will celebrate the end of the First World War – and a time, in the estate’s history, of great optimism and change – by bringing the Harewood Estate back to life as it was in 1918, through the eyes of the gardeners who lived and worked there. 

In the Walled Garden and The Bothy (which has never previously been open to the public) visitors are invited to step back in time to a post-war garden – complete with heritage fruit, vegetables and flowers as well as the traditional livestock you’d expect to find on land that had been repurposed during the wars years to encourage food production. 

‘We wanted to commemorate the end of the First World War, but we didn’t want to focus on fighting and all the horrors of that war,’ explains Jane Marriott, Director of Harewood House Trust. ‘So we started to look at what was happening here at Harewood at the time. The number of workers here – gardeners, people running the hospital in the house – you’d have a whole village of people working and living at Harewood. 

‘We started to think about that moment when peace was declared. In focusing on hope and human resilience, I wanted a story about those who stayed at home and were still carrying on with all these critical roles, such as growing all the fruit and vegetables we needed, and looking after all of those people that stayed here and were nursed whilst others were overseas fighting.’ 

As this year marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, there are a number of events, exhibitions and monuments being opened throughout the country to mark the occasion. Yet this exhibition at Harwood House is different. It’s immersive and engaging; it delves in moments of the poignantly ordinary while, at the same time, uncovering moments of extraordinary strength. Essentially, it brings into focus what everyday life would have been like on this Yorkshire estate in the midst of one of the most pivotal periods in history. 

‘In order to really start to appreciate what happened at that time, you need to be able to relate to it,’ says Jane. ‘Most of us won’t have an Earl or Countess in our family. We’re more likely to have someone who would’ve been the housemaid or the gardener. There’s a moment in the exhibition where the Head Gardener has left his pipe, his little hankie, and the match that he used to light his pipe next to the window. Some of us get flashbacks of our own granddads seeing that, and it just brings the whole thing alive.’  

While in conservation terms still newly-appointed (she joined Harewood House as Director only last year) Jane is no stranger to the task of curating historical exhibitions. Having worked both in galleries and museums for the last 20 years, she certainly knows a thing or two about engaging visitors in imaginative and innovative ways, and this was something that she was determined to share with her choice of creative partners for the Seeds of Hope exhibition. 

‘Lord Whitney are this incredible creative studio based in Leeds,’ explains Jane. ‘We could’ve just put pictures on walls and text that simply told you the story, but we wanted to bring the exhibition alive. So we commissioned them to create a very site-specific work of imagination, based in fact. We gave them stories of gardeners here at the time – what was happening in the hospital, we tracked down some of the families who had relatives who worked here – and we gave all that research to Lord Whitney, who then used it to create a story based around six characters.’  

The fact that Lord Whitney are based just around the corner from the Harewood Estate was an added bonus. ‘We work with artists both from across the UK and internationally,’ says Jane. ‘The defining factor is always that they are of the best quality and skill. But I am delighted that we could work with someone local. It’s great to celebrate the fact that they were determined to stay in Leeds. They’ve made a huge success – they’re a phenomenal group of artists.’  

That idea of visitors being fully able to envisage the three-dimensional reality of life in the Harewood Estate around 1918 is central to Seeds of Hope. Initially welcomed into the exhibition by sailing quietly over the expanse of water between Harewood House and the Walled Garden on the newly-launched chain ferry – occasionally serenaded by one of a number of brass bands in the area keen to be involved – visitors will then be encouraged to walk through a shed filled with the gardening tools of the time, before being presented with the journal of John, otherwise known as The Bothy Boy. His writing directs visitors to a door labelled with a quasi-warning that it was last opened in 1918; walk through the door (and an overgrown forest of vegetation) before discovering The Bothy, exactly as it was when John worked there just after the war. 

Admittedly a work of imagination, the exhibition isn’t all that far from the truth: The Bothy having never been opened to the public before now because of years of disuse and disrepair. ‘As with a number of big walled gardens in estates around the country, a lot of them fell into disrepair after the war – when the economy was struggling and there was very little money to invest in them,’ explains Jane. ‘We became a charity here at Harewood in 1984 and restored the house, but whilst the Walled Gardens have now been planted, the buildings, particularly The Bothy, have never been restored. I arrived last year and, while I haven’t yet the money to restore it, I found there are still rooms within The Bothy that we could use.’

After exploring the imagined relics of 1918 within these three rooms – relics that include everything from comical graffiti that John has inscribed on the walls about his boss, to poignant telegrams telling of the losses suffered on the estate by family members of those fighting overseas – visitors will find themselves in the Walled Garden. 

Within The Bothy, visitors will pass a certificate of the award Harewood House actually received from the Royal Navy in recognition for the food they produced as part of the war effort, and this is certainly something that is mirrored in the flowers, plants and livestock found in the Walled Garden. Alongside snippets of the story of those six characters on the estate, which visitors will follow throughout the exhibition, there will also be heritage chickens and goats akin to those that were kept at the time, and rows upon rows of traditional fruit and vegetables that (as visitors will find out) the Head Gardener, to his dismay, was obliged to plant in place of the roses he loved. In the glass houses at the far end of the garden are 1,269 sunflowers – planted by volunteers to represent every soldier that recovered in the house while it was being used as a hospital during, and shortly after, the First World War. 

‘It’s poignant, but it’s quite beautiful – a whole sea of yellow,’ says Jane. ‘We picked sunflowers on purpose, because they grow tall, like strong men,. Then you’ve got the seeds which, in autumn, you can pluck out and plant and grow again next year. That cycle of life was important.’  

The journey through the everyday world recreated in Seeds of Hope concludes with a walk through the orchard, where a sound piece has been installed; evocative cello music, intermingling with narrative from the stories followed throughout, to add yet another medium into the exhibition’s mix. 

‘It is about imagination, it’s not about reading lots of labels,’ says Jane. ‘It’s the sights, the smells and the sound which give you that whole experience. You can read lots, you can read little, you can just enjoy the great plants in there, it depends on how people like to enjoy these things. We didn’t want to be too prescriptive.’ 

To impart facts and figures is clearly not the incentive behind Seeds of Hope. The exhibition seeks, rather, to celebrate. Not the war itself, but to celebrate that quintessentially British (and perhaps, more specifically, Yorkshire) spirit by conjuring a tangible understanding of those real people who lived and worked here – to celebrate that strength of character and resilience that meant our own ancestors never gave up but, instead, bound together as a community during the most uncertain and terrifying time of their lives. 

‘It is incredible what was achieved,’ says Jane. ‘The food that we grew in this country meant we never starved as a nation. No matter who we were – male, female, at war, not at war – everyone did their part. We wanted to celebrate that.’

Seeds of Hope will be running at Harewood Estate until 4th November. 
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Published in: July 2018

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