The North East coast of England has more than its fair share of natural and manmade creations at which to wonder. On occasions they are crafted expeditiously together and in one unique instance they are only viewable at the behest of nature herself, in this instance the tide. This gives Lindisfarne, or Holy Island if you prefer, a special, mercurial temperament.
On a recent visit I went to meet Turner prize nominated artist Anya Gallaccio who, if anything, has added to this heady mix. For it is she who has been charged with the responsibility of working within the iconic Lindisfarne Castle for a brief moment in time while the building completes the healing process of an eighteen-month period of restoration and conservation. As I drive across the tidal causeway, the nearby water indicates the road has not been opened long and the route ahead, save for an ancient van, is empty. The sky is a rich blue, the water sparkles and if ever a place is aptly named this is it, on this day at least.
With pubs and inns, cafés and hotels, a museum and a gift shop or two visitors have good excuse to visit Holy Island, but the undoubted headline attractions are the castle and priory. The latter has a wonderfully spiritual feel. It was founded by St Aidan in AD 635 but it was a subsequent prior, St Cuthbert, who was the most fabled, and his life and indeed his death are the stuff of legend. Today, however, the main focus of my visit is on the other historic edifice which commands attention for miles around: Lindisfarne Castle. With a prized perch atop a whinstone hill known as Beblowe Crag, the castle is both dramatic and distinctive. With one flank still shrouded in a skirt of scaffolding (due to come down later this summer) the castle looks a little strange but there’s no denying its spectacular seat, and even if you merely wander round its confines you can still savour the sights and sounds of the sea and the irrepressible landscape.
The castle, originally a Tudor fort, was built in the 1550s in part using stone from the recently demolished priory. Centuries passed and, as legend has it, two friends were holidaying in the area, on a quest to find a country house to make into a holiday home. Fortuitously for the castle (and the story) one was Edward Hudson, publisher of Country Life magazine, and the other the celebrated architect Edwin Lutyens. The tale goes that the two jumped the wall to take a peek, and in moments decided this was the spot. The story may have morphed with the times, but what is certain is that in 1902 Hudson purchased the property from the Crown and his pal Lutyens was given the brief to convert the building into a spectacular Edwardian holiday home. Lutyens in turn sought the assistance of his friend and frequent collaborator Gertrude Jekyll.
The property has lasted the test of time admirably, but despite some restoration work to its arts and crafts reincarnation the wind and rain were beginning to gain the upper hand. So the current custodians, The National Trust, decided that a full restoration of the castle should take place to preserve the work of Lutyens, and the historic building itself for future generations. A full closure followed with Hudson’s furnishings removed. To the credit of the Trust the work has been intricate and detailed, and thorough enough to last at least another generation or two. As I inspect it with my untrained eye, the craftsmanship seems exemplary. It’s a rare opportunity to see the building in this state, but while the majority of the work is complete the building still needs a good period of time to thoroughly dry out before being redecorated and furnished.
To capitalise on this empty canvas, the Trust appointed Newcastle-based Locus+, who in turn, commissioned Anya Gallaccio to respond to the unique character, charm and mood of the castle in its near-naked state.
Born in Scotland, raised in London, and now based in California, Gallaccio is a much-respected and sought-after artist. She challenges us with works of decaying materials in various guises, including, amongst others, ice, sugar, flowers and even chocolate. Yes I know what you’re thinking: this is not the natural fodder of the National Trust. But I suspect this is pretty much the whole point of the exercise – or a hefty chunk of it at least. The objective: to see and consider places in a different way.
The title of the work, ‘dreamed about the flowers that hide from the light’, in itself an unfinished sentence, suggests a certain unique moment in time, a one-off if you like and without question it’s what is taking place right now in this historic house.
When I shake her hand I sense a certain frustration. The installation is not yet complete and the clock is ticking. Does she really want to talk to me? We agree to go outside and sit on a bench and see how we go. Almost instantaneously the mood changes. The view is sensational, the sea is glistening, nature seems alive all around us and this glorious place is spellbinding. As her demeanour softens she tells me how, when she was younger, she would travel from Scotland and be captured (as so many are) by the ‘magical’ view of Northumberland’s spectacular coastline. ‘I had visited Lindisfarne and was taken with the gardens, the tufty grass and the sheltered space and was curious about the house. When the opportunity was presented last summer the decision was an easy one. I was really excited to finally get access, I have been many times since it’s been totally shrouded, often austere but always intriguing. In the style of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse I imagined, who could live here? Looking out of the window imagining all sorts of different people. I’ve loved engaging with the house with a light touch.’
It’s difficult to describe just how compelling yet casual Anya is as she speaks, and she’s hugely convincing too. Which may be ironic as some visitors will no doubt say…’what the heck is that?’ (or similar) but that’s surely the point isn’t it?
Clearly a huge restoration programme has taken place, even though inevitably much of it won’t be noticed. Indeed the very fabric of the building has been restored in detail. Anya adds, ‘I’ve sensed a feeling of moving in and moving out, of regeneration, reflected by plants and how this house has been given a new lease of life. I didn’t want my interpretation to be a focus – I want people to look at the building and imagine the potential of the space. When the furniture comes back in it will feel totally different, today my blankets are transient bringing something ephemeral in. The blankets also have the idea of closing an old house up.’
Her palette of colours are inspired conveniently and appropriately by friend and long term collaborator of Lutyens, Gertrude Jekyll, who designed the planting scheme in the walled garden from its previous incarnation as the garrison’s vegetable plot. ‘Natural dyes, woad, weld and a range of colours native to the region have been used. This reflects the sense of nature that can be seen through the windows to the landscape outside,’ Anya explains. With a mixture of colour from golden marigold to green ivy, the installation hints at the temporary nature of life with the plants themselves dying, and the rich colours of the dyes fading in the summer sun.
It’s ambitious in conception but simple at times too. It’s certainly individual and hugely thoughtful. Yes some will say it’s just a bunch of blankets bunged over wooden frames, and to some extent that is correct, however as with most contemporary art the underlying messages are infinitely greater.
Yes of course some people will ask, ‘why bother’? But it’s quite revealing talking as I do to the House Steward Nick Lewis, who surprisingly (to me at least) is refreshingly young. ‘People enjoy being here for the amazing view from the castle’s vantage point above the harbour. It’s also even more special when the tide’s in, something many visitors do not experience,’ he tells me. ‘The whole renovation has been exceedingly complex,’ he adds. Well with a castle on a hill which has been battered by wind and rain and all manner of other bluster it was always going to be. But this special moment in the castle’s history allows us all to stop and reflect. To consider nature, colour and the temporary essence of life.
As I write it appears the completion of the work and removal of the scaffolding has slipped to the end of summer. In the great scheme that’s no major hardship or surprise. What is categoric is when November comes, the flowers will have died and the dyes will have faded further, but the spirit of this majestic place will live on. As I walk to the car I look back and wonder what would Lutyens, Jekyll and Hudson have thought of Anya’s work and I really can not say or even guess, but at least she would have inspired them to reflect and think, and that’s never a bad thing.
Lindisfarne Castle, Holy Island
The exhibition runs until Sunday 4th November